Hearts of Darkness (1991)

At the bloated end of the 1970s an overweight pomposity came into view. Hyped to high heaven and overpriced, the monster squatted in the Philippines, sweating a high cholesterol combination of art and anger. In this fashion the beast cast a vastly overrated shadow across the movie industry, a portentous sense of awe that still persists today. The beast was called Apocalypse Now (1979), and even though Coppola was King of Hollywood with his Godfather Oscars, nothing is guaranteed in life. Apocalypse Now offered viewers little in terms of gratification, other than a few decent explosions and vaguely-psychedelic experiences, but at heart it’s a formless track of celluloid that was lucky to make it to the screen at all.

The documentary Hearts of Darkness however, is so vastly superior to Apocalypse Now, that once you’ve seen it you probably won’t need to or want to do the old bucket-list must ‘see that pile of crap called Apocalypse Now’ before I die.   Hearts of Darkness has participants you can care about; it has a story, and it has far more tension and emotion to it than the portentous Brando-laden box office bullshit that comprises the original feature; and it also demonstrates some basics about modern American imperialism, although it doesn’t intend to exactly

Whereas Apocalypse Now is vague, characterless and fails to make a convincing case in its anti-War message, Hearts of Darkness is massively interesting because of tis detail, and features a sold cast of crazies and innocent bystanders, and presents the American occupation of other countries as a wild nightmare.

What is cool about Hearts of Darkness is you get to see what a prize tit Francis Ford Coppola is. It’s his film crew that is ‘occupying’ the Philippines, and he is hilariously brattish as he screams that he wants his helicopters (borrowed conditionally from the Philippines government) and sets his army of hundreds of dollar-a-day slaves to work.

The result is a documentary which reveals that in making of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola didn’t struggle with nature as he would have liked us to think, but just stupidly turned up in the hot and humid maritime climate of the Philippines, with a massive production crew expecting everything to go well. Neither did Francis Ford Coppola struggle with governments as he would have liked us to think, because Hearts of Darkness reveals his lack of power and belief that if he shouts loud enough, anything can happen. Hearts of Darkness also reveals that Coppola at this point did not struggle with actors either, as he may have liked us to think, because it shows him off as a bully, with no care for anybody around him. Coppola is outraged that Martin Sheen has had a heart attack, for example, not because he is concerned for the actor, but because he is terrified the media will find out and his production may be jeopardised —the same sort of selfish white idiocy that he shows throughout.

It’s tragic what the film industry can do to someone. With all his Oscars under his belt, Coppola finally believed by the end of the 1970s that he was as god-like as the Academy and the Hollywood community had hyped him to be.   A heavy percentage of Hearts of Darkness shows Francis Ford Coppola’s wrestling with this in the form of his towering self-doubt, which is in fact justified. Yes, er knows he is shit, but it is absolutely impossible that he admits it — a psychological bind that he cannot escape.

When Apocalypse Now premiered at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, Coppola said: “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It IS Vietnam. It’s what it was really like — it was crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way the 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.”

I guess it’s a relief that they managed to make any film at all, but this kind of statement is merely highly accomplished hype. Looked at for what it is, Apocalypse Now does not display the cacophony and chaos of war, but the cacophony and chaos of moviemaking, and what happens when auteurs go mad with millions of dollars. Coppola had every right to doubt this ridiculous war epic and wonder why he was bothering

It’s an irony that despite the set dressing and explosions, Apocalypse Now is not as film of characters. You can see this in Hearts of Darkness, particularly in Martin Sheen’s conversations about who or what his character Marlowe is.   Coppola gives Martin Sheen no clue at all as to what his character may be like, and there is precious little in the script in the way of clues; and so the result is that Marlowe in Apocalypse Now is a flat performance that relies on mood music above everything else. I say it’s an irony because whereas Marlowe and the others in the film have no character to speak of such, the actors who feature in Hearts of Darkness do. If you like Dennis Hopper’s turn in Apocalypse Now, you’ll love him in Hearts of Darkness; he’s crazier, he’s more stoned, and he giggles like a fool.

When it comes to Marlon Brando in Hearts of Darkness, things get even more highly entertaining. First of all, Francis Ford Coppola is completely undone by Brando who is bigger than he is, more pretentious than he is and much sulkier and more ridiculous than Coppola could ever be. All the way through Hearts of Darkness, Coppola has tantrums and fits when things don’t go his way, and you feel it coming but he is no way ready for the cool and cruel aplomb of the master

Now you can see them together, Brando and Coppola, you can see what painful, expensive and pretentious ends these men went to make their mediocre film. You’ll see Brando staring into space for his weekly rate of a million dollars; and you’ll see Philippine natives buried up to their necks in dirt for days while the set waits for Brando to make a decision.

Then comes the great question of the North American era: bodily weight. In the midst of this crashing poverty of ideas Coppola tops off Hearts of Darkness with his angst at the weight of Marlon Brando; and if only it was a metaphor for the USA both overseas and at home, it would be perfect.

Brando, who hasn’t lost weight for the part of Kurtz, as expected, won’t tolerate Copolla’s rewrite of the character. So instead, Brando appears in shadow, which incidentally only serves to emphasise his bulk by trying to conceal it in a huge formless darkness. Brando’s own huge formless darkness wins, and I was left thinking that it works at least because the million dollar man, Marlon Brando, didn’t have to move about much for the part of Kurtz. This lack of movement was a common later Brando trait, and I expect it was something to do with his using more physical and brain energy to create the facial expressions.   Coppola’s disappointment is tangible when he begins his rant: ‘He was already heavy when I hired him… ‘ and it only gets more farcical and irrelevant.

So unlike Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness is dramatically satisfying. Coppola admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing and that the whole process if not the whole movie, are irrational. It’s an essential companion to Apocalypse Now if you are interested in that film, but above all, Hearts of Darkness is just simply better. It even has a happy ending, which we all know! The film gets made, and it does pretty well; Coppola trotted off to make The Outsiders, after which things go pretty much downhill; and Brando made a forgettable crime thriller with George C. Scott called The Formula (1980). The hype persists about Apocalypse Now and pretty much every teenage boy and student has to see at some time, and aided by the oppressive legends and rigmarole around the production — they all generally pretty much enjoy it.

This is despite its flaws and inconsistencies, which are not immediately obvious, and may begin to dawn on you after the spectacle, and after you've sobered up, and began to wodner why the film doesn't even have a through line of any sort.  Further there are plenty actors out there who could have played the part of Kurtz, but maybe none who would have carried on so badly, and driven the finale with the same mysterious extempore ramblings that Brando did.