Posted by: Greg | January 21, 2010

Review: Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

“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.” – Francis Ford Coppola

Directed By: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola

Written By: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper

Starring: Francis Ford Coppola, Eleanor Coppola, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Lawrence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas


The above comment by the legendary director was delivered during a speech about the film “Apocalypse Now” when it first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 and it perfectly describes the next ninety minutes of this excellent documentary.

The story behind the filming of  “Apocalypse Now” has become a legend. A shoot that went through the firing of its original lead and subsequent heart attack of his replacement and a big name actor who appeared on set with no preparation and 100 pounds overweight. A director who slowly went insane while suffering through this massive undertaking while typhoons and a civil war  also the plagued the set. Director Francis Ford Coppola sank millions of his own dollars into the film and virtually sentenced himself to being a director for hire making subpar movies such as “The Outsiders” and “Jack”. But despite all that “Apocalypse Now” is considered a masterpiece and by many (including myself) the best vietnam film ever produced.

All of the aforementioned trials and tribulations are covered in “Hearts of Darkness” along with some very intimate details about the director’s state of mind captured without his knowledge on tape. “Apocalypse Now” itself should most definitely be viewed before watching this documentary to truly capture the full effect of the madness that went into the shoot. In fact, it was recently brought to my attention that this documentary may be a more effective portrait of the descent into madness than the actual film. And in a way it does, especially in regards to the state of mind of Francis Ford Coppola.

I am going to attempt to encapsulate some of what occurs in this film in the following paragraph. We begin with Coppola premiering “Apocalypse Now” at Cannes and then the film goes on to describe the process of getting Joseph Conrad’s novella onto the screen. In the early 40’s Orson Welles wanted to adapt Heart of Darkness for his first film. An early screenplay draft was written and some models of boats and sets were constructed but the studio decided that the project wasn’t financially viable and pulled the plug, so Welles made “Citizen Kane” instead. This documentary also makes some use of Welles’ radio broadcast of Heart of Darkness, his haunting voice setting the tone for the events to come, which I think is a nice touch. The story then sat on the shelf for decades until John Milius, Coppola and George Lucas got a hold of it with Milius on to write, Lucas to direct and Coppola’s company, American Zoetrope, producing…But then Coppola read Milius’ action packed, rock-em sock-em AMERICAN MILITARY fist draft, and took it all over. Almost immediately the production is wrought with trouble. Harvey Keitel was hired to play the tormented Captain Willard, but was let go after several weeks of filming and replaced with Martin Sheen. And this is where the documentary truly finds its own heart of darkness. With Sheen, drunk out of his mind, rocking back and forth on the floor of a hotel room, bleeding and breaking mirrors and threatening to attack Coppola or the camera men, we see what went on and we are genuinely frightened at the lengths people will go for art. When the film deals with the problems Sheen had on set, and his subsequent stress related heart-attack, it is at its best. The pinnacle comes when Coppola is heard on tape yelling to one of the production associates about how no one is to know about the heart-attack, and even if Sheen dies no one is to say anything until he does.

Now I want to mention the Brando Factor. That monstrous man and personality for one million dollars a week always makes my blood boil. How did Brando get away with the shit he pulled? Honestly. They’re must have been other actors Coppola could have gotten to play Kurtz. Now I really don’t want this to come off as a negative response towards Brando’s performance, because I happen to think it’s great, but my God, the man didn’t even read the book or memorize a single line of dialogue. He just showed up on set, a huge fat mess, and read poetry, luckily the man can make nearly anything sound compelling, but it hardly seems worth one million a week and an extra couple thousand for the now famous “the horror, the horror” shot. The documentary brings all these concerns into focus with a simple shot of Brando walking around set saying his improvised lines and then, without warning, leaving the set while saying “and that’s all the dialogue I can think of today.” Fuck, for a million dollars I’d read “Heart of Darkness” as many times as you want, hell I’d probably even go to Africa and boat through the Congo.

“Hearts of Darkness” is an overall effective piece of behind the scenes filmmaking, but I think it suffers from the syndrome of myth versus reality. What I mean by that is, yes, the production was insane and suffered from mind-numbing problems that would drive anyone straight to alcoholism, but the fact of the matter is that the myth is always more interesting than the truth. Darkness, is always more terrifying than anything you can put in the light. But I’m glad this movie exists and I think it should be required viewing for anyone who loves cinema, especially 70’s cinema.



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