Conrad and Coppola Essay

The movie Apocalypse Now and the novella Heart of Darkness represent the character Kurtz as dynamic and mysterious - Conrad and Coppola Essay introduction. The changing views of Kurtz character when recounted by different members of the stories are responsible for this mystery and dynamism. The character appears to change from one who is both valiant and virtuous to a man whose heart is charred and evil. In the novel’s account, it is through hubris and greed that Kurtz is changed from a man who is venerated and whose character is valorous to one who is feared and hated.  In the movie, his character changes as a result of the immense cruelty that he witnesses on his tour of Vietnam. Yet despite their differences, the two media through which this tale is represented—film and novel—agree that the character of Kurtz changes as the plot unravels for reasons related to the circumstances of his life in the jungle.

In the novel Heart of Darkness, when one compares the accounts of his life as heard by Marlow to the true version of the man he finds for himself, Kurtz can be seen as having undergone a dramatic transformation. Kurtz’s journey into the jungle appears to have transformed him from the venerable and humanitarian hero to one who exalts himself above those under his command and debases them in the process. The change seems to have occurred as a result of the position of command that was granted to him. As a captain of the crew he commands, he brings to the jungle the technological advancements of the Europeans, which allow him power not only over his troops, but over the Africans they meet and plunder in the jungle. This power invades his soul like the darkness of the jungle into which he sails, and it somehow causes him to believe himself higher than all the persons who surround him.

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Kurtz’s ability to subdue these people gives him the idea not just that he is superior to them in position, but that he surpasses them in degree or quality. Greed and pride consume him and become like a cancer in his soul. (This “cancer” is also symbolized by the illness that has taken over his body.) He enters the natives’ territory and immediately resorts to underhand means to steal their ivory. He mercilessly murders not just elephants but also the natives. He even begins to consider his relationship to them as one of a deity, as he encourages the natives’ to revere and worship him as a god. His rise leads inevitably to a fall, and this too represents the change that has taken place not only in his character but in his circumstances. Conrad writes, “The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time” (87). This emission of evil depicts the wickedness that issues now from Kurtz’s soul—yet it also depicts the change in Kurtz’s position, symbolizing the ebbing of his life as this once powerful man falls. The hubris that grips him as a result of his position within the crew (as well as his possession of the technology that gives him the ability to subdue the natives) is an agent of this transformation that accords him power and then effectively removes it.

In the movie Apocalypse Now a similar transformation is represented in Kurtz’s character. Initially, the viewer receives an introduction to Kurtz that portrays him as a soldier of uncanny brilliance and immense potential. He appears to possess all the qualities that will in time usher him directly into the position of a general. However, the reasons for his transformation to a brutal and savage commander are more openly revealed in the movie than in the novella. The viewer is made privy to the horrors that Kurtz experiences during his tour in Vietnam, and these are shown to contribute in large part to his disillusionment and emotional (even mental) instability. One very impacting episode which Kurtz reveals to Willard is of his attempt at vaccinating some Vietnamese children against the ravaging disease of polio. This attempt reflects the humanity of what Kurtz once was. Yet this altruism is rewarded with brutality, as the Vietnamese military soon come and chop off the arms of all the children who had been inoculated. Kurtz admits this was a defining moment of his transformation, as he realized that in order to beat such a brutal enemy he would have to change and become brutal and heartless himself.

The movie and novella depict a similar devolution of the character Kurtz. This is demonstrated in a marked difference between the accounts given of him by those who knew him before his military excursions on the one hand, and subsequently the view Marlow/Willard have of him upon meeting him. However, the methods through which these transformations are effected differ in the novel and film. In the novella, Kurtz’s transformation seems to come as a result of hubris—his immense pride at being in the position of elevation above his crew and the natives. The film, on the other hand, depicts this change to occur as a result of the destabilizing effect that the cruelty he witnesses has upon his mental and emotional state. Yet despite the reasons, both transformations are remarkable and seemingly irrevocable. Though his death occurs only in the film version of the tale, one suspects that the change Kurtz undergoes has effectively removed the true and original Kurtz from existence.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Green Integer, 2003.

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


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