This documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now
is named for that film's inspiration, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
It's fitting, for in the creation of their film about the Vietnam war, the filmmakers, especially Coppola, took a journey into the jungle, and inside themselves, not unlike that of Kurtz. A movie that appears on a great many people's favorite movies list, (and certainly on mine) Apocalypse Now
is also fabled as a ruinously self-indulgent project. Coppola hired his wife, Eleanor Coppola, to direct a documentary about the making of the film. What she recorded, some of it on audio tape without her husband's knowledge, is the portrait of a man riding one hell of a mean tiger. He can't get off and he sure can't look it in the face. Filmmakers Bahr and Hickenlooper have gone back and interviewed the Coppolas, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and others who were there to reconstruct the events that led to the brink of disaster and to the creation of a masterpiece. They have also intercut key scenes from Apocalypse Now
to illustrate the events being described. The end result affords a voyeuristic thrill. It's marvelous to see them making those magnificent scenes full of rockets, fire, helicopters and -- in one particularly telling shot -- arrows. (Coppola, cast and crew are all shown throwing arrows into camera range to get the illusion of a thousand arrow shots.) Also recorded are the typhoons, Sheen's heart attack and Coppola's insistence it be covered up, Brando's lumbering recalcitrance and Hopper's lunatic rants. Coppola admits that he was using the script as written by John Milius only as a rough template. He wanted to travel deep into the heart of darkness and come back with his movie. As he tells an audience at the Cannes film festival, “it was Vietnam.” He says they went into the jungle like the American army with too much money, too much equipment, and, as a proposed 16-day shoot dragged out to 238 days, they began to go mad. Coppola's insistence that their experience “mean something,” that the movie that would result be “about something” is what drives him and, ultimately, what saves him. Hearts of Darkness
gives a privileged glimpse of the artist's hell, but it also says something about grace.