Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

It is evident in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now that once a man is removed from the boundaries of society he delves into darkness and can become his own lawless god. Without society’s limits and expectations man’s inhumanity to man erupts revealing evil that is inside every man. Marlow and Willard struggle for light in the dark jungles, Africa and Vietnam, respectively, as they search for two men who have been corrupted by the diabolical surroundings.

Meet the Authors & their Times:

Journey Up the River

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, later Joseph Conrad was born in Poland which was ruled by Russia at the time. His parents were members of the Polish noble class. He left for Marseilles, France and set out to sea at 17 years old, where he worked on merchant ships for the next four years. In 1878, he transferred to a new ship in England, where he then learned English after just six voyages. In 1886 Conrad obtained his Master’s Degree and became a citizen of England.
Conrad’s most famous and celebrated work, Heart of Darkness, written in 1899 and published in 1902, was comprised mostly of instances from Conrad’s own experiences on a steamboat ride up the Congo River in 1890, where he was traveling in harrowing circumstances. He was inflicted with physical and psychological duress that followed him throughout his life.
Prior to Heart of Darkness, Conrad gained public interest with his first novel Almayer’s Folly, which he began in 1892 and published in 1895. After living 20 years at sea, the wide success of this novel inspired Conrad to become a writer.

Conrad’s short stories and novels such as Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and The Secret Agent allowed him to combine his experiences in desolate places with attention to moral conflict and human nature. Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim hold telling elements of Conrad’s writing; far away, dreary locations conflicts between humans, the brutal forces of nature and people, and at times the darker and more brutal side of human nature.

History: During the years Conrad was alive, European Colonialism was at an all time high. The corruption associated with this system was often ignored by the colonizers and acutely felt by those they were colonizing. European powers carved up the African continent with no regard for previously established African boundaries and often times the natives found themselves subjected to a political authority that preached the doctrine of scientific advancements and improved conditions, but reality showed them that Europeans were only out for economic gains at the expense of the African’s physical well-being.

Contributions to the last decade of the nineteenth century at the first decade of the twentieth:

Works created by Joseph Conrad exemplified the pessimism and imaginative writing in the last decade of the nineteenth-century and the first decade of the twentieth. This includes stoicism (characterizing the literature written in the transitional period between the Victorian era and modernism.

Francis Ford Coppola (1939- )
Five time Academy Award Winning American film director, producer, and screen writer. Born in Detroit in 1939, but spent his childhood in NY suburb. UCLA film school graduate. Most known for his work with “Apocalypse Now” and the Godfather Trilogy.
History: The Vietnam War had come to a close in 1975 as the first non-victory the US had ever experienced in her political endevours. Bitterness for the war characterized the climate of America in the wake of the defeat that cost the lives of over 58,000 American soldiers. Anti-war sympathizers focused their attention on the corruption they saw as characteristic of the war. America had previously come out of an at times violent Civil Rights Movement filled with protests and marches. Over-all climate of domestic life in America was one of unrest and turmoil.

Heart of Darkness follows an unnamed narrator on his journey up the Thames River in London with the mysterious Marlow. Marlow is the character from which the plot unfolds and it is his experiences that the reader is presented with throughout the novel. The focus of Conrad’s famous work is how the removal of societal influences affects the psychology of man. The further up the Congo River and into the “heart of darkness” that Marlow gets, the darker the novel gets. Not only does Marlow feel the darkness of the wilderness in a physical sense, but we also get the feeling that Marlow recognizes the moral darkness surrounding the Belgian colonial system. An example of this desire by Marlow to free himself from the evil and corruption associated with colonialism, occurs when the helmsman is killed. The ship Marlow is aboard undergoes an attack. During this attack the helmsman, a black African, is killed and his blood spills onto Marlow’s shoes. Marlow throw the shoes overboard. At first glance, this may appear that Marlow is merely trying to get rid of his shoes, but the underlying symbolism is crucial in understanding the novel. Marlow cannot bear to have the blood of the helmsman on his shoes, and so to disassociate himself with everything that is going on in the Congo during this time, he rids himself of all responsibility. Marlow casting off his shoes and trying to rid himself of the corruption and the moral depravity associated with the colonial institution.

