In September 1976, after spending six months in Tokyo, my girlfriend and I landed in Manila. We found a cheap hostel, a six pack of San Miguel, and made plans. About the only guidebook at the time was South East Asia on a Shoestring and that branched west after Bangkok so we were reliant on travellers’ notice boards and word of mouth. On advice we decided to head north east for the coast.
With a couple of weeks’ beach downtime behind us we caught a bus into to the pine-clad mountains and eventually reached the cool air of Baguio, a university town about 250 kilometres from the capital. After our work in Japan, we now had both time and money, so we spent our days wandering about the town and the surrounding countryside.
On one lazy afternoon we decided to go to the movies. The Outlaw Josey Wales had just been released and was showing at the only cinema in town. The movie was subtitled so there was little incentive for the locals to keep the noise down and throughout the show balut hawkers walked the aisles loudly advertising and selling their chicken embryos.
When the movie finished, we walked out through the ground floor foyer and on the balcony above were about thirty Filipino men looking down, and directly at us. Carmel was wearing a classy Chinese-style dress she had picked up in Penang. It was essentially held together by small cotton hooks and loops. We were the only strangers in town, which is apt for a Western I suppose, and Carmel turned to me. “Why do you think they’re staring at us?” I turned to her and cast my eyes downward. A loop had left its hook during the movie. “Probably because your right breast is out of your dress. We left for the rice terraces of Banaue very early the next morning.
Our bus consisted of six rows of timber benches from one side of the bus to the other. That meant that there was no central aisle and the entire left side of the bus was open to the elements. I found out later that our escape route from Baguio was to take us on what was considered to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world (especially for one-sided buses). The ‘mountain trail’, as it is locally known, goes as high as 2225 metres with some sheer drop offs of over 300 metres. This road takes your breath away and proudly sits in any top ten list of deadly roads. Potential death has never looked so green and lush. We were heading to the staggeringly beautiful rice terraces of Banaue.
There were only a few passengers, which was unusual for a local bus. But it was clearly on a delivery run, as the roof was seriously overloaded with cartons, chickens, a pig, a couple of tyres, a small motorbike and somewhere, our backpacks. The driver was a dedicated smoker and once in that driving seat it was clear he was above the humdrum business of stacking the luggage or dealing with passengers. This was his bus and it would leave when he was ready. We paid the young offsider the fare and waited. And waited. Finally, a young soldier joined us on our bench and we set off. He had no bag, just his M-16. In his right ear he sported the biggest silver earring I’ve ever seen – it was the size of a saucer. In his left ear, like most of the other passengers, were one or two peso coins. I’m guessing he was our escort for the journey since this part of Luzon had only been re-opened to foreigners in the March of 1976. Although still active, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the National People’s Army, had been quiet of late.
So with our young bodyguard on board, we spend the next 10 hours making our way cautiously around steep mountain sides, often stopping to assess the safety of a crumbling edge on a narrow curve, or playing chicken with the occasional oncoming vehicle on the one lane gravel road. When the road widens at the occasional small settlement or lone bamboo roadside stall, we might stop so our driver could have a cigarette standing up and the rest of us find some relatively private place to pee. Any reasonably wide flat space along the length of the journey seemed to be taken up with rice drying – sometimes on plastic or bamboo mats, sometimes not.
We arrive as the mist settles and the moon is on the rise. Banaue has a frontier feel like Baguio but on a much smaller scale. After getting off the bus and retrieving our packs, which have been thrown from the roof onto the dirt road, we find ourselves outside the lone hotel. It is a pale green, two-story timber construction, slightly askew, with a downstairs restaurant and a few rooms on the first floor. Kerosene lanterns light the downstairs tables and the kitchen area. There is no electricity, although we can hear a generator somewhere off in the darkness. Two of the tables are occupied by young soldiers, their M-16s stacked haphazardly in a nearby corner.
