Apocalypse Now: Into the Heart of Darkness

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.  If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.” Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche

In Fax Bahr and George Hinkenlooper’s documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), Frances Ford Coppola says of his 1979, Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now: “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment –and little by little we went insane.”

Although the statement may have been intended as a neat sound-bite with which to promote interest in the film, there is still something poignant about it. All three stories –Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, on which Coppola’s feature was based, Apocalypse Now, and the aforementioned ‘making-of’ documentary– have created a mythos about what occurs when men journey into the depths of their own souls, and into the souls of other men.

In the case of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse now, there are three elements that are paramount to understanding each ‘story’ thematically. They are the ‘personal’ readings (i.e. the deconstruction of the protagonists Charles Marlow and Benjamin Willard); the ‘sociological’ (the circumstances, historically, in which each is set) and the reading of the Kurtz character; which binds all of the elements together.

So, spite of the fundamental differences in plot –locations, character names, motivations, et cetera –Coppola manages to re-invent a product that maintains, thematically speaking, much of what Conrad’s original vision intended.  Each text implies that the ‘soul’, or ‘heart’, is somehow inextricably linked with the sense of the ‘primeval’ that exists when one is closer to nature, and that overexposure to this ‘id’ side of the human psyche will eventually result in what Conrad’s refers to as the “abomination,” and film theorists call, the grotesque.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad creates a narrative-within-a-narrative style of storytelling. The un-named narrator of the book recounts verbatim, and in the present tense, a story told to him by one, Charles Marlow, an old-style sailor who still who “follows the sea”.  Marlow is describing his boat journey up a (un-named) jungle river to bring back an infamous, but recalcitrant ivory trader by the name of Kurtz.

In the modern ‘retelling,’ Apocalypse Now, Coppola chooses to change and update the story; setting it in Vietnam. Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is the film’s protagonist and chief storyteller. Willard is a troubled, nihilistic, special ops soldier ordered by his superiors to travel up the Nung river to “terminate, with extreme prejudice,” the command of a rogue General, Gen. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Both texts depict how the perceptions of the characters are changed by their encounters with the mythic, God-like figure of Kurtz.

Linda Constanzo Cahir argues in her essay Narratological Parallels in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, that in its basic narratological structure, Heart of Darkness is “inherently cinematic” and that, “the recording eye of Conrad’s anonymous narrator functions in the same way as the camera functions in [Apocalypse Now]” and that, “both [the narrator and the camera] interpose themselves (near-invisibly) between the teller and the listener.”

Cahir is correct in describing the relationship between the spectator/reader and the main protagonist (that being Marlow/Willard); Willard narrates the film, or ‘confesses’ to it, much in the same way that Marlow narrates, or ‘confesses’ to the ‘anonymous narrator.’ However, what Cahir has failed to recognise that Coppola choice is not without a significant thematic consequence: by removing the ‘anonymous narrator’ as a physical, human and retrospective presence, Coppola has narrowed the scope of the story to involve only the events described by Willard. Therefore, he never shows the effect that Kurtz has had upon Willard after his encounter with him –because the film ends shortly after the assassination scene. And though the reader has no idea how long Marlow’s tale is occurring after the original events, they at least provided a glimpse of Marlow ‘post-Kurtz.’

One of the major differences in plot and narrative between Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness is, oddly, also what binds them in terms of theme.  The cultural context in which both texts were produced communicates the particular fears in the western psyche regarding those whom they deemed ‘savage’ or un-civilised.  Both the film and the book pose as an allegory for the turmoil and violence that occurs when one society becomes inextricably linked to another, through either war or trade.

In Conrad on Film Elsaesser and Wedel cite Apocalypse Now cinematographer Vittorio Storaro who “claim[s] that in Apocalypse Now he ‘wanted to express that main idea of Joseph Conrad, which is the imposition of one culture on top of another culture.”  This is the essence of both stories even though the reasons that the protagonists find themselves in jungle are down to war and trade respectively; Marlow is in the employ of the ‘Company,’ who are concerning with protecting the ivory trade and Willard is a long serving soldier in the US Army, who, although fighting the spread of communism, are concerned with Kurtz’s “unsound methods.”

Apocalypse Now began its production in the Philippine’s in late March 1976, less than one year subsequent to the US Army’s full withdrawal from Vietnam –which ‘officially’ occurred on 29 April 1975.  America had, for the first time, suffered a large scale defeat at the hands of an army with considerably fewer resources and training than themselves, losing over 58,000 troops in the process.  Documented accounts of soldier’s conduct during the war would change the world’s image of the US soldier to a position from which it has never really recovered. Journalist Michael Herr describes his emotions towards many soldiers saying, “Disgust doesn’t begin to describe what they made me feel, they threw people [South Vietnamese soldiers] out of helicopters, tied people up and put the dogs on them.  Brutality was just a word in my mouth before that.

There is one significant scenes in Apocalypse Now that translate from the original text but make it relevant to their contemporary subject matter;  the ‘Ride of the Valkeries’ scene and the ‘asshole of the world.’ The former highlights the sense of brutality present throughout the film, while the latter displays the chaos and madness of the conflict.  Both are important when it comes to analysing the senselessness of the Vietnam War.  The sense of fun that is depicted as the helicopters bombard a small fishing village with bullets and bomb to the sounds of Wagner echoes many of the realities of the Vietnam War, like the ones described above by Herr.

