Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece seemed to be destined for success from the get-go. It was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, regarded as one of the greatest novels of the Nineteenth century. It was directed by the mastermind behind the two Godfather films. It was set during the Vietnam War, a sure-fire way to garner extensive publicity. And it was Marlon Brando’s return to the silver screen proper, after a string of critically-panned cameos done just for the money. The stage was set for triumph. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, everything went wrong, very quickly and very drastically. Nature played an important role in both the source material of Heart of Darkness, and the adaptation, where the setting during the Vietnam War played upon ideas of alien territory, unforgiving jungle landscapes, and the blaringly ominous wilderness of natives and unknowns. And of course, the narrative is centred around a journey up a river, with scenes that range from the beginning, where a young Lawrence Fishburne jives to The Rolling Stones, to the pyrotechnical anarchy at the Du Long Bridge.
But nature turned out to be a constant menace for the production team just as much as the protagonists. Sets and cinematography equipment had started to be shipped in from 1975, but instead of being met with a ready cast and crew, Typhoon Olga crashed in and destroyed most of the prepared sets. The destruction was so total that most of the crew flew back to the US for six to eight weeks, pushing the filming schedule back by the same amount and pushing the production $2 million over budget before filming had really even begun.
So much for a relaxed shoot in the balmy climate of the Philippines. And it wasn’t just nature that turned against the production. Famously, Brando turned up to the production enormously overweight, having been cast to play the skeletal Kurtz, without having learnt his lines, having not read the book, and having agreed to turn up only on the condition of a $1 million a week contract.
Then Martin Sheen had a heart attack on set. Then Coppola realised the film’s ending needed to be completely re-written. Then the production was shut down after it emerged that bodies used for a harrowing scene towards the end had actually been stolen from a local graveyard. Then animal rights groups went up in arms when it emerged that an animal sacrifice scene had involved the actual killing of a cow by a native tribe.
And all that combined so that a projected five month shoot schedule ended up taking over two years. Who would have thought that a typhoon would prove such an inauspicious omen? Coppola can consider himself a lucky man then, when what came out of that calamity of a production became one of the greatest films of the Twentieth century, which won two Oscars and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It turns out there was a method after all.