Directed by: Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper
Premise: A documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now.
What Works: In the late 1970s, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and his crew traveled to the Philippines to shoot Apocalypse Now. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now was a war film set during America’s occupation of Vietnam. A soldier is sent deep into the jungle with orders to kill an American colonel who has gone insane. Along the way this soldier confronts his own doubts about the war and the nature of violence. Apocalypse Now was one of the first major Hollywood movies to be made about the Vietnam War. At the time the conflict was still a sensitive subject and studios were leery of sinking money into a film about it. Frances Ford Coppola, who was fresh off the success of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, took on the project with his usual bombast. But principal photography proved more difficult than anyone imagined and the planned sixteen week shoot more than doubled as the production was besieged by inclement weather, creative challenges, personality conflicts, and budgetary problems. Francis Ford Coppola soldiered through the production while his wife Eleanor shot behind the scenes footage and recorded conversions with her husband about his daily struggles. That footage became the basis for the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness which revisits the making of Apocalypse Now through a mix of archive footage and contemporary interviews. The story of the making of Apocalypse Now is nearly as involving as the film itself because it stars such outsized personalities as Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando and because so much went so disastrously wrong. For instance, Hearts of Darkness documents how Harvey Keitel was originally cast in the lead role but was let go and replaced by Martin Sheen who then suffered a heart attack in the middle of the shoot. The documentary is also engaging because its subject is of interest. Apocalypse Now is one of Hollywood’s greatest movies and what Hearts of Darkness makes clear is that the greatness of the movie was achieved in spite of the circumstances of its production but also because of them. This is a case of art through adversity and watching Apocalypse Now together with Hearts of Darkness it’s evident that the chaos behind the scenes seeped into the movie and probably made it better. A more docile production might not have produced such a great film. That’s the other outstanding quality of Hearts of Darkness. It goes beyond show business gossip to get at the artistic process. The making of Apocalypse Now pushed Coppola to the edge financially, creativity, but also mentally and he and the film broke through barriers to get at something profound. Hearts of Darkness captures that epiphany and the pain involved in reaching it.
What Doesn’t: After covering the making of Apocalypse Now is considerable detail, Hearts of Darkness concludes with almost nothing to say about the film’s release and impact. This documentary was made twelve years after the release of Apocalypse Now and by that point its place in cinema history was secure. But then again, Hearts of Darkness is about the creative process and it’s enough to know that the film was completed and achieved success. Focusing on the glamour and the money wouldn’t really be in keeping with the primal and introspective nature of the rest of the documentary.
DVD extras: Hearts of Darkness is available as part of the blu-ray set that includes Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux. That version includes a commentary track.
Bottom Line: Hearts of Darkness is a terrific companion piece to Apocalypse Now. The documentary tells a fascinating story but like the feature film it investigates, Hearts of Darkness renders visible something ineffable about the human experience.
Episode: #701 (June 3, 2018)