In 1976 film director Francis Ford Coppola took a crew to the Philippines to make Apocalypse Now, thinking the shoot would be over with in a matter of a few weeks. The film had originally been written by his friend John Milius, who had been inspired by the fact that Orson Welles had once attempted to make his first movie an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a classic novel detailing a hunt upriver in the jungle for Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone native and possibly mad. Welles failed, but Milius took this as a challenge, though he wasn't the one who had to actually make it...
For film fans, the story behind Apocalypse Now is about as celebrated as the film itself, and the details of the craziness that it swiftly descended into passed quickly into legend. Luckily for them, the wife of the director Eleanor Coppola had decided to make her own document of the production in home movie form, so had created many hours of footage that directors Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper fashioned into a separate film. This was made before DVD extras really took off, and had it been released more recently it seems doubtful that would have had a cinema showing as Hearts of Darkness recieved in its day.
So if the style is much of a muchness to those addicted to behind the scenes featurettes, as if it was this which set the style of such things in stone, then at least the tales of the hellish time everyone everyone had trying to actually finish the grand folly that was Coppola's film were appropriately absorbing. The disasters that everyone knows about are all covered here, from the fact that President Marcos was not exactly accommodating when it came to helping them out, whisking army helicopters away at a moment's notice to fight Communist rebels, and the weather conditions tended towards either too hot or too wet or, in one case, too typhoon, to allow the filming to continue.
At the heart of this was Coppola, who was not keen on the way he was depicted in this documentary, and little wonder as we can see he is approximating some kind of mental breakdown on the set which is only staved off by his obsession with getting the bloody thing completed. When star Martin Sheen had his near-fatal heart attack, Coppola's attitude was basically that if he died then nobody was to know until he told them, as if even that was not enough to stop the juggernaut of his arrogant ambition. Indeed, Coppola doesn't come out of this very well at all, though you do oddly sympathise with him as it all falls down around his ears.
And then he'll claim that his film is not about the Vietnam War - it IS the Vietnam War and you start to think he's suffering delusions. Yet the fact was that anyone trying to get such a mammoth undertaking off the ground and keep it in the air was going to go loopy, and to make matters worse some key players had gone loopy before they'd even arrived in the Philippines, such as Dennis Hopper, who we see having maddening conversations, patently not in a good place as far as his sanity went. Marlon Brando was little better, acting the method diva rather than learning his lines or even reading the book (and it's not a long book!); he generates a few laughs in the outtakes we see, but it's a miracle Coppola had anything remotely usable out of that - no wonder Brando is hardly in the end result. Actually what emerges from this is an explanation of why everything about Apocalypse Now seemed so egocentric about the American abroad - if nothing else, it portrayed what was going through Coppola's tormented mind.
[This is available on Blu-ray as part of Optimum's three disc box set of Apocalypse Now.]