The horror of making 'Apocalypse Now'

January 16, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

An American infantry officer once said of a village in Vietnam that to save it he had to destroy it. With only slight modification, the same paradox seems to have infected the most ambitious feature film about the war, Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" of 1979.

In order to save the film, Coppola had to destroy himself.

But who could know then? In 1975, Coppola, coming off "The Godfathers," was the most powerful and successful director in America; he could have made any movie he wanted. He chose a script written by a friend and, with a modest $13 million, set off to the Philippines to make a movie.

He returned three years later world-famous as a symbol of self-indulgence and the self-deluding vanity of artists, his career shattered and his spirit drained, a fool who tried to hustle the East. But he had a movie.

Seen today, "Apocalypse Now" is a tissue of murk and brilliance, of some of the great sequences in American movies and some of the most oafish, a great surrealistic tapestry of the war in Vietnam that somehow is more stunning than moving. It's almost there; you keep waiting for it to break through a membrane and become extraordinary, but it persistently disappoints.

Now the ordeal of its making has been captured by an extraordinary documentary that takes an audience as far into the crazed frenzy of movie-making as they are apt to get without a SAG card. "Hearts of Darkness" opens today at the Charles; beginning Jan. 24, it will be shown on a double bill with "Apocalypse Now" for more detailed annotations in folly.

In retrospect, the project was probably doomed from the start: Its writer, John Milius, wanted a vivid affirmation of the warrior spirit; Coppola, meanwhile, wanted a scorching examination of the dark places of the human heart, and, like East and West, never the twain could meet.

Milius' original idea was to use the structure of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as a platform for a tub-thumping war movie. At the end, the mad Green Beret colonel and the young captain sent up river to terminate him were to bond and go down fighting in a last stand against the howling yellow hordes. When he talks about this today, Milius' eyes still gleam with Viking fervor.

Coppola wanted something more. He just didn't know what it was. A week before it opened, after three years of gut-wrenching work, he wasn't even sure how to end it, and from the evidence, he still isn't. (Several versions are available on tape.)

The directors, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, use documentary footage shot by the director's wife Eleanor (magnanimously released from the United Artists vault by Coppola himself) and new footage of interviews with some of the participants (survivors); one of the film's dislocating aspects is its constant contrast of the scrawny, bony, alabaster faces of youth to the wadded, meaty faces of mid-life. Everybody seems to have been mainlining mashed potatoes soaked in butter.

But the directors are more ambitious than merely chronicling the ravages of time and cholesterol. They also mean to use the film as a metaphor for the same kind of American sickness that produced and sustained the war itself: insane overconfidence, bravado and insecurity, and then a bullish insistence on sticking it out, no matter what the cost. This may be reaching, but the details of the filming are nevertheless mesmerizing.

In this melange of will and mud, Coppola comes off looking like a demented warrior-king, half-mad with rage, half-desperate with conflict. He's William Westmoreland and Orson Welles subsumed into one titanic figure, sick with duty.

Everything goes wrong. He has to fire the star -- Harvey Keitel -- in the first few weeks and bring in Martin Sheen. Then Sheen has a heart attack and the production closes down for a month. When he comes back, Sheen looks so sleek and tan he could never be a Vietnam special operations guy: He looks like the boy from Ipanema. Meanwhile a typhoon strikes, the Philippine air force keeps peeling off choppers to go fight real communists in the mountains, the bills are mounting, the studio is screaming for footage and $3 million worth of Marlon Brando shows up looking as if he costs a buck a pound.

The footage of the desperate director and his truly bovine star is among the more surrealistic in the documentary canon. Looking like Jabba the Hutt, Brando is evidently unsure of the script and unable to memorize his lines. But that doesn't matter, because Coppola is changing them every night. Poor Sheen looks like an altar boy in a whorehouse.

The result was probably "Apocalypse's" weakest moment, when the movie gives itself up to a blurred, "mythic" account of a ritual murder derived largely from James Frazier's "The Golden Bough," which traced all drama back to a confrontation between pagan priests. It just wasn't the ending that summed up the two hours of phantasmagoria that preceded it; the air came out of the balloon; the emperor had no clothes.

I wish the directors had asked the survivors what they made of the movie now and I wish he'd updated us on their fates: Are the Coppolas still Mr. and Mrs.? Is Sam Bottoms still in the business? Whatever happened to Albert Hall, who gave the movie's strongest performance? What does the much-tarnished Martin Sheen think of it? How did Harvey Keitel respond to his firing?

But, no. Like "Apocalypse Now," "Hearts of Darkness" ends with a whimper, not a bang. And, like "Apocalypse Now," it absolutely must be seen by anybody who claims to love movies.

'Hearts of Darkness'

DIRECTED:Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

RATING: Unrated

*** 1/2

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