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‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 17, 1992


Fax Bahr;
George Hickenlooper
Not rated

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Apocolypse how: "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," details the making (and unmaking) of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." Harrowing and funny, a fine film on its own, "Hearts" leaves us with a new appreciation for the Vietnam War epic it documents.

"We went into the jungle, there were too many of us; we had too much money, too much equipment and, little by little, we went insane," says Coppola in an interview. This documentary parallels the making of his movie with the waging of the war itself: Both the filmmaker and the U.S. government had almost unlimited resources and manpower at their disposal, only to find themselves overwhelmed by weirdness and with no idea how to end the story.

"My film is not about Vietnam," Coppola says. "It's what it was really like."

The primary film footage for "Hearts of Darkness" was made by Eleanor Coppola, who, with their three young children, accompanied her highly strung husband on location in the Philippines for what was supposed to be a 13-week, $13 million shoot in March 1976. More than 34 weeks and $30 million later -- after enduring the firing of one leading man (Harvey Keitel), the heart attack of his 36-year-old replacement (Martin Sheen), a set-destroying, life-threatening typhoon, a civil insurgency that diverted essential equipment and government cooperation, and a script with no ending -- the Coppolas and their enormous crew left the islands. Francis Ford Coppola finally emerged with his "Apocalypse" three-and-a-half years later.

After shooting some 60 hours of footage, Eleanor Coppola abandoned her documentary, writing a book called "Notes" instead. In 1989, the pieces were picked up by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, who conducted new interviews with Coppola, Sheen, co-screenwriter John Milius and other principals. They provide an entertaining, candid and coherent perspective of what Coppola called his "Idiodyssey."

Tempted by absolute power (and cheap native labor), Coppola set to building temples and villages and military bases, creating surreal apparitions on the river. A master of precision filmmaking, Coppola choreographed awesome displays of pyrotechnics and destruction, but just as much was left to chance and druggy inspiration. Actors would show up for a day of shooting marked only "scenes unknown," resulting in Robert Duvall's unforgettable "napalm in the morning" surfing scene and the massacre of the family on the river.

"The actors all wanted to experience a My Lai massacre," Coppola says dryly.

We also glimpse moments from a deleted and very expensive scene involving French colonials on a Vietnam plantation: For authenticity, Coppola flies actors from France and obsesses over the temperature of wines at a banquet scene, then scraps the whole scene in a tantrum in front of the stunned cast and crew.

After hocking his home and other personal assets to complete his seriously over-budget, over-publicized film (as the weeks went by, the film trade magazines called it "Apocalyse When?" and then "Apocalypse Forever"), we overhear Coppola's mounting fears of not being able to finish the movie, or worse, that it would stink.

"My greatest fear is making a really pompous film, on an important subject, and I am making it," he says. "This film is a $20 million disaster! Why won't anyone believe me?"

With the arrival of Marlon Brando, his $1 million-a-week star, Coppola's nightmares become reality. Overweight and uninformed -- he hadn't even read Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," the inspiration for the film -- Brando spends days talking about motivation. Sweaty, panicky Coppola hopes the actor will magically, Methodically bring a conclusion out of the chaos. The Brando outtakes are priceless: "I can't make up any more dialogue today," he mumbles after one rambling monologue in the shadows. Stranger still, Coppola's risky gambit worked, and Brando's intuitive improvisation provided what now seems a most satisfying ending.

The commercial release of this documentary most likely presages a re-release of "Apocalypse Now" -- it will surely make many anxious to see it again. Even on video, "Apocalypse" is a stunning experience.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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