That way mad­ness lies

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Film -

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

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