The Police Had A Big Problem With Apocalypse Now's Prop Department

Though "Apocalypse Now" is known as one of cinema's finest war epics, it's also well known for having a controversial production that involved actor disputes, near-death experiences, and a deadly hurricane. Director Francis Ford Coppola had invested millions of his own money into the project and contemplated killing himself on the hellish shoot, according to Independent

"Apocalypse Now" updates Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella "Heart of Darkness" to the Vietnam War. It follows Capitan Willard's (Martin Sheen) lengthy, mind-bending journey through the jungle to assassinate the rebellious Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The film builds up to the discovery of Colonel Kurtz, who lives in the ruins of an ancient temple where he is worshiped by indigenous villagers as a demigod. The crumbling ruins are strewn with bodies, graffiti-sprayed statues (one of which reads the film's title, "Our motto: apocalypse now"), decapitated heads, and overgrown foliage. Kurtz lives inside, shrouded in darkness and overcome with madness from the anarchic violence of the Vietnam War. 

In his "Apocalypse Now" review, William Cadbury describes the temple set as an "obsessive, death-haunted, fruitless, indrawn, mystical garbage dump." It was equally revolting in real life. Independent reports that when Martin Sheen's wife (who was accompanying him throughout the shoot) visited the set with co-producer Gray Frederickson, it smelt terrible from piles of rubbish.

"'You've got to clean this up,' she demanded. 'It's a health risk. I won't allow Marty to work here.' So Frederickson went to see the production designer, Dean Tavoularis. 'They're complaining about you, there are dead rats in there.' Looking not very bothered, Tavoularis said, 'That's intentional, it gives it real atmosphere.'

But there was something far worse than dead rats on the set. 

A graverobber snuck in real dead bodies

There were whispers during the shoot about the use of genuine dead bodies, but Frederickson thought it was nothing more than gossip. However, when he was taken to the props tent one day, he saw a row of cadavers to be used as the bodies splayed around the temple and hanging upside down in trees. Frederickson freaked out and demanded they be taken away. The police came to the set to question the film crew, withholding their passports in the process. 

"They didn't know we hadn't killed these people because the bodies were unidentified. I was pretty damn worried for a few days. But they got to the truth and put the guy in jail," Frederickson tells Independent. He found out that the corpses were secretly brought on set by a graverobber who also supplied bodies to medical schools for autopsies. 

A large truck came to take the bodies away, but not to the cemetery. Since they were anonymous, there was no one to pay for their burial. Unfortunately, they would be dumped in a random place. Frederickson never found out what happened to the remains, but he was just grateful they didn't get in trouble with the law. 

This incident is just another example of how authentic the filming of "Apocalypse Now" was in creating a disturbing atmosphere, for better or worse. The entire cast and crew was entrenched in the humid, volatile jungle for months on end. Coppola shot from inside flying helicopters, used real explosions, and filmed the actual slaying of a water buffalo. But we're glad a line had to be drawn at using real human corpses.