HEARTS OF DARKNESS
Reviewed by: Dave Murray
Francis Ford Coppola
What's it about
In 1976, director Francis Ford Coppola, hot off of the sucess of the first two installments of The Godfather trilogy, set out to make the film he had always dreamed of: an adaptation of the Conrad novel Heart Of darkness, set during the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now, which took three years to complete, was a financial gamble that nearly ended the life of actor Martin Sheen, and which almost cost Coppola both his sanity and everything he had worked for. The harrowing tale of the production of this classic movie is told in this fascinating documentary shot by Coppola's wife, Eleanor.
Is it good movie?
Having watched Apocalypse Now in almost all of it's incarnations and various edits, I have never before watched this excellent behind the scenes documentary, which turns out to so much more than the obligatory special feature we see on today's DVD's. Eleanor Coppola's personal and introspective look at her family's financial upheaval and her husband's life altering journey into his own dark heart becomes more than a documentary, it is a testament to both the madness and genius of great filmmakers, and an infintely fascinating look at the huge production mounted to tell this simple morality tale of good versus evil.
If you know the story behind the making of Apocalypse Now, you know what you're getting here. Coppola funded the massively ambitious project himself, since his success with The Godfather films, and from the start it was a financial gamble and a troubled production. Operating in a foreign country with huge sets and in the middle of a real life civil war, Coppola shot this flick set during the very unpopular Vietnam war, which was still a painful loss felt by many Americans. The lead actor was changed just before filming, from Harvey Keitel to martin Sheen, which is no easy thing to do. Then a hurricane destroys much of their sets and puts the production back a month. What follows is a chronicle of a filmmaker's sojourn through his own personal hell. Martin Sheen suffers a heart attack in the middle of filming, Marlon Brando, originally scheduled for three weeks work with a million dolar advance, threatens to walk with that advance when his scenes are pushed forward to an indefinate time, and after 200 days of filming Coppola is left without a cohesively written ending, having to deal with an improv mess cooked up by Brando and Sheen. From here, we are taken to the eventual success of the finished film, three years after production. The tale of the complex and nightmarish post-production, which can be found on the DVD release Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier, is omitted here, but this documentary would have benifited from some of that in depth analysis on how Copolla pieced together the film from the mess that he was left with. And what a brilliant mess it turned out to be!
The film is a gripping look at a gigantic film production, and it has a gritty 16mm feel that is a contrast to the glossy and colourful visual majesty of the film it is portraying. While Eleanor Coppola's narration is dry and sometimes grating, it serves as another contrast to her husband's mercurial and often egotistical rants. She manages to catch her husband and his cast at their most introspective and vulnerable moments, which is a testament to her talent since the studio had only wanted her to record the basic making-of footage for their archives. The fact that she was able to pull the footage together to create this personal and engaging documentary is nothing short of impressive.
With all of the versions of Apocalypse Now out there, it is good to see an updated release of this documentary, which benifits from a new documentary, shot in Romania in 2006 about Coppola's return to directing after nine years. That production is a lot more laid back and less madness inducing than that fateful one 30 years ago, but it is no less fascinating, if only to see an older, more focused and certainly more calm and introspective Coppola, on the back end of a profitable and creatively reqarding carreer. The man has built a film legend by doing things his way, on his own terms, and without the usual studio involvement. No matter what you think of the man, or his movies, there is no doubting his genius and his passion. Both of these documentaries are proof of that.
Video / Audio
Video: FullScreen - 1.33:1.
Audio: English (Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1) and subtitles in English and Spanish.
We have an Audio Commentary by the Coppolas, which is interesting, since their voices dominate the whole documentary anyway through voiceovers. This gives us more of an updated perspective on the making of Apocalypse Now and on the making of this film. The other feature on this DVD is the short Documentary Coda: Thirty Years Later, which follows Coppola through the 2006 production of his first movie in almost a decade, Youth Without Youth. This is an excellent look at one of the pioneers of modern cinema, and how he operates outside of the Hollywood system, and continues to make very personal films. Sure he's arrogant, and he does ramble on for too bloody long, bet he's always entertaining to watch.
As far as documentaries go, Hearts of Dakness is short and fairly light, but it is entertaining for the slice of significant film history it presents in all of its tropical stark naked glory. This was one killer mother of a production, and the improvisational style of guerilla filmmaking that Coppola used is shown to have been actually edited and translated into a profound and disturbing film, shot without narrative thread but with a strong one in the finished work. The personal look into the life of this somewhat reclusive director is fascinating, and stands up to repeated viewing. If you love this stuff, see it. If you love Apocalypse Now, see it. It's a must have for fans of film history, and the commentary by the Coppola's makes it even more relevant to the world of film today.