The Greatest Movies featuring Photographers: Apocalypse Now and Rear Window

This article started as a list of classic film cameras in movies, taken from my own observations and from internet research and focused largely on the cameras I shoot with – Nikon F SLRs and Leica M Rangefinders. As I sat down to write, I decided to focus on two of the greatest movies featuring photographers, Apocalypse Now and Rear Window, which happen to be two of my favourite films of all time. This took me on a voyage of discovery into the influences for the movies that proved to be nearly as winding as the Mekong River in Apocalypse Now and provided the content for this blog.

The greatest movies featuring photographers
Dennis Hopper, festooned with Nikon Fs, as the manic Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

In Apocalypse Now Dennis Hopper plays the photojournalist, an unnamed disciple of the deranged Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who leads a renegade army of American and Montagnard troops from remote abandoned Cambodian temple. The photojournalist is nearly as unhinged as the man he admires – as his conversations with Willard (Martin Sheen) attest.

Willard : Could we, uh… talk to Colonel Kurtz? Photojournalist : Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he’ll… uh… well, you’ll say “hello” to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you. He won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say, “Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”… I mean I’m… no, I can’t… I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s… he’s a great man! I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas…

The Photojournalist

Despite appearing in only three scenes, Hopper’s is one of the most intriguing characters in the sprawling story. Amongst the improvised hippy jive talk his dialogue is constructed from lines taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and poems from Rudyard Kipling and TS Elliot. The photojournalist, whose name is never revealed, also has an important role to play in revealing Kurtz’s plans for Willard.

Hopper’s photojournalist appears as the ne plus ultra of combat photography; bearded and unkempt, wearing full camouflage with a red headband and sunglasses and covered in photography gear, some of it visibly battered.  The cameras are Nikon Fs with a variety of lenses; by the look of them a fast 50mm, possibly a 105mm and a 200mm. The role was suggested to Coppola by the stills photographer on the set Chas Gerretsen on the basis that if he wanted to mock TV correspondents in South Vietnam he should create a photojournalist because “we were all crazy.” Chas had served in Vietnam and routinely carried a number Nikon F’s, and so the role was born, replacing Captain Colby, Kurtz’s right hand man, which Hopper had originally been cast as. Chas sold several of his old Nikon F cameras and lenses to the production company and they were used in the film.

Michael Herr, who collaborated on the narrative of Apocalypse Now, undoubtedly had a strong influence on the portrayal of the Photojournalist. Herr is best known as author of the classic book on the Vietnam War Dispatches and several scenes and pieces of dialogue used from that book were later used in Apocalypse Now and also Full Metal Jacket.

In Like (Sean) Flynn

Herr was a correspondent for Esquire magazine during the Vietnam War and new many of the photojournalists who covered the conflict. This included Sean Flynn, a man with one of the most fascinating, but also one of the saddest stories of the war and the only child of hell-raising screen legend Errol. Initially following in his fathers footsteps as an actor (his first film was Son of Captain Blood, sequel to his father’s classic Captain Blood), he abandoned the craft to start a new life in Vietnam as a combat photographer.

He exploits are truly intrepid. He shot his way out of an ambush with the Green Berets with an M16; incurred injuries from a grenade fragment in battle; made a parachute jump with an Airborne Division, and identified a mine whilst photographing troops, saving an Australian unit from potential destruction. Flynn used a Leica M2 in Vietnam, and it came to light, complete with a strap that fashioned from a parachute cord and a hand grenade pin, just a few years ago.

Disappearance

In 1970 Flynn was captured by Viet Cong guerrillas at a checkpoint along with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone. The pair had elected to travel by motorbike rather than the limos the majority of photojournalists were travelling in. Neither he or Stone were never seen again and despite the efforts of his mother to find him Flynn was declared dead in absentia in 1984. Despite the continued efforts of friends and JPAC, the organization responsible for recovering the remains of fallen soldiers, the fate of two remains unknown.

The Cultural References section of Flynn’s entry in Wikipedia references him as the basis for the Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, though it is not substantiated. It is entirely possible however, as Flynn, along with Stone and Englishman Tim Page, are portrayed as the lunatic journalists and “bad, dope-smoking cats” of Michael Herr’s Dispatches. What is certain is that his story is told on the album Combat Rock by The Clash on the “Sean Flynn” track and a film inspired by his life entitled The Road to Freedom which was filmed on location in Cambodia in 2011.

The Real Kurtz

The role of Colonel Kurtz and his ‘unsound methods’ (which included heads on sticks) was inspired by the character of the same name in Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, a book that impressed me hugely when I read it in my early twenties. What is less well known and is revealed in the UK documentary ‘The Search for Kurtz’ is another influence; CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer Tony Poe and his leadership of Operation Momentum, launched in 1962 to turn the Laotian Hmmong people into anti-communist guerillas.

The Wrath of Klaus Kinski

A huge influence and template for the Vietnam river epic is Aguirre, Wrath of God by Werner Herzog, starring a barely sane Klaus Kinski in the role of his life. The story follows the self styled ‘Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, King of Tierra Firme’ Lope de Aguirre, who leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, city of Gold.

