Written by El Conquistadorko
With the possible exception of Les Blank's amazing Burden of Dreams, which chronicled German director Werner Herzog's Sisyphean jungle adventure during the filming of Fitzcarraldo, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is the best documentary ever made about directing a movie. Directed by Felix Bahr and George Hickenlooper, the film emerged from months of on-location footage and highly personal interviews shot by Eleanor Coppola of her husband, director Francis Ford Coppola, at work on his Vietnam War masterpiece Apocalypse Now.
The first shot of the film is of Coppola bragging to a French audience at the Cannes Film Festival that his movie isn't about Vietnam, it is Vietnam, and although Coppola would regret the pretentiousness of his claim—an embarassment that as it turns out, explains why it took more than 15 years to see this film released on DVD—he wasn't exactly exaggerating. Although miraculously nobody died in the production of the movie, lead actor Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack and most of the rest of the cast and Coppola himself came close to losing their minds in the process.
Many of the actors were drunk or high on LSD, marijuana, or speed during the filming of the movie, Marlon Brando was overweight and half-nuts, Dennis Hopper was completely nuts, and Coppola himself had no idea how his movie was going to end until he finished filming it. The film was completed after more than 200 days of production, nearly bankrupting Coppola, survived a massive typhoon that killed 200 people, and was shot with the cooperation of the Filipino military which let the director borrow several helicopters that frequently flew off-camera to strafe local Marxist rebels.
Originally, Coppola invited his wife to accompany him to the Philippines because he wanted to keep his family with him for what he knew would be an extended overseas trip. But because she was an artist who knew how to hold a camera, and because United Artists wanted a five-minute publicity trailer to show on television, he asked her to do the job. He didn't mind that Eleanor envisioned making a longer film of the production, but wasn't aware that, among other things, his wife was secretly recording his conversations, the most embarrassing of which involves him reacting to Martin Sheen's near-fatal heart attack by telling his Hollywood backers that all he cared about was how quickly he could get his leading man back on the set.
To his credit, Coppola agreed to let the footage shot by his wife become a full-length documentary and never told directors Bahr and Hickenlooper (who took over the project and re-interviewed most of the key players shortly before the film's 1991 release) that they couldn't include unflattering scenes. But as we discover from the DVD commentary, which features both Francis and Eleanor Coppola but seems to have been edited together from separate narrations, he only agreed to that because he thought the film would be shown on television twice before disappearing forever.
Thankfully, although it's been far too long, and this documentary should have been included in Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier as a bonus feature, that didn't happen. Besides that, the only legitimate criticisms that can be made about this long-awaited DVD release is that the audio commentary is spectacularly superfluous, adding little information that wasn't already included on Coppola's commentary for The Complete Dossier. And although it does have a lot of talking by Eleanor Coppola, she doesn't have much to add to what she already says in her narration of the documentary itself.
If you're a fan of Apocalypse Now and haven't already seen Hearts of Darkness, you're not really a fan and must buy this now. Just don't expect too many audio commentary revelations and plan on skipping the only other bonus feature, a totally irrelevant making-of documentary by Eleanor of hubby Francis at work on his latest film, Youth Without Youth.