Apocalypse Now: Misguided Journey to the Heart of Darkness

However distant it may seem at first glance, Apocalypse Now remains not only deeply indebted to Conrad’s tale but not fully comprehensible without reference to it

by Joy Gould Boyum

Though inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic tale Heart of Darkness, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is the kind of film we don’t ordinarily think of as an adaptation. And not simply because of its change of tide. It doesn’t acknowledge its literary source in its credits—they simply read: “Screenplay by John Milius and Francis Coppola; Narration by Michael Herr.” Its setting is the Southeast Asian jungle in the 1960s; Conrad’s is the African interior in the 1890s. And given that many of its characters (such as the spaced-out young surfer played by Sam Bottoms) and many of its events (a USO show featuring Playboy bunnies) have no precedent in Conrad (to say the least), it’s clear that the film doesn’t make any attempt to be faithful to Conrad’s narrative or even to present itself as that narra­tive’s equivalent.

Yet, whatever its alterations, however distant it may seem at first glance, Apocalypse Now remains not only deeply indebted to Conrad’s tale but not fully comprehensible without reference to it—especially in its climactic sequence. Taking the shape of a riverboat journey to the very outposts of civilization, it borrows Conrad’s structure. Focusing that journey on the quest for a once-great man now fallen on evil ways, it makes use of Conrad’s central concept and central figure, even retaining many of that character’s qualities—his baldness, the introduction of him as disembodied “voice,” and, of course, his name. Many of its other characters also have roots in Conrad: Dennis Hopper’s nutty photojournalist is patently a version of Conrad’s Russian “harlequin”; the black pilot of the boat is a reincarnation of Conrad’s black helmsman. Much of the film’s imagery also has its source in Conrad: the “snake”-like quality of the river; the heavy fog that gathers immediately prior to the entry into Kurtz’s compound; the film’s chiaroscuro lighting as a whole. The film even borrows some of the story’s specific language: in film as in tale, we are told that Kurtz’s “methods” are “unsound”; that though he is sane in mind, his “soul is mad.” And the movie certainly reiterates many of the story’s themes. In Apocalypse Now just as in Heart of Darkness, the central journey is both a literal and a metaphoric one: a revelation of the destructive impulses beneath the civilized veneer of Western imperialism, a voyage of discovery into the dark heart of man, and an encounter with his capacity for evil.

In short, Apocalypse Now is very much an adaptation and one that holds implicit a reading of Heart of Darkness as relevant to the American experience in Vietnam. To the film’s most sympathetic critics, it is precisely this interpretation (or better, reinterpretation) of Conrad that accounts for its brilliance—both in itself and as a model of adaptation. As one of these critics suggests, Coppola’s approach to adaptation—if not quite as fully realized in Apocalypse Now as in the infinitely less ambitious The Godfather— nevertheless illustrates the extent to which “the adaptive auteur,” by absorbing, expanding, and transforming the works of another into his own unique vision, can prove himself “just as personally expressive as a Bergman, Fellini, or Bunuel.”

Though this writer probably values “personal expressiveness” a good deal more than I do, the point is very well taken. Apocalypse Now certainly could have served (in the manner of The French Lieutenant’s Woman) as an illustration of adaptation’s possibilities—had it only been successful in its own terms. But whatever the views of its defenders, the movie is highly problematic—a film that, though brilliant in much of its imagery (the cinematographer here is Vittorio Storaro) and filled with sequences that have a touch of greatness about them, ultimately disintegrates into dramatic and thematic confusion.

In fact, what the movie serves to illustrate (to my mind, at least) is less the possibilities of adaptation than its pitfalls. For if such brilliance as there is in Apocalypse Now rests, as some critics argue, chiefly in Coppola’s updating of Conrad, it’s also true that its problems derive from the very same source: from its failure to update Conrad consistently; from its muddled treatment of Kurtz; from the extent to which Conrad seems to have encouraged a considerable pretentiousness in Coppola; and most important of all, from the apparent failure of Coppola and Milius to read Conrad wisely and well. And the inadequacy of their reading is reflected in nothing so much as their failure to grasp the function of the novella’s distinctive point of view both as a thematic and a structural device.

