Critical Essays The Novel as the Basis for Apocalypse Now


Apocalypse Now is director Francis Ford Coppola's film based on Heart of Darkness but set in the jungles of Vietnam. While some critics found the film belabored and muddled, most agreed that it was a powerful and important examination not only of America's military involvement in Vietnam, but like Conrad's novel, a disturbing treatment of the darkness potentially inherent in all human hearts. "Apocalypse" means the end of the world, as when the earth is destroyed by fire in the Bible. As the film's title suggests, Coppola explores the ways in which the metaphorical "darkness" of Vietnam causes an apocalypse in the hearts of those sent there to fight.

Coppola retained the basic structure of Conrad's novel for his film. As Heart of Darkness follows Marlow's journey through the different Company stations and eventually upriver to Kurtz, Coppola's film moves in an analogous way. The protagonist is an Army Captain (Willard) who receives his orders, gathers his crew, and creeps up the Nung River until he meets and assassinates a renegade soldier (Col. Walter Kurtz). Both the Company and the Army want their "Kurtzes" dead, because both Kurtzes detest and expose their superiors' motives and methods. Their willingness to go all the way terrifies their superiors, who do not want to be so blatantly reminded of their real goals (ivory in the Heart of Darkness and power in Apocalypse Now) and methods of attaining them.

Like Conrad's Company, Coppola's Army is a disorganized band of men whose hypocrisy is questioned by the central characters. As the Company masquerades as a philanthropic and humane institution bringing "light" to Africa (recall Kurtz's painting), the Army (as embodied by General Corman and Colonel Lucas, the men who give Willard his mission) pretends to be greatly disturbed by the fact that Col. Kurtz has broken from their command and begun fighting the war in his own way. The Army has charged Col. Kurtz with the murder of four Vietnamese double agents, which is the ostensible reason why they want to "terminate" his command. Willard, however, sees through their façade and remarks to himself, "Charging someone for murder out here was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500." As the Manager feigns great concern over Kurtz's health in Heart of Darkness, General Corman acts pained and upset when he tells Willard, "Every man has a breaking point. Walter Kurtz has obviously reached his."

More striking than the parallels in plot, however, are those of character. As Marlow's jaunt to Africa becomes much more to him than an adventure, so does Willard's mission to kill Col. Kurtz become more than an order: "When it was done," he explains, "I'd never want another." Both become wiser yet more shaken as a result of their journeys, and both tell their stories (Marlow on the Nellie, Willard in his voice-overs) to teach their listeners about their discoveries concerning the "hearts of darkness" into which they traveled.

Willard, like Marlow, becomes more perceptive to the moral darkness around him as the film proceeds. An important difference between these characters, however, is that Willard begins the film as a man already accustomed to the "horror" around him. The opening shots of the film reveal Willard in a Saigon hotel; on his nightstand is a gun (he has already considered suicide) and he explains, in a voice-over, that he was unable to adjust to life in the United States after his first tour of duty. Coppola then presents the viewer with a montage of Willard screaming, crying, and smashing a mirror to show how desperately Willard needs a mission to give his life some purpose. Another difference is that Marlow wanted to explore "the blank places" on a map to satisfy his thirst for adventure, but Willard needs a mission so that he doesn't become (as he fears) "weaker."

The problem Col. Kurtz poses to the Army deserves further investigation. Like Conrad's Kurtz, he was a "prodigy": a Green Beret, paratrooper, and candidate for a position with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Willard also learns that Kurtz organized a covert operation ("Archangel") without the permission of his superiors — an operation which might have brought him court-martial, but instead earned him a promotion to Colonel once the news of it was made public. As the war continued, Kurtz kept winning battles and becoming stronger — and it was this strength that made him threatening to the Army, just as Conrad's Kurtz (who brings in more ivory than all other stations combined) unnerves the Manager. Just as "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz" in that he embodied many of the Europeans' values about the White man's power over the natives, so has "all America" contributed to the making of Col. Kurtz — a man who once personified the traditional American values of strength and valor, but who became — once he glimpsed the darkness of war — someone who could not uphold the hypocrisy of which he was once a major part.

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