The Photojournalist of Apocalypse Now

This article started as research into classic film cameras in movies, which led me to movies featuring photographers, and to my favourite movie Apocalypse Now, featuring Dennis Hopper as a manic photojournalist. The search for the origin of Dennis Hopper’s crazed character then took me on a voyage of discovery that proved to be nearly as winding as the Mekong River…

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

The Photographer of Apocalypse Now

In Apocalypse Now Dennis Hopper plays an unnamed disciple of the deranged Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who leads a renegade army of American and Montagnard troops from a remote abandoned Cambodian temple.

Hopper’s photojournalist appears at the end of Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) journey up the fictional Nung River to terminate Kurt’s command due to his ‘unsound methods’.

Hooper greets Willard as the ne plus ultra of combat photography; bearded and unkempt, wearing full camouflage with a red headband and sunglasses and covered in Nikon photography gear, some of it visibly battered.

Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now

Hopper’s improvisational skills and unconventional acting style shine through in his depiction of the Photojournalist. His character serves as a representation of the war’s impact on the human psyche, showcasing the blurred lines between sanity and madness in the midst of chaos. Hopper’s performance brings a sense of unpredictability and instability to the film, mirroring the disorienting nature of the war itself. Francis Ford Coppola has talked admiringly of Hopper’s dedication to his character, saying, “Dennis Hopper was out there being crazy, as usual. He was mad, but I loved him. I loved working with him.”

The Literary Inspiration for The Photojournalist

The Photojournalist appears in only three scenes, but despite these brief appearances, Hopper’s role is central to the sprawling story.

The Photojournalist is based on The Harlequin in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a Russian sailor who was Kurtz’s only European companion for several months before the steamboat arrives, and who acted as his listener and advocate.

The Role of the Photojournalist

The Harlequin and The Photojournalist are both insiders obsessed with Kurtz’s genius who attempt to convert outsiders to his way of thinking. Here is the Photojournalist’s unsuccessful attempt to justify the severed heads on poles outside Kurtz’s headquarters:

The heads. You’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far. But… he’s the first one to admit it.

Both cut absurd figures: The Harlequin with his colourful patches and cheerful demeanour in such a hellish environment; the Photojournalist a parody of the crazed hippy combat photojournalist in a headband. Both have a tendency to babble.

This is the Way the World Ends

Although the Photojournalist speaks many of the The Harlequin’s lines they do not play identical roles. The Photojournalist is also illustrative of the heavy price war photographers can pay, particularly the blurred lines between observer and participant and the internal conflicts set off by the accompanying moral ambiguity. The unimaginable trauma of Kurtz’s bloody compound and all that came before it must also weigh very heavily:

This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man!

An Ounce of Cocaine

Coppola builds the photojournalist’s crazed dialogue around lines from the Heart of Darkness and poems by Rudyard Kipling and T. S. Eliot. These are combined with Hopper’s hippy jive talk, which may have been delivered ad lib, fuelled by Hopper’s prodigious drug intake on set.

Hopper was reputed to difficult to work with on set because he was almost always high. George Hickenlooper’s documentary about the production Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse supports this: “Dennis recounted the story to me that Francis came to him and said, ‘What can I do to help you play this role?’ Dennis said, ‘About an ounce of cocaine.’

A Pair of Ragged Claws

This is in stark contrast to Coppola’s extensive use of poetry in the Photojournalists dialogue, which comes from Kurtz reading poetry to the The Harlequin in Heart of Darkness. The exceptionally strange last line of the speech below is from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Captain 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’s evident admiration of Colonel Kurtz is because he had enlarged his mind, which is also what The Harlequin admired so greatly about Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

We Were All Crazy

The role was suggested to Coppola by the set stills photographer Chas Gerretsen who advised Coppola that “we were all crazy” – and so the role was born. Chas had served in Vietnam and routinely carried Nikon F’s, some of which he sold to the production company for use in the film.

FORGET IT

All that was left to do was to replace the role of Captain Colby, Willard’s predecessor, in which Hopper had originally been cast. Colby appears only very briefly and does not speak, surrounded by Montagnard natives and stroking a rifle. His appearance is set up in Willard’s briefing:

There has been a new development regarding your mission which we must now communicate to you. Months ago a man was ordered on a mission which was identical to yours. We have reason to believe that he is now operating with Kurtz. Saigon was carrying him MIA for his family’s sake. They
assumed he was dead. Then they intercepted a letter he tried to send his wife :

      SELL THE HOUSE
      SELL THE CAR
      SELL THE KIDS
      FIND SOMEONE ELSE
      FORGET IT
      I’M NEVER COMING BACK
      FORGET IT

Captain Richard Colby – he was with Kurtz.

