Dutch Angle: Chas Gerretsen and Apocalypse Now

The infamous Apocalypse Now shoot in The Philippines has been extensively covered by documentary film before, most notably in 1991’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. It’s a schadenfreude-inducing tale of misfortune, misadeventure and bad planning. A false start, with lead Harvey Keitel given the boot after a fortnight, set the tone; next came tropical maladies, unforseen delays (President Marcos, who was battling anti-government fighters, recalled helicopters that were being used in the combat scenes), excessive partying, on-the-hoof re-writes and the presence of an unprepared, overweight Marlon Brando (though, granted, the Jabba-like stillness featured in his performance as Colonel Kurtz worked in the actor and film’s favour).

Dutch combat photographer Chas Gerretsen – who had worked in Vietnam during the war – landed the gig of documenting the shoot, and many of his hitherto-unseen images have been unearthed for this 35-minute film by Baris Azman, presented by KINO Rotterdam. The pictures used for the film are uniformly fascinating, ranging from shots that capture the sheer scale of the production to more intimate portraits and candid photographs of the cast.

However, it’s Gerretsen’s own commentary during interviews that proves to be the real highlight here, given that it corroborates those earlier reports of mishaps, fevered egos and excess, as you might expect. The photographer describes his frosty first meeting with Francis Ford Coppola, the vulnerability of the enthusiastic Martin Sheen (who he says politely and innocently questioned whether the river he was being submerged in for multiple takes was actually hygienic) and the stubbornness of Dennis Hopper. The latter – an impressive photographer himself – debated wardrobe choices with Gerretsen, who points out that a combat photographer would never wear a red bandana, as Hopper’s journalist character does. The cameras that Hopper wears around his neck were Gerretsen’s.

It’s a short affair – running just past the half-hour mark – but, if you’re a fan of Coppola’s sprawling and dark war movie, you’ll get a kick out of seeing the photographs and hearing Gerretsen’s account of the on-set travails. (3/5)

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