Apocalypse Now + Hearts of Darkness: a double-bill of jungle fever
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is back in cinemas this Friday (27th) in a stunning digital restoration. Certain cinemas are also showing the film’s equally deranged ‘making of’ doc, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
Failing that, both are available in a Blu-ray set on 13th June that includes hours of extras and the (superfluous) three-and-a-half hour Redux cut, so you can love the smell of napalm whatever the time of day.
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1979)
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr / George Hickenlooper, US, 1991)
A flawed masterpiece outshone by its own ‘making of’ – however powerful Coppola’s Vietnam epic is, there’s nothing to compete with what happened behind the camera
By any rational standard, Apocalypse Now is one of the greatest films ever made. But then, we’re not dealing with rationality here. Endlessly complex, thrilling and maddening in equal measure, it’s a tough nut to crack. I’ve always joked it’s my 101st favourite film – a film I admire and desperately want to love, but which remains just outside of passion. It’s the best of the rest, my favourite non-favourite.
Why is this? It’s a stunning achievement, one that takes the breath away even on umpteenth viewing. So few films fully grasp the potential of filming and editing imagery in such a way as to reinvent reality, and there are – were- only a handful of directors who would even dare to pull off something so substantial and chaotic without a safety net. Today, with CGI and cautious accountancy, nobody ever will again.
It’s the high watermark of a cinema that knows no fear and no restraint, willing itself down the river in search of elusive dreams – and, as ace ‘making of’ documentary Hearts of Darkness (its equal in madness) observes, the collateral damage would kill a half-hearted project, with typhoons destroying the sets; one actor getting fired, and his replacement suffering a breakdown and heart attack; and the star completely indifferent to what was needed and not even bothering to lose weight.
What’s remarkable is that nothing is spectacle for spectacle’s sake, despite Coppola’s assertion that he was making a film in the tradition of Irwin Allen, not David Lean. The images, painstakingly lensed by Vittorio Storaro (a contender for cinema’s greatest cinematographer) are seemingly organic expressions of jungle fever and warfare, but in hindsight everything is immaculately planned. The sheer number of match cuts and double-exposures make it obvious that Coppola always intended a multiplicity of meaning in each shot, to pack the frame with symbolism that could be carried across to the next shot. And those image systems look frankly astonishing in the new digital restoration, as swirls of napalm vapour obscure hithero pin-sharp compositions, and ripples of water spreading out whenever a helicopter lands, a symbol of war-torn chaos destroying the peace of nature.
But don’t disregard the contribution of editor Water Murch, who chopped down one million feet of footage into something usuable, and then virtually invented 5.1 soundtrack to add further layers. The famous opening helicopter/ceiling fan combo is only the most overt expression of a film that is effortlessly fluid in sound and image. Together, the effect is genuinely hallucinatory, with Martin Sheen’s Willard fighting at every step of the way to avoid cracking a smile for fear of going loco. The film is partly a satire of a military mindset that needs to be boring to survive. One of the marvels of the new restoration is seeing how immaculate Sheen’s hair remains throughout, a symbol of a man determined to hang onto the outward signs of sanity against all evidence to the contrary.
Everything else, though, equals bonkers. “Little by little we went insane,” says Francis Ford Coppola – and that does infect the film, for good and ill. Coppola was determined to avoid being pretentious, and his transpositions from the source novel (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) are ever so cheeky. The colonial Victorian-era Africa of Conrad’s imagination certainly never had to deal with a nutty Colonel busting Vietcong chops primarily to get access to good surf, or a Playboy USO performance that descends into slapstick. These are moments of satirical pop-culture genius, but it leaves Coppola paddling upriver without a getaway plan; the minute Willard arrives at Kurtz’s compounds, Coppola instinctively reaches for Conrad and flails blindly into one of the most messily indulgent endings of any film.
In terms of impact, it’s a startling coup to go so downbeat after the earlier Wagnerian bombast: sitting in the dark with Marlon Brando is visually and dramatically powerful…until he speaks. What follows is a reductive Xerox of Conrad’s weighty themes that is ponderous, silly and – yes – pretentious. It’s a mark of Coppola’s indecision that he sets up a lofty ending based on the Fisher King (the legend, not the Gilliam film) only to scrupulously ignore its ultimate implications, turning much of Brando’s talk into a thematic dead end.
The result is a film that desperately needs an authorial stamp and, for all the money and talent thrown at the screen during the shoot, the saviour arrived in post-production, via the voiceover. There’s a convincing case to be made that Apocalypse Now’s auteur isn’t Conrad, Coppola or co-writer John Milius but Michael Herr, the Vietnam journalist who supplied Willard’s poetic monologues. Its talk of being “in the shit” gave Hollywood a shorthand for Vietnam war movies that made Herr the genre’s single most evocative stylist, and it’s noticeable that it was to Herr that Stanley Kubrick turned when developing Full Metal Jacket. Go and read Dispatches, Herr’s ace collection of war reportage, and it’s clear that – for all the nods to classic literature – Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of the journalist’s sardonic observations.
Coppola’s greatest coup, then, was to set up Herr’s words by replicating the conditions of combat in the way he made the film, “with too many men, too much money, too much equipment.” This is the story, after all, of a director who deliberately heads to a country – the Philippines – which is embroiled in a guerrilla war, in order to secure real army pilots quite happy to blast the shit out of the jungle in the service of action cinema. The downside? At any moment, your biggest set-piece might be called off because the pilots are ordered into bombing insurgents for real.
This is Hearts of Darkness, a film that throws Apocalypse Now’s loftier ambitions into sharp relief because real-life is quite crazy enough, thank you. It’s so scarcely plausible that, if it was a fiction film, the only way you could sell it to an audience would be as the broadest of farces, a la Tropic Thunder. Even as a book it’d be hard to swallow. But the evidence is all there, because Eleanor Coppola shot hours of on-set footage of her husband at (for want of a better word) “work.”
Never mind Kilgore putting on ‘Ride of the Valkyries;’ behind the camera, Coppola was stomping around, barking orders into a walkie-talkie, with a big hat on his head. Who’s satirising who? The distinction between fiction and reality breaks down at every turn, with the shoot taking on the mannerisms of the on-screen action. The Playboy extravaganza has its equivalent in the increasingly elaborate celebrations undertaken to mark the film’s rapidly-accumulating shooting anniversaries. Timothy Bottoms took speed to help play a character who was tripping out on acid. And then there’s Martin Sheen, spending his 36th birthday in a drink-fuelled dark place as a Hollywood film crew captured every moment. The extended footage of Sheen’s breakdown is especially disconcerting in the wake of his son’s recent public mania, but remains more chilling and moving than anything in Apocalypse Now. In our own way, we’re all headed upriver into the darkness.
Thanks to Optimum for giving me access to the films.