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Heart Of Darkness Essay, Research Paper

Compare and Contrast:

Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

Inherent inside every human soul is a savage evil side that remains repressed by society. Often this evil side breaks out during times of isolation from our culture, and whenever one culture confronts another. History is loaded with examples of atrocities that have occurred when one culture comes into contact with another. Whenever fundamentally different cultures meet, there is often a fear of contamination and loss of self that leads us to discover more about our true selves, often causing perceived madness by those who have yet to discover.

Joseph Conrad’s book, The Heart of Darkness and Francis Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now are both stories about 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.

During Marlow’s 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 us that Marlow is what Kurtz had been, and Kurtz is what Marlow could become. Every human has a little of Marlow and Kurtz in them. Marlow says about himself, “I was getting savage,”1 meaning that he was becoming more like Kurtz. Along the trip into the wilderness, they 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 it’s solitude. 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 quite some time. He had once been considered an honorable man, but the jungle changed him greatly. Here, secluded from the rest of his own society, he discovered his evil side and became corrupted by his power and solitude. Marlow tells us about the Ivory that Kurtz kept as his own, and that he had no restraint, and was “a tree swayed by the wind.”2 Marlow mentions the human heads displayed on posts that “showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts.”3 Conrad also tells us “his… nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rights, which… were offered up to him,”4 meaning that Kurtz went insane and allowed himself to be worshipped as a god. It appears that while Kurtz had been isolated from his culture, he had become corrupted by this 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 the big picture. He describes Kurtz’s last moments “as though a veil had been rent.”5 Kurtz’s last “supreme moment of complete knowledge,”6 showed him how horrible the human soul really can be. Marlow can only speculate as to what Kurtz saw that caused him to exclaim “The horror! The

horror,”6 but later adds that “Since I peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the

meaning of his stare… it was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness… he had summed up, he had judged.”7 Marlow guesses that Kurtz suddenly knew everything and discovered how horrible the duplicity of man can be. Marlow learned through Kurtz’s death, and he now knows that inside every human is this horrible, evil side.

Francis Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now, is based loosely upon Conrad’s book. Captain Willard is a Marlow who is on a mission into Cambodia during the Vietnam war to find and kill an insane Colonel Kurtz. Coppola’s Kurtz, as he experienced his epiphany of horror, was an officer and a sane, successful, brilliant leader. Like Conrad’s 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 Kurtz’s major fear is “being white in a non white jungle.”8 The story Kurtz tells Willard about the Special Forces 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’s inoculated arms, is the main evidence for this implication in that film. This is when Kurtz begins to go mad, he “wept like some grandmother”9 when, called back by a villager, he saw the pile of little arms, a sophisticated version of the “escalating horrors.” What Kurtz meant by “escalating horrors”9 is the Vietnamese army’s senseless decapitation, torture, and the like. Kurtz is facing a new culture and has a terrible time dealing with it. This was the beginning of his insanity.

Both The Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now examine the good and evil in humans. In The Heart of Darkness, Marlow speaks of Fresleven who was killed in a fight with some natives. The argument between Fresleven and the natives was over some chickens, and Fresleven felt he had been ripped off in the deal. Marlow describes Fresleven as “?the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs.”10 However, later in the same paragraph Marlow says,”?he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly.”10 Soldiers in combat are forced to bring the evil within themselves out every time they go into battle. The scene in Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard first meets Lt. Colonel Kilgore exhibits the power combat has in bringing out the dark side in humans. The attitude the soldiers have towards their enemy in the scene shows how evil humans can be. Kilgore demonstrates his dark side when he tosses the “death cards”11 on to the bodies of the dead Vietcong without showing any remorse over the death of fellow humans. Granted the Vietcong were his enemies, but they were no less human.

Traditional interpretations of lightness and darkness tend to correlate lightness with goodness and purity, and darkness with evil and corruption. However, in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, the definitions of lightness and darkness can be reversed. Darkness can be interpreted to stand for the purity and innocence of the natives lifestyle, while lightness can be seen as the corruption, greed, and exploitative ways of the white men. The natives lived by the code of nature in a sort of “darkness,” in that they had not been exposed to the corruption of the

civilized world. Some of the natives were “enlightened” to conform to live by the rules of the white men. One such native is described as a, “product of the new forces at work.”12 This new “enlightened” class of armed natives worked to help the white men enslave their fellow tribesmen by escorting the captive men on work details at gun point.