At another table towards the rear are a couple of travellers about our age, so we walk over and ask to sit down. Chris and Juliette are from New Zealand and have only been here for twenty-four hours. Chris is recovering from an illness and enjoying the mild days and cool nights here in the mountains. We order some rice and warm San Miguels. The soldiers are not staying at the hotel, so after our dinner we take an empty room upstairs and fall into bed. I wake at first light and walk to the shuttered window. Arriving at a destination at night usually brings with it unwanted complications, but one of the enduring joys is that first look at your surroundings in daylight. In that moment just before opening the peeling shutters I am of high anticipation. As I unhinge and pull them back, there is a murmur from the bed. “What can you see?” I reply: “Nothing much. Just some impossibly green, thousand-year-old hand-made terraces, climbing about three hundred metres up and around the sides of this out-thrusting ridge. You can see the morning clouds reflected in the water of each terrace. You hungry?”
We spend the next week exploring. On our last night overlooking the terraces, we again share our meal with soldiers, their weapons, and Kurt, a recent arrival who brings news that there is money to be made in Manila working as an extra on a movie, and that there is a casting call approaching. Instead of heading further north, we leave for the capital the next day. In a Manila hostel we meet Paris, a fast talking San Franciscan who does imitations. I drift off to sleep thinking of searchlights in the sky, cameras, cigars and Paris doing Groucho.
The next morning, we set off at 7am in a jeepney sporting seventeen silver stallions on the bonnet with a frequently used horn that sounds a cavalry charge. We arrived at the Filipino movie studio where we joined about three hundred hopefuls aged between fifteen and fifty. At midday, Lou Whitehill, the local casting director, appears. His offsider wears a T-shirt with a couch printed on the front. There is a sudden compression of the crowd towards the gates. “Okay, you blokes, back off!”
It’s an Australian wearing the couch T-shirt. My fortune had just taken a turn for the better, or so I thought. To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure exactly what I was applying for, but it was bound to be a job of some sort. A line formed and the auditions began. One by one we stood in front of the casting director and answered some questions. Chris was first. I moved in tight to see if I could get a few clues. At the time, Chris looked like a cross between a young Jack Palance and Henry Winkler, and Whitehill seemed slightly fazed by not only his good looks, but his New Zealand accent as well. After a few perfunctory questions, he was directed to what looked like the successful young hopefuls. My turn. “Gidday.” “Name?” “Paul Dufficy.” “How old are you, Paul?” Be careful, I thought, he’s using a first name early. “Twenty-three, Mr. Whitehill.” “Your accent is very broad….” His voice trailed off, waiting for an appropriate reply. Looking quickly at the judges and pointing to Chris, I said: “I’m with him.” “You’re a possible. Join that group over there. Next.”
The group over there was a motley bunch: English, South African, Nigerian, German and now an Australian. I was determined not to be an also-ran. Time passed and our group was growing much faster than the select few. I carefully bided my time. A couple of those in line, who had yet to be interviewed and had, by this stage, consumed a few too many San Miguels in the hot sun, started yelling for the line to speed up. Heads turned as security was directed to escort them from the lot. It was the perfect distraction for a little detour into the centre of the certainties. No-one noticed. I was in.
We had a 6am bus to catch the next morning to the Pagsanjan Falls area, about 100 kilometres southeast of Manila. Carmel and Juliette were going to head a further 400 kilometres south to Legazpi and the Mayon volcano and then swing around and visit us on set if they could in a month or so.
We had been told very little the previous day – just turn up and bring very little beyond a toothbrush. And definitely no cameras. The financial upside was that the production company, Cinema Seven, was willing to pay us $US200 a week. At this stage, we didn’t know where we were going or what the movie was about. Most assumed it was a cheap Asian gangster film with us as disposable henchmen. The extras from the United States were either residents of Manila, members of the Peace Corps, or characters with shady, private backgrounds and probably on the run. We arrived mid-morning and almost immediately we were given plastic bags for our civilian clothes and outfitted in jungle-green army fatigues. Some of the crew recognised the patch on the shoulder as Air Cavalry. Each jacket had a name: I was Tavalera, Chris was Vasquez, and our Nigerian mate was Schwartz. These were the names that people would call us over the coming weeks. With the gangster movie theory out of the way, we lined up for haircuts, then we lined up for food, then we lined up to collect our M-16, and then we lined up along a ridge high above the river leading to the famous waterfall in the area. Here we were handed over to a moonlighting US Marine: “Good morning ladies! I’m Gunnery Sergeant Holmes and I’m going to introduce you to your new girlfriend. Would you like to meet her?” For some very odd reason we all said, with enthusiasm: “Yes, Sir!” And I am not kidding, he replied: “You say, yes Gunnery Sergeant, I work for a living!”
