Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now


 Inherent inside every human soul is a savage evil side that 
remains repressed by society. Often this evil side breaks out during 
times of isolation from our culture, and whenever one culture 
confronts another. History is loaded with examples of atrocities that 
have occurred when one culture comes into contact with another. 
Whenever fundamentally different cultures meet, there is often a fear 
of contamination and loss of self that leads us to discover more about 
our true selves, often causing perceived madness by those who have yet 
to discover.

 The Puritans left Europe in hopes of finding a new world to 
welcome them and their beliefs. What they found was a vast new world, 
loaded with Indian cultures new to them. This overwhelming cultural 
interaction caused some Puritans to go mad and try to purge themselves 
of a perceived evil. This came to be known as the Salem witch trials. 

 During World War II, Germany made an attempt to overrun Europe. 
What happened when the Nazis came into power and persecuted the Jews 
in Germany, Austria and Poland is well known as the Holocaust. Here, 
human's evil side provides one of the scariest occurrences of this 
century. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi counterparts conducted raids of the 
ghettos to locate and often exterminate any Jews they found. Although 
Jews are the most widely known victims of the Holocaust, they were not 
the only targets. When the war ended, 6 million Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, 
homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, and others targeted by 
the Nazis, had died in the Holocaust. Most of these deaths occurred in 
gas chambers and mass shootings. This gruesome attack was motivated 
mainly by the fear of cultural intermixing which would impurify the 
"Master Race."

 Joseph Conrad's book, The Heart of Darkness and Francis Coppola's 
movie, Apocalypse Now are both stories about Man's journey into his 
self, and the discoveries to be made there. They are also about Man 
confronting his fears of failure, insanity, death, and cultural 
contamination. During Marlow's mission to find Kurtz, he is also 
trying to find himself. He, like Kurtz had good intentions upon 
entering the Congo. Conrad tries to show us that Marlow is what Kurtz 
had been, and Kurtz is what Marlow could become. Every human has a 
little of Marlow and Kurtz in them. Marlow says about himself, "I was 
getting savage (Conrad)," meaning that he was becoming more like 
Kurtz. Along the trip into the wilderness, they discover their true 
selves through contact with savage natives.

 As Marlow ventures further up the Congo, he feels like he is 
traveling back through time. He sees the unsettled wilderness and can 
feel the darkness of it's solitude. Marlow comes across simpler 
cannibalistic cultures along the banks. The deeper into the jungle he 
goes, the more regressive the inhabitants seem.

 Kurtz had lived in the Congo, and was separated from his own 
culture for quite some time. He had once been considered an honorable 
man, but the jungle changed him greatly. Here, secluded from the rest 
of his own society, he discovered his evil side and became corrupted 
by his power and solitude. Marlow tells us about the Ivory that Kurtz 
kept as his own, and that he had no restraint, and was " a tree swayed 
by the wind (Conrad, 209)." Marlow mentions the human heads displayed 
on posts that "showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the 
gratification of his various lusts (Conrad, 220)." Conrad also tells 
us "his. nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain 
midnight dances ending with unspeakable rights, which. were offered up 
to him (Conrad, 208)," meaning that Kurtz went insane and allowed 
himself to be worshipped as a god. It appears that while Kurtz had 
been isolated from his culture, he had become corrupted by this 
violent native culture, and allowed his evil side to control him.

 Marlow realizes that only very near the time of death, does a 
person grasp the big picture. He describes Kurtz's last moments "as 
though a veil had been rent (Conrad, 239)." Kurtz's last "supreme 
moment of complete knowledge (Conrad, 239)," showed him how horrible 
the human soul really can be. Marlow can only speculate as to what 
Kurtz saw that caused him to exclaim "The horror! The horror," but 
later adds that "Since I peeped over the edge myself, I understand 
better the meaning of his stare. it was wide enough to embrace the 
whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat 
in the darkness. he had summed up, he had judged (Conrad, 241)." 
Marlow guesses that Kurtz suddenly knew everything and discovered how 
horrible the duplicity of man can be. Marlow learned through Kurtz's 
death, and he now knows that inside every human is this horrible, evil 

 Francis Coppola's movie, Apocalypse Now, is based loosely upon 
Conrad's book. Captain Willard is a Marlow who is on a mission into 
Cambodia during the Vietnam war to find and kill an insane Colonel 
Kurtz. Coppola's Kurtz, as he experienced his epiphany of horror, was 
an officer and a sane, successful, brilliant leader. Like Conrad's 
Kurtz, Coppola shows us a man who was once very well respected, but 
was corrupted by the horror of war and the cultures he met.

 Coppola tells us in Hearts of Darkness that Kurtz's major fear is 
"being white in a non white jungle (Bahr)." The story Kurtz tells 
Willard about the Special Forces going into a village, inoculating the 
children for polio and going away, and the communists coming into the 
village and cutting off all the children's inoculated arms, is the 
main evidence for this implication in that film. This is when Kurtz 
begins to go mad, he "wept like some grandmother" when, called back by 
a villager, he saw the pile of little arms, a sophisticated version of 
the "escalating horrors." What Kurtz meant by "escalating horrors" is 
the Vietnamese army's senseless decapitation, torture, and the like. 
Kurtz is facing a new culture and has a terrible time dealing with it. 
This was the beginning of his insanity.