Another important theme throughout the novel occurs when examining the enigmatic Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz is responsible for running the trading station in the heart of the Congo. Throughout the novel, Marlow is exposed to the theories surrounding what has happened to the man since he has been so far removed from the society. The question of the natural state of humans rises to the foreground as readers begin to understand that once Kurtz has been removed from the society and culture he knew and put into an environment that lacks any similar characteristics, Kurtz begins adopting a far more primitive system of manners and lifestyle, even to the extent that shrunken heads ( a symbol upstanding European men during the time would certainly have shunned) become prominent fixtures outside of his hut.
Through the story of Marlow and his account of Mr. Kurtz, Conrad paints a picture of two men: one who has become so entwined with the colonial system and the natives he is ruling that he has no hope of ever returning to his previous condition, and one who sees the corruption of the system he is involved in and is trying with all of his might to remain as removed from it as he possibly can.

Apocalypse Now adheres to the same structure as Heart of Darkness; Marlow is replaced by Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, of the U.S. Army, although Willard’s story is not told to an unnamed narrator, as Marlow’s is. He is given a mission to assasinate a Green Buret Colonel named Kurtz who has begun to wage war against the Vietnamese without the sanction of the Army. Like Heart of Darkness, the film shows Willard’s trip up the Danang River to find Kurtz and assasinate him, but is more concerned about the experience Willard has getting to Kurtz than the actual plot of finding and killing Kurtz. There are sharp contrasts between the book and the film; there aren’t many plot points that connect the two works, and not many characters either. The only character that seems to carry over from the novella, besides Marlow/Willard and Kurtz, is the Russian, who seems to be replaced by a spacey photojournalist played by Dennis Hopper. The story really is about Willard and Kurtz, just as Heart of Darkness is about Marlow and Kurtz.

Both narratives can be criticized as long, vague, and unclear, but it is likely that both Conrad and Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola made their stories that way intentionally. Because both Conrad’s and Coppola’s s stories ar

Robert Duval as Colonel Kilgore

e not as focused on plot as the development of their main characters, Marlow’s and Willard’s pursuit of Kurtz becomes central to the stories. Marlow and Willard both become fascinated by Kurtz, and their trips up the river becomes more about understanding Kurtz than fullfilling their duties, to the Company in Marlow’s case and to the Army in Willard’s.

“I don’t want to bother you much with what happened to me personally,” Marlow tells his audience at the beginning of Heart of Darkness, “yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I got there, what I saw, how I went up that river to the place where I first met the chap” (Conrad, 1894). Willard echoes that sentiment in Apocalypse Now, saying, “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own” (Coppola). Conrad centered his story on Marlow’s journey to Kurtz, and Coppola did the same in his adaptation. Marlow and Willard and intrigued by the idea of Kurtz, and their anticipation of Kurtz and eventual confrontations with him shape the stories.

Character Analysis

Marlow vs. Lieut. Willard
The protagonists in Conrad’s and Coppola’s works represent the journey into the inner psyche of the human mind. While Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, feels the pressure of the darkness, he is able to withstand being consumed by it. He is able to see more clearly as his journey progresses the corruption present in the colonial system and the true nature of man as something that is not fundamentally good. In contrast, Colonel Willard is consumed by his own inner darkness. Even though his mission was to exterminate the man Kurtz had become, the savagery accompanying Willard’s murder of Kurtz shows that he has become overwhelmed by the darkness. He replaces Kurtz’s rule of intimidation with his own. In this we see that Marlow is able to overcome his own inner darkness, though he is scarred by his experiences whereas Willard is overcome by his own nature.
One of the main similarities we see emerge between these two characters is their obsession with Kurtz prior to meeting him. He is an enigma to both of them, and both Marlow and Willard spend extensive amounts of time researching who Kurtz is and speculating about what he might be like. Once they are introduced to him, the speculations wear off, but we see they both view him with a sense of awe. Marlow is the only man on the mission who knows what Mr. Kurtz was and can compare it with what he had become. He respects the man and even though he does not agree with what is going on in the Inner Station, he cannot help but be captivated by Kurtz’s voice. When Kurtz dies, and Marlow brings his body back to the European continent, he tries to preserve the memory of Kurtz in a positive light and lies to Kurtz’s betrothed for her own peace of mind. Here we see that Marlow believes that it is best to protect others from the darkness and corruption he has experienced first hand.
In contrast, Lieut. Willard spends less time thinking about man’s inner darkness, and more time falling into his. The man who had initially set off on a mission to bring Kurtz’s tyrannical reign to an end, ends up brutally destroying the man and taking control himself.
Marlow represents the man who sees and understands the inner darkness all men possess and can still withstand succumbing to it. Lieut. Willard represents the men who are overcome by their own nature and are subjected to whatever that nature desires. In this way, we see that the main characters of these two works both represent a man’s inner journey into himself, but the outcomes are very different.

