Horror, the Horror: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Horror, the Horror:

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness vs. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now

I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther -- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The director Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam epic entitled Apocalypse Now makes a direct analogy in its symbolism as well as its plot structure with Joseph Conrad's famous 1899 novella about colonialism in the Belgian Congo entitled Heart of Darkness. This is most notable in the character played by Marlon Brando: Colonel Kurtz, who is named after Conrad's Kurtz, an important figure in a fictional ivory trading company in the Congo. Both works present white men that have, for various reasons, gone into the jungle and 'gone native' in the sense that they have lost their belief in civilized morality. Brando's Kurtz has given up his loyalty to U.S. military forces and instead praises the Viet Cong in the small kingdom of fear he has created deep in Cambodia. Mr. Kurtz in the Conrad narrative has taken on a native concubine and keeps the people in thrall with his persona and his ability to use their superstitions against them.

Both works suggest that the jungle is corrupting, but also that whites corrupt the lands they invade. Of course, Apocalypse Now is about the Vietnam War, rather than the type of direct, economic exploitation that occurred in the Belgian Congo when Conrad wrote. In contrast to the novel, where the narrator Marlow is given the task of saving Kurtz, Captain Willard is given the task of assassinating the rogue special agent Kurtz. Marlow becomes fascinated with the corrupt figure of Kurtz while Willard's view of the man is more one of horror, as he watches Kurtz kill one of his men before his eyes. In the film, the U.S. government knows all too well that Kurtz is a rogue agent, although it is revealed ironically that at one point Kurtz was considered one of the 'best and brightest' of his class in the military. In the book, most company members are still utterly oblivious to Kurtz's evil and the living situation he has orchestrated for himself. At the very end of the book, Marlow even famously deludes Kurtz's beautiful intended wife by telling her that her husband's last words were her name, rather than "the horror, the horror" as they really were. In the film, Colonel Kurtz shares Conrad's Mr. Kurtz's last words, but there is no intended beloved to delude. Willard merely leaves Kurtz's compound a sadder, wiser, and more disturbed man.

Coppola's central thesis in Apocalypse Now is that, much like European colonists claimed to be carrying 'the white man's burden' when civilizing the colonies, they were merely pursuing their own self-interest. Similarly, in Vietnam, the Americans entered under a moral veneer of attempting to 'help' the South Vietnamese contain communism, not only to advance U.S. interests. This supposed altruism, however, was founded upon a lie. The U.S. only had its security interests at heart, not the interests of the Vietnamese people. This can be seen in the brutal fashion with which the Vietnamese are treated during the film. In contrast to Heart of Darkness, where the violent wars of colonialism have largely been fought off-stage, the viewer is forced to see the reality and the horror of U.S. involvement quite graphically in the film such as when innocent peasants with no role in the war are massacred.

There is less pretence of morality in the economic slavery taking place in the Congo, where men are forced to work to death. The true horror is not military enslavement, but economic enslavement, as Marlowe witnesses as he tries to find Kurtz. "They were dying slowly -- it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now -- nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom...I…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Apocalypse Now. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness, 1899. Available:

http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ConDark.html [22 Oct 2012]

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