In retrospect, it does feel like the beginning of the end. For most of the decade, the fresh perspective offered by a growing set of filmmaking mavericks was reshaping the stogy cinematic ideals. Risks were the creative norm, and this one played like the biggest daredevil stunt ever. In an era still smarting over the ambiguities of the Vietnam War, the leading motion picture provocateur - multiple Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola - was headed to the Philippines to re-envision the conflict via an analogy to Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness. A long dormant project of his independent production company Zoetrope, Apocalypse Now would be the director’s ultimate artistic statement. In the end, it became much, much more.
Perhaps the greatest behind the scenes documentary ever offered on the making of a movie, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse provides acute aesthetic insight and personal perspective into what, for most of the cast and crew, would be a descent into motion picture madness. Long missing from the DVD format (for reasons that become clear on this new digital presentation from Paramount), it stands as a Holy Grail gratuity for fans and scholars of the Godfather auteur’s troubled career. Indeed, those looking to rationalize Coppola’s eventual fall from grace - it’s a bumpy road from The Conversation to the Robin Williams waste Jack - saw all they need in the maelstrom of megalomania that seemed to surround this troubled shoot. From the replacement of one leading man to the near death of another, Now remains the director’s answerable albatross.
From another perspective, Hearts of Darkness also stands as the ultimate violation of trust. When Now was finally greenlit (back-to-back Academy Awards can change a lot of soured suits), Coppola hired his wife, Eleanor to head up a small documentary team. UA wanted some footage to use in their pre-release promotional campaigns, and being a photographer herself, her husband gave her the job. Who knew that the 12 week shoot would blossom into months, that private conversations between the couple (taped for inclusion in Eleanor’s diary) would become public knowledge, and that during the making of Apocalypse Now, Coppola would turn catastrophe and ego into a modern masterpiece. It set the foundation for all the mythologizing and criticism to come.
In these days of multi-disc DVD presentations, packages that strive to illustrate every minor moving making element with microscopic detail, one forgets how shocking Hearts of Darkness was. Backstage drama was, in 1991, an aspect of the medium usually left to magazine features, tell-all books, and the occasional film festival anecdote. Most productions weren’t proud of the rifts and ridiculousness that went on during a shoot, and it was rare when anything that did happen warranted further reflection. Even with laserdisc illustrating the appetite for this kind of insight, a mechanism for capturing and creating this material wasn’t firmly established. In many ways, Eleanor was ahead of her time. She could see what Now was doing to her man, and wanted to have a record of it…just in case he didn’t come back from the edge. How outsiders George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr came into possession of this material is a story for another day. How their award winning documentary was hijacked by a legacy sensitive auteur is very much at the center of this recent release.
Over the last few years, as Paramount has prepared various digital incarnations of Apocalypse Now, fans have wondered if Hearts of Darkness would be offered as a supplement. It is, after all, the yin to that bravado spectacle’s yang. Yet even when the supposed ‘final word’ on the film was presented - under the less than truthful title The Complete Dossier - this film was nowhere to be found. Rumors swirled that Coppola, angry about the secret wiretapping by his spouse and the eventual release of all of the material to the media, was purposefully holding off on the rights to Now footage. Without it, Hearts was sunk. To make matters worse, both Hickenlooper and Bahr have claimed strong arm tactics from the filmmaker, pointing to parts of this new, stand-alone disc as evidence of Coppola’s disdain for what they did.
On the surface, this seems to be a lot of meaningless chest-thumping. The wonderfully restored film still has the no budget production standards that Eleanor was forced to deal with, but the rest of the image is cleaned up and appealing. The actual makers of the movie are nowhere to be found however (they were ‘not invited’ to participate), but both Coppolas are present and accounted for. On the commentary track provided, Eleanor decides to wax nostalgic, discussing the time, the skyrocketing celebrity achieved by her spouse, and the numerous behind the scenes anecdotes that make these contextual additions so special. But it’s her husband’s conversation that’s the most telling. For Francis Coppola, it’s time to set the record straight.
You’d think that a man with as many awards as he has, who has significantly challenged film classicism with his demanding, endearing early films, would have a little thicker skin than the defensive dermis he exposes here. While begging for both perspective and circumstance, he makes it very clear that Hearts turns frequent fits of anger, frustration, and black humor into signs of inflated selfishness. Even worse, he feels used by individuals who’ve coattailed his creative genius for a sensationalized story. Still, even when he’s defending the film, you can tell that something about Hearts continues to rattle the director. It’s almost as if he’s attacking the exposure of any movie “magic” - whether it be how certain effects were achieved…or the creative element’s emotional turmoil.
It’s a contradiction that the Coppolas try to re-explore with Eleanor’s “new” documentary (though again she did not direct Hearts - she only provided the material) focusing on her husband’s latest film, the supposed return to form Youth Without Youth. Following her older, mellower spouse around Romania as he kvetches, jokes, swoons, and contemplates, it’s the love letter his wounded spirit supposedly needs. At 68, Coppola remains a larger than life presence on set, carrying most of his undeniable mythos in every action, each remark. Unlike Hearts, there are few flame-ups. Instead, we see the same spark that drove Now to its eventual status as an undeniable masterwork being muted by age, approach, and ambition. In fact, while it’s clearly meant to be a pliant portrait of an aging idol, the oddly named Coda is actually a con. The real Coppola is the manic, idealized dough boy, giggling almost insanely as he describes his movie as not being “about Vietnam. It IS Vietnam.”
Statements like these, some thirty years later, don’t really need the forced reinterpretation that the new Hearts of Darkness DVD demands. When the film was released in 1991, it was an epiphany. It was an “I told you so” moment. Just because fans and film buffs believed Coppola was an out of control madman doesn’t diminish what he accomplished. If anything, such a warts and all approach humanizes someone who, for most of his life, loved to view himself as above the fray. If the one time post-modern giant would simply embrace his flaws and fall in love with his art all over again, returning to the big picture romanticized ranting about the Philippines government, his leading man’s heart condition, or his own fragile sanity, perhaps we’d be celebrating the newest canvas from this cinematic master. Unfortunately, it still feels like the ‘70s celebration of film found its last legitimate entry with Apocalypse Now. Hearts of Darkness explains the reasons for this all too well.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.