With a very odd feeling that I’m in a movie within a movie, our burly instructor introduces us to our new girlfriend, which of course is our M-16. He gives a short history lesson on the weapon and lets us know that a head-shot can be taken accurately from up to a distance of 300 yards. How that works in the jungle is beyond my experience. Finally, making eye contact with every recruit with a slow scan, he growls: “And when Charlie get hit with sweetness here, he stay hit. That cartridge is gonna tumble all the way through him. Dead. Now take aim and shoot some of those tourists down there.”
We each had a thirty-round magazine of blanks and proceeded to shoot volley after volley at the startled tourists below. They were not to know that we were shooting blanks, which probably explained the looks of terror.
Oddly enough, that was the last time that we fired our rifles. In fact, when the film was being shot, if you were sufficiently far away from the camera, you were supplied with a rubber M-16. So I’m not quite sure what the practice was for, but in any case, once we had all emptied our magazines, we were guided around a set that was designed to be a crumbling temple complex in the jungle. Sitting in small groups around the set were the Ifugao people from the Banaue area. They had been hired to play the people of Vietnam’s central highlands, the Montagnard. While not filming, they spent a lot of their time carving for the crew or, like us, hanging out for the next meal.
Apart from lining up, we did a lot of waiting around. Extras were low on the pecking order, and we were nowhere near a need-to-know position. So we swapped rumours about who was in the movie, what we would be required to do, and where to get some marijuana. We gradually got answers to all three questions. With our orientation over, we were bussed back to our temporary accommodation, and as we approached, we heard a sound that was to be our almost constant aural backdrop. “Helicopters,” I remark, stating the bleeding obvious in a voice that carries to a few people close by. “Loaches,” comes the laconic reply from a guy who seemed to know his helicopters.
I have no time to add more evidence of how little I know as two gnat-like machines descend jerkily onto the parking lot. A solid man with a dark beard steps out and walks purposely towards the dining room. He’s wearing loose black fisherman pants and a khaki jacket with a lot of pockets. When the loaches are empty, I wander over. A Filipino guard offers me a cigarette. “You can fly a Loach?” “Me? No mate,” I say casually like I could if I really wanted to. I glance at the blades. My knowledge of helicopters has come solely from television, so I ask the guard why no-one bent over when they left the chopper just now. He smiles and replies, between two lung busting drags on his cigarette, “Old Hollywood trick.”
In preparation for the movie, the producer had approached the United States government for permission to use US helicopters and other equipment, but the Defence Secretary at the time, one Donald Rumsfeld, refused due to the admittedly anti-war sentiment of the movie. So Marcos had stepped in and offered whatever the film needed, including pilots. The only problem was that those pesky communists up north, from where we had just come, would act up occasionally and require the director’s entire helicopter squadron to head into the mountains at very short notice.
We were told that trucks would arrive at 5am the next morning to take us nearer the set. With no real work under our belts yet, most of us figured that some drinking was in order. The place we found ourselves had the feel of a frontier town after the gold had run out. There were plenty of bars and women but a shortage of paying customers. The arrival of a bunch of young men with money in their pockets must have put a smile on the faces of a whole range of different professions. It was also the kind of town where flirting with the wrong set of dark eyes could get you into trouble. The trucks arrived on time the next morning. An army truck rumbling through the jungle on corrugated dirt roads at sunrise is not a recommended cure for a hangover. I promised, not for the first time, to barrel house no more.
