Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Counterfactual Cinema

Tonight marks the return of a long neglected feature here at the Lens -- the counterfactual of the week.

Before moving on to weightier examinations of the role contingency occupies in our historical narratives and understandings, we are going to indulge in some rather more aesthetic adumbrations of cinematic consequence.

There are, of course, as many or more counterfactuals than there are "facts", but I'll only mention one or two interesting ones from time to time. It should also be mentioned that these cinematic counterfactuals are not derived from authoritative evidence, but rather gleaned from the gelatinous residue of gossip and hearsay.

This week, we ponder the case of Apocalypse Now (1979).

Steve McQueen was Francis Coppola's first choice to play Willard, but he passed, as did his obvious second choice, Al Pacino. Martin Sheen was next in line, as he had impressed Coppola when he auditioned for the role of Michael Corleone a few years earlier. But Sheen was engaged with another project when filming began in 1976 (perhaps the legendary "Cassandra Crossing", featuring a slumming Richard Harris and a young Orenthal).

Coppola decided to cast Harvey Keitel, then a staple in his buddy Martin Scorsese's stable of actors. Production began, and footage was shot, but Coppola decided that Keitel wasn't right for the role, and he replaced him with a newly available Sheen.

What might have been had Keitel remained on set? Would the film still be considered a flawed masterpiece?

From my perspective, it would have been something special to see Keitel playing across from Brando. As far as I know, they never appeared together before or since.

Perhaps he would have introduced himself to Kurtz differently: "I'm Captain Willard. I solve problems."

When Brando notoriously forgot his lines, the Bad Lieutenant could have rehearsed his later address to Jesus: "Mutt! You got something that you want to say to me? You fuck! You ratfuck, you ratfuck ... you fucking stand there and you want me to do every fucking thing!

Next week: what popcorn pap did David Lynch turn down in order to make his own sci-fi cult classic?


  1. No, not Keitel. He's too New York. Willard had had to more broadly represent middle American values. New Yorkers are the world champs of cynicism. Nothing shocks them. So how believable are they as chroniclers of the river of madness? Symbolicly, Sheen is much more powerful. Here's the obverse: Robert Redford playing Michael Corleone. See what I mean?

  2. FE, great concept and insight here. I don't remember if I had heard that Keitel had that part at first, but in the very least, I totally forgot about it. Keitel is unusually vulnerable and would have changed the atmosphere of the film entirely. Thanks for putting this under the microscope.

    FE to Blogger: Blogger, who's in charge here?

    Blogger to FE: Ain't choo?