It is an astonishing and spectacular film, described by Robert Egbert as is “one of the great haunting visions of the cinema”. Curiously, I did not make the connection with Apocalypse Now until researching this article, though now it seems obvious. Like Apocalypse Now, which was troubled by a heart attack, an overweight star, a mental breakdown and storms that destroyed the sets, the filming of Aguirre is the stuff of legend. Herzog allegedly pulled a gun on Kinski to force him to continue to act in the remote fever-ridden jungle district where the film was shot.

Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is another of the most iconic photographer/film camera combinations in movie history. The film is based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” and stars Jimmy Stewart as LB ‘Jeff’ Jeffries, a New York magazine photographer. Recuperating from a broken leg, Jeffries is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment in Greenwich Village.

Jeff’s rear window looks out onto a courtyard and his neighbour’s apartments, which he observes during his convalescence in a stifling Manhattan summer. The include a lonely middle-aged woman, a new wed couple, a dancer, a husband and his sick wife, an alcoholic pianist and a couple who often sleep out in the balcony in the hot weather. Jeff’s observations include some suspicious sounds and behaviour and he becomes convinced one of his neighbours, Lars Thorwald, has committed a murder.

Inspirations for a Murderer

Mischievously, Hitchcock modelled the murderer on a former meddling producer he did not care for, David O. Selznick. Grace Kelly plays the archetypical Hitchcock blonde heroine in Lisa Carol Fremont, a stylish and resourceful socialite who has to engage in much of the action as Jeff is wheelchair bound. Although he did not write the the screenplay, Hitchcock also supplied colour for the murder story from two cases he head read about in the newspapers: the infamous Dr. Crippen and the less well remembered Patrick Mohan, both of whom dismembered their victims.

The greatest movies featuring photographers
Jimmy Stewart, his Exacta Varex with Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Rear Window

The Role of the Photographer

Rear Window is another of my favourite films, and the role of the photographer is pure Hitchcock. David Campany describes it well in the essay Re-viewing Rear Window:

“For Hitchcock’s purposes, a photographer is above all someone who looks. It is their socially accepted voyeurism that is significant, not their images. Voyeurism requires a safe distance, a vantage point for the observer beyond the reach of the observed (much like a movie audience, watching but not accountable). In Rear Window, the photographer is cut off not just by the lens of his camera, or by the glass window of his apartment, or indeed by the abyss of the courtyard across which he stares. It is his professionalized looking, with its fantasy of objectivity, that cuts him off. It demands his separation from the world. Despite witnessing what he believes is a murderer covering his traces, he feels no urge to get it on film. Rather, he uses his camera’s long lens as a telescope to watch, swapping it for binoculars when things get really intense.”

That Obscure Object of Desire

Jeff’s camera was an Exakta Varex VX 35mm film SLR made by the improbably named Ihagee of Dresden, which was in East Germany at the time. Mounted on it was a huge 400mm telephoto lens; the catchily named Kilfitt fern-kilar f/5.6 model, and collectively they are now known as the ‘Rear Window stalking camera’ and much desired by collectors. Although scarcely known today beyond its association with the Hitchcock classic, Kilfitt was an innovative German lens manufacturer who introduced the first production varifocal (zoom) lens for still 35mm photography – The Zoomar of 1959, which arrived the same year as the Nikon’s game changing F. Kilfitt also produced the first macro lens to provide continuous close focusing in 1955. If you are interested in photography milestones such as these, take a look at the timeline on this site.

My Own 400mm Rear Window Lens

The greatest movies featuring photographers
Pink super moon May 2021, shot with Nikon F7 and 400mm f3.5 Ai-S lens

I have a 400mm lens also. Not wanting to spend several thousand on a lens I would use only occasionally I purchased an old school manual focus Nikon Ai-S 400m f3.5 IF-ED from a Japanese eBay seller – just like this reviewer, who has includes a couple of great sample shots. Its an all-metal 2.8kg beast of a lens, built like the proverbial tank with a 122mm filter ring and surgically sharp. Mine came with a protective clear 122mm filter, which made it even better value. It is an amazing piece of kit but not the most practical. There’s no VR and even on a tripod it is so front heavy that on a ball head every adjustment is a bit of an adventure!

The first version of the lens was introduced in 1976 and was followed in 1977 by an Ai version. Mine is the Ai-S lens version introduced in 1982 and which can be identified by the minimum aperture number which is engraved in orange. The expression ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ was never more true than with this lens which is an incredibly solidly engineered piece of work.

So far, I’ve mainly used it for moon shorts with the Z7 and the FTZ adapter using focus peaking. I’ve recently added a TC-301 to turn it into an 800mm f7 lens and a gimbal head to make it easier to shoot, but the moon has proved unusually elusive since then. If I was ever, like Jeff, confined to home for a long period and wanted to spy on my neighbours I think I would have to get a new lens. The beast is just too heavy for anything except tripod work.

It’s a Wrap – The Greatest Movies Featuring Photographers

As usual writing about the greatest movies featuring photographers turned out to be more informative than I expected. If I have missed any cameras or influences for Apocalypse Now or Rear Window you think I should include please leave me a comment.


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