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Film Review: Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991; Directed by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola)

Far be it from me to disagree with Community‘s Abed Nadir, but I can’t fully go along with his third-season assertion that the retrospective behind-the-scenes documentary Hearts of Darkness is a better film than the film it’s about, Francis Ford Coppola’s Joseph Conrad-goes-to-Vietnam fever dream Apocalypse Now. It’s plenty entertaining, often hilarious (Marlon Brando at his finest), and greatly deepens, contextualizes, and magnifies Apocalypse Now‘s already-echoing dominant themes. Hearts of Darkness is really great, but then the impossible opus that is its subject is so suffused with the aura of cinematic greatness that it doesn’t ultimately matter whether it’s actually a good movie or not. Hearts of Darkness both grounds Apocalypse Now in knobbly, messy, ridiculously unpredictable reality and elevates it beyond its troubled circumstances to level of heroic myth. It’s a fine, penetrating analysis of how it ended up right after so spectacularly going wrong; it’s Coppola’s best piece of press, his shiniest slice of propaganda, despite the troubling picture it sometimes paints of the American auteur.

Compiled by George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr from archival footage, much of it shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor behind the scenes of Apocalypse Now‘s legendarily troubled production in the Philippines, as well as talking-head interviews, Hearts of Darkness opens with Coppola’s grandiose claim from the film’s gala opening at Cannes (where it took the Palme d’Or, one of Coppola’s two) that his film is not about Vietnam, “it is Vietnam”. Such grandiose claims from the younger Coppola (the older man is more thoughtful and sober, sitting in his vineyards and reminiscing) crop up repeatedly in the documentary, and it isn’t hard to miss the metaphorical thrust of the material. Apocalypse Now adapted Joseph Conrad’s indictment of the horrors of Belgium’s Congo Free State in Heart of Darkness, with Martin Sheen’s Willard as the onscreen Marlow, journeying downriver into a deep jungle of unimaginable human-wrought evil. Hearts of Darkness constructs Francis Ford Coppola as a Willard/Marlow with a film crew and millions of dollars, and his own odyssey is dark in its own distinct psychological ways (no actual severed heads here, although a water buffalo or two is butchered with machetes).

Many of the production’s disasters and cost-overruns were detailed in the press while it was being shot almost immediately after the end of Vietnam War, but their stacking concurrence is quite spectacular to behold even now. The army helicopters lent to Coppola by Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to be employed in the famous Wagner-scored air cavalry assault sequence were constantly flying away in the middle of filming to fight rebel forces mere miles away from the set. Typhoons during the rainy season halted production and washed away expensive sets, delaying the production by months. The film’s original Willard, Harvey Keitel, was replaced by a dissatisfied Coppola after filming had begun by Martin Sheen, who later suffered a heart attack, again delaying production. Coppola’s jungle-dwelling warlord Kurtz, the target of Willard’s assassination mission, was to be played by Marlon Brando. The revered but unquestionably difficult actor was only available to work on the film for a month, during which time he would be paid a million dollars a week; he showed up overweight, admitted to having never read Conrad’s novella, and spent most of his days on set discussing the character with Coppola and then improvising scenes. Forced to finance the completion of the film with his own money, anticipating artistic and financial ruin, Coppola begins to doubt not only his own filmmaking abilities but even his own sanity.

Hearts of Darkness details all of this amazing stuff with a mix of journalistic directness, philosophical wonderment, and darkly-tinged humour. Actors discuss taking a panoply of drugs on set and transgressing other legal boundaries (Apocalypse Now was Laurence Fishburne’s first film, and he was 14 years old at the time); the nutty military enthusiast screenwriter John Milius (libertarian director of Red Dawn and Conan the Barbarian, as well as the scribe of JawsUSS Indianapolis speech) tells a story of attempting to intervene with Coppola about the catastrophic direction that the film seemed to be taking and leaving the meeting having been convinced by the auteur that it would be the first film to win a Nobel Peace Prize; Martin Sheen gets drunk, slices his hand open punching a mirror, and is filmed having an emotional breakdown. It’s almost total madness, just as Coppola requires to make his desired point.

But what is his point, and what is Hearts of Darkness‘ point? A supposed summary provided by a young, erudite, overflowing Coppola suggests it’s about everything, life and death, rebirth and redemption, all of human history and culture slammed together in a sweaty, mysterious jungle and set to a Doors song. The young Coppola is deeply concerned about his film being pretentious and mocked for it, and then proceeds to built it up as an artwork so implausibly big and all-encompassing that it could not conceivably be seen as anything but pretentious.

The referential montage that follows this speech muddies the dominant metaphor of the documentary, namely that of Coppola as Willard. The Doors’ The End soundtracks spliced-together footage of Apocalypse Now‘s primal closing sequence of the natives of Kurtz’s fiefdom ritually sacrificing a buffalo while Willard murders Kurtz with footage from the filming of the scene. Before Willard strikes, a shadow-drenched shot of Brando’s Kurtz is juxtaposed with a similarly-darkened shot Coppola. Is the director Willard, or is he Kurtz? Or, just as Apocalypse Now ultimately suggests that Willard becomes a greater monster than Kurtz when he kills him, did Francis Ford Coppola journey deep into this sweaty, drugged nightmare of the modern American psyche as a seeker of truths and discover something inescapably dark about himself instead, which is now immortalized on celluloid? The horror, indeed.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. June 7, 2015 at 6:37 pm

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