Coppola, Bahr & Hickenlooper: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

Apocalypse Now is one of the most spectacular films ever made, but also one of the most open and provisional in its structure. Ever since it was released, Coppola has revisited and revised it – in his own filmography throughout the 1980s, which was haunted by his sense that he would never live up to the film, and then in his two subsequent cuts of the film itself. First, there was Apocalypse Now: Redux, released in 2001, which added fifty minutes to the film, including the entire French Plantation scene. Then came Apocalypse Now: The Final Cut, released in 2019, which cut back thirty minutes, supposedly offering the truest version of Coppola’s original vision. It’s notable that both of these recuts coincided with the two longest lulls in Coppola’s career to date – the ten year gap between The Rainmaker (released in 1997) and Youth Without Youth, and the nine year gap between Twixt (released in 2011) and the present day. Coppola’s style shifted dramatically from the late 90s to the late 00s, and it seems likely his style will shift dramatically again, if his plans to move from the indie horror of Twixt to the scale of his life-long project Megalopolis are anything to go by. In each case, Coppola has looked back to Apocalypse Now to question his next step as a director and – in some ways – to mourn his inability to ever quite reach those heights again.


Despite not being directed by Coppola, and despite the fact that it is technically a documentary, Hearts of Darkness feels like another key part of the evolving textuality of Apocalypse Now, partly because it is also quite open in its structure and authorship, and is credited to three directors. The most intriguing part of the film is directed by Eleanor Coppola, and consists of footage that she shot during the production of Apocalypse Now, along with transcripts that she took of conversations that she had with Francis, her husband. The more traditional part of Hearts of Darkness is handled by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, who compiled and curated Eleanor’s footage, while adding interviews with the primary cast and crew in 1991, including Francis and Eleanor themselves. While Bahr and Hickenlooper provide the logistics, this is essentially Eleanor Coppola’s film – and certainly her vision, since she could clearly tell, from the very outset, that the making of Apocalypse Now was going to be a monumental event, no matter how the film itself turned out. She starting shooting from the earliest casting sessions, capturing many of the breathless early moments when the project was merely an idea – including the first day of shooting – before moving into the thornier aspects of production, and finally the premiere.

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As anyone who’s seen Apocalypse Now might expect, it’s quite breathtaking to see this all unfold in real time – and to see Francis strain under the intensity of his vision. Much of the film plays like a character study of Francis as told through the shooting of the film, which is presented here as the apotheosis of American Zoetrope, the production company that the Coppolas started to gain more independence in the New Hollywood scene. It’s fascinating to hear Francis and the other members of the cast and crew struggle for the vocabulary to describe the spectacular ambitions of the film – we hear that it’s “sensoramic,” that it’s “the first film that would win a Nobel Prize” and (in a Cannes interview) that “it isn’t about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” For her part, Eleanor recalls that “it’s scary to watch someone you love go into the centre of himself and face his greatest fears – you have to die a little, go insane a little, to come out the other side.” Similarly, Vittorio Storaro, Coppola’s cinematographer, recalls Coppola insisting, time and again, that they had to divest the film of even the most residual realism in order to evoke the “big show” of the US media empire.

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Yet while Eleanor appreciates and respects the scale of the project, she’s a good counterpoint to Francis as well. Never a gushing fangirl, she’s fine with getting her hands dirty, but also calm and assured in the footage in which she appears, while also totally devoid of Francis’ machoistic hubris, which can get a bit tedious at times. This contrast makes it clear just how much Francis identified with Kurtz, and how much Kurtz was a surrogate for his own ambitions and aspirations as an auteur. At one point, he observes that the “film director is one of the last truly dictatorial posts left in a world becoming more and more democratic” – and he certainly fuses directing and dictating as the film proceeds towards the final scenes at Kurtz’s compound, which were largely acted by indigenous and non-professional extras who (it seems) received less than minimal wage for fairly intense working conditions. While Eleanor never excuses this behavior, she does give us a bit of a distance from it – or at least her narration does, functioning with respect to Francis much as Willard’s narration does to Kurtz in the film, by making us fascinated and afraid all at once.

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In that sense, Eleanor suggests that the real subject of Apocalypse Now was Francis – and Kurtz’s – auteurist ambition. In fact, as Hearts of Darkness frames it, no director in the history of American cinema has approached this ambition, making Apocalypse Now completely unique, both in terms of its aesthetic vision and its directorial hubris. Early in the film, Eleanor and Francis both observe that Orson Welles initially considered an adaptation of Heart of Darkness for his first feature-length film, but eventually discarded it in favour of Citizen Kane because he thought it was too ambitious even for him. In other words, Apocalypse Now reinvented American film language even more radically than Citizen Kane, effectively completing Welles’ experimental project even more thoroughly than Welles could himself. Perhaps that’s why Francis and Eleanor often appear to be categorizing Apocalypse Now as something other than a mere film, comparing it to a bridge, a building, an entire construction project and even a NASA project at is most expansive and cosmic. For co-screenwriter John Milius, Welles’ failure to make a successful adaptation of Heart of Darkness has turned Conrad’s novel into the gold standard for film directors ever since – and even now nobody has managed to adapt the novel in an especially convincing manner.

