'Apocalypse' tale riveting

TELEVISION

October 12, 1991|By STEVE MCKERROW

Actor Robert Duvall provides the best review of a fascinating new movie-within-a-movie premiering on the Showtime cable network tonight.

"Men play strange games," he says with a rueful shake of the head.

The movie-making business is a strange game, but was perhaps never stranger than in 1976 when director Francis Ford Coppola marched into a Philippine jungle with a huge crew, intent upon re-creating the Vietnam War experience.

The result, of course, was the mesmerizing 1979 film "Apocalypse Now." But with "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," premiering at 10 tonight on the premium channel, it is captivating to learn how closely the filmmaking process came to resemble the war it sought to replicate.

Much of the film consists of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Mr. Coppola's wife, Eleanor, who was in the crew directing the usual "the-making-of . . ." documentary reel.

Early on, for example, we hear Mr. Coppola making the analogy that the film effort, like the U.S. fighting effort, had too much money, too much equipment, too much time, and "little by little we went insane."

Actor Sam Bottoms talks of the drug use that was pervasive within the film crew. "We were bad. We were just bad, man," he says, and he could be a Vietnam vet recounting his war tour.

Just as U.S. forces in Vietnam had to work with another nation's army, Mr. Coppola was dependent on Ferdinand Marcos' Philippine Air Force for Huey helicopters and pilots. While filming one scene, the 'copters simply departed and flew off to bomb suspected communist insurgents in the hills.

It is easy to see why Mr. Coppola, whose personal assets financed the movie, says at one point, "I'm thinking of shooting myself."

"Hearts of Darkness" provides an unusually intimate glimpse into themaking of a film. Mrs. Coppola captured her husband in moments when he didn't know he was on camera, such as raving over his typewriter that he doesn't have an ending for the movie, or ranting on the phone back to Hollywood in disbelief that star Marlon Brando might pull out of his contract.

"Apocalypse Now" seems to have become for Mr. Coppola an obsessive effort to validate his earlier precocious success with "The Godfather."

It is no accident that "Hearts of Darkness" director Fax Bahr traces the "Apocalypse Now" project back to Orson Welles. Many film authorities believe Mr. Welles sought in vain throughout his career to reattain the level of success he found, at age 24, with "Citizen Kane."

Among the ironies in "Hearts of Darkness," we learn that Mr. Coppola wanted to film "Apocalypse" earlier, while the Vietnam War was still going on. Film crew members who had gone to great lengths to dodge the U.S. draft were happy to make the trip carrying cameras.

Central actor Martin Sheen, who was Captain Willard, the officer assigned to find the Brando character and terminate him "with extreme prejudice," wasn't the first choice for the role. Harvey Keitel began the shooting, but was sent home by Mr. Coppola after he saw early "rushes."

Mr. Sheen was worried he would not be physically up to the task of on-site shooting and he did suffer a near-fatal heart attack missing weeks of work.

Late in the movie, Mrs. Coppola says, "everyone who has come out here to the Philippines is going through something that is affecting them profoundly."

"Hearts of Darkness" makes that seem a gross understatement.

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