Apocalypse Now Essay, Research Paper
Comparative Essay between Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now
The ties between Joseph Conrad’s book, “Heart of Darkness” and Francis
Coppola’s movie, “Apocalypse Now” are unmistakable. Apocalypse Now’s correctness in
following the story line of the Heart of Darkness is amazing although the settings of each
story are from completely different location and time periods. From the jungle of the
Congo in Africa to the Nung river in Vietnam, Joseph Conrad’s ideals are not lost. In both
the book and the movie, the ideas of good and evil, whiteness, darkness, and racism are
clear. Also, characterization in both the novel and the movie are very similar. Both The
Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now examine the good and evil in human beings.
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.”(p. 13
Conrad) 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.”(p. 13 Conrad) 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, show’s the power at which 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” on to the
bodies of the dead Vietcong without showing any remorse over the death of fellow
humans. The Vietcong were his enemies, but they were no less human. Another example
of the movie expressing good and evil is when General Corman says, “Because there’s a
conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and
evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what
Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.” This quote explains what General Corman
believes is the good and evil in every human and how the good is the rational thinking.
While the evil is an irrational thinking.
Traditional interpretations of light and darkness tend to associate light with
goodness and purity, and darkness with evil and corruption. Marlow describes his
interpretation of the darkness in his journey with these words, “True, by this time it was
not a blank space any more…a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially,
a mighty big river… resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its
body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land…the
snake had charmed me.” (p. 11) However, in Heart of Darkness, the definitions of
lightness and darkness has been 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.
In the movie “Apocalypse Now”, light and darkness are also portrayed in the
sense that whenever the soldiers were going into an area occupied by the enemy it would
be at a time of darkness, this would indicate that the darkness was a sign of evil and bad
luck, somewhat the opposite of the book. Although when the soldiers were attacked on
the river it was midday which would imply that the light might really be the time of
Characterization in Coppola’s movie has been an exact replica of Conrad’s novel.
The reader is first met with the character Marlow, who is careful and important in his
story telling, just as in the book version. Willard who is supposedly Marlow is sent into
the jungle on a mission, which is to find Kurtz. This brings us to the actual character of
Kurtz, a man with a reputation for being powerful and mysterious in both novel and
movie. Racism is clearly portrayed throughout the novel and movie in several different
ways. Marlow shows a bit of his own racism when he says, “It was Unearthly, and the
men were— No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this
suspicion of their not being inhuman.” (p. 59) This quote indicates exactly what Marlow’s
first thought was upon seeing the lifestyle of the natives.
Moreover, 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 powerful white men. The whites expected the
natives to follow and agree with their demands once the natives homelands were
attacked, because the whites considered themselves civilized and thought of the natives
as being wild. Color of skin is used by the whites to rationalize their actions towards the
The plot in the movie has been changed slightly in order to agree with the times,
but deep in the heart of it its the same. Kurtz in both cases is the heart of the evil, in the
novel he spreads his evil in the ways he runs the ivory trade and enslaves the natives. In
the movies Kurtz shows his evil in the way he begins his own colony and becomes a devil
god, using human examples of death to govern his “tribe”. Another similarity is the way
Coppola has pictured military machinery that has been broken down. This is a way of
symbolizing the breakdown of the white man. The American strength is in it’s machinery
according to the movie, and the book uses a civilized way of life as the strength of the
white man, in both cases they were conquered. Both the novel and the movie Apocalypse
Now show clearly that evil does not control, and cruelty of other people is just not the
way to see something through, a dark dream.
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