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By presenting Francis’ own auteurism as the subject of Apocalypse Now, Eleanor also compounds the hyperreality of the film itself – the way it converges representation and reality into a new hyperreal plane. We learn that the helicopters used in the film were on loan from the Philippine army, who were using them to fight insurgents whose base of operations was only ten miles from one of the shooting locations, producing widespread anxiety for both the crew and the Philippine government that these rebels might mistake the film production for “real” conflict. In one of the most incredible pieces of footage, Eleanor films the helicopters swerving off in the middle of a complicated shoot because the government has sent them a radio command to rally immediately to an insurgent conflict. Even more incredibly, it seems like Francis used some of this footage in the film itself, fusing his own artistic vision with real military conflict to enact as well as depict this looming hyperreality. Hearts of Darkness was also the first time that audiences got to see the French Plantation sequences before Redux was released – sequences that intensity this hyperreal element by focusing on French colonists “floating loose in history,” with no point of reference but their own images and fantasies, as the next wave of colonialism rages outside.

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This hyperreal imperative also makes the logistical demands of film production almost inconceivable, since Francis is trying to command reality itself as much as the events of his screenplay. As Eleanor observes, “every day the project seems to get bigger,” putting enormous pressure on the cast, and especially on Sheen, who had a heart attack during one of the most punishing periods of the shooting schedule. To some extent, this was due to the intensity of the screenplay, and the heat and humidity of the tropical backdrop, but Francis’ direction was probably also a contributing factor. We learn, for example, that Francis got Sheen drunk during the opening scene, and told him to “frighten yourself,” as Sheen grew more and more manic, eventually smashing his hand into the mirror as we see in the film. Some of the eeriest images in Hearts of Darkness are Eleanor’s footage of Sheen just after his heart attack, and then just after he returned from his recovery in the United States, since both sequences paint a picture of an actor on the very brink of sanity, as Sheen himself attests in the 1991 interviews filmed by Bahr and Hickenlooper. On top of the challenges of working without his lead man, Francis was beset by a typhoon that cost two months of production, when the set was completely rebuilt, and most of the cast and crew sent home.

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These challenges all converge on the last part of the film, when Willard finally arrives at Kurtz’s compound. Some of these challenges are physical and logistical, such as the relationship between Francis and the indigenous Philippine tribes who played the part of Kurtz’s acolytes during these final scenes. Francis didn’t seem to pay any kind of real wage to these people, who had reportedly been practicing headhunting until relatively recently, and don’t appear to have the same sense of the film as Francis does during the scenes that Eleanor shoots, despite the fact that he often participates in their ceremonies and practices, while also documenting them for the climactic scene when Kurtz is killed, which is presumably how he got away with including animal sacrifice in the film. Francis also appears to have placed enormous physical demands on the extras during these final scenes – especially the extras who were commissioned with “playing” the severed heads that litter Kurtz’s compound. Rather than creating these heads prosthetically, Francis instructed his actors to stand in holes beneath the ground, with their heads poking through, and to remain in those same tortured poses for fourteen hours at a time, in the midst of heat and smoke.

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However, Hearts of Darkness is ultimately most obsessed with Francis’ own obsession about how to end the film. In one of the defining mythologies of Apocalypse Now, Francis recalls how he fell asleep on the lawn outside the Coppola Estate in Napa, dreamed the ideal ending to the film, but then partly forgot it upon waking up. The similarities to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s account of writing “Kubla Khan” suggest that Coppola is operating from within the same romantic, visionary account of authorship, and that his depiction of the Vietnam War was meant to be just as fantastic and otherworldly in its topography as that of Coleridge’s poem. Since the production of Apocalypse Now proceeded in an intuitive and spontaneous manner, Francis couldn’t have any clear sense of how it would end outside of a revelatory intervention from within his own subconscious, so his inability to remember this dream, and to bridge the gap between the Coppola Estate and his time in the Phillipines, means that the film remains unfinished in his own mind – and probably still remains unfinished, despite the claims of Redux and Final Cut to have decisively brought it to an end.

