Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse
Director: Fax Bahr with George Hickenlooper
Screenplay: Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper
Features: Sam Bottoms, Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, John Milius, Martin Sheen, Tom Sternberg
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1991
Country: U.S.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse
Little by little, we went insane.Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, an utterly absorbing documentary about the torturous three-year production of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), begins the only place it could: at Coppola's press conference following the unveiling of the film (in an unfinished state) at the Cannes Film Festival. Looking weary but strangely resolute, Coppola makes his most infamous statement about the film: “My film is not about Vietnam. My film is Vietnam.” At first, this smacks of absolute pretension, but as the documentary unfolds, we begin to realize that its purpose is to illustrate directly Coppola's merging of his film and an unwinnable war: “The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam,” he said at Cannes. “We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

Thanks to constant media reports, the production of Apocalypse Now was already legendary long before anyone saw a foot of film, and it has only grown in stature in the ensuing years. Principal photography was originally slated for 16 weeks, but dragged on for nearly a year. It was beset with calamities ranging from a monsoon that destroyed sets and forced a two-month halt, to Philippine president/dictator Ferdinand Marcos suddenly recalling the helicopters he had promised to Coppola in order to fight communist insurgents, to star Marlon Brandon showing up for his three-week portion of the shoot (at the bargain price of $1 million a week) overweight and completely unprepared. Coppola was rewriting the script during the shooting, and most of the cast and crew were bewildered at what they had wandered into. It was literally a war movie as war.

The majority of Hearts of Darkness is made up of 16mm footage shot by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, during the film's 328 days of shooting in the Philippines. Eleanor narrates the film, and much of her narration comes directly from her on-set diaries, which were published in 1979 as a book titled Notes. The 16mm footage, which was originally commissioned by United Artists, the film's distributor, for a five-minute making-of promotional film, is interspersed with interviews conducted circa 1990 with Coppola, original screenwriter John Milius, George Lucas (who was originally slated to direct the film as a low-budget quickie in the early 1970s and whose slightly chastising practicality stands in stark contrast to Coppola's grandiosity), coproducer Tom Sternberg, and actors Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, and Dennis Hopper. With the distance of more than a decade since the production, each participant is measured and reflective, although you can still sense how the insanity of the production lingers in their minds, especially for Sheen, who suffered a heart attack at age 36 in the middle of shooting and very nearly died (Eleanor Coppola, who narrates the film, informs us that he was read his last rites by a priest who didn't speak English).

Coppola's 1990 interview is contrasted by numerous on-set interviews during the production of Apocalypse Now in which all posturing is stripped away. He speaks directly to the camera about his desires and intentions for the film, but most of all about his fears. Coppola was, after all, at the crest of what many consider the most impressive run of filmmaking in modern Hollywood history with The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), and The Conversation (1974). All eyes were on him, and he knew it; Apocalypse Now was to be the first film for his revived production company, and he had put up all his assets as collateral to get the film made. He was, then, completed invested--emotionally, artistically, and financially--in the film, and the footage of him in the Philippines is a naked display of an artist in crisis, fighting desperately to hang onto to a vision that he senses is slipping away.

This is even more nakedly displayed in a series of audio conversation that Eleanor secretly taped, in which Coppola rages against his own perceived failures, railing about his belief that he's making a “bad movie” and at one point even declaring that he should simply shoot himself. It offers a rare, unobscured window into a significant film artist's soul--the true “apocalypse” of the title--and thus it is not surprising that, at Coppola's insistence, the film has been out of circulation for years. While it certainly shows the Coppola at his worst--desperate, confused, angry, paranoid--it is also a portrait of immense bravery and utter resilience. Many filmmakers would have been destroyed by such an ordeal, and while Coppola had many more travails ahead of him (including his disastrous next film, the 1982 musical flop One From the Heart), the fact that he has continued to make films is testament to his spirit.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Dolby 2.0 Surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • Audio commentary by Eleanor Coppola and Francis Ford Coppola
  • Coda: Thirty Years Later documentary
  • DistributorMGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateNovember 20, 2007

    Available for the first time on DVD after being completely unavailable on home video for more than a decade, Hearts of Darkness looks exactly like it should. It is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (the film was originally intended solely for limited broadcast on cable television). As much of the film is made up of rough 16mm footage shot during the production of Apocalypse Now, the transfer maintains the film's slightly grainy look, as well as some of the scratches and flaws inherent to the source material. The interviews shot circa 1990 look much better, of course, although they also betray some minor damage. The two-channel Dolby Digital surround soundtrack sounds fine. It is primarily a monaural soundtrack with some slight stereo effects in the musical score.
    It is wonderful enough just having this film finally available on DVD, but we also get the added bonus of an excellent screen-specific commentary by Eleanor Coppola and Francis Ford Coppola. This is primarily Eleanor's track, and she discusses everything she went through during the production of Apocalypse Now and how Hearts of Darkness came to be made. Just as in the film itself, she is lucid, insightful, and incredibly honest. Francis Ford Coppola, who was recorded separately, appears sporadically throughout the commentary primarily so he can address some of the film's more embarrassing and/or misunderstood revelations, particularly his audio-recorded rant following Martin Sheen's heart attack. In short, this is a commentary track worth listening to from beginning to end. Also included on the disc is Coda: Thirty Years Later, a new one-hour documentary (presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen). As a kind of companion piece to Hearts of Darkness, it depicts Coppola's production of his new, as-yet-unreleased film Youth Without Youth, his first project in nearly a decade and one that he is producing entirely on his own. Thus, we get to see the maverick auteur behind Apocalypse Now breaking out on his own again with a deeply personal project shot in a foreign country (this time in Romania) with his own money. Eleanor is behind the camera, and in addition to interviews with Francis, we hear from stars Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz, and Matt Damon. Since little has been seen of Youth Without Youth expect for a highly enigmatic trailer, it's a real treat to see so much behind-the-scenes footage of what is sure to be a fascinating film.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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