We begin with 1991’s Hearts of Darkness, which examines the making of Apocalypse Now, utilizing both Eleanor Coppola’s behind-the-scenes footage shot during the (interminable) principal location filming, and interviews recorded specifically for the documentary almost 15 years later. The fact that Francis Ford Coppola brought his wife and three children to the Philippines for the shoot, and that Eleanor was tasked with generating a few minutes’ worth of insider perspective for promotional purposes, would be serendipitous enough considering the extraordinary obstacles that Apocalypse Now ultimately overcame simply to become a finished film. Combine that with the ultimate triumph of the movie, which many consider a masterpiece, and the willingness of everyone from Francis Coppola to Martin Sheen to Dennis Hopper to not only reminisce about the experience but recall it in vivid detail many years later, and Hearts of Darkness is a companion piece to Apocalypse Now which almost insists upon its own existence.
By Coppola’s own admission at both ends of Hearts of Darkness’s timescale (the mid-70’s and early 90’s), Apocalypse Now is not a case of art imitating life, or vice versa, but proof that art and life are the same inextricable thing. All of the borderline-unbelievable elements of Apocalypse Now’s production make their way into the documentary: the replacement of Harvey Keitel with Martin Sheen mid-shoot; Sheen’s heart attack at age 36, presumably due to emotional stress; the set damage and filming delays caused by Typhoon Olga; the inconsistent availability of the military helicopters belonging to the army of the Philippines, which were often called away at a moments’ notice to deal with communist rebels; Coppola collateralizing everything he owned to cover the astronomical budget overruns. The movie often seemed to be as much of an unwinnable quagmire as the Vietnam war ever was.
But beyond the logistics, there are deeper currents connecting the makers of Apocalypse Now to the final product. Coppola started making his movie, with a full cast and crew on location, knowing two things: (1) he was going to use the screenplay as written as a loose guideline at best, and (2) he did not yet have an ending. In other words, he went in with no exit strategy whatsoever. Even when he had Marlon Brando in the faux-temple on the river, he was unsure how the climax of the film should come together, and Brando was less than completely helpful in finding a way through, coming at things from his own perspective originating in some other reality. Coppola was simultaneously directing and writing the film on the fly, allowing his actors to improvise (sometimes insisting on it), getting the production over hurdle after hurdle, or simply working around them. He was a bit mad with power, a bit obsessed, which seems totally appropriate in retrospect. Even the gut-wrenching imagery of ritual sacrifice in which Apocalypse Now culminates happened by something like serendipity, brought to the set by the Ifugao who were asked to play Kurtz’s followers.
Coppola had a vision for Apocalypse Now which, paradoxical as it seems, he himself could never quite perceive perfectly. So rather than constrain the film to conform to a fine level of detail, he allowed the movie to happen and captured it as best he could. Apocalypse Now wrote itself, manifested itself through the specific people that Coppola assembled in a particular time and place, and Hearts of Darkness makes that abundantly clear. Looked at that way, Apocalypse Now seems more like a strange hybrid of performance art, found art and classical theatricality, which goes a long way toward understanding the overall structure of the movie and its resistance to linear interpretation. Hearts of Darkness justifies itself by illuminating, somewhat, the truth that creating a monumental work of cinema is never as simple as play-acting the words no a page while the cameras roll. Plus, Hearts of Darkness manages to invoke Godwin’s Law before all is said and done, so points for that.