Celebrating The Work Of Martin Sheen As “Apocalypse Now” Turns 40

Having appeared in more than 65 feature films, starring as Army Captain Benjamin L. Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark film Apocalypse Now (1979) was the role that arguably brought Martin Sheen worldwide recognition.

Apocalypse Now, Film, Francis Ford Coppola

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Oscar-winning Vietnam cult war epic Apocalypse Now, a special, never-before-seen cut restored with breathtaking realism by Francis Ford Coppola himself has arrived on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray. To commemorate the release of Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, we look back on 10 of Martin Sheen’s greatest movie roles – listed below in chronological order.

Badlands (1973)

Terrence Malick's Badlands - Martin Sheen

Badlands is often cited by film critics as one of the greatest and most influential films of all time. It sees an impressionable teenage girl (Sissy Spacek) from a dead-end town anger her father when she begins dating an older greaser boyfriend (Sheen). They embark on a killing spree in the South Dakota Badlands. Sheen won Best Actor for this role at the 1974 San Sebastián International Film Festival.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane (1976)

Quiet and withdrawn 13-year-old Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) lives alone (unbeknown to her landlady) in a high-class Quebec small town, leading a secret and dangerous life. When the landlady’s son Frank (Sheen) won’t leave Rynn alone, she teams up with her neighbour Mario (Scott Jacoby) to maintain the dark family secret. Sheen’s performance as a nymphomaniac can be an uncomfortable watch, yet viewers can’t seem to tear themselves away.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Arguably one of the greatest films ever made, Apocalypse Now is an American epic war film directed, produced and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola. The film is set in Vietnam 1970 and sees U.S. Army officer Captain Willard (Sheen) serving in Vietnam. He is tasked with assassinating a renegade Special Forces Colonel, who has reportedly gone completely mad and sees himself as a god. Sheen received a BAFTA nomination for his performance, and the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards at the 52nd Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.  

Gandhi (1982)

Gandhi is an epic historical drama film based on the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the leader of India’s non-violent, non-cooperative independence movement against the United Kingdom’s rule of the country during the 20th century. Gandhi’s character is fully explained as a man of nonviolence. Through his patience, he is able to drive the British out of the subcontinent. And the stubborn nature of Jinnah and his commitment towards Pakistan is portrayed. Sheen plays the role of Vince Walker, a fictional journalist based partially on Webb Miller. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in eleven categories, winning eight, including Best Picture, Best Director for Attenborough, Best Actor for Ben Kingsley, and Best Screenplay.

The Dead Zone (1983)

Top 10 Worst Movie Presidents

An American horror thriller based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King. It tells the story of a man named Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) awaking from a coma caused by a car accident, to discover he now has psychic abilities – allowing him to see a person’s future with a mere touch. After shaking the hand of aspiring politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) at a rally, Johnny sees the danger presented by the candidate’s rise and resolves to kill him. Sheen’s performance as a bit of a maniac is perfection!

Wall Street (1987)

Directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, Wall Street sees Sheen play the onscreen father of offscreen son Charlie Sheen. The film tells the story of a young and impatient stockbroker named Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), who is willing to do anything it takes to get to the top. This includes trading on illegal inside information provided by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) – a ruthless and greedy corporate raider who takes the youth under his wing. The elder Sheen is the beating heart of this film; playing a union leader named Carl, he represents the working class in the film.

Gettysburg (1993)

Based on Michael Shaara’s award winning novel, The Killer Angels, the war drama Gettysburg, set in 1863, depicts one of the biggest events of the American Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg, seeing the Northern and Southern forces fight in an epic three-day battle. As the battle rages on and casualties mount, the film follows both the front lines and the strategic manoeuvring behind the scenes of the two armies – led by General Robert E. Lee (Sheen) and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels). Sheen’s passion as General Lee is captivating.

The American President (1995)

This romantic comedy-drama sees widowed U.S. President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), who is running for re-election, fall in love with an environmental lobbyist named Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening). It’s all above-board, but Shepherd’s supporters question the relationship when his approval ratings drop. Sheen plays A.J. McInerney, the best-friend-and-also-chief-of-staff. The American President acted as a template for the TV series The West Wing, featuring several actors who starred in the film. Sheen went on to play the President himself, Josiah Bartlet, on The West Wing, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe.

The Departed (2006)

When Irish Mob boss Francis “Frank” Costello (Jack Nicholson) spots a kid named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in a soda fountain, he plants him as a mole within the Massachusetts State Police. Simultaneously, Capt. Queenan (Sheen) in the police assigns undercover state trooper William “Billy” Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) to infiltrate Costello’s crew. Sheen’s upright and honest character is refreshing, in a plot filled with double-crossers and transgressors.

The Way (2010)

The Way - Martin Sheen

An American doctor and father named Tom (Sheen) heads overseas to France to recover the body of his estranged son (Emilio Estevez), who died in a storm while traveling the “El Camino de Santiago”. Tom decides to embark on the pilgrimage himself, to honour his son’s desire to finish the journey. Award-nominated for his performance, Sheen captures audiences in this powerful and inspirational story.


Amilia Totten
About the Author
Amilia Totten is a freelance writer, photographer and erstwhile time-waster. Her eclectic film favourites include the latest Hollywood blockbuster to European avant-garde and the joys of Bollywood.

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    He should have at least been nominated for an Oscar in Apocalypse Now – he carried the film. Around 40 years ago I saw him in a TV movie called The Last Survivors when he plays a complete bastard on a lifeboat. He was pretty damn good – up until then my younger self didn’t really like him. That, of course, changed with Apocalypse….

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