Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

Back in the late 70s, director Francis Ford Coppola was on what could mildly be termed a “hot streak”. He had made three movies so far that decade, all three of which were nominated for Best Picture, and two of which won. When it came time to really show everyone what he could do, he decided to tackle a project that had stymied even Orson Welles, by making a film version of the Joseph Conrad novel “Heart of Darkness”, which he renamed Apocalypse Now and set in the Vietnam war. This documentary, originally started by his wife Eleanor as a video companion of her diary during filming, instead became a chronicle of one of the most disastrous productions in film history.

It’s rather amazing watching this and seeing just how much of a mess filming was. Originally slated to film for sixteen weeks (already a rather long film time, though I guess suitable for an intended war epic), it wound up stretching out to over two thirds of a year. Just so you younguns out there have some point of comparison for this, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all ten or eleven hours of it, was filmed in less time than this one movie. The film had to deal with weather problems (production was shut down temporarily due to a monsoon), governmental problems (the Filipino government, which was providing the helicopters for the film, had to keep recalling them to fight Communist insurgents in the southern islands), casting problems (a few weeks into filming, Coppola decided Harvey Keitel was all wrong for the lead, and replaced him with Martin Sheen, who later also held up production when he had a heart attack), and ending problems (Coppola hated the ending he had in the script, but as he was unable to come up with a better one, he eventually just filmed Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando improving various endings for three weeks out of sheer desperation).

In the end, after an appropriately lengthy editing period, he remarkably wound up making what I personally feel is the single greatest war movie of all time, but there was a pretty hefty price. In the near thirty years since Apocalypse Now’s release, he has yet to make another film that comes close to matching his work from the 70s, making this a very aptly titled doc. This isn’t the best documentary I’ve ever seen, but it more than accomplished its main goal: I really want to see Apocalypse Now again. It’s been way too long since I’ve watched it.

Rating: ***

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