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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Hearts Of Darkness goes downriver with the creators of Apocalypse Now

Illustration for article titled Hearts Of Darkness goes downriver with the creators of Apocalypse Now

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Room 237 has us thinking about documentaries about movies.

Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) 
Francis Ford Coppola forged the path for the “New Hollywood” filmmaker of the ’60s and ’70s, proving that if ambitious artists attended film school, made independent arthouse projects, and served a B-movie apprenticeship (preferably with Roger Corman), they could get access to the big studio money and make subversive re-imaginings of classic American genre pictures. Coppola took his reputation as a trailblazer and mentor seriously, and used his influence to establish American Zoetrope, a sort of off-Hollywood workshop where he and his friends could try to reinvent cinema. It was in the spirit of Zoetrope that Coppola chose to follow up the massive success of his first two Godfather films by taking over a project his pals John Milius and George Lucas had been developing since the ’60s: an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, set during the Vietnam War, and shot on the cheap, Corman-style. But by the time Coppola and his cast and crew arrived in the Philippines to make the movie that Milius dubbed Apocalypse Now, the production had swelled to something far more grandiose.


George Hickenlooper’s documentary Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse was assembled from on-set footage shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor, cut together with decades-after-the-fact interviews with some of the principals. In some ways, the doc makes a better Conrad adaptation than Apocalypse Now ever did, as it depicts a film crew heading deep into the jungle in search of something elusive, then slowly going insane. Watching Hearts Of Darkness, it’s hard to believe Apocalypse Now turned out as spectacularly as it did, given that Coppola was re-writing the script nearly every night, while dealing with storms, political unrest, and a cast that wasn’t always sure it was going to make it out of this adventure alive. (Martin Sheen, who replaced Harvey Keitel as the film’s lead early into the shoot, actually suffered a heart attack before he’d wrapped all his scenes.)

Hearts Of Darkness is harrowing, but also very funny, especially when it shows Coppola trying to wrangle an overweight, underprepared Marlon Brando into improvising his way toward the movie’s big finish—something Coppola had been having trouble conceptualizing himself. The documentary encapsulates a lot of what Coppola and his Zoetrope companions meant to say with Apocalypse Now, about war, Americana, the corrupting persuasion of power, and the end of the hippie ideal. Hearts Of Darkness is all about a visionary with seemingly limitless resources, stymied by his inability to capture his dream in something as inherently compromised as a major motion picture.

Availability: Hearts Of Darkness is available on DVD from Paramount, and on Blu-ray from Lionsgate as part of an Apocalypse Now special edition.