Bad, Dope-Smoking Cats

The Cultural References section of Sean 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. Flynn, along with Englishman Tim Page, are portrayed as the lunatic journalists and “bad, dope-smoking cats” of Michael Herr’s classic book on the Vietnam War Dispatches.

Herr went “chopper-hopping round the war zone” with Page and Flynn, taking huge risks according to one reviewer of Dispatches. He later collaborated on the narrative of Apocalypse Now.

In Dispatches Herr described Page as the most extravagant of the “wigged-out crazies running around Vietnam”, largely due to his drug intake. Page’s Wikipedia page also describes him as part of the inspiration for the character of the Photojournalist, who specialised in wigged-out craziness:

One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, uh, with fractions – what are you going to land on – one-quarter, three-eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics.

I thought dialectic physics was pure invention and part of the madness. It is not, and is helpfully described as “a living method of cognising nature and of searching for new truths in modern science, and in physics in particular” in M. E. Omelyanovsky’s Dialectics In Modern Physics.

In Like (Sean) Flynn

Whether he acted as an inspiration for the role or not Sean Flynn, the only child of hell-raising screen legend Errol, has one of the most fascinating, but also one of the saddest stories of the war.

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.

The Disappearance of Sean Flynn and Dana Stone

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 seen again. Despite the efforts of his mother to find him, Flynn was declared dead in absentia in 1984 and the fate of two remains unknown, notwithstanding the continued efforts of friends and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), the organisation responsible for recovering the remains of fallen soldiers.

Sean Finn’s story is told in a film inspired by his life entitled The Road to Freedom which was filmed on location in Cambodia in 2011. It also the subject of an eponymous track on the album Combat Rock by The Clash.

A CIA Kurtz?

Whilst the role of Colonel Kurtz and his ‘unsound methods’ was clearly inspired by ‘Heart of Darkness’, there is another potential influence which is less well known. This is revealed in the UK documentary ‘The Search for Kurtz’ which describes how CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer Tony Poe and his leadership of Operation Momentum, which was launched in 1962 to turn the Laotian Hmong people into anti-communist guerrillas.

The Wrath of Klaus Kinski

Another significant influence 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. 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.

Has a character in a movie, especially an unnamed one, ever had such a rich set of sources?

The Photojournalist’s Cameras

The Photojournalist’s cameras are Nikon Fs with a variety of lenses; possibly a fast 50mm, a 105mm and a 200mm. This isn’t a a surprising photographer’s rig as the Nikon F, along with the Leica M2, was the leading film camera of the Vietnam war and carrying multiple cameras was common. Richard Crowe a former Combat Cameraman who served between 1966–1972 described the practice on the Q&A website Quora:

“If we are talking about photojournalists, they usually carried two to three 35mm cameras each with a different focal length lens. Nikon and Leica cameras were the favorites and the photojournalists usually owned their own equipment. The guys that I worked with often carried both a Leica with a UWA lens and two Nikons with normal and short telephoto lenses. The Canon SLR cameras of the day would often not stand up to the rough usage and dirt and grime in Vietnam. The photojournalists began to paint the silver portions of the camera bodies black so the camera would not be a point of aim for a sniper. Later on, camera companies began to supply cameras with black bodies and called them “Photojournalist Models”. BTW: no photojournalist that I knew or met ever carried a zoom lens on his camera. The early zoom lenses for SLR cameras were pretty crappy in image quality.”

Notable Vietnam War Nikon F users included Eddie Adams, Larry Burrows, Tim Page, Henri Huet, Dana Stone, Philip Jones Griffiths and Don McCullin, whose F famously stopped a bullet from an AK47.

The Legacy of the Nikon F

The Nikon F was not the first SLR, that distinction belongs to the Exakta, which is the subject of another blog about photographers – Rear Window. Prior to its introduction, however, no SLR could challenge the mighty German rangefinder in the 35mm camera market; SLRs were often compared unfavourably to rangefinders as heavy, slow and less than reliable, with dim viewfinders.

The F swept away that dominance and many professional photographers abandoned Leica for Nikon. Leica lost its market dominance and never recovered it, though it has prospered in its niche of late.

