The Shocking Truth About This Scene From Apocalypse Now

"Please. I must do this for myself," Martin Sheen beseeched director Francis Ford Coppola while filming the grueling opening sequence of "Apocalypse Now" (via Cinema Blend). If you've ever seen it, you know full well that the 1979 war drama is a devastating and magnificent viewing experience that is liable to chip off a piece of your soul by the time it's over. Through bleeding eyes and gritted teeth, moviegoers bore witness to some wildly unsettling depictions of Vietnam and the dark underbelly of the human condition — images that root themselves in one's psyche like serrated thorns in tender flesh. "It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover," the late Roger Ebert once said about the film. 

Coppola's cinematic rendition of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (1899)  seemed to evoke something primordial and animalistic in its actors. The film, which tells the story of a group of American soldiers commissioned to assassinate a rogue captain deep in the gullet of the impregnable Vietnamese jungle, featured an opening scene that sets the tone of the movie's morbid, entrancing aura. You might not know that the superb performance delivered by Martin Sheen was hardly an act. The truth is that it was about as real as it gets through the deceptive lens of the camera, and one could easily argue that the actor went too far in his devotion to it (per Cinema Blend). 

Martin Sheen was really bleeding in the opening scene

"Apocalypse Now" opens with hypnotic images of helicopters soaring over the jungle, blinding napalm explosions, rapid gunfire, and all the makings of a soldier's worst post-traumatic nightmare. The mirage-esque portrayals of active battle are intercut with depictions of Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) — who is having the flashbacks — holed up in a dingy hotel room, naked and deranged in a state of perpetual drunkenness. At one point, Willard smashes his fist into a mirror and cuts his hand open on the glass shards. As blood cascades from his knuckles down his arm, the haunted soldier of misfortune starts to thrash and tumble about the room, screaming in agony all the while. 

If you can believe it, Sheen's performance was more or less real. The actor was indeed inebriated, and he actually cut his hand on the mirror when he planted his fist in it (this was unscripted). "I was so drunk, I couldn't stand up, frankly. I was so intoxicated, I didn't realize how close to the mirror I was," the actor later shared (per Movie Fone). Coppola and the crew, in a state of total dismay, tried to stop him from further hurting himself, but he refused to abide. Despite being caught off guard by his own actions and practically losing total control over himself, Sheen insisted that they keep going. He later explained that the moment was something of a personal catharsis for him. 

Martin Sheen almost died on set

"I bled quite a lot and Francis tried to stop the scene, and I begged him to continue rolling," Martin Sheen stated after the fact (via Cinema Blend). "And I said, 'Please. I must do this for myself.' And he did. And he allowed me, in a sense, to wrestle with some demons that I had been wrestling with for quite a while. Now, I was doing it in a public forum, and in a sense, I got them out." Despite the film's massive success and eternal reputation as perhaps the greatest war movie of all time, "Apocalypse Now" took a massive toll on its architects. Later on in the filming process, Sheen actually suffered a major heart attack and, convinced that he was going to die, was read his last rites by a priest. He had to crawl a quarter of a mile down a barren highway at 2 a.m. to find help (per Movie Fone).

According to The Independent, Francis Ford Coppola had an epileptic seizure after seeing Sheen on the verge of death, blaming himself for the actor's heart attack and overall deteriorating condition. The director was so distressed and tormented throughout the filming process, he became severely unstable and threatened to commit suicide multiple times. He even took out a new mortgage on his house to finance the astonishingly expensive movie project that took years to complete (via Mental Floss).