In Conrad, our guide into the heart of the darkness is the author’s ubiquitous storyteller, Charlie Marlow. Introduced to us by an unnamed narrator as he and Marlow and a group of friends sit about at dusk on the deck of “a cruising yawl” anchored in the Thames, Marlow proceeds to relate what the narrator calls one of his friend’s “inconclusive experiences.” This took place in Africa where, as a young man, Marlow was employed by a European trading company as captain of a Congo steamboat and where, journeying up river to the heart of darkness, he encountered the monstrous ivory trader, “Mr. Kurtz.”

Much has been made of this intricate introduction to the story and of the manner in which it distances us from Marlow’s tale. Yet, it seems to me that any “distance” beyond that which Marlow himself provides by his telling of the tale in flashback is neither particularly crucial to Heart of Darkness nor particularly relevant to the problems of Apocalypse Now. More to the point is that Marlow is established through this framework as a man who may have encountered darkness, who may have known “the fascination of abomination,” but who has returned to civilization to tell the tale. Friendly not only with the narrator but with such steadfast types as a lawyer and an accountant—the other listeners on the deck that evening—he has also evidently returned with his sanity and moral perspective intact. And though he’s a man who may push a bit too hard at times (as the narrator himself indicates) for the inconclusiveness of experience—his vocabulary is sprinkled with such adjectives as “incomprehensible,” “insoluble,” “indefinable,” “impossible,” “inscrutable,” “unfathomable,” “unearthly,” “incredible,” “uncanny”—we still have faith in his perceptions and observations. In other words, Marlow is a man who proves wise enough (and even witty enough) to invite our trust and identification.

In Apocalypse Now, we are given as narrator and companion a different sort of man altogether. He is one Benjamin Willard, a regular army captain whose various special assignments have included that of hired assassin. (“How many people had I already killed?” he muses. “There were six that I knew about for sure.”) Willard is also, in contrast to Marlow, a man estranged from civilization, a man whom we meet, significantly enough, not in peaceful London but in war-torn Saigon. Nor is he at home in the jungle either. Having served time in Vietnam, having been to the States and back again, he tells us: “When I was here I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” Thus, though his tale of Kurtz is, like Marlow’s, told to us in flashback, it begins at a point when he has already known a measure of darkness, evil, and horror and has already, it would seem, been devastated by the knowledge. Indeed, the film’s opening sequence—reportedly not in John Milius’s script—suggests that Willard, having internalized much of the madness of Vietnam, is himself most likely mad.

The very first shot itself—an enormous upside-down close-up of Willard’s glazed eyes and perspiring face—makes the point, emphasizing the skewed nature of his perceptions. So does the series of fragmented images of helicopters, smoke and jungle fires, and a Buddha-like head that follow. Mounted in superimposition and slow dissolves, which characterize the film’s style as a whole, these images also express the instability of Willard’s vision—and by extension of his entire personality. And if all this weren’t enough to cast doubt on his sanity, Coppola also supplies us with the sight of a semi-nude Willard in his liquor-soaked hotel room, going through a weird, ritualistic dance that climaxes with his smashing his hand into a mirror.

One might argue that in substituting Willard for Marlow, a madman for a sane one, Coppola is working out a meaningful inversion of Conrad, suggesting that in contrast to Conrad’s world, a sanity such as Marlow’s is not possible in our own. Or, since the film never takes us outside Vietnam, at least suggesting that no one can live through the Vietnam experience and still come out sane. But even if the position were tenable, wouldn’t it be more persuasively argued after Willard has met with Kurtz, rather than before? Similarly, though the images that constitute his perceptions are clearly flashforwards (we will see that Buddha head later at Kurtz’s compound), wouldn’t it make more sense if they were flashbacks instead—that is, if Willard’s madness were a function of his meeting with Kurtz and not of some previous experience? In any case, Coppola’s choice of unbalanced Willard as narrator/protagonist has ended up depriving the viewer of a point of entry or identification—especially considering that no one else in the film is sane either. Doing away with Conrad’s frame, Coppola’s film attempts to bring us closer to its narrator, while his subjective camera angles try to bring us closer still. But the treatment of character makes all of this beside the point; emotionally, we couldn’t be further away.

