Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
Release Date: November 27th, 1991 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola Actors: Francis Ford Coppola, Eleanor Coppola, John Milius, George Lucas, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper
y film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” With too many people, and access to too much money and equipment, director Francis Ford Coppola and his crew descend upon the Philippines to begin shooting “Apocalypse Now.” Based on Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness,” the story is interpreted as a metaphor for a journey into self; a journey full of the same fears of death and insanity that plague the filmmakers as they struggle through the 238 days of principal photography, beginning in February of 1976. The ways in which this production parallel the story itself are astounding.
Francis also feared creating a terrible movie about an important subject, which is seen through not only footage of the making of the film, but also through his wife Eleanor’s production diary, recorded initially for private use. However, the candid interviews with her husband make for revelatory accounts of angst and stress and the staggering difficulties in approaching the subject. With a mere $13 million budget ($2 million of which came directly from Coppola’s own assets, since the public was so bitter about the ongoing war that studio executives absolutely did not want to get involved with this particular topic), and a cast that included Marlon Brando, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, and Harvey Keitel in the lead role, everything is ready for an authentic-looking, authentically-set production. Of course, nothing goes quite as planned.
“This film is a $20 million disaster! Why won’t anyone believe me? I’m thinking of shooting myself!” If it wasn’t bad enough that there was an ongoing civil war in the Philippines, Keitel is fired almost immediately and unforeseen delays begin adding up. Additionally, the government is unpredictable, Brando is uncontrollable, a typhoon batters the sets (resulting in a two-month hiatus), and the ending just doesn’t seem satisfactory. Plus, a costly, lengthy scene involving a French banquet was filmed and then cut because of Francis’ distaste for the budgetary restraints and the casting. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; Murphy’s Law seems to strike at every turn.
The documentary isn’t assembled with the steadiest of hands, but it’s difficult not to be enthralled by the various situations and predicaments that shaped one of the most remarkable of all war movies. Sticking to a sensible chronology (the progression of the movie itself) is also a wise decision. While it’s primarily comprised of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with those involved (including George Lucas, writer John Milius, stars Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall, and many other members of the cast and crew), there are plenty of varying pieces of visual information to mix things up, such as finished shots, storyboards, views of the script, a casting session, table reads, newspaper clippings, media coverage, home videos, and more.
Additionally, trivia about other aspects of the creation and origination of the picture are spoken about, such as Orson Welles’ interest in doing his own version of “Heart of Darkness” in the ’30s, which was abandoned in preproduction due to concerns about the project going over budget (ironically, Welles decided to helm “Citizen Kane” instead). In the end, “Apocalypse Now” appears to have been assembled on the spot, full of improvisation and last-minute rewrites and spontaneous incorporations of unplanned elements or ideas. Organization and preplanning were almost nonexistent, while desperation reigned supreme. And yet, everything somehow came together – perhaps with complete uncertainty and uncommon luck – to become a phenomenon and a masterpiece. “Apocalypse Now” is the kind of magnum opus that couldn’t have been crafted intentionally; it’s power and poignancy were formed by collisions of accidental genius.
– Mike Massie