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Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

Paramount // R // November 20, 2007
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Preston Jones | posted November 16, 2007 | E-mail the Author
The Movie

In watching Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse again for the first time in a few years, I was struck by the sheer egomaniacal drive that spurred Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola forward -- this is a man who, seemingly quite literally, went incrementally insane in the Philippine jungle. Do you think anyone working in Hollywood today could get away, not only with staging sprawling battle scenes on his own dime, but having half of what transpired during that film's production happen in a world dominated by gossip blogs and tabloid TV?

The overwhelming ambition and staggering scale of Coppola's Vietnam-centric riff upon Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" are relics from another time, an era when filmmaking was a creative enterprise, not a corporate one. Films such as Apocalypse Now aren't made anymore, but judging from the hellish, downright harrowing sequences in Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola's masterful Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, that's probably to the good of the directorial community.

Long considered one of the most insightful and gripping documentaries about filmmaking ever created, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse has long been sought after by aficionados of both Coppola's surreal masterpiece and those who yearn to have a complete, authoritative overview of Apocalypse Now on DVD. (More on my thoughts about that below, in the supplements section.) At last, after untangling some rights issues, which is what Coppola associate Kim Aubry explained to me was holding this documentary back from inclusion on last year's Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier set, this searing look behind the scenes of one of Hollywood's most infamous and justly celebrated films is at last available on DVD. And, for those who wondered in DVD Talk's forums as to whether any controversial scenes would be cut, the answer is no. The film is intact.

Featuring interviews (vintage and contemporary) with nearly all of the principal cast and crew, held together by Eleanor Coppola's diffident narration and a loose narrative detailing the production of Coppola's film and an abandoned attempt by Orson Welles to adapt Conrad's novella, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is at its best when providing unvarnished glimpses of the elephantine production. Watching Coppola stew in frustration as the Philippine army abandons him during the filming of complicated sequences, as the crew must deal with the aftermath of a typhoon or as Marlon Brando painstakingly labors to find just the right note for his character is revealing and fascinating. That Coppola, one of Hollywood's legendary filmmakers, would allow such a scathing portrait of himself and his behavior (more than once, Coppola intimates that he's considering suicide) to survive is even more revealing -- and mesmerizing. The frank, occasionally brutal nature of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is one of the primary reasons it's held in such high regard -- few who make their living in cinema would open themselves up to such ruthless dissection.

But, ultimately, you're left with an even deeper appreciation of Apocalypse Now, having witnessed the grueling creative process and understanding the toll -- mentally, physically, financially -- it exacted upon its creator. Flaws and all, it's one of the silver screen's most indelible works, a frustrating, illuminating examination of men and madness, an exhilarating classic. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is of an equally rare breed -- a film that enhances and deepens one's appreciation of an often misunderstood artwork.


The Video:

While it's great to have this peerless document on DVD, it's aggravating that Paramount didn't give the film a cursory touch-up. Granted, Eleanor Coppola's on-location footage wasn't shot on state-of-the-art cameras and would only appear slightly improved here, but this 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer is only a step or two above my VHS copy of the film. The ragged, worn look does evoke the proper atmosphere, but the screens of text lack sharpness and often, the newer interview segments look flat and a bit washed-out. Clips from the film are presented in their theatrical aspect ratio, albeit letterboxed to stay consistent with the fullscreen presentation. A very so-so transfer of a long-awaited title.

The Audio:

The Dolby 2.0 stereo track gets the job done, but one senses it's no more spiffed up than the visuals -- Eleanor Coppola's narration is conveyed clearly, with minimal problems; the archival sound is often marred by static or other aural defects, which can make it difficult to discern what's being said. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras:

As is his custom with every new release of a film he's associated with, Coppola contributes a candid, informative commentary track for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, although this go-round, he's joined by Eleanor. In addition, a 62-minute documentary, Coda: Thirty Years Later, created by Eleanor, follows the lion in winter as he shoots the forthcoming drama Youth Without Youth in Romania. It's interesting and there are efforts made to connect it with the renegade spirit of Apocalypse Now, but the modern work doesn't seem nearly as compelling as Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. It's presented in a clean, clear 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with a Dolby 2.0 stereo track and optional English, French or Spanish subtitles.

Here's what makes me a bit angry: When the "Complete Dossier" was released last year, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse was MIA, according to longtime Coppola associate Kim Aubry, because of rights issues. So now that Coppola has a new film about to hit the marketplace, a barely presentable version of the doc suddenly becomes available on DVD, and just happens to have what amounts to a feature-length making-of centered on a film soon to be released? Call me cynical if you must, but there's just something about the timing of this disc that makes me think Coppola's leveraging a bit of his storied past in order to interest fans in what's next. It strikes me as a bit crass, but given the iffy buzz on Youth Without Youth, not entirely surprising. How much you wanna bet a truly "Complete" edition of Apocalypse Now hits shelves around the time that Youth Without Youth arrives on DVD? Anyone?

Final Thoughts:

Flaws and all, Apocalypse Now is one of the silver screen's most indelible works, a frustrating, illuminating examination of men and madness, an exhilarating classic. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is of an equally rare breed -- a film that enhances and deepens one's appreciation of an often misunderstood artwork. While the audio/visual presentation on this long-awaited DVD leave something to be desired, for diehard Apocalypse Now fans, it might just be enough that it's on disc. Along with Hearts, a commentary track worth fans' time is included, although the inclusion of a new Eleanor Coppola doc about Francis' new work, Youth Without Youth, smacks a bit of opportunism. Still, the main attraction is essential viewing for film lovers. Highly recommended.

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Highly Recommended

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