Apocalypse Now and Heart of DarknessInherent inside every human soul is a savage evil side that remains repressedby society. Often this evil side breaks out during times of isolation from ourculture, and whenever one culture confronts another. History is loaded withexamples of atrocities that have occurred when one culture comes into contactwith another. Whenever fundamentally different cultures meet, there is often afear of contamination and loss of self that leads us to discover more about ourtrue 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 andtheir beliefs. What they found was a vast new world, loaded with Indian culturesnew to them. This overwhelming cultural interaction caused some Puritans to gomad and try to purge themselves of a perceived evil. This came to be known asthe Salem witch trials.
During World War II, Germany made an attempt to overrun Europe. What happenedwhen the Nazis came into power and persecuted the Jews in Germany, Austria andPoland is well known as the Holocaust.
Here, humans evil side provides one ofthe scariest occurrences of this century. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi counterpartsconducted raids of the ghettos to locate and often exterminate any Jews theyfound. Although Jews are the most widely known victims of the Holocaust, theywere 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 andmass shootings. This gruesome attack was motivated mainly by the fear ofcultural intermixing which would impurify the “Master Race.”Joseph Conrads book, The Heart of Darkness and Francis Coppolas movie,Apocalypse Now are both stories about Mans journey into his self, and thediscoveries to be made there. They are also about Man confronting his fears offailure, insanity, death, and cultural contamination.
During Marlows 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 usthat Marlow is what Kurtz had been, and Kurtz is what Marlow could become. Everyhuman has a little of Marlow and Kurtz in them. Marlow says about himself, “Iwas getting savage (Conrad),” meaning that he was becoming more like Kurtz.
Along the trip into the wilderness, they discover their true selves throughcontact with savage natives.
As Marlow ventures further up the Congo, he feels like he is traveling backthrough time. He sees the unsettled wilderness and can feel the darkness of itssolitude. 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 quitesome time. He had once been considered an honorable man, but the jungle changedhim greatly. Here, secluded from the rest of his own society, he discovered hisevil side and became corrupted by his power and solitude. Marlow tells us aboutthe Ivory that Kurtz kept as his own, and that he had no restraint, and was ” atree swayed by the wind (Conrad, 209).” Marlow mentions the human headsdisplayed on posts that “showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in thegratification of his various lusts (Conrad, 220).” Conrad also tells us “hisnerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances endingwith unspeakable rights, which were offered up to him (Conrad, 208),” meaningthat Kurtz went insane and allowed himself to be worshipped as a god. It appearsthat while Kurtz had been isolated from his culture, he had become corrupted bythis 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 thebig picture. He describes Kurtzs last moments “as though a veil had been rent(Conrad, 239).” Kurtzs last “supreme moment of complete knowledge (Conrad,239),” showed him how horrible the human soul really can be. Marlow can onlyspeculate as to what Kurtz saw that caused him to exclaim “The horror! Thehorror,” but later adds that “Since I peeped over the edge myself, I understandbetter the meaning of his stare it was wide enough to embrace the wholeuniverse, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darknesshe had summed up, he had judged (Conrad, 241).” Marlow guesses that Kurtzsuddenly knew everything and discovered how horrible the duplicity of man can be.
Marlow learned through Kurtzs death, and he now knows that inside every humanis this horrible, evil side.
Francis Coppolas movie, Apocalypse Now, is based loosely upon Conrads book.
Captain Willard is a Marlow who is on a mission into Cambodia during the Vietnamwar to find and kill an insane Colonel Kurtz. Coppola’s Kurtz, as he experiencedhis epiphany of horror, was an officer and a sane, successful, brilliant leader.
Like Conrads 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 Kurtzs major fear is “being whitein a non white jungle (Bahr).” The story Kurtz tells Willard about the SpecialForces 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’sinoculated arms, is the main evidence for this implication in that film. This iswhen Kurtz begins to go mad, he “wept like some grandmother” when, called backby a villager, he saw the pile of little arms, a sophisticated version of the”escalating horrors.” What Kurtz meant by “escalating horrors” is the Vietnamesearmys senseless decapitation, torture, and the like. Kurtz is facing a newculture and has a terrible time dealing with it. This was the beginning of hisinsanity.