The set was a seaside village that had been attacked by US helicopters. We were a mop-up and securing force under the command of a charismatic colonel. To my eyes, it looked incredibly authentic. The inhabitants of the village, here in rural Philippines, were Vietnamese refugees. Weather was on the director’s side at last and shooting began almost immediately. I was intrigued by the way the community took shape. The director and his cinematographer were royalty in a way (along with the more important actors) while the producers were influential, especially as they saw their money disappearing. Assistant directors (there were three) had considerable sway, and then there was a general population of technical people. We were at the bottom of the heap. What I loved to watch, however, was the way the Filipino stall holders would cruise through the community. Like tow truck drivers, they were always there before the customers thought they needed them.
The mayor of the nearest town was a visiting diplomat. It was his land. With swaggering racketeer style, he’d arrive in a jeep along with two or three of his cronies. Slowly, and purposely, he’d climb down gun hip first in order to display his pearl-handled chrome-plated side arm. One of the producers’ people would entertain the man and solve any problems. Yet power over all was the caterer. He and his wife would arrive in what looked like a bulk carrier for TV dinners, yet they supplied all with excellent food.
Our experience of the less than glamorous work of an extra was the first scene. A gang of us are being wrangled by a young, stocky, ginger-haired assistant director called Larry Franco. Our job is to set fire to some old shed while a chopper (a Huey this time), with the words “Death From Above” emblazoned across its bulbous nose, lands and disgorges three key actors. After lighting the fire ten times and being blasted by a landing helicopter just as many times, I leant into Larry’s ear and said: “Larry, and I think I speak for all of us, that last take had it all.”
Larry reached for his walkie-talkie and when it clicked off he said: “Francis wants you guys to look more involved.” I could hardly see the megalomaniac from where I was standing.
So we spent quite a few days lighting things, blowing things up, jumping out of helicopters, and generally having a bit of a hoot. It was also an opportunity to get a small glimpse into the director’s approach. In one scene, a major actor walks down the village street throwing cards inscribed with “Dealers in Death” on dead Vietnamese. Loaches are buzzing and fanning only metres above. Further up, Hueys make fun park sweeps, bristling with rockets, machine guns and one or two surfboards. Smoke from smouldering buildings mixes with the acrid smell of flares and is blown in swirling patterns by the powerful downdrafts. A cow destined for a BBQ is being transferred by helicopter above an impromptu, windswept church service. Amongst this tumult, I am sitting on a low stone wall washing my feet. To my immediate left is a Vietnamese extra lying in a pool of water. He has realistic intestines on his torn belly. Across the narrow street is a pile of fifteen dead Vietnamese, also in mud. Take after take, all are re-bloodied and positioned in their respective quagmires. Now I know I shouldn’t have had that joint for morning tea, but what can you do? Feeling more than a little strange, I wash, dry, and wash my feet over and over again. Time is short as dusk approaches and rain clouds gather. The director walks down the street surveying the scene for what might have to be the last take. He approaches, squats in front of me and says: “When Bobby walks by, I want your face in profile, so look toward the priest. Don’t look at Bobby or Marty. You’re not guilty, you kinda liked it. You’ve seen it all before.” Before I could express some of my own ideas, both thematically and practically, he was off re-positioning the dead soldier on my left.
The scene is ready. Movement is everywhere. The loaches are clipping the palm trees. One does a three sixty spin above the hurricane-blasted priest. The colonel saunters past and I’m washing my feet trying to do what the director has asked. The amphibious troop carrier on my right lurches a few metres forward, releasing a dozen well-armed men. An unplanned fire starts opposite where some goats are tethered. A real petrol dump is nearby. The cameras keep rolling. With a feeling that said no goddamned unplanned fire is going to destroy this amazing scene, some of us grab a pump, leap into a water-filled ditch in front of the dump, and start dousing. Joe, a veteran Aussie extra, crouching to give himself protection from the growing heat, rescues the goats. Within what seemed minutes, but was probably seconds, the professionals are in there and take control of the fire. The main camera rolls to the end of the dolly track and an assistant director yells, “That’s a wrap!” The set erupts into back-slapping, high fives, fist bumps, and cheering.
