Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
It’s rare that documentaries about films are as famous as the films themselves. There’s “Burden of Dreams,” about the making of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo.” And then there’s “Lost in La Mancha,” which was all the more famous because the film- Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”- didn’t get finished.
“Hearts of Darkness” is in a class by itself, however. It’s about the making of “Apocalypse Now,” a production that was infamous even at the time for its’ difficulty (not that “Fitzcarraldo” or “Don Quixote” were either). Like Herzog’s work, the making of “Apocalypse” is essential to the experience of watching “Apocalypse.” Brando’s difficulty. Martin Sheen’s heart attack, and most hauntingly, his onscreen emotional breakdown in the hotel room. The shooting schedule that ballooned from 16 weeks to 238 days. The Cannes Q&A where Francis Ford Coppola famously said, “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” “Hearts of Darkness” covers it all, without compromise, which is part of why it went unseen on DVD for about ten years.
Written by John Milius, “Apocalypse” was originally to be directed by George Lucas, in the middle of the war itself, with 16mm film. Hearing Milius and Lucas talk about it, it would’ve been a fascinating experiment (maybe even the masterpiece the eventual film Coppola made was), but Warner Bros. was right to not back it- what would have happened had any of the filmmakers died?
Not that Coppola’s eventual return to the film- after the success of the first two “Godfathers” and “The Conversation”- was a picnic. Thank God he had his wife Eleanor with her own camera at the time, so we could see what he was going through, and that she’d secretly recorded conversations with her husband. The result is the most vivid portrait of an artist unhinged I’ve ever seen onscreen. One can see in the final film why Coppola wasn’t too happy with his portrayal in this film (which is part of why it went unreleased on DVD, and didn’t end up on “The Complete Dossier” release of “Now”). He’s pompous, he’s narcissistic, he’s bold, and he’s brutally honest with himself about how the film is going. How he held it together enough to make a masterpiece is part of the allure of “Hearts of Darkness,” and part of the mystery of the film itself.