Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse

Hearts of Darkness is among the best documentaries of the making of a motion picture. Few come close to what’s achieved, here, and it’s arguable whether any future documentaries of the type can come close. This documentary stands on its own and is in many ways more profound than Apocalypse Now itself.

The story is now Hollywood legend. Francis Ford Coppola takes his fortune from The Godfather movies, stakes everything he has on a movie about Vietnam, disappears into the Philippine jungle and emerges with a blockbuster. As Captain Willard says of Colonel Kurtz, “He just up and did it. What balls!” When Eleanor and their children join Francis in the Philippines, he hands her some equipment and asks her to make a documentary. Perplexed as to whether she had been given a real job, or only been given something to keep her busy and out of the way, she keeps a journal, starts shooting her camera, and makes history.

The openness and honesty with which Eleanor portrays her husband is by far the greatest asset of Hearts of Darkness. She is showing the man she loves as he truly was during the most stressful time of his life. She hides nothing because in her mind there is nothing to hide. She even taped him voicing his deepest fears. I doubt if any filmmaker ever had such trust in her subject, and this enables her to film, and reveal, a stark naked truth.

It is this truth that spills over and allows her to capture the atmosphere of the production. Throughout the documentary it’s clear that nobody on the set of Apocalypse Now really knows what they are doing or how it will all end. The cast and crew are attempting the impossible and somehow keep succeeding. Yet at the same time, they are constantly on the verge of disaster. One may think, as I did, that Hearts of Darkness would be worth watching simply because of the epic nature of Apocalypse Now, but the documentary is a masterpiece of its own.

Hearts of Darkness shows the truth but never spells it out. Eleanor isn’t leading the viewer by the hand or clubbing him over the head. Everything is shown clearly and this documentary is a joy because of what one discovers. For instance, the behavior of Marlon Brando is so egregiously horrible that words cannot describe it. I spent a full day looking through Shakespeare and Gibbon trying to find the adequate words before concluding that such things can only be shown.

A chilling aspect of Hearts of Darkness is how unconsciously true it is to Joseph Conrad’s original story in one vital aspect. The Filipinos have no voice. They are natives. This is a real loss because you really wonder what they made of it all. I expect that their observations would have been well worth listening to. You see them, but only as a tapestry upon which this American art piece is made. It gets downright scary when you see them used as props. The natives are flying helicopters and still they have no voice. Nobody is treated too badly, and you hear cast and crew voice admiration or concern for their hosts, but the voices are all American. It’s a profound statement.

There are some incredible stories in Hearts of Darkness. Martin Sheen is simply amazing. The role of Captain Willard is literally killing him, but Sheen gives it his all even after he has a heart attack during production. Six weeks later, he’s fit enough to run from a tiger with Frederic Forrest (Chef) and hack Brando (Colonel Kurtz). The scene in which a scarred and well-chewed tiger handler is prepping a tiger to leap at Sheen and Forrest and the chaos that ensues is worth the price of the DVD. The filming of an air cavalry assault keeps getting interrupted because there’s an actual guerrilla war going on not too far from the movie set, and the helicopters are needed to evacuate the wounded. They try to shoot a scene in a deadly typhoon that wrecks the set. This is not a walk in the park.

A central story of Hearts of Darkness is Francis’ quest for an ending to the film. He wants an ending with answers. He doesn’t want a jazzed-up version of The Green Berets, he’s looking to make a statement. The great argument about Apocalypse Now is whether any such statement is actually made and the question is still open by the end of the documentary. The scenes of Francis trying to elicit something profound out of Brando are a fascinating glimpse of two masters of improvisation at work. In the end, Francis spends two and a half years editing and releases a blockbuster that makes $150 million dollars. What a trip!

It is to Francis’ credit that, although he had editorial control over Hearts of Darkness, he never used it. There are moments where he doesn’t come off that well, but Francis is too much of an artist to deface a masterpiece. And what Eleanor has made is indeed a masterpiece.

The DVD has a bonus feature in which Eleanor and Francis discuss the documentary and the making of Apocalypse Now. Incredibly, their voices are dubbed over Hearts of Darkness for most of its 96 minutes. There’s not much information and it’s more than a little self-serving. It’s cute in that it reminds me of a sweet old couple trying to explain the nude film they made of themselves in the ‘70s. If you listen closely the rustle of fig leaves being hastily deployed is clearly audible. They shouldn’t have worried. They were magnificent.

The second documentary on this DVD, CODA: Thirty Years Later is disappointing in that it is far more conventional, albeit well done. The Coppola’s are 30 years older and keeping their clothes on this time, so to speak. This documentary depicts the filming of Youth Without Youth, which looks like a fascinating movie. A professor suddenly becomes 35 years younger after a mysterious accident. It’s a little self-conscious, but then Francis was the unintentional star of Hearts of Darkness and he’s understandably avoiding embarrassment.

CODA: Thirty Years Later concentrates mostly on Francis explaining his philosophy of filmmaking. There are some excellent scenes in which he is really getting the most out of actors. One suspects that working with Francis would be an actors dream especially when there are no tigers about. The discussion that Francis has with himself about consciousness is more annoying than illuminating but the almost boyish happiness that he shows in making the film is endearing. Unfortunately, unlike Hearts of Darkness, this documentary could have been made by any competent documentarian.

Hearts of Darkness is a remarkable piece of work that was made in unique circumstances. The commentary tries to de-fang the documentary and is superfluous. CODA: Thirty Years Later, while a perfectly respectable “making of “ documentary, is nowhere near the subject or the caliber of Hearts of Darkness. This DVD is an excellent demonstration of how more can be less. In this case less would certainly be more enjoyable.

RATING 10 / 10