Home / DVD Review: Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

DVD Review: Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

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Director Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now is one of the most studied and discussed movies in motion picture history. Scholars and fans alike have discussed the nuances of the Vietnam War-themed story ad nauseam. Adding to the legend of Apocalypse Now are the well-documented difficulties that Coppola encountered in his unwavering drive to complete the project. When Paramount released Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier last year, most critics agreed that not including Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse was a glaring omission.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is comprised of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Coppola's wife Eleanor, originally meant for her own diary and consisting of private conversations she had with her husband, interspersed with 1990 interviews with cast and crew members discussing their work on the film. The tense, frenzied atmosphere that surrounded the filming of Apocalypse Now is established at the beginning of Darkness, with a clip of Coppola's infamous speech at the 1979 Cannes film festival just prior to the film's world premiere. The anxious-looking director states matter-of-factly, "My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like. It was crazy."

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse gives viewers a front row seat to watch one of the most difficult film shoots in history. Apocalypse Now started shooting in the Philippines in 1976, but after a week Coppola fires Harvey Kietel from his role as Captain Willard in the film and replaces him with Martin Sheen. Sheen agrees to do the part, but warns Coppola that his three packs a day smoking habit, among other things, have left him feeling unsure about his health. Coppola has also worked out a deal with the Marcos government for military assistance, but has to deal with frequent interruptions so the helicopters used in the film can fight rebel troops in the country. Finally, a typhoon destroys nearly all the sets and shuts down production for nearly two months.

On July 26, 1976 the cast and crew return to the shoot. Darkness shows a drunken, bloody Sheen shooting the opening scene of the film where Willard has a nervous breakdown in his hotel room. You quickly come to realize that Sheen isn't doing very much acting in that scene. Just days after that on March 1, 1977 Martin Sheen suffered a near fatal heart attack. Coppola's reaction to the star's illness is nothing short of shocking. Incensed that word of Sheen's heart attack has leaked to the trade papers and put the financing of Apocalypse Now in jeopardy, he screams, "If Marty dies, I want to hear that everything is okay until I say that Marty is dead!" This is clearly a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

Then there's the issue of Marlon Brando. Brought in to play Colonel Kurtz for three weeks work at one million dollars per week, he arrives on the set overweight and not having read the source material. Brando further slows down the production by engaging in endless discussions about his character and dialogue with Coppola.

The interviews with John Millius, a screenwriter on Apocalypse Now, and George Lucas, who had originally planned to direct the film before Coppola took over the reins, add to the intrigue of Hearts of Darkness. It is clear that all three saw the film differently. Millius saw Vietnam as the first "psychedelic, rock 'n' roll war" and conceived the Apocalypse story in "Odyssey"-like terms. Lucas talks about his vision of a low-budget, cinema verite style film. He is somewhat critical of Coppola: "Francis's intuitive style sometimes results in films that are overlong and don't have a strong narrative line." Coppola wanted Apocalypse Now not to be like a "David Lean movie, but in the tradition of an Irwin Allen movie, filled with sex, violence and vulgarity."

Coppola accomplished his goal at great personal and financial cost. Apocalypse Now, originally budgeted at 13 million of the filmmaker's own money, ballooned to 16 million and principal production took an astonishing 238 days to complete. Hearts of Darkness is one of the few behind-the-scenes documentaries I've ever seen that shows a director as dedicated to finishing a film, no matter the cost, as Coppola.

Hearts of Darkness as presented on the DVD is the same as it was originally shown on Showtime in 1991. This release adds no additional interviews or footage. I would have liked to see some footage of Harvey Keitel as Captain Willard to get a sense of why Coppola fired him after a week. There is, however, an insightful running commentary by both Eleanor and Francis Coppola. She focuses on her inexperience behind the camera and the hardships she experienced during her shoot, while he tries to clear up some misconceptions about him people had after seeing the film.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse also includes a 62-minute documentary, Coda: Thirty Years Later. Shot by his wife Eleanor, Coda focuses on Youth Without Youth, Coppola's return to directing after a ten-year absence. When Hearts of Darkness wasn't released on Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier DVD last year, "copyright issues" was the official reason given. However, one has to wonder whether Darkness was held back to coincide with the release of Youth Without Youth. Regardless, Hearts of Darkness remains one of the most riveting and engaging behind-the-scenes documentaries ever made and is a must have for all Coppola fans.

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About Rebecca Wright