 "All America contributed to the making of Colonel Kurtz, just as 
all Europe produced Mr. Kurtz. Both Kurtzes are idealized in their 
function as eyewitnesses to the atrocities. What is reflected is the 
threat of loss of self, loss of centrality, and the displacement of 
Western culture from the perceived center of history by those whom it 
has enslaved and oppressed (Worthy 24)." This tells us that the evil 
side and the madness in both Kurtzes was brought out by the fear of 
new cultures different from their own, and their inability to deal 
with this fear. The disconnection between the opening words of Kurtz's 
report "By the simple exercise of our will, we can exert a power for 
good practically unbounded" and the note on the last page, 
"Exterminate all the brutes!" illustrates the progressive 
externalization of Kurtz's fear of "contamination," the personal fear 
of loss of self which colonialist whites saw in the "uncivilized," 
seemingly regressive lifestyle of the natives. Gradually, the 
duplicity of man and reality merged for the two Kurtzes, one in the 
Congo, and one in Vietnam. As this happened, the well defined cultural 
values masculine/feminine and self/other that had specific segregated 
roles, could not be sustained in the Congo or in Vietnam. "For the 
Americans in Vietnam, as for the colonialists in Africa, madness is 
the result of the disintegration of abstract boundaries held to be 
absolute (Worthy 24)."

 "As it attempts to confront the 'insanity' of the war through 
Kurtz' s madness, that of the filmmakers, and the madness of U.S. 
culture, Hearts of Darkness exposes the contradictions between the 
inherent hierarchy and inequality within the cultural forces of the 
United States and official democratic principles, which led to the 
perception that it could waste what it viewed as insignificant little 
people and preserve its own image in the world. Along with that is the 
growing realization, since the Tet Offensive of 1968, that the U.S. 
was somehow way off the mark (Worthy 24)." American Culture views it 
self as "correct", and we see ourselves as powerful police of the 
world. Our culture looked down upon the Vietnamese because they were 
more simple than us, just as Europe and Marlow looked down on the 
Africans. Believing ourselves to be superior, we had a lot of trouble 
dealing with the discovery that we are not.

 Coppola makes a point to show us that the Chief of a boat armed 
to the teeth was killed by a native in a tree who threw a spear. Not 
even an "advanced" Navy boat can defend itself against some "simple" 
natives armed only with spears. This opens Captain Willard's eyes to 
the horror of the situation he now finds himself in.

 Even more intriguing, however, is the similarity between the 
transformation of the characters in Apocalypse Now, and the cast and 
crew that created it. In Hearts of Darkness, (a documentary about the 
making of Apocalypse Now.) Eugene Coppola becomes the narrator (a 
Marlow or Captain Willard) and Francis becomes Kurtz. 

 "Francis believed that only if he could duplicate Willard's 
experience, could he understand his moral struggle. In other words, he 
had to lose control of his own life before he could find the answers 
to the questions that his narrative asked (Worthy 24)." Coppola's main 
horror was his fear of producing a pretentious movie. "Eleanor 
repeatedly calls the making of Apocalypse Now a journey into Coppola's 
inner self. Coppola, like Kurtz, is regarded as a deity. Moreover, 
while Willard stalks Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Coppola stalks himself, 
raising questions which he feels compelled to answer but cannot, 
finally announcing his desire to "shoot himself. " He means suicide, 
but the cinematic connotation of the term, "to shoot," jointly 
criticizes both the U.S. and Coppola's film for exercising a demented 
self-absorption (Worthy 24)." Coppola had to deal with perhaps the 
most agonizing of his troubles: his shriveling self-confidence. As the 
budget soared, as the producers worried, as the crew and actors grew 
restless and dispassionate, Coppola worried that he did not have what 
it takes to finish the film. He struggled with the ending, with his 
own creative ability, and with his sense of purpose.

 Martin Sheen, who plays Captain Willard, is the one who really 
faces the horror. During the filming he has a nervous breakdown and 
later a heart attack. Some of his co-actors believed that Martin was 
becoming Captain Willard, and was experiencing the same journey of 
self discovery.

 We live our lives sheltered in our own society, and our exposure 
to cultures outside of our own is limited at best. Often, the more 
technologically advanced cultures look down upon those that they deem 
to be simpler. On the occasion that some member of one culture does 
come into contact with another, simpler culture, a self discovery 
happens. Both cultures realize that deep down inside, all humans are 
essentially the same. We all posses a good and an evil side, and no 
culture, not matter how "advanced," is exempt from that fact.. This 
discovery often causes madness as this evil side is allowed out. Only 
those who have completed the "journey into self" can understand the 
actions of people such as Kurtz. They are alone in this world of 
horror. The Horror!

Works Cited

1. Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Coppola. With Martin Sheen, Robert 
Duval, and Marlon Brando. Zeotrope, 1979.

2. Conrad, James. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Great Britain, 
BPC paperbacks ltd. 1990.

3. Hearts of Darkness. Dir. Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper. Paramount, 

of Cinema, 6-15-1995.

5. Worthy, Kim, "Hearts of Darkness: Making art, making history, 
making money, making `Vietnam'.".,Vol. 19, Cineaste, 12-01-1992, pp 


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