Last year, in a review of Oliver Stone's The Doors for this paper, Ben Greenman delivered a brilliant parting shot aimed at Stone, concluding that the best Doors movie ever was Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Admittedly it's a loaded sentence - Coppola's Vietnam War movie isn't about The Doors at all - and one that begs further explanation, especially in light of the documentary on the making of Coppola's film that appeared last year on Showtime, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, which opens this Friday, for a limited run, at the Miracle 4 Theater in Coral Gables.
What Greenman implied was that the locus of the Doors's literary-mystical sensibility was neatly and comprehensively covered in their sustained Freudian threnody, "The End," which Coppola employed in Apocalypse Now both to launch his film and energize the climactic ritual slaughter of the caribou near the close. The point is well taken: thirteen years after the film opened (in August, 1979) and 21 years after Jim Morrison evanesced in Paris, The Doors and Apocalypse Now remain inextricably bound, thematically and contextually, in the public consciousness.
Another aspect that unites Coppola's film and Jim Morrison is Apocalypse Now's surprising, and ultimately far-seeing, apolitical take on the Vietnam War. In this Coppola was aided by John Milius, who co-wrote the original script that acted as a kind of blueprint for the improvisational insights Coppola hoped to uncover on the Philippine-jungle shoot; the storytelling source was Joseph Conrad's novella set in the Belgian Congo, Heart of Darkness. The last lines Marlon Brando's Kurtz utters ("The horror. The horror"), which a host of late-night TV comics scoffed at as proof of Coppola's utter pretentiousness, were in fact taken, as much else, directly from Conrad. It scarcely needs adding that Apocalypse Now was an ambitious film, first in terms of its protracted logistical schedule, which turned out to be an abyss for everyone involved (civil war, typhoons, and a growingly Kurtzian Francis Coppola for months and years on end); and second, as a result of Coppola's embryonic artistic agenda, over which he raged frequently and publicly. And still he was able to deliver an important American movie - a stirring, stylish near-masterpiece as opposed to a profound masterwork.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is a compendium of two sources: documentary footage shot by Coppola's wife, Eleanor, during the 238 days of principal photography in the Philippines; and recent interview footage by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper interspersed with narration drawn from Eleanor Coppola's 1979 diary Notes, in which she traced the visionary roller-coaster ride of her director husband - as well as his infidelities. Notes remains an excellent guide to a process-at-work, how the minutiae of filmmaking are constantly presenting themselves as obstacles against realizing the larger canvas. And there are many fine, interesting details about assimilating and reassimilating a foreign culture (in the book and film, she mentions that "it was the first time any of us had seen water buffalo, rice paddies, or nipa huts"). As a sober-headed portrait of the artist, though, Notes failed where the new documentary triumphantly excels.
It's always interesting when great art - or in this instance, near-great art - appears simply to "happen" to less-than salutary humans. In this Francis Coppola is no exception, and his megalomaniacal Sturm und Drang can be witnessed in the clear light of day throughout Hearts of Darkness. The documentary begins with Coppola's somber address to a chic Cannes Film Festival press reception: "My film isn't about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like - it's crazy. And the way we made it is the way we Americans were in Vietnam: we were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane." The film won the Palme d'Or that year, but that opening salvo makes you wonder whether Coppola's own performance wasn't included in the prize.
Indeed, you're tempted to conclude Coppola's oratorical fluency surpasses his directorial. He starts off by explaining Apocalypse Now as a film not conceived from within the tradition of Max Ophuls or David Lean, but rather Irwin Allen. One minute he deems it "sensoramic," the next he rails about the movie being a "$20 million disaster" and worries aloud about a director's greatest fear: "To make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film about an important subject."
And yet that important subject - the war in Vietnam - emerges as muddled in the current retelling as it obviously was to Coppola in the decade of the Seventies, when he conceived and shot the film. Neither the youthful dynamo we watch in the footage nor the plump, gray-bearded elder statesman of today addresses satisfactorily what the war meant to him in anything but aesthetic terms - precisely the terms where Apocalypse Now scored a Pyrrhic victory. Pauline Kael wrote in a 1980 essay: "Part of the widespread anticipation of Apocalypse Now was, I think, our readiness for a visionary, climactic, summing-up movie.... [Coppola's] movie was posited on great thoughts arriving at the end - a confrontation and a revelation. And when they weren't there, people slunk out of theaters, or tried to comfort themselves with chatter about the psychedelic imagery."
Hearts of Darkness details Coppola's frustrations at coming to grips with his material in some measure. And initially there's something poignant about his confusion - it's almost as if we, the audience, were there on the set, egging him on despite the years, to complete the movie. The immediacy of this film record is remarkable. But a realization intrudes on our sympathy, and it has to do with the image of an apolitically "pure" artist Eleanor Coppola evokes in her softly rendered recollection (where she speaks of Francis's dreams and nightmares with Biblical awe) - an image to which Coppola himself clearly nods with approval. Francis Coppola talks about directing as one of the "last dictatorial posts in a world getting more and more democratic," and the film is about the madness of ego-induced revelation. While Apocalypse Now is too brutal to be construed as pro-Vietnam, you do ask yourself, as this director plots out each brilliantly staged battle sequence from his helicopter, that had replaced Westmoreland with Coppola, the real war might have been won. That's the disturbing aspect - the portrait of a master manipulator and part-time, military strategist is one ill-at-odds with the ideal of a pristine artistic sensibility as espoused by, say, Thomas Mann.
There are some loose ends in this documentary, too. I wish we had seen some footage of Harvey Keitel, who was fired and replaced by Martin Sheen, as Willard. All the principals save Brando make appearances - a good idea, as Brando's mythical presence is better served in absentia; we also get to see an outtake of Marlon wincing while swallowing a bug as he proceeds with Kurtz's pontifications. But why wasn't Michael Herr interviewed? The author of the definitive Vietnam novel, Dispatches, composed the narration Willard intones throughout Apocalypse Now, and his opinion of the labyrinthine screenwriting process would have been fascinating. Instead we get John Milius's Conrad-inspired machismo and twaddle regarding his relationship with Coppola resembling General Von Rundstedt's with Adolf Hitler.
In spite of its investigation of the failed artist - more because of it, actually - Hearts of Darkness is compelling, necessary viewing. You can forgive Coppola's exhausting hyperventilation about his fear of pretension, his search for answers "on about 47 different levels," life and death, and what he calls "this transmutation, this renaissance," when we have chapter upon chapter of riveting sequences in Apocalypse Now, replete with one unforgettable image after another. And finally, Coppola perhaps is a figure of nobility - a windmill-jousting Knight of the Woeful Countenance, if you will - for beckoning us, as Morrison does in "The End," simply to "come on and take a chance with us."
HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE
Written and directed by Fax Bahr with George Hickenlooper; documentary footage directed by Eleanor Coppola.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.