After a few weeks, Carmel and Juliette made their way out to the set. Standing under a bamboo awning, they were watching a weary bunch of extras line up for a cup of coffee. One of the youngest actors on set was a sixteen-year-old African-American from New York who was actually fourteen, having lied about his age to get the part. According to a line in the movie, his brain had been zapped by the light and space of Vietnam. He chose this moment to creep up behind Juliette and place a machete across her throat. After gauging the looks from all around, he sheepishly lowered the weapon, explaining that he thought Juliette was one of the Playboy Bunnies who had recently arrived on set.
I never quite understood why that would somehow make it all okay, but nevertheless, he was a resourceful young man and was from then on able to provide us with a regular supply of the local marijuana.
Things quietened down as plans were made to move to another location. In the downtime, while some of the Peace Corp boys were throwing a knife at each other’s’ stretched out legs to pass the time, Larry grabbed five of us and arranged for us to meet him by the patrol boat in ten minutes. Figuring that we might have to clean it, only two of us fronted. With a minimum of explanation, I was told to stand on top of the gently rocking craft, pick up a gigantic hook, and reach for the sky. To my left, about fifty metres away, was the film crew. The sound of Hueys was familiar by now, but when I began to feel the hot downdraft, the set-up became clear. Larry, crouching out of sight of the camera, screamed above the growing roar of the monster: “Attach that hook to the catch on the Huey!”
The Huey was now a metre above my outstretched arms. Mustering as much sarcasm as I could in the circumstances I managed to yell back, “How would you like me to feel?” as the blasts of hot air wrapped around my head like a barber’s towel. By now, the boat was pitching violently in the chop created by the rotors. With a jump, I could have touched the hard underbelly of the giant blender, but who wanted to jump? After five attempts that day, we gave up. In the movie, if you look closely, you can see that we just miss.
The new location was called Hau Phat, and the set piece was to involve the recently arrived Playboy Bunnies – Miss May, Miss August and Cyndi Wood playing the Playmate of the Year. I had no idea what the scene would involve, but I was chosen to be part of the Military Police who would guard the young women from marauding GIs. But when Jerry Ziesmer, another assistant director (not Larry, unfortunately), saw me in uniform, I was sacked with extreme prejudice – I put it that way because that’s the direction Jerry gives to Willard in the early part of the movie.
Dream shattered. My height was out by inches and my weight way down. Disappointed, I re-joined the throng of audience participants to merely gaze upon the bikini clad visitors. We were issued with bulk copies of the lead bunny’s centrefold. Bill Graham, the music promoter from San Francisco, was flown in for the occasion. Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids came along to play “Suzie Q” …again and again and again.
But to my immense financial good fortune, Chris found me in the crowd and said that the stunt coordinator wanted some drug addled, sex starved, and strikingly handsome grunts to hurdle barbed wire, storm the pontoon with the gyrating bunnies, do battle with the M.P.s, knock out the Green Beret escort, grab the girls, and once this is done, head for the Huey. That sounded way better than being an M.P.
Chris was brief. “He wants me, you and Joe.” “Why us, man?” “He likes Kiwis and Aussies.” “We’re going to be a little outnumbered I think.” “I guess he’ll make up the rest with filler. And we get paid $50 a take.”
In the ensuing fight, I picked out an M.P. that I knew so things didn’t get too violent each time we had to launch ourselves from the tiered seats, across a small gap, and onto the performance area. When the first few takes didn’t come off to the director’s liking, there were rumbles in the crowd and some muttering about wanting to see the bunny girls do even more intricate things with the M-16 weapons that two were carrying.
The drizzle started, and the night was getting longer. Bill Graham grabbed a mike between takes and offered anyone a free pass to his 1976 Christmas Concert starring Santana and The Grateful Dead at The Cow Palace in San Francisco. You just had to approach the gate and say the password. The password for The Cow Palace Christmas Concert for 1976 was Hau Phat. Ninety percent of the crowd were either local villagers or Ifagao people who all looked on impassively.