This emotional gap is widened, moreover, by the strangely impassive performance of Martin Sheen in the role, as well as by the texture of his voice-over narration. Spoken in an unrelenting monotone, these commentaries are couched in an emphatically hard-boiled style that seems (as many observed at the time of the film’s release) more appropriate to Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe than to even a stand-in for Conrad’s. Hardly a wise and careful observer, this man speaks in tough-guy banalities: “I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet”; “It was a real choice mission and when it was over, I never wanted another”; and, after entering Kurtz’s compound, seeing bodiless heads lying about, and studying Kurtz’s incriminating dossier, the ultimate understatement— “Everything I saw told me that Kurtz had gone insane.” How can such a man serve as the viewer’s surrogate? How can he convey any shock of recognition? How can he register his discovery of evil? How can he even know evil when he sees it? Well, he can’t. Thus the film, having altered the story’s central consciousness, is left not only without a point of entry, but without a moral center as well.

There are also insufficient possibilities for progressive development. In Conrad, the tale’s narrative stance serves as more than point of sanity—it is the means by which the entire tale is structured. Marlow, for all his repetitions, for all his circular language, still tells his tale in such a way that it builds slowly, cumulatively, toward a climactic revelation. As we travel up the river with him, seeing everything through his civilized eyes, the disintegration and disorder of civilized values builds and intensifies. Further, he begins his journey upriver believing in Kurtz as a man of exceptional gifts and moral fiber, of genius and eloquence, unaware of Kurtz’s fall into darkness. Marlow’s voyage, then, becomes emphatically one of discovery.

In Apocalypse Now, everything works to undermine such progression and revelation. Willard embarks on his search not only already acquainted with horror and darkness, but already knowing that the once-great Colonel Kurtz has fallen—indeed, the whole point of the voyage is the special assignment to “terminate” Kurtz “with extreme prejudice.” Moreover, the drama itself, rather than building from lesser horrors to greater ones, reaches it high point at dead-center of the journey, in Willard’s encounter with Captain Kilgore. A manic cavalry officer (brilliantly played by Robert Duvall) who has traded in his horses for helicopters but nonetheless struts about in a cavalry hat and yellow ascot, Kilgore has a passion for Wagner (his helicopter is equipped with a tape recorder that blasts “Ride of the Valkyries” during attacks), for napalm (he tells us it “smells like victory”), and, finally, for surfing (he ruthlessly assaults an enemy village for the chief purpose of clearing a neighboring beach and riding waves). Still, like Colonel Kurtz, he is (as we are told) a good soldier—a commander who loves his men and whose men love him in turn—though, like Kurtz too, he is the good soldier driven mad. Critic Michael Wood goes so far as to suggest that Kilgore is more than merely like Kurtz: he is Kurtz, or at least should have been. Perhaps. (I, however, tend to agree with the view that Kilgore lacks sufficient moral stature and is too absurd a creation to carry such a burden.) But whatever the case, the fact is that the film has nowhere to go after this encounter—at least in the way of revealing the pervasive madness and horrors of the Vietnam experience.