Conrad’s counterpart scene occurs during the three months when his steamer is being repaired in which he witnesses the true horrors of imperialism. During a journey into the jungle Marlow happens upon the construction of a railway where the natives were being worked to death. He describes seeing the black men “tolling up the path… balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads.”  He slowly reveals the true extent of the barbarism: “I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected with a chain whose bights swung between them… but these men could by no stretch of the imagination be called enemies” .  As Marlow moves away the horrors increase as he witnesses “the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.

“They were dying slowly – it was very clear… nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.  Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away…”

The Industrial Revolution gave birth to modern living as we know it, but as Conrad described effectively in the above scene, it wasn’t without moral and human consequence.  It is also arguable that many of the same (capitalist) motivations were behind the war in Vietnam.

Shortly before arriving at the Kurtz compound Marlow’s boat passes through a station was a “burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs… bodies swaying… under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage…. we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic breakout of a madhouse.”  This scene of “madness” occurs in Apocalypse Now when Willard approaches the “Asshole of the World”; the army outpost before being pushed into Cambodia and toward Kurtz.  Cahir deconstructs the scene thus:

“The scene begins with the image of living bodies, swirling in a Dantesque pool of water and crying out to be saved… Willard attempt[s] to find a Commanding Officer… but there is no C.O; chaos has no order.  Willard is witness to the purgatory of Sisyphus, where each day the condemned must rebuild a bridge that is destroyed anew each night… The entire journey, to varying degrees, becomes a very strange quest, a gradual initiation into the dark world of the enigmatic Kurtz. ”

It is clear that both authors, with their respective scenes, have signalled that civilisation is no longer a viable concept when this far into the jungle. Although, Coppola uses the scene as an allegory for the nature in which the Vietnam War was orchestrated, this is further compounded by the use of Jimi Hendrix’s famous Woodstock rendition of the American national anthem as the accompanying score.

Conrad’s novel and Coppola’s film are both ideological battles, with the Willard and Marlow being the mediators. The motivations of each protagonist are very similar; both feel the ‘call of the wild’ and are restless when without a mission. Willard requires a mission because he is no longer able to assimilate into any kind of culture; Marlow is a man who ‘follows the sea’ and Willard’s is man born to kill.

As both men leave the last remnants of civilisation, enter through the fog and emerge into the heart of darkness –where both men have will ultimately receive their satori and have their perception realigned by the mysterious figure of Kurtz.

They are met by the harlequin figure who promotes and espouses the God-like theology of hs master.  In heart of darkness, this figure is a young, Russian man who has lost his mind. Apocalypse Now contemporises this man by making him a rogue, war photographer played by Dennis Hopper and rumoured to be based upon real life photographer, Sean Flynn, who went missing whilst in the jungle.

Upon meeting Kurtz both Willard and Marlow encounter scenes of ritualistic murder; evidence suggesting that Kurtz has indeed gone mad. But, in both texts, Kurtz is indeed the wise figure that is anticipated.  He is a man fully enlightened to the darkness in the world and the horrors of its inhabitants, and by the time of their respective meetings both men (Marlow and Kurtz) have been sufficiently changed by their journeys to appreciate his dialogues. Cahir describes both Willard and Marlow as Kurtz’s “spiritual sons,” and this is true. However, the conclusions of their meeting are significantly different; Marlow succeeds in convincing Kurtz agree to return to the Company, but during the journey Kurtz succumbs to the sickness he acquired during the time in the jungle.  On the other hand, Willard kills Kurtz (Marlon Brando), slaying him with a machete in scenes juxtaposed with the ritual slaughter of a caribou by Kurtz’s army of natives. In both texts, Kurtz’s poignant dying words are “the Horror! The Horror!”

It is clear that Kurtz had gone over the edge and could no longer return to the light (i.e. civilisation). But each ending is fitting for its purpose; Cahir states succinctly that Marlow “is a changed man, vastly isolated and tremendously different from those aboard the Nellie. Marlow is forever alienated in his wisdom… Willard is [also] wiser… humbled by his confrontations with the darkness inherent in Kurtz, in Himself, in existence.”  In essence Apocalypse Now was able to successfully take the themes of Heart of Darkness and apply them in a contemporary retelling because they are so universal, and Kurtz’s final words echo in both texts because the ‘horror’ is never truly explained, but whatever ‘the horror’ is, both protagonists take it away with them, wherever it is that they go.

Here’s the intro:


About craig shaw

2 Responses to Apocalypse Now: Into the Heart of Darkness

  1. huskysagehen says:

    Great commentary, but what exactly is the higher enlightenment that Kurtz has attained in both Conrad and Coppola’s works? Is it the abandonment of the civilizing ideals to become pure, passionate god-like figures? What does that say about us?

    • craig shaw says:

      Hey. Thanks for commenting.

      I think that that is a difficult one. Personally, i almost prefer that the “higher enlightenment that Kurtz has attained” remains some sort of mystery. I am not claiming that it is entirely metaphorical, exactly, but perhaps it would take a smarter man than me to truly figure it out. And i believe that that unknown is kind of the point.

      I haven’t thought about this in a while, but if i had to make the jump, i would gear more towards the savage nature of our own souls- the staring into the abyss and realisation that there is perhapslittle there but the atavistic sense of destruction. I think that reading would make more sense than a more Buddhist sense of Nirvana given the infamous “horror..” line.

      tho, of course you are entirely welcome to disagree 🙂


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