While we were at this new location, the local mayor (not the gun-toting one) had taken Juliette and Carmel under his wing, so we were able to stay at his house. He and his wife had lost their youngest son in a plane crash over the Bay of Bengal while he’d been on his way to a Jamboree in India. Chris was seen by the father as almost his reincarnation. Chris became very attached likewise. Nevertheless, something was awry in the village, though we couldn’t really articulate the cause of our unease. Many a night we would sit, silently except for night sounds, in the Mayor’s empty open-air restaurant, or wander through the eerie Town Hall which was nearby, and along deserted streets amidst the fluid shadows cast by the full moon.
During our last few days at Pagsanjan as shooting slowed briefly, we would frequent the local hotel where the main actors stayed. All the chairs in the bar were labelled with a star’s name. Often, we could choose who we would be for the evening. Chris and Juliette were staying on while Carmel and I were leaving the Philippines for Thailand. We celebrated our time together over breakfast one morning in the hotel. The machete wielding, adolescent marijuana supplier joined us by the pool. He let on that he was actually travelling with his mum, and to this day, I don’t know why he tried to set the bamboo and grass umbrella above us alight. Juliette travelled to Manila with us for an airport farewell. It was the last time we saw each other.
Although all the above took place in 1976, Apocalypse Now was released in 1979. In the intervening years it unkindly came to be known as Apocalypse When. Vincent Canby, The New York Times film critic at the time had this to say: “When it is thus evoking the look and feelings of the Vietnam War, dealing in sense impressions for which no explanations are adequate or necessary, Apocalypse Now is a stunning work. It’s as technically complex and masterful as any war film I can remember, including David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, which comes to mind, I suppose, because both productions were themselves military campaigns to subdue the hostile landscapes in which they were made. Kwai was shot in Ceylon; Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, which became, for Mr. Coppola, his Vietnam, swallowing men, money, and equipment as voraciously as any enemy.”
But it would be fair to say he wasn’t, in the end, convinced by the movie and midway through his review he writes: “Apocalypse Now, though, wants to be something more than a kind of cinematic tone poem. Mr. Coppola himself describes it as ‘operatic’, but this, I suspect, is a word the director hit upon after the fact. Ultimately, Apocalypse Now is neither a tone poem nor an opera. It’s an adventure yarn with delusions of grandeur, a movie that ends – in the all-too-familiar words of the poet Mr. Coppola drags in by the bootstraps – not with a bang, but a whimper.”
But as a kind of afterthought he did go on to say: “Almost unnoticed in the general mayhem of the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ set piece in the first third of the movie is a young, noteworthy Antipodean actor. With the looks and casual demeanour of a young Errol Flynn, and the brooding, rough-house threat of a Rod Taylor, he sits as a lonely, guilty grunt. In fact, in the playing card scene, for mine, he outshines Sheen with his barely contained mixture of rage, guilt and vulnerability. His portrayal of complex emotions as he washes his feet has stayed with me for far longer than I would have imagined. Certainly longer than Brando’s overblown soliloquies. Expect big things from this young thespian.”
Well, he didn’t really write that third paragraph and that is why I’m not a film critic.
We headed to Bangkok in a positive frame of mind, although I did wait quite a long time for Larry to call, but he didn’t. He went on to further assistant director duties, and among many other movies, was the producer of Batman Begins twenty-nine years later. Our young machete-wielding marijuana supplier went on to play, among other things, Morpheus in the Matrix series.
We had our tickets home to Sydney from Bangkok, and the money I had made gave us some backing when it came to finding a house to rent near Sydney University. We were both going to do a one-year teacher training diploma – Carmel as an English and History teacher and me as a primary school teacher. And so, armed with my now vast knowledge of filmmaking, I vowed that my next film project would at least have better music than Flash Cadillac and his Cadillac Kids. In 1987, The Black Sorrows did just that.
Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut is in cinemas July 25, 2019.
POST-SCRIPT: Apocalypse Now opened in Australia on November 15th 1979. No credits were shown. Filmgoers received a booklet with information about the film.
The above writing is an extract from Paul Dufficy’s long anticipated memoir called Escape Routes, which while still unfinished, is subject to a fierce publishing auction process. Paul currently runs a spectacularly unsuccessful walking tour company in Sydney called Dodgy Detours. With that failure under his belt, he is starting up a Dodgy Detours franchise in Bangkok in August 2019 where he plans to live for a year.