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Comparison of Coppola's film Apocalypse Now and Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. Francis Ford Coppola's film of horror in Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, borrows its narrative structure from Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. Essentially, Coppola transported the nineteenth century tale of personal depravity to the jungles of twentieth century Vietnam. The effect of this change in setting is inherently tied to the change of time and the political situation, and, while there are a great many similarities between the two narratives, Coppola's movie portrays a much darker, and more menacing version of the novel.
Conrad's novel is set in the nineteenth century Belgian Congo, and focuses on the character of Charles Marlow, an experienced sailor who has been hired by a European trading company as a captain of one of their steamboats. His employer requires Marlow to travel up the river and find Mr. Kurtz, another employee of the trading company that the home office believes is helping himself to company-owned ivory. The setting of Coppola's film contrasts sharply with the setting of Conrad s novel.
The film is set in twentieth century Southeast Asia, and depicts the confusion, violence, fear, and nightmarish madness of the Vietnam War. The focus of the film is on Captain Benjamin Willard, who is a hired assassin in the American armed forces. Like Marlow, Willard is sent by his employer to find another employee, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, who has gone mad.
Coppola's Kurtz, like Conrad's, is an accomplished man, and a distinguished operations Commander in the Special Forces (Cahir 181), but, he is believed to have gone totally insane. He runs his own private army in the Cambodian jungle, and is worshiped as a God by a native tribe. He is charged with executing Vietnamese intelligence agents, who he believes were double agents. Even though Colonel Kurtz s troops are successful in fighting the North Vietnamese, his methods are considered to be unsound. Willard's mission is more severe than Marlow's.
While Marlow endeavors to bring Kurtz back to civilization, Willard's mission is to assassinate Colonel Kurtz. This difference is indicative of the change in setting. Marlow, in the nineteenth century Congo, is faced with the fact that, just beneath the veneer of civilization, humanity's inherent nature is primitive and capable of great depravity; however, he is also aware of the depravity of European imperialism. He is faced with a choice of nightmares.
A personal crisis afflicts Marlow when he realizes that the company manager has no real objection to the ceremonies in which Kurtz has been participating, other then interrupting the normal trade relations with the natives. He is faced with depravity on one hand, and meanness on the other. However, Marlow remains moral, rational and sane, which contrasts with Willard s personality. The peculiar political and cultural circumstances of the Vietnam War transform what might have been a normal man in different circumstances, into a cold-blooded killer. While Marlow contrasts sharply against Kurtz as a moral man, Captain Willard is not a great moral improvement over Colonel Kurtz.
We see Willard at the beginning of the film, holed up in a Saigon hotel, in a condition of both physical and spiritual depravity (Grieff 189). It is as if Coppola is saying that the man, who would have been normal in the nineteenth century, has been changed radically by the Vietnamese War. Marlow's first stop in the Congo is at the government seat at the mouth of the river. At this point, Conrad shows his readers the horrors caused by European imperialism. Enslaved natives are bound to each other by iron collars and chains: A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants (Conrad 18). Marlow realizes that these people were not enemies or criminals, but victims of the unconscionable imperial system that transformed people into black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom (Conrad 20).
In the midst of all this suffering, Marlow encounters a white man who stands out because of his unexpected elegance of get-up (Conrad, 21). This miracle is the companys chief accountant. Similarly, Willard has a first stop, in which he has a rendezvous with the Air Cavalry, his escorts to the Nung River. Like Marlow, Willard is also confronted with the horrors caused by Western imperialism; however, because of the requirements of war, the United States has mobilized formidable war machinery to establish dominance over people in grass huts. Rather then enslaving the people for capitalist purposes as they did in the nineteenth century, the concerns of the twentieth century in Southeast Asia dictate their deaths. The natives, who are apparently unarmed, are indiscriminately slaughtered.
Once more, it is clear how the dictates of the setting of the Vietnam War have upped the ante when it comes to darkness. The US Air Cavalry has its own miracle in the form of Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Cahir 181). Like the immaculate company accountant, in Conrad s novel, Kilgore moves unharmed and untouched through the explosive horror (Cahir 181); however, just as in Heart of Darkness, when Marlow waits at the second outpost for his steamship to be repaired, Willard has a problem, too: there are only two points where enough water can be drawn to enter the Nung, and both of these are hot, that is, they are being held by the Viet Cong (Cahir 181). Kilgore's job is to choose the best site, launch an attack, and deliver Willard and his board safely to its destination. Kilgore chooses the site because it has the best beach for surfing.
His helicopters move in while Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries plays over the loudspeakers. The scene displays sheer madness and, yet, it conjures up questions that have implications pertaining to imperialism. Just as Marlow had to contemplate the actions of his fellow Europeans as he watched the natives in shackles, this scene from Apocalypse Now creates questions such as, What are the moral implications of imperialism? What is acceptable human conduct? And do we all harbor a secret fascination with the abomination? (Cahir 185). In both works, the protagonist journeys up a river to explore these questions; however, Coppola carries the process a step further.
His protagonist, Willard, right at the beginning of the film, has already been changed irrevocably by the actions that he has had to take as a military assassin. His journey into the heart of darkness begins in a sleazy and dingy hotel room in Saigon. He is drinking and deliberately shunning the outside world. He is haunted by the memories of his earlier deeds. The crazed state of his mind is clearly evident when, during a frenzied, spastic, half-nude dance in his room, he punches and breaks the mirror, bloodies his fist and wipes the bright, red blood all over his face and nude body. On the contrary, the nineteenth century setting in Conrad's book did not have such an effect on Marlow.
It is Marlow's professionalism as a sailor, and his act of creating himself through perfecting his trade that gives Marlow the necessary integrity and strength to resist evil and, eventually, to survive his African ordeal, more or less with his psyche intact (Grieff 188). In conclusion, we observe that a certain time and era can have a great impact on a person s whole value system. In Marlow's world, his society may have taken actions that he does not condone but Marlow, himself, is not asked to violate his own moral center. Willard, on the other hand, must kill Colonel Kurtz and, in this, lies the main difference between the two time periods.
Though Coppola is affirming Conrad's masterpiece, showing the heart of darkness that exists in humanity, he is also implying, through his choice of setting and time, that the processes of civilization in the intervening years have brought us closer to the blackness, and we are slipping ever closer towards that awful darkness, depicted in Conrad s novel. Bibliography Cahir, Linda C. Narratological parallels in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Literature Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3, 1992, pp. 181 - 187. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed.
Robert Kimbrough. 3 rd ed. New York: Norton, 1988. Grieff, Louis K. Soldier, sailor, surfer, chef: Conrad's ethics and the margins of Apocalypse Now, Literature Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3, 1992, pp. 188 - 198.
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