Photographer of Apocalypse Now Nikon F
My Nikon F, a late model from 1970

The Nikon F brought many advancements to market simultaneously:

  • A system camera with interchangeable viewfinders and focusing screens
  • An automatic diaphragm and an instant-return mirror, which made it the quickest SLR by far.
  • An impressive lens line up
  • A large reflex mirror that kept the viewfinder bright, and reduced vignetting
  • A 100% viewfinder, an SLR first
  • A focal plane shutter with titanium-foil blinds—also a first

These advancements made the technical advantages of the SLR over the rangefinder compelling. The need to match lenses to frame lines and for external viewfinders to use wide angle lenses disappeared. Gone too were the framing and parallax compensation issues and the limitation on zoom and lenses longer than 135mm.

Over time the F became legendary for indestructible levels of reliability and durability. It still casts a long shadow.

The Legacy of Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now is an iconic movie, savage and darkly comic, and an expedition through insanity from start to finish. It is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. I have watched it many times and it has retained its power for me.

Robert Egbert said of it: “Apocalypse Now is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul. It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.

Related Articles on Flash of Darkness

If you enjoyed this article, another movie that is a favourite of mine and features a photographer is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The journey wasn’t quite as twisting as Apocalypse now but it was interesting nonetheless…

There are also two articles on classic film cameras in the movies on this site – one of Leica and one on Nikon.

The Greatest Movies about Photographers: Rear Window

This article was inspired by classic film cameras in movies – specifically , Leicas and Nikons. From cameras in movies, it’s a short step to movies about photographers. My favourite movie with a photographer as the lead character is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and I was intrigued by the camera and telephoto lens Jimmy Stewart used in the role – hence this article.

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

Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window contains probably 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 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. This manufacturer is best known for the Kine Exakta (1936-1948), the first 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera in regular production.

The Exakta Varex VX was introduced in 1951 and was based on the Kine Exakta. The Exakta Varex VX was a system camera that could be used with either a waist level finder or with a pentaprism and a variety of focusing screens. Other specialised equipment available for the camera system included microscope adaptors, extension bellows, stereo attachments and medical attachments.

Exakta as Witness

In addition to a staring role in Rear Window Josef Koudelka used an Exacta Varex to photograph the invasion of Prague in 1968. He had returned to Czechoslovakia from Romania recording his photo-essay Gypsies (also with an Exacta Varex) two days before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

These photographs, of crowds staring down the barrels of tank guns, defiant youths waving resistance flags in smouldering streets and anti-Soviet graffiti that sprang up every day and was whitewashed every night, came to define one of the pivotal moments of 20th-century history. However Josef Koudelka would have to wait another 16 years for an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery before being credited as the photographer. Until then, the pictures had been attributed to PP (Prague Photographer) to protect Koudelka and his family from reprisals. Josef Koudelka: the lonely, rebel photographer

Rear Window

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window the Exakta Varex VX was paired with a huge 400mm telephoto lens; the catchily named Kilfitt fern-kilar f/5.6 model. The f/5.6 400mm lens weighed 1.76kg and almost certainly required a tripod to obtain sharp shots.

Collectively the camera/lens combination is known as the ‘Rear Window stalking camera’ and is 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

Greatest movies featuring photographers - Rear Window
The Nikon 400mm f3.5 prime mounted on an F6

I have a 400mm lens prime 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.

A Beast of a Lens

It’s an all-metal 2.8kg beast of a lens, a whole 1kg heavier than the Rear Window 400mm, and built like the proverbial tank. 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 it requires a tripod and a gimbal head, which makes the combined shooting weight pretty substantial.

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.

I used it originally for shots of the moon with the Z7 and the FTZ adapter using focus peaking, but I have recently acquired the new 100-400 mm zoom for that kind of shot. It’s better optically of course, and far lighter, but has nothing like the presence. I’ve kept the old monster for use with my older Nikon cameras – the F series and FM film classics. Sometimes, only film will do.

Other Movies Featuring Photographers

Whilst my favourite movie with a photographer as lead is Rear Window, but there are many others featuring photographers. My favourite is Apocalypse Now – the subject of another article on this site, but here’s a list of some of the most notable of the others.

  • Blow-Up (1966)
  • Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White (1989) 
  • Proof (1991)
  • The Killing Fields (1991)
  • High Art (1998)
  • Pecker (1998)
  • Harrison’s Flowers (2000)
  • Gentlemen’s Relish (2001)
  • City of God (2002)
  • Closer (2004)
  • Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006)
  • Everlasting Moments (2008)
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
  • Kodachrome (2017)
  • Photograph (2019)