The novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, published in 1902, is about the story of a man named Marlow, a steamship captain whose character is based on Conrad’s own experience. The story is told from Marlow’s perspective in a narrative. Marlow describes describes one particular journey he took on an African river as part of an assignment by his company to take charge of a barge stuck in the interior. In addition to his regular task of transporting ivory, Marlow has orders to bring back Kurtz, a man considered a legend in his company.
Along the journey, Marlow makes his way through the jungle, witnessing the how whites exploit the natives even to the point of oppressing them in their quest for power and profit (Conrad 155; Galloway; Grant 215). Upon reaching Kurtz’s compound in a remote outpost, he is appalled to see a row of human heads mounted on poles. Marlow later realized that Kurtz has freed himself from the bounds of civilization, trading his soul for power resulting in him running his own fiefdom in the interior.
But he paid a price for it in losing his humanity as he led the natives under him in raids along the surrounding areas to collect ivory and these raids are brutal as evidenced by the displayed heads (Conrad 160). It is also discovered that Kurtz is dying of an illness as Marlow took him back to civilization. On the way back, the dying Kurtz gives to Marlow a bold declamation of his deeds as a quest driven by visions he sees, at some point, the life in Kurtz slowly ebbed and his dying words were, “The horror!
The horror! ” which underscores the despair at the encounter with human depravity–the heart of darkness (Conrad 192; Galloway). Seguing more than 70 years later, Francis Ford Coppola wrote, produced and directed the film Apocalypse Now in 1979. The story of the film is loosely based on Conrad’s novel. Using artistic license, Coppola set the story in Vietnam at the height of the conflict there instead of the Congo.
Coincidentally, the main antagonist of the film is also named Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando). Instead of Marlow, the other protagonist is Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen), a special operations officer who has been having difficulty adjusting to a tranquil atmosphere as his body craves for action as shown in the scene where he is having “withdrawal symptoms” from being away in combat for quite some time. Likle Marlow, Willard is the one who narrates the story (Coppola; Galloway; Kinder 14).
A new mission galvanized him into action as he is ordered by his superiors to kill Kurtz who is believed to have gone insane and like Conraad’s Kurtz, has created his private fiefdom in the heart of the Vietnamese jungle where he has apparently gone rogue, all the more reason why Willard is ordered to kill him (Coppola). Instead of commanding a steamship, Willard traveled on a riverine gunboat run by an eccentric crew and instead of seeing ivory traders attacking villages, his eyes feasted on the sight of an Air Cavalry regiment run by a Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) whose disposition resembled that of General George S.
Patton with a passion for combat when he uttered, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning (Coppola)! ” as well as a passion for surfing. Like Conrad’s Marlow, Willard came upon Kurtz’s fiefdom and sees why the brass in Saigon wanted Kurtz dead. Willard is captured but has managed to escape and complete the mission by killing Kurtz at his vulnerable moment making a recording. As Kurtz lay dying, his dying words are similar to Conrad’s Kurtz as he uttered, “the horror… the horror… ” as well (Coppola; Galloway; Kinder 15, 18).
In analyzing both stories, there is a parallelism that exists in terms of theme. Looking at it from the political perspective, both stories underscore the evil of imperialism. In The Heart of Darkness, Africa is responsible for mental disintegration as well as for physical illness of Mr. Kurtz while Vietnam does the same thing for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. It would appear that both Kurtzes have been in the service of their masters. Both men have been its servants and at the same time, its victims (Galloway). Mr.
Kurtz has been conisdered a legendary man of the company for his ability to deliver the goods – ivory, a very valuable commodity among white traders in Africa. But in the course of carrying out his duties, it requires him to conduct raids on surrounding villages which entails killing people in the name of profit. As for Col. Kurtz, his mission as a Special Forces officer is to organize the indigenous tribes of Vietnam, the Montagnards into a paramilitary force intended to act as a deterent against marauding Vietcong guerillas but like Conrad’s Mr.
Kurtz, his ragtag army also committed atrocities, only it is in the name of fighting communism and upholding democracy as his superiors would tell him (Coppola; Kinder 13, 15). It is in the service of their masters that drove these two men into madness. It is a madness not necessarily bordering on insanity or craziness, but it is the kind that caused them to detach themselves from this cruel and maddening reality and create their own world to escape it with their own norms to follow to the point of megalomania.
Both Conrad and Coppola used this device to elicit sympathy on the part of the audience as well as reflect on the human nature and experience they have gone through which could happen to anyone (Grant 215; Kinder 13, 18; Galloway). By way of clarification, Conrad and Coppola’s Kurtz are not inherently evil. Both men have started out as the ideal of the company they serve. What drove them to the proverbial dark side is that “obsession” (for lack of a better word) in carrying out their mission.
Their duties have somehow made them jaded and desensitized as they realized that what they are doing appear to violate morality when their duty entails killing people for profit and politics respectively. Thus it has become clear for both Marlow and Willard why their Kurtz need to be taken care of. Both men have been corrupted to the point of madness that they are “out of control” and they have to be dealt with lest they cause more damage and turn against their own masters (Galloway, Kinder 19). In conclusion, both William Conrad and Francis Coppola showed through their works the dark side of the individual when pushed to the limit.
While one may be appalled by the horrors depicted in both stories, both Conrad and Coppola has managed to somehow make the audience sympathetic towards the two Kurtzes rather than loathe them entirely for they used to be “human” and it is not their own fault why they have gone off the deep end. What Conrad and Coppola are doing is that they helped guide the audience on who is responsible for the madness that has befallen the two Kurtzes who could have been destined for greater things instead of the tragic fate that befell them. The bottom line is man is not inherently evil but they can be seduced into it by the circumstances surrounding them.