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Of course, part of the challenge was Marlon Brando’s difficulties with playing the role of Kurtz, which in many ways are the main subject and crisis of Hearts of Darkness. Not only did Brando arrive in the Phillipines severely overweight, and without having read Conrad’s novel, but he was purportedly too shy and self-conscious to be filmed, preferring instead to talk through the role ad nauseam with Francis and the rest of the crew. Dealing with Willard’s first meeting with Kurtz would already have been the most difficult part of the film conceptually, but working with Brando was also the most challenging part of the film logistically, at least as Francis and Eleanor present it. To make matters worse, it was almost impossible to direct Dennis Hopper as well, who seems to have been even more manic in person than he was in the role of the photojournalist. Of all the cast and crew, Hopper’s interviews in the present make for the starkest contrast with his part in the film. Watching him between these two decades brings the whole documentary into focus as a study in how the most flamboyant and outrageous gestures of the 70s have been contained and domesticated, at least for the baby boomer generation, by the time the early 90s get going.


However, above and beyond the peculiar challenges of Apocalypse Now, you also sense there was something about Brando that defied direction by this point in his career, since he exceeds the film in much the same way that Kurtz exceeds Willard’s expectations of him. In that sense, Brando’s presence seems integral to the film, even if his appearance is quite underwhelming – so integral, in fact, that he seemed to elude being tied to the film in any one way, spending most of his time discussing his role and motivations, rather than really engaging with the script or shooting schedule, meaning that Coppola eventually just had to segue these endless conversations into the substance of the film itself. For better and for worse, Brando had no real knowledge of what came earlier in the film – he hadn’t read the book, and hadn’t read the screenplay – which is presumably why he feels so incongruous, unreadable, and hermetically sealed from the upriver journey taking place in Kurtz’s name.

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Throughout Apocalypse Now, Willard carries two photographs of Kurtz, and Brando – one shot in the 1950s, when Brando was at the height of his fame, and one taken more recently.. Shot more elliptically, with an off-centred composition, this later photograph encapsulates Brando’s odd presence at this late stage in his career as well, and the massive changes that had taken place in his physiognomy and attitude even in the seven years since Coppola directed him as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Between the “old” Kurtz and the “new” Kurtz, and between the “old” Brando and the “new” Brando, Apocalypse Now seems to move from a situation that can be represented cinematically, and contained by cinematic classicism, to a situation that seems to exceed even the most extravagant and flamboyant of cinematic gestures. In other words, Brando’s transformation here harkens towards a post-cinematic media regime, as does Coppola’s movement towards a visual language that now, in retrospect, resembles the lexicon of digital gaming, and first-person shooters in particular. As a result, Coppola is never able – or willing – to sequester Apocalypse Now in a specific space of its own, removing the opening and closing credits that normally signal the threshold between the events taking place on the big screen, and the world of the audience.

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In Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola, Bahr and Hickenlooper follow suit, ending once again with Kurtz’s final words – “The horror, the horror” – and then following with a brief epilogue depicting the premiere of the documentary at Cannes. Rather than solving the conundrum of how to “end” Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness makes that conundrum more resonant – it is, finally, a meditation on the impossibility of ending Apocalypse Now and, conversely, the inevitability that Francis’ (and Eleanor’s) film(s) will continue to grow and evolve in their textuality over the coming decades. In that sense, Apocalypse Now here “exists” somewhere between the film itself and Hearts of Darkness – a space evoked in the last shot of the documentary, which takes place in the interstitial space just outside the theatre where the film premiered, following Eleanor and Francis down a corridor, past other theatres, as a narrator reads out the final lines of Heart of Darkness. During these final moments, Hearts of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now, are like a harbinger of the camcorder revolution, and the way they brought cameras into theatres, disrupting the distinction between shooting space and viewing space that were once so integral to filmic experience.

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In these last moments, Eleanor Coppola also brings her camera into the cinematic space where Apocalypse Now first announced itself as a post-cinematic text, effectively testifying to its reflexive impotence within a cinematic environment, and its yearning for a media regime in which cinema has been displaced and distended into a broader audiovisual sphere – the very post-cinematic environment we now inhabit. Perhaps that’s why neither Apocalypse Now, or Hearts of Darkness, seem to have dated very much. If anything, they’ve grown more resonant in their vision of cinematic infrastructure and aspiration dissolving before our eyes, as they do before Eleanor and Francis’ eyes, leading them both to observe that “after a while, it felt we weren’t there – we were in a dream.” Perhaps that’s also why Apocalypse Now is also the only late-70s hyper-auteurist piece that didn’t totally bomb, providing audiences with such a compelling fragment of the future that they couldn’t possibly ignore or dismiss it. For Coppola, this bomb would come one film later, with One From the Heart, but even when he got his career on track, his work would be suffused with a sense of finitude, an awareness he could never invest himself so absolutely as he had in Apocalypse Now, as if this were his very last film – which, in some very real sense, it was.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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