Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

What if the true cinema genius behind Apocalypse Now wasn’t director Francis Coppola but his wife Eleanor, who had the nerve and the presence of mind to turn a studio-mandated making-of documentary about it into a highly influential chronicle of creative megalomania?

Before Lost in La Mancha, about the vicissitudes of Terry Gilliam, and Burden of Dreams, about those of Werner Herzog, there was Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, about the perils of being big Francis. It’s out now on DVD, as a sort of nervous-disclaimer promotional tool for his defiantly independent new feature Youth Without Youth; just bear in mind, the PR effort seems to say, this guy’s always been a tortured genius.

For this common knowledge, we can thank Mrs. Coppola, who went way beyond the call of wifely duty during that famously, variously apocalyptic production 30 years ago. It’s no masterpiece of documentary technique by today’s standards, but Hearts of Darkness does have a secret weapon: the recordings Eleanor made, without her husband’s knowledge, of his many desperate confessions that he didn’t know what the hell he was doing.

“This film is a 20-million dollar disaster,” Francis squawks. “Why won’t anyone believe me?!” When his wife calmly responds that sometimes in school you just have to settle for a B instead of an A-plus, he barks back, “I’m gonna get an F!” Perhaps the one thing marriage and moviemaking both require above all else is endurance.

Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper got the directing credit, deservedly, for imposing Hearts’ narrative order and nice touches—like the spooky melodramatized voice of Orson Welles reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But none of it would resonate without Eleanor’s journalistically dubious yet artistically fertile raw material. All’s fair in love and war movies.