Apocalypse Now and Heart of Research Paper

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Willard's internal trauma is representative of the shock many Americans must have felt at seeing the violence inflicted in their name, and thus his killing of Kurtz represents a kind of superficial destruction of the "bad seed" that supposedly tainted the otherwise respectable and honorable American military. By focusing on the "primitive" evil embodied by Kurtz, the film allows the more "subtle and civilized manifestations of evil" in the form of American foreign policy to go unquestioned (Maier-Katkin 584-585). One can see the irony of American imperialism supposedly being "defeated" in Apocalypse Now simply by noting that just a few months after its release in August of 1979, the Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis once again brought to the fore the widespread and ongoing effects of American imperialism.

In addition acting as a salve for those audiences repellant at the horror of imperialism while reluctant to admit any complicity in it, Apocalypse Now, in contrast to Heart of Darkness, serves to perpetuate further imperial endeavors by essentially glamorizing war and horror in the form of spectacle. While Marlow's narration reveals a strong aversion to the violence and horror committed in the name of empire, Apocalypse Now (partially due to its filmic nature) seems to revel in this violence, with its lovingly crafted shots of napalm exploding or the scene of Kurtz's death interspersed with images of a ritual sacrifice. As Keith Solomon notes, with its "emphasis on technology and the spectacle of war," Apocalypse Now serves to erase the distinction between "the real" and "the virtual" because visually they become the same; as such, Apocalypse Now essentially predicted the kind of "embedded reporting" now common in American imperial endeavors, but it did so uncritically, and thus actually helps contribute to this tendency (Solomon 25).

This actually helps explain why it is so important for Willard to function as a stand-in for the audience, defeating the evil monster. By definition, portraying an imperial war as a spectacle makes it so that "as viewers, our own reception of that spectacle as entertainment turns us into tacit supporters of the imperial project" (Solomon 25). The film had to use Willard as a means of comforting its audience's uncomfortable relationship with empire, because otherwise the film and the audience's support of that empire would have been explicit. By framing itself as opposed to the violence of the Vietnam War while making that violence aesthetically appealing, Apocalypse Now functions in support of American empire while assuring its audience that it is doing no such thing. Ultimately, then, Coppola's rendition of Conrad's story strips it of any true anti-imperialist message, and instead uses it to protect and perpetuate empire, somewhat akin to a vampire turning its victim into a slave.

While Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness have been critically examined almost since the moment of their release, considering them in conjunction reveals a number of things about either text that would otherwise have been more difficult to spot. In particular, addressing both texts sharpens Conrad's criticisms of empire and demonstrates how the personal journey of Marlow is representative of a more general human phenomenon. On the other hand, it reveals how Apocalypse Now strips these anti-imperialist inclinations from the story by confining the horror portrayed within the bounds of Willard's internal psyche, so that instead of Willard's story being representative of a larger issue in human society, the Vietnam war becomes representative of Willard's (and the audience's) internal psychological issues. By considering the name change and the choice to set the film in Vietnam, one can see how the (relatively) same story can be altered and manipulated in order to perform an almost diametrically opposed function. Where Heart of Darkness critiques the violence and horror of empire, Apocalypse Now simultaneously shields it audience from their complicity in that violence while setting the stage for further imperial action.

Annotated Bibliography

Demory, Pamela. "Apocalypse Now Redux: Heart of Darkness Moves into New Territory."

Literature/Film Quarterly 35.1 (2007): 342-9.

This essay was useful because it reiterated the long-held yet erroneous belief that Apocalypse Now represents a direct continuation of Conrad's criticism of imperialism. Demory argues that Apocalypse Now Redux is actually closer to the novella than the original release, but even this is not convincing enough to allow one to believe that Coppola is actually engaging in any kind of real political criticism. Thus, the essay offers a useful counterpoint, because it allowed this study to better demonstrate the film's problematic approach to imperialism.

Firchow, Peter. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Firchow's book was a useful resource not only for his original contributions, but also for the way he compiles previous research and commentary on Heart of Darkness. Although not referenced substantially in the final essay, the book nevertheless provided useful insights into previous and contemporary Conrad scholarship.

Grant, J.K. "Conrads Heart of Darkness." The Explicator 61.4 (2003): 213-5.

Despite the name, Grant's essay is actually a consideration of Apocalypse Now, and particularly how it represents a specific reading of Heart of Darkness that ignores its anti-imperialist message. Grant's essay was particularly useful in the construction of this study's argument, because it highlights how the film changes the scope of the story's message by confining it within Willard's psyche.

Linda, Costanzo Cahir. "Narratological Parallels in Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppolas Apocalypse Now." Literature/Film Quarterly 20.3 (1992): 181-7.

As seen in the above essay, Cahir's argument falls apart nearly right after she makes it because she does not account for Willard's voice-over, but it was useful nonetheless because it focuses on the narratological aspects of both the book and the film, a topic that is somewhat less popular in scholarship concerning either text (usually because the discussion is centered around racism, imperialism, or the Vietnam war, and not narratology).

Maier-Katkin, Birgit, and Daniel Maier-Katkin. "At the Heart of Darkness: Crimes Against

Humanity and the Banality of Evil." Human Rights Quarterly 26.3 (2004): 584-604.

This essay was helpful because it helped center the research and writing by demonstrating how our consideration of "evil" frequently ignores the obvious, "banal" existence of evil in everyday life and policy. Thus, it was particularly helpful in sharpening this study's critique of Apocalypse Now, because it helped demonstrate how the focus on Kurtz as a bad seed shields the American military in general from criticism.

Solomon, Keith. "The Spectacle of War and the Specter of "the Horror": Apocalypse Now and American Imperialism." Journal of Popular Film & Television 35.1 (2007): 22-31.

Solomon's essay drew an interesting line between Apocalypse Now's representation of war and the kind of news footage produced by the first Iraq war, and highlighted how the spectacle of war in film actually serves to reinforce the empires responsible for those wars. This became especially important when concluding this study's argument, because it helped show just how completely Apocalypse Now strips its story of anti-imperialist tendencies, and actually serves to support and perpetuate American empire.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Signet Classics reprint. New York: New American Library,


Coppola, Francis Ford, dir. Apocalypse Now. United Artists, 1979. Film.

Demory, Pamela. "Apocalypse Now Redux: Heart of Darkness Moves into New Territory."

Literature/Film Quarterly 35.1 (2007): 342-9.

Firchow, Peter. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Grant, J.K. "Conrads Heart of Darkness." The Explicator 61.4 (2003): 213-5.

Linda, Costanzo Cahir. "Narratological Parallels in Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppolas Apocalypse Now." Literature/Film Quarterly 20.3 (1992): 181-7.

Maier-Katkin, Birgit, and Daniel Maier-Katkin. "At the Heart of Darkness: Crimes Against

Humanity and the Banality of Evil." Human…[continue]

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