“All America contributed to the making of Colonel Kurtz, just as all Europeproduced Mr. Kurtz. Both Kurtzes are idealized in their function as eyewitnessesto the atrocities. What is reflected is the threat of loss of self, loss ofcentrality, and the displacement of Western culture from the perceived center ofhistory by those whom it has enslaved and oppressed (Worthy 24).” This tells usthat the evil side and the madness in both Kurtzes was brought out by the fearof new cultures different from their own, and their inability to deal with thisfear. The disconnection between the opening words of Kurtz’s report “By thesimple exercise of our will, we can exert a power for good practicallyunbounded” 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, theduplicity of man and reality merged for the two Kurtzes, one in the Congo, andone in Vietnam. As this happened, the well defined cultural valuesmasculine/feminine and self/other that had specific segregated roles, could notbe sustained in the Congo or in Vietnam. “For the Americans in Vietnam, as forthe colonialists in Africa, madness is the result of the disintegration ofabstract 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 Darknessexposes the contradictions between the inherent hierarchy and inequality withinthe cultural forces of the United States and official democratic principles,which led to the perception that it could waste what it viewed as insignificantlittle people and preserve its own image in the world. Along with that is thegrowing realization, since the Tet Offensive of 1968, that the U.S. was somehowway off the mark (Worthy 24).” American Culture views it self as “correct”, andwe see ourselves as powerful police of the world. Our culture looked down uponthe Vietnamese because they were more simple than us, just as Europe and Marlowlooked down on the Africans. Believing ourselves to be superior, we had a lot oftrouble 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 waskilled by a native in a tree who threw a spear. Not even an “advanced” Navy boatcan defend itself against some “simple” natives armed only with spears. Thisopens Captain Willards eyes to the horror of the situation he now findshimself in.
Even more intriguing, however, is the similarity between the transformation ofthe characters in Apocalypse Now, and the cast and crew that created it. InHearts of Darkness, (a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now.) EugeneCoppola becomes the narrator ( a Marlow or Captain Willard) and Francis becomesKurtz.
“Francis believed that only if he could duplicate Willards experience, could heunderstand his moral struggle. In other words, he had to lose control of his ownlife before he could find the answers to the questions that his narrative asked(Worthy 24).” Coppolas main horror was his fear of producing a pretentiousmovie. “Eleanor repeatedly calls the making of Apocalypse Now a journey intoCoppola’s inner self. Coppola, like Kurtz, is regarded as a deity. Moreover,while Willard stalks Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Coppola stalks himself, raisingquestions which he feels compelled to answer but cannot, finally announcing hisdesire to “shoot himself. ” He means suicide, but the cinematic connotation ofthe term, “to shoot,” jointly criticizes both the U.S. and Coppola’s film forexercising a demented self-absorption (Worthy 24).” Coppola had to deal withperhaps the most agonizing of his troubles: his shriveling self-confidence. Asthe budget soared, as the producers worried, as the crew and actors grewrestless and dispassionate, Coppola worried that he did not have what it takesto 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 ofhis co-actors believed that Martin was becoming Captain Willard, and wasexperiencing the same journey of self discovery.
We live our lives sheltered in our own society, and our exposure to culturesoutside of our own is limited at best. Often, the more technologically advancedcultures look down upon those that they deem to be simpler. On the occasion thatsome member of one culture does come into contact with another, simpler culture,a self discovery happens. Both cultures realize that deep down inside, allhumans are essentially the same. We all posses a good and an evil side, and noculture, not matter how “advanced,” is exempt from that fact.. This discoveryoften causes madness as this evil side is allowed out. Only those who havecompleted the “journey into self” can understand the actions of people such asKurtz. They are alone in this world of horror. The Horror!Works Cited1. Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Coppola. With Martin Sheen, Robert Duval, andMarlon Brando. Zeotrope, 1979.
2. Conrad, James. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Great Britain, BPCpaperbacks ltd. 1990.
3. Hearts of Darkness. Dir. Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper. Paramount, 1991.
4. “HEARTS OF DARKNESS — A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE.”, Magill’s Survey 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 24.
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