Mr. Kurtz vs. Colonel Kurtz
While one is an ivory trader and one a military leader run amok, both Kurtz’s are the quintessential example of how power affects those who are give too much of it. The main problem in both the novel and the book is that in neither case, are there any checks and balances on Kurtz’s power. Isolated from the rest of civilization and surrounded by natives (whether Africans or Cambodians) that revere him, Kurtz has been given far too much control and is able to do whatever he wishes. Kurtz represents the importance of outside controls on humans. Without any kind of system making sure Kurtz is not acting in an inappropriate manner, he is able to do as he wishes, with no consequences coming from his actions. This complete and total freedom, supported by his loyal followers who view his commands as necessity, is innately a terrible thing for man to experience. It is what ultimately brings out the inner corruption and darkness. An example of this would be the prevalence of dead bodies in both the novel and the movie. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz, to illustrate his own power, uses heads on stakes as ornaments “decorating” the path up to his hut. In “Apocalypse Now” we see that heads are also present outside Kurtz’s residence, only this time they are scattered haphazardly throughout the yard. This example shows how truly depraved individuals can become if they are left on their own accord.

The Russian vs. The American Photographer
In both the novel and the movie, the only non-natives seemingly present inside the realm of Kurtz’s control are two men who worship and adore the ground Kurtz walks on. The Russian, present in the novel, fiercely defends Kurtz against any accusations Marlow wages against him and continually pledges loyalty to the man who on more than one occasion has threatened to kill him. Similarly, in “Apocalypse Now,” the American photographer tells Lieut. Willard that Kurtz has taught him everything worthwhile that he knows. Both men are non-threatening to Kurtz and it is for this reason that they have allowed them to remain alive. On another level, the Russian and the photographer have both come to represent the natives they reside with. They are both up and down emotionally and fickle in every way except their devotion to Kurtz. The undertones with this are indeed racist, but must be understood to fully understand what Conrad especially was trying to communicate about the natives. They followed both Kurtzs with a blind fervor, hailing him as a god based on his skin color. Their folly is exemplified through both the Russian and the American photographer.


Introduction of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness

Marlow first hears of Kurtz from the chief accountant at the Company’s station. Marlow says, “I wouldn’t have mentioned the fellow [the chief accountant] to you at all, only it was from his lips that I first heard the name of the man who is so indissolubly connected with the memories of that time” (Conrad, 1902). The chief accountant paints Kurtz as a model employee for the Company. The chief accountant states that Kurtz’s produces more ivory than any other trading post, and that he’s likely to become a key figure in the Company (Conrad, 1903).

Marlow hearsmore about Kurtz as he makes it to the Central Station. The station manager reiterates the chief accontant view of Kurtz, and the station manager also tells Marlow of Kurtz’s illness. Marlow says, “he began again, assuring me Mr Kurtz was the best agent he had, an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the company; therefore I could understand his anxiety. He was, he said ‘very, very uneasy'” (Conrad, 1906). A brickmaker strikes up a conversation with Marlow, trying to fish out information from Europe from Marlow, but eventually they begin discussing Kurtz, and the brickmaker gives Marlow, as well as the audience, their first view of Kurtz beyond the perfect agent. Kurtz is described by the brickmaker as as “‘an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else. We want,’ he began to declaim suddenly, ‘for the guidance of the cause entrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose'” (Conrad, 1908). Conrad also provides the reader with a painting Kurtz had made a year earlier. Marlow says, “I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was sombre-almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torchlight on the face was sinister” (Conrad, 1907-8).

It is in this scene that we see Kurtz affecting Marlow. Marlow lets the brickmaker think that he has some sort of influence in Europe and with Kurtz, so that he could get more information from the brickmaker. Marlow tells of his dislike for lies, and