Paramount // 1991 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // November 20th, 2007
Francis Ford Coppola: My movie is not about Vietnam...my movie is Vietnam.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is an insightful and compelling journey through the making of a legendary film that had a rough road to navigate. It originally debuted as a Showtime special, and then had a limited theatrical release in the early part of 1992. It's all about the agony and the ecstasy of Francis Ford Coppola as he struggles through production of the Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. Hearts of Darkness has long been a gold standard for "making of" documentaries because it so skillfully penetrates the veil of what it is like to work on a huge movie directed by a screen legend. When Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier was released, fans of the film cried foul because it did not include this feature-length study of the film's making, and most argued that without it no Apocalypse Now set could be considered complete. In the United States alone, there have been three official separate editions of Apocalypse Now. In addition to the Complete Dossier there was an original theatrical cut and Apocalypse Now Redux, which incorporated deleted scenes. There is even a fourth if we count the Circuit City exclusive version which provided an extra disc with trailers that were left off the Complete Dossier edition. None of these featured Hearts of Darkness, and cinema enthusiasts were upset the film was MIA and hadn't even surfaced on DVD at all. Film school students had to settle for VHS copies and bootlegs, and there was no official pressing even rumored to be forthcoming. Co-Director George Hickenlooper went public and told people Coppola himself was not overly fond of his image portrayed in Hearts of Darkness, and he wasn't looking to let it out again. Criterion thought about working on the piece for its catalog, but in the end we get this Paramount edition which releases Hearts of Darkness coupled with a new documentary by Eleanor Coppola ca!lled Coda: Thirty Years Later. Even more amazing? Both Francis and Eleanor sat down to provide commentary on this disc.
Hearts of Darkness traces the arduous shoot that found Coppola spending over a year on location in the civil war ravaged Philippines. His Vietnam epic was partially funded by a major studio, but also a large investment of Coppola's own fortune made it a project that could have bankrupted the filmmaker (of course his next film One From the Heart was the one that financially ruined him). Most of the material for this documentary is culled from location shots his wife Eleanor recorded initially for press kit and personal journal purposes. Hearts of Darkness is a chronicle rather than an expose, so don't expect answers to burning questions like why Coppola replaced Harvey Keitel with Martin Sheen as his leading man after only a couple of weeks of shooting. The film is mostly comprised of what an observer would be privy to without too much that gets too personal. Some of the privately recorded conversations border on revelatory, but in the end they only reveal the frustrations of an artist. Eleanor's footage simply follows the events which include cast changes, production delays due to a devastating hurricane, challenges with the local government, antics of the colorful cast including a drugged-out Dennis Hopper coupled with a brooding, ill-prepared Brando, and health issues with Martin Sheen. There are many surreal sequences that show Coppola did not know how to end the film, and also what a diva Marlon Brando was throughout the process, making ridiculous demands, like insisting he only could be seen in shadow. It's a portrait of intense passion that morphs to outright madness at certain points. The biggest revelation comes from seeing Francis Ford Coppola as a somewhat normal guy, with the exception of a large ego and irrational fears about what he was building. He comes off as boisterously insecure and convinced Apocalypse Now would destroy him and his reputation. You also get to see a director's wife struggle to keep her family somewhat sane while living in another country. The children we briefly see include Sofia and Roman, both who are now making movies on their own. Also included are interviews conducted in the early '90s from the cast and crew, and a healthy dose of scenes from the movie including some that were not in the theatrical cut.
The DVD release of Hearts of Darkness looks piss-poor, but this is purposefully done and somewhat unavoidable. The image is full-screen and sourced from old 16 mm documentary footage shot by Eleanor Coppola back in the '70s. You will note ghosting and interlacing as well as dirt, scratches, and nicks throughout the entire film. Audio is billed as stereo, but more often than not only the center channels are used with no directional effects. This all looks and sounds like a documentary using thirty-year-old material with no retouching at all. There are talking-head interviews from 1990 when Hearts of Darkness was produced, which look better, and most of the film footage for Apocalypse Now is in good shape when shown. I doubt we'll ever see this on a high-definition format, because this is simply a rough-looking documentary that uses aged raw elements.
The extras are the most compelling reasons to pick this one up and they are first-rate. Front and center is a great commentary track from Francis and Eleanor, and both participants have different agendas. They did not record the track together, and we get Francis in the right speaker and Eleanor from the left. Coppola tries to right some wrongs he felt the documentary committed while Eleanor simply talks about the process of making her part of the film. Both of them are fascinating to listen to, and it effectively expands the film and events depicted in it. Also included is a documentary Eleanor shot for Coppola's upcoming release Youth Without Youth called Coda: Thirty Years Later. It runs about an hour, and is a much more loving promotional work than Hearts of Darkness. You can tell it is meant to be something to elevate the director's ego, but it remains a fascinating bookend to the feature film.
Film fans and Coppola enthusiasts should consider Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse mandatory viewing. It is a rare experience where we get a glimpse of what it is really like working on a production. In this age of fluffy studio-produced "making of" featurettes the film is a breath of fresh air. Truth is, the process of making a film is painful, and this is the best place to see this up close and personal. I'm not sure why Coppola hates the piece, or thinks it is unflattering to him. He comes off as a brave guy who has a strong creative vision that he does not compromise even when everything seems to conspire against him. After watching this documentary you'll marvel that Apocalypse Now ever came out half as well as it did. The Paramount DVD edition is a marvelous release with some truly insightful extras. Even though the technical look and sound of the film remain VHS quality it gives Coppola another chance to talk aboutpast and future. He's a fascinating man married to an engaging honest woman. He's a lucky man, and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse proves how deep that streak of luck runs. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary with Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor Coppola