The relatively short history of cinema is littered with noble but ultimately doomed attempts to film monstrously ambitious projects. Sometimes it is only when filming is under way that the makers become aware of the monster they have unleashed. The remarkable Erich Von Stroheim's career was ended by his attempts to film "Queen Kelly" in 1928. With costs spiralling the studio got cold feet, and all we have left are a few tantalizingly brilliant images of what might have been. Orson Welles most enduring passion was to film that magnificent epic "Don Quixote". It ended up being another of his great unfinished projects. The vision was sadly so much greater than the reality, and the film foundered on practicalities. Pieces of the film have been restored but only show the pale ghost of a possible lost masterpiece. More recently Stanley Kubrick attempted to film "Napoleon". He worked on the project for two years from 1968 until MGM pulled the plug over the increasing costs. Then there was Michael Cimino's magnificently flawed epic "Heavens Gate" that notoriously bankrupted United Artists and sent shock waves around the industry that still reverberate today. Most recently of all is Terry Gilliam's cautionary tale of his doomed attempt to film the beautifully cursed "Don Quixote", which was related in the excellent documentary "Lost in La Mancha" (02). More dreams that turned into a pile of rubble when faced with the full enormity of the project. All credit then to the vision and stamina of Francis Ford Coppola who unleashed his monster, but managed to tame it at great personal cost, to its hugely successful conclusion and its place in cinematic history. "Hearts of Darkness, A Filmmakers Apocalypse", is a record of the epic story of the making of that astounding film "Apocalypse Now".
Using 8mm film Eleanor Coppola charted the progress, or lack of it, during the filming of "Apocalypse Now". The images capture Francis Ford Coppola and the crew in more unguarded moments, and the impromptu nature of the filming adds an immediacy and authenticity to the film. We begin to capture the harsher realities that filming involves. Kubrick himself observed the similarities between film making and mounting a battle campaign, and that is certainly shown to be the case in this documentary film. Only two weeks into filming and we see Coppola's ruthless streak, when he replaces Harvey Keitel as lead man with Martin Sheen. Poor Harvey, losing one of cinemas great parts. But you have to admit that Coppola's instinct served him well as Sheen gave a towering performance. We then watch mesmerized as Coppola watches his carefully constructed sets destroyed by a typhoon on location in the Phillipines. Production is halted for several months. We see his helicopters provided by the Phillipino army, flying away in mid shot to do battle with guerillas in the hills. Then Sheen has an unexpected near fatal heart attack. Then the horror that was Marlon Brando swaggers into the story. Grossly overweight and charging a million dollars for a weeks work, he had not even bothered reading the story the film is based on. But he still knew how to act! Coppola sums it up when he said, "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". This pretty much tells the American story of the war in Vietnam.
The documentary is illuminated by the significant contributions of John Milius and George Lucas. Milius wrote the original script in 1969 called "The Psychedelic Soldier" and is a fine raconteur. George Lucas was penned in to direct the film originally but became enmeshed in the filming of "Star Wars" paving the way for Coppola. Both were well placed to give insightful observations. Sam Bottoms the actor also gives an interesting account of the drug fuelled habits of the actors on the set. This no doubt accounts for the almost hallucinogenic qualities of the finished product. Laurence Fishburne also appears briefly, reminding us of his appearance in that film at the tender age of fourteen. Not nnnnnnn nineteen!!
But most of all we are given a glimpse into the highly driven life of Francis Ford Coppola. Fighting his own personal hell, he battles against insanity and the elements. He even had the manic reserves of energy to often stay up all night and rewrite parts of the script. He was willing to risk all by sinking seven million dollars of his own personal fortune into the project. Now that is really "Putting your money where your mouth is". Like all his predecessors Coppola walks the tightrope between glory and disaster. Like Caesar riding out against Pompey. To the victor go the spoils. Some you win and some you lose, but in the movie business losing can be your ruin! Coppola rides the risk triumphantly. Eleanor Coppola has made possibly the most revealing documentary on film making. This is a fine documentary about the filming of an iconic cinematic classic. It is also a testament to one mans vision and tenacity to see the job through. Welles himself tried to bring Joseph Conrad's famous short story "Heart of Darkness", on which "Apocalypse Now" is based to the screen, but failed. Coppola succeeds gloriously in what was a truly magnificent obsession.
This is a fascinating documentary and a fitting footnote to Coppola's mesmerising Apocalypse Now - still the most ambitious (and possibly the greatest) war movie ever made, flawed though it may be in parts.
Hearts Of Darkness - which takes its name from the Joseph Conrad novella on which AN is loosely based - is the story of the making of the film, shot on a handheld VCR by the director's wife Eleanor. It's an honest and uncompromising visual diary, showing her husband's many frustrations and crises on location in the Phillippines (think devastating hurricanes, leading actor having a heart attack, helicopters requisitioned to fight a civil war, etc etc). And as if all those problems weren't enough, Coppola then had to deal with a massively-overweight Marlon Brando turning up for his $1m cameo appearance, towards the end of shooting, not knowing his lines and threatening to quit on the spot if the camera showed his enormous girth!
All the interviews and anecdotes are highly absorbing - especially scriptwriter John Milius, Martin Sheen and Coppola himself, whose closing monologue, recorded over 30 years ago, is still just as profound and relevant today. Also of interest is the famous 'plantation scene', edited out of the final cut of AN at the last minute although included in the later (inferior) 'Redux' edition. But perhaps the most dramatic moments are of Coppola on the phone to Hollywood, desperately trying to keep the lid on Sheen's heart attack so that his studio doesn't pull the plug on the whole shebang.
Spellbinding stuff - very possibly the best documentary ever made about the process of film-making and a pure inspiration to anybody who has a goal and wants to find the drive/determination to make it come to fruition, no matter what the obstacles.