Method in the Mad Heart of Darkness

The most endearing thing about Francis Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ is that it was even made. I find it tremendously inspiring.

A film to flood the senses, with the sheer density of sounds, colours and the meticulous detail in light and shadow and the madness of piecing everything together, it is a powerful commentary on the American way of doing things, of war, of morality, death and rebirth. The Americans always make a big show of everything they do, anywhere they do it.

But more than anything, the film was Francis Coppola. Harvey Keitel turned out unsuitable for the role of Willard, the film kept going. Months into shooting, a major typhoon hit the Philippines, destroyed film sets but Francis Coppola kept going. Film critics and journalists were condemning the film and its director, but he still kept going. In the documentary that Eleanor Coppola, the wife of Francis Coppola, made titled ‘Hearts of Darkness: A filmmaker’s Apocalypse’, she documented a substantial portion of the filmmaking process and allowed a rare glimpse of Francis Coppola’s insecurities and personal struggles to just finish the film, not even to mention creating a masterpiece.

Apocalypse Now, among many things, is about risking everything, including your sanity. However, we see now that perhaps there was a method to all that madness. The process of making the film was Mr Coppola’s personal odyssey into his heart of darkness.

The triumph of all the cast and crew of Apocalypse Now is what I find inspiring.

Based loosely on Joseph’s Conrad’s 1902 novel Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now raised issues of the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War, and perhaps of war itself. The absurdity and madness of the actions carried out by the soldiers and the manner of the unfolding of events were shocking. Is shocking. And all of this was quite spectacularly captured in the film.

My favourite characters in the film were Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore played by Robert Duvall and Colonel Walter E. Kurtz played by Marlon Brando.

The discipline and focus that Robert Duvall maintained in his performance were profound. He nailed the character and the performance. Everything was real back in those days. The fire was real and so were the explosions, and so were the helicopters, including the flare that was accidentally ignited within the helicopter when filming was in process in the air. Amidst this real threat of danger lurking 360 degrees around him, Robert Duvall pulled off an incredible character-driven performance that was both sturdy and entertaining. It was also worrying (If we dare to imagine that that was the behaviour of an American Colonel in the Vietnam War).

I saw Marlon Brando’s character as someone who has already experienced the heart of darkness and has accepted it. Colonel Kurtz was a truer and more complete human being than any other character in the film. The words that he recited all moved me, but more particularly these ones:


“Horror and moral terror are your who are moral and at the same time are able to utilise their primordial instinct to kill without feeling without passion, without judgement. It is the judgement that defeats us.”


Another remarkable feat the film achieved was its sound design. It was the first announced film to utilise the 5.1 Dolby stereo surround sound system, which was crucial in delivering the intended effect of the film. Popular music and symphonic music were combined to highlight the dramatic emotionalism. Natural sounds like the sound of gunfire and helicopters were used, a concept of the music of symphonic richness created a synthesised realisation of a soundtrack of orchestral proportions. I liked this sublime union of the music that was in the background with the sounds of reality, of the things that were happening right in front of our eyes.

The triumph of the cast and crew over the extreme difficulties and personal insecurities inspire me personally. In particular, it was how the music for the film was created. Many musicians would be working collaboratively with the film crew on the music, with inevitable arguments and conflicts. But from that uncomfortable union of talent and genius emerged something extraordinary. This collective effort in the sound production was unusual for filmmaking at the time. As Bob Moog noted in his January 1980 article published in Contemporary Keyboard:


“A musician is taught to regard music as a self-contained, self-sufficient art form. The cinematographer regards music as another dimension of the environment in which the film is experienced. This dichotomy of views caused some very serious misunderstandings and misgivings. The synthesists would spend hours, even days, working on a cue, only to have it taken apart and used in a different spot on the film. Since a skilled musician is trained to take his work seriously, this sort of thing becomes hard to handle. Shirley Walker observed, ‘People with conventional musical skill were blown out emotionally by the experience. It was too tough for them. It was too hard for them to work on something that had taken them all their effort to learn how to perform in a certain way and then have their product used in conjunction with explosives and gunfire and insects and stuff like that. I think we all felt, ‘Oh my god, did I get used!’ at one time or another. David Rubinson supplies a different perspective, ‘Look, millions of dollars and beads of sweat were spent for scenes never seen on the screen, which never ended up in Francis’s picture. Likewise, a lot of notes never got onto the soundtracks.’ Anyone who intends to work as a film musician must resolve this conflict in his or her mind. If you don’t, you will certainly develop a sour attitude and that will influence your productivity. Realising a film score is not like appearing on the stage of Madison Square Garden. It’s not even like playing in the rhythm section during a disco session. It requires the ability to completely subordinate your ego to the vision of the film director while still performing with a professional level of musicianship.”


In my opinion, this lengthy paragraph could easily be applied to architecture. Architecture is generally and very popularly taught as a ‘self contained, self-sufficient art form’. But in reality, nothing is self-contained or self-sufficient, and especially not the architecture industry.

Architects in the 21st century require the ability to completely subordinate their egos to the improvement of mankind and the progress of humanity while still performing with a professional level of craftsmanship. Whatever this means, whether it is a new communal way of working or something else, we have to find out fast, and we have to find out together.


By Steven Chu

Steven Chu is a Burmese-Australian architect and the Founding Director of Alter Atlas.

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Steven Chu