That way madness lies
Ned Beauman salutes the bold directors who’ve gone to wild extremes to film an epic – and been humbled by the jungle
The opening credits of The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935) included the following message: “The production of this film was carried out under conditions of extreme difficulty and hardship, involving personal danger to the actors and technicians, to whom the producers owe a debt of appreciation. The sound recording was occasionally interfered with by the extremely variable atmosphere condition[s], and your kind indulgence is craved in this direction.”
It must be a bit humiliating to start your film with an apology to the audience, but the director Edward A Kull and his team had indeed faced more than their share of trials. Ashton Dearholt, an independent producer who’d struck a deal with Edgar Rice Burroughs, didn’t have any studio space in Hollywood, so he decided to shoot on location in Guatemala. This turned out to be a rash idea. The crew survived storms, diseases and crocodiles; their equipment was imperilled by customs officials, mountain roads, and jungle humidity; and they ran out of money before they finished filming.
If all that sounds rather familiar, it’s because The New Adventures of Tarzan is an obscure forerunner to two films with far more notorious production histories: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). Coppola, as is well known, had to deal with the worst typhoon to strike the Philippines in 40 years, Martin Sheen’s dicky heart, Marlon Brando’s obstinacy, and financiers who understandably balked at a six-week shoot stretching to 16 months of chaos. Herzog, however, has described Apocalypse Now as “only a kindergarten compared to what we went through”. He was filming deeper in the jungle; instead of sending a patrol boat down a river, he had to haul a steamship over a mountain; and he had a star, Klaus Kinski, who made Brando look like a model of dignified professionalism.
Also, he was perpetually broke. “The distinction between Apocalypse Now and my film is that Coppola always resolved [problems] with ready cash,” he told Time magazine. “In my case, because I had to produce the film myself, I was down to the utmost limit. So I lived in a chicken coop and had nothing to eat any more. But I remembered from Miami I had two bottles of shampoo... and I traded it at the local market for four kilos of rice, and I ate rice for three or four weeks. That’s how I survived.”
My own first acquaintance with any of this stuff was Unkle’s 1998 album Psyence Fiction, the second track of which includes a sample of Coppola admitting, “There were too many of us. We had access to too many – too much money, too much equipment. And little by little we went insane.” At the time, I hadn’t yet seen Apocalypse Now and I didn’t know who was speaking, but as I listened to the album again and again, those lines seemed to radiate more and more mystery. In that sense, I’ve been obsessed with disastrous jungle film shoots since before I could even identify exactly what it was I was obsessed with.
But it wasn’t until I researched the theme in more detail while preparing to write my latest novel – in which a film crew attempt to shoot a screwball comedy on location at a lost Mayan temple in the wilds of Honduras – that I began to think about it in grander terms. This wasn’t just a case of two great films from the same period that happened to run into similar problems. This was a mythic pattern as old as the talkies themselves. If you set off to make a film about white men in the jungle falling victim to hubris, you will fall victim to hubris yourself.
The directors of both Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo seemed to invite this merger of fiction and reality. In her diaries, published as Notes: The Making of Apocalyse Now, Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, writes, “More and more it seems like there are parallels between the character of Kurtz and Francis. There is the exhilaration of power in the face of losing everything, like the excitement of war when one kills and takes the chance of being killed.” Coppola himself observed that “I, like Captain Willard, was moving up river in a faraway jungle, looking for answers and hoping for some kind of catharsis.”
Herzog, meanwhile, identified so closely with Fitzcarraldo that he claimed to be prepared, as a last resort, to play the role himself, “and would have been a very good Fitzcarraldo simply because what the character has to do in the film was exactly what I had to do as the film’s director”. The critic Stuart Klawans compares Herzog to his compatriot Joseph Beuys, for whom the ordeal was itself the art.
Of course, the more banal explanation is that the jungle has always been a mortar in which arrogant foreigners are ground to paste. Just look at Fordlandia, Henry Ford’s prefabricated rubber plantation that was abandoned to the vines and creepers of the Amazon in 1934, only six years after it was founded. But in my new novel, Madness is Better than Defeat – the title is a quotation from Orson Welles’s adapted screenplay for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a project that collapsed before it even started filming – I wanted to ask whether there might be a deeper, more numinous origin for the pattern. I expect that the account I offer, which is so baroque I had to include diagrams, will strike some readers as intriguing and others as risible, depending on their tastes.
However, what concerns me more is that I didn’t go mad enough myself in the course of writing the book. The four-year process was, to be sure, complicated, fitful and exhausting, but when I consider Eleanor Coppola’s advice that “You have to fail a little, die a little, go insane a little to come out the other side,” I cannot honestly say that I got further than the first step. In that sense, I paid tribute to the pattern of the epic production that spirals out of control rather than participating in it.
This puts me in the company of various films of recent years, including the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, which records Terry Gilliam’s doomed attempt to film his adaptation of Don Quixote, and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), which tells the story of a theatre production that never ends.
OHerzog ‘lived in a chicken coop and ate nothing but rice for four weeks’
thers have come closer to plunging in for real. In 2015, I visited the Mayfair post-production offices of Dau, a Russian film that seemed delirious with Coppolan-Herzogian overreach: it was shot over more than three years in Kharkov, Ukraine, with hundreds of extras
Hell is other people: Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski on the set of Fitzcarraldo