Racism is clearly portrayed throughout the novel and movie in several different ways. For example, the influential white males are far from color blind in that random shooting takes place in both the book and the movie merely for the sake of killing the natives of each country respectively. The native’s lifestyles are dramatically changed when their land is dominated by the overpowering white men. The whites expected the natives to follow and comply with their demands once the natives homelands were invaded, because the whites considered themselves civilized and thought of the natives as savages. Color of skin is used by the whites to rationalize their actions towards the natives.

“All America contributed to the making of Colonel Kurtz, just as all Europe produced Mr. Kurtz. Both Kurtzes are idealized in their function as eyewitnesses to the atrocities. What is reflected is the threat of loss of self, loss of centrality, and the displacement of Western culture from the perceived center of history by those whom it has enslaved and oppressed.” 13 This tells us that the evil side and the madness in both Kurtzes was brought out by the fear of new cultures different from their own, and their inability to deal with this fear. The disconnection between the opening words of Kurtz’s report “By the simple exercise of our will, we can exert a power for good practically unbounded”14 and the note on the last page, “Exterminate all the brutes!”15 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, the duplicity of man and reality merged for the two Kurtzes, one in the Congo, and one in Vietnam. As this happened, the well defined cultural values masculine/feminine and self/other that had specific segregated roles, could not be sustained in the Congo or in Vietnam. “For the Americans in Vietnam, as for the colonialists in Africa, madness is the result of the disintegration of abstract boundaries held to be absolute.”13

“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 Darkness exposes the contradictions between the inherent hierarchy and inequality within the cultural forces of the United States and official democratic principles, which led to the perception that it could waste what it viewed as insignificant little people and preserve its own image in the world. Along with that is the growing realization, since the Tet Offensive of 1968, that the U.S. was somehow way off the mark.”13 North American Culture views itself as “correct”, and we see ourselves as powerful police of the world. Our culture looked down upon the Vietnamese because they were more simple than us, just as Europe and Marlow looked down on the Africans. Believing ourselves to be superior, we had a lot of trouble 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 was killed by a native in a tree who threw a spear. Not even an “advanced” Navy boat can defend itself against some “simple” natives armed only with spears. This opens Captain Willard’s eyes to the

horror of the situation he now finds himself in.

Even more intriguing, however, is the similarity between the transformation of the characters in Apocalypse Now, and the cast and crew that created it. In Hearts of Darkness, (a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now.) Eugene Coppola becomes the narrator ( a Marlow or Captain Willard) and Francis becomes Kurtz.

“Francis believed that only if he could duplicate Willard’s experience, could he understand his moral struggle. In other words, he had to lose control of his own life before he could find the answers to the questions that his narrative asked.”16 Coppola’s main horror was his fear of producing a pretentious movie. “Eleanor repeatedly calls the making of Apocalypse Now a journey into Coppola’s inner self. Coppola, like Kurtz, is regarded as a deity. Moreover, while Willard stalks Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Coppola stalks himself, raising questions which he feels compelled to answer but cannot, finally announcing his desire to “shoot himself. ” He means suicide, but the cinematic connotation of the term, “to shoot,” jointly criticizes both the U.S. and Coppola’s film for exercising a demented self-absorption.”16 Coppola had to deal with perhaps the most agonizing of his troubles: his shriveling self-confidence. As the budget soared, as the producers worried, as the crew and actors grew restless and dispassionate, Coppola worried that he did not have what it takes to 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 of his co-actors believed that Martin was becoming Captain Willard, and was experiencing the same journey of self discovery.

Heart of Darkness and its movie counterpart, Apocalypse Now are brilliant portrayals of a man in search of himself. Marlow and Willard both go in search of Kurtz only to find themselves. I believe that Kurtz is actually not a man, but the “heart of darkness” in Marlow, Willard, and every man. At some point in every persons life they are forced down a dark path

in search of something, only to find that it is himself he is searching for. Marlow and Willard both realize this and neither of them comes out of the jungle the same man that went into the jungle.

We live our lives sheltered in our own society, and our exposure to cultures outside of our own is limited at best. Often, the more technologically advanced cultures look down upon those that they deem to be simpler. On the occasion that some member of one culture does come into contact with another, simpler culture, a self discovery happens. Both cultures realize that deep down inside, all humans are essentially the same. We all posses a good and an evil side, and no culture, no matter how “advanced,” is exempt from that fact.. This discovery often causes madness as this evil side is allowed out. Only those who have completed the “journey into self” can understand the actions of people such as Kurtz. They are alone in this world of horror…

The Horror!

1. Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Coppola. With Martin Sheen, Robert Duval, and Marlon Brando. Zeotrope, (1979.)

2. Conrad, James. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Great Britain, BPC paperbacks 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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