And so, in some sort of desperation to find something more terrible yet than murder and insanity, some greater and more horrendous depths of corruption, Coppola suddenly turns away from “personal expressiveness” and back to Heart of Darkness. At the point where Willard and the young soldiers who man the riverboat on which he has been traveling come close to Kurtz’s compound, Coppola even seems to leave both Vietnam and the twentieth century. Arrows—not bullets—fly; the boat pilot is impaled on a spear; and out of nowhere, ancient temples and statuary appear, as does a horde of savages decorated with war paint. And the problem isn’t only that all of this is totally inconsistent with the rest of the film. It’s also that Con­rad’s imagery seems to have been filtered through a sensibility weaned on old Tarzan movies. As for the figure of Kurtz, though closer in conception to Conrad than any of the other figures in the film, he seems to be Conrad interpreted by a college freshman who has just taken a course in T. S. Eliot and discovered Jungian archetypes in the process. The movie’s Kurtz (as played by Marlon Brando) is not only, as in Conrad, an exemplar of a great man corrupted by power and solitude, of civilization gone wild in the face of savagery, of the depths of evil possible only to those with an extreme commitment to idealism, of a man who has faced up to his own heart of darkness and recognized the horror of it all. He is here a totally mythic figure and one who knows he is a myth. He sits about reading (as the camera pedantically informs us) Frazer’s Golden Bough and Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. He recites T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”—whose epigraph is “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” He self-consciously awaits his own ritual slaughter, which the film supplies, even underscoring the symbolic nature of the act by intercutting shots of natives killing a carabao with those of Willard hacking up Kurtz. Worst of all, he is given to uttering such mumbo-jumbo as: “Horror has a face and you must make a friend of horror . . . and moral terror. If they are not your friends, then they are enemies to be feared.”

Nonetheless, as in Conrad, where Marlow sees in Kurtz his “secret sharer” and comes to admire him (despite his extremism and “unsound methods”) because he has looked upon the darkness so steadily, had the courage to choose his nightmare and to “pronounce a judgment upon the adventures of the soul,” so too does Willard presumably see himself in the inflated figure of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. But though the recognition has a greater inevitability in Coppola than in Conrad—Marlow has revealed nothing about himself that would truly align him with Kurtz, whereas Willard and Colonel Kurtz are both mired in soldiery and murder—it also seems a good deal more pointless. After all, for a man like Marlow to discover the darkness at the heart of man is truly a discovery, whereas for someone like Willard—a murderer confronting a murder, a madman face to face with madness—it amounts only to a tautology. What’s more, identifying with the sensible and sane Marlow and seeing the world from his civilized point of view, we share his shock of recognition, perceiving the darkness he uncovers as something uncovered in ourselves. In contrast, since we are alienated from the unbalanced Willard, we remain alienated from his discovery. Thus, we also remain alienated from the film’s apocalyptic vision as a whole—finding it, for all its spectacular images, for all its stunning set pieces, more hollow than all those hollow men Colonel Kurtz so solemnly intones.


Back in the late thirties, Orson Welles had plans for making a film of Heart of Darkness—which was to be his very first Hollywood production. Significantly, Welles (unlike Coppola) was highly sensitive to the role of point of view in the tale, insisting so much on the identification of the viewer with Marlow, in fact, that the movie was to be shot in first person. Like Robert Montgomery’s Marlowe in Lady in the Lake, Welles’s Marlow was to appear primarily as a narrative voice, seen on screen only reflected in mirrors or in the framing episodes of the film where, back on a boat in New York harbor (Welles also had updated Conrad and shifted his locale), he would be shown telling his story. Welles even went so far as to include a prologue to the film which, in his own words, was “intended to instruct and acquaint the audience as amusingly as possible with the [movie’s] special technique” and in which Welles announced to the audience: “You re not going to see this picture—this picture is going to happen to you. ” Welles— whose design also underscored the secret-sharer theme—was also to play both key roles.

No doubt but that these devices are extremely self-conscious ones. And so, had Welles’s Heart of Darkness actually made it to the screen, the chances are it would have emerged an equally self-conscious movie. But then again, who knows. Given Welles’s insightful understanding of the importance of Conrad’s rhetoric and his evident willingness to explore and expand the rhetorical possibilities of his own medium, his movie just might have ended up not simply a classic of adaptation but a classic exemplar of the imaginative adaptation of point of view.

Source: Joy Gould Boyum, Double Exposure: Fiction into Film, 1985


1 thought on “Apocalypse Now: Misguided Journey to the Heart of Darkness”

  1. The picture’s desperate grab for meaning, its deliberate absurdity, and even the hollowness at its core, convey more about our inability to comprehend Vietnam than any of its action or dialogue.

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