Hearts of Darkness Movie Review

For a portrait of cinematic obsession and unbridled megalomania rarely seen outside of a Werner Herzog home movie, one would be hard pressed to find a more satisfying piece of work than Hearts of Darkness, co-directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's 1991 documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now. It was a film that didn't make sense; in fact it had never really made sense. Orson Welles had tried to make a film out of Joseph Conrad's Hearts of Darkness back in the 1930s -- that didn't work so he went ahead and made Citizen Kane instead. Nobody in the mid-1970s seemed interested in a film about the nation's just-ended nightmare, the Vietnam War, much less one with a murky and heady script based on a dense novel people had to suffer through in high school. The film as planned was going to cost far too much money before it even started to go insanely over budget.

But none of that was going to stop wunderkind Francis Ford Coppola from mortgaging every last ounce of the Hollywood credit he had garnered from making The Godfather Parts I and II (not to mention most every penny he had to his name) and hauling his family along with an army-sized cast and crew off to the Philippines (in the middle of an ugly civil war, mind you) for a few years to make a film whose ending he hadn't quite yet figured out. The results were perhaps predictable, even before the monsoons destroyed most of the sets, he fired his lead actor, and star Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack. When Apocalypse Now premiered at Cannes in 1979, a still-shaken Coppola announced that what had was that he had gone into the jungle -- like the Americans into Vietnam, in yet another of his grandiose analogies -- with too much money, too much equipment, "and little by little we went insane."

Fortunately for Bahr and Hickenlooper, who might otherwise have been forced to make do with after-the-fact interviews with all the major players in the film (which would still have made for a perfectly fine documentary), Coppola had decided to trick the studio he was about to drive mad into hiring his wife Eleanor to shoot the on-set publicity material. She set about filming the filming with studious attention, and also secretly recording conversations with Francis in the midst of his many manic creative episodes; all of which was then handed to Bahr and Hickenlooper as a virtual treasure trove of nakedly emotional revelations; in short, documentarian gold. As the logistics of shooting a massive war epic in the midst of a war spiraled out of control -- Coppola had to cut a deal with Ferdinand Marcos to use his army's helicopters for the filming, only they kept being taken away to fight some pesky guerrillas in the mountains -- and it became increasingly clear that the script's ending was unsatisfactory, Coppola implodes on film and tape. Like a portly Napoleon, the often shirtless Coppola rants and raves about the indefinable greatness of the film he's shooting, how none of the problems matter, or instead how they all matter and how he's going to go down in flames at the helm of one of history's greatest embarrassments.

Years later, in the modern-day footage shot by Bahr and Hickenlooper, Coppola is still grandiloquent, though moderately humbled after the passage of some years. For color, the film includes some marvelously pungent passages from the original screenwriter John Milius, who in his descriptions of how they had originally planned to shoot the thing with 16mm cameras in 1969 in Vietnam, comes off almost as over-the-top as Coppola. As a comparable paragon of calm reason, George Lucas -- Coppola's old buddy and the film's original director -- pops in to note first that "John's very good at being grand" and also that if the original plan had been followed, they all most likely would have been killed. It's a good story, though, from a documentary that's packed full of them.

The long-overdue DVD release is oddly deficient in extras of any real interest. Given how much lore has grown up over the years around the making of Apocalypse Now, it's hard to imagine that there weren't other worthwhile stories or scenes cut from the original version of Hearts of Darkness. Instead we're presented with a pair of commentary tracks, one from Francis (still the preening gasbag, now given an opportunity to go on about how he was misrepresented) and another, much more sober one, from Eleanor. A featurette, Coda is subtitled "Thirty Years On," but instead of a followup about Apocalypse Now is really just a thinly-veiled plug for Francis' Youth Without Youth (2007)... a self-promoter to the end.

Aka Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse.

Cast & Crew

Producer : Doug Clayborne, Michael Doqui, , , George Zaloom


Comments

Hearts of Darkness Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 1991

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