Comparing Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness

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Comparing Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness


Francis Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now was inspired by the world famous Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness. A comparison and contrast can be made between the two. Both have similar themes but entirely different settings. Heart of Darkness takes place on the Congo River in the Heart of Africa, while Apocalypse Now is set in Vietnam.

"Heart of Darkness , which follows closely the actual events of Conrad's Congo journey, tells of the narrator's fascination by a mysterious white man, Kurtz, who, by his eloquence and hypnotic personality, dominates the brutal tribesmen around him. Full of contempt for the greedy traders who exploit the natives, the narrator cannot deny the power of this figure of evil who calls forth from him something approaching reluctant loyalty."[1]

The main characters in both have the same general personalities but have different names. Of course, Kurtz is Kurtz, Willard parallels Marlow, and the American photojournalist corresponds to the Russian Harlequin. Willard is a lieutenant for the US Army and Marlow is a captain of a steamboat of an ivory company. The first images of Willard and Marlow differ to some degree. The movie begins with Willard lying in an apartment room lost from reality with the song ‘The End’ playing by The Doors. He is haunted by his earlier deeds and he is getting very drunk. Willard smashes the mirror while fighting himself and cuts his hand. Marlow is portrayed as a wanderer of the sea. The narrator described him to somewhat of a hero. Their mission is to find Kurtz and take him down at all costs. In both stories Kurtz is a psychotic rebel, worshipped as a god, who threatens the stability of his original unit, but in one it is an ivory trading company and in the other it is the US Army. Kurtz, who had begun his assignment a man of great idealism and the highest morals, had become strangely savage. Tribes of natives worship the man who lives in a hut surrounded by fence posts topped with recently acquired human skulls.

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Kurtz has undergone a total breakdown of the physical, psychological, and spiritual. Along the trip into the wilderness, Willard and Marlow 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 its solitude. The movie ends quite differently than the novel. The movie ends with a spectacular scene. During a native tribe’s ritual sacrifice ceremony of a water buffalo, The Doors’ The End playing on the background, Willard finally kills Kurtz with a machete. Willard exits to find the natives begin to worship him. This exhibits the fisher king legend where man kills the king and becomes the king himself. But Willard doesn’t want any of this. Willard drops the machete and walks away. The movie ends when Willard and Lance leave the camp in the boat. In the novel Kurtz dies of an illness, which is quite different than the film. The novel ends with Marlow returning the United States, keeping a promise he made to Kurtz before he died, where he speaks to Kurtz’s intended and tells her a lie. He tells her that his last words were her name.

Both stories are about a 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. In Heart of Darkness there is an outside narrator telling the story that he heard Marlow tell. Conrad uses Marlow’s imagery and objective observation to establish a criticism of “civilized” society causing perceived madness by those who have yet to discover. In Apocalypse Now Marlow’s consciousness is used to help narrate the journey up the river.

The ties between Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness and Francis Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now are unmistakable. Apocalypse Now’s accuracy in following the story line of the Heart of Darkness is amazing even though the settings of each story are from completely different time periods. From the Congo in Africa to the Nung River in Vietnam, Joseph Conrad’s ideals are not lost.

[1] http://film.tierranet.com/films/a.now/conrad.html


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