Feature: The Incredible Story of Marlon Brando’s Apocalypse Now Rolex
A Rolex 1972 GMT Master adorned the wrist of Marlon Brando in the epic movie before disappearing for decades, finally turning up at a Phillips auction in New York where it sold for a staggering sum, despite a missing bezel that was prised off during the craziest Hollywood shoot ever.
The film set of the Vietnam war classic Apocalypse Now was one of the most chaotic in cinema history. Shot on location in the balmy jungles of the Philippines between 1976 and 1977 it was besieged with problems, including equipment being destroyed by typhoons, actor Martin Sheen suffering a nervous breakdown and a heart attack, and the illegal use of real dead bodies as props.
Brando prised of the bezel of his GMT master Ref:1675
To add fuel to the fire, the movie’s star Marlon Brando showed up on set several weeks late, looking like a man who had spent several months sofa-bound and gorging on Pringles. His lack of preparation for the role led to constant bickering between him and another member of the cast, Dennis Hopper, who set out to antagonise Brando at every turn.
Two Hollywood titans
In these dismal conditions you had two stubborn Hollywood titans squaring off against each other. In the red corner was the director, Francis Ford Coppola, who had overcome massive pressure and interference from the studio’s moneymen to make his first two Godfather films.
In the blue corner was the notoriously difficult Brando, a man who famously boycotted the 1973 Oscars, despite receiving the Best Actor award, due to Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans.
The whereabouts of Brando's own GMT was a mystery for years
Amazingly, despite the surrounding mayhem and their uncompromising characters, the two men found a way to navigate the production without coming to blows. That is until a stand-off over a Rolex threatened to compound the endless disruptions.
In the film, Brando plays Kurtz, an American special forces colonel who has gone rogue in the Cambodian jungle, waging his own guerrilla war against the Vietnamese with a select band of soldiers.
Bin the bezel
In the dimly-lit scenes that Brando insisted on – perhaps self-conscious about his ballooning weight – Coppola found the red and blue ‘Pepsi’ bezel of Brando’s GMT Master (ref 1675) an unwanted distraction. Not only that, he thought it was something the character Colonel Kurtz simply wouldn’t wear.
Brando however refused to take off the Rolex, which wasn’t a prop but his own personal watch that he’d bought in the early 1970s, having been a fan of the brand for years. It must have seemed to the beleaguered crew that this was going to be yet another obstacle to the production.
Eventually the men reached a compromise. Brando would keep the watch but prise off the bezel (which was never to be seen again). Whether the steel bracelet the watch would have come on was replaced with a strap before or after the shoot is unknown. Harmony was restored – sort of – the film wrapped way over deadline, albeit obscenely over-budget, and the movie eventually became a cult classic.
But where’s the watch?
When Brando died in 2004, the watch’s whereabouts were a mystery, despite years of speculation by the Rolex cognoscenti. Brando had sired eleven known children, several of whom could have had been given the watch. Or maybe it ended up left behind in the jungle of the Philippines – much like the sanity of some of the crew.
Brando's GMT Master, similar to this one, sold for over a million US dollars
Then in 2017 a woman called Petra Brando Fischer got in touch with the auction house, Phillips, saying she had the watch, whose caseback had been engraved with “M Brando” – etched by the man himself.
It transpired that it had remained in Brando’s possession until 1995 when he had gifted it to his adopted daughter, Petra, whose mother was his long-time personal assistant, as a graduation gift. In a note to her at the time, he wrote: “This watch is like a tank. You can do anything you want to it and it will keep on going.” Which was an understatement given the hell the watch had been through on the set of Apocalypse Now.
Petra had passed it on to her husband, the film producer Russell Fischer, as a wedding gift but he had refused to wear it out of respect, regarding it as a “sacred object”.
Then, having learnt about the staggering amount paid at auction for the Paul Newman Daytona, Petra, a London-based lawyer, decided to sell the watch, giving some of the proceeds to charity.
It was finally sold to a private buyer at a Phillips auction in 2019 for $1,952,000, thus becoming one of cinema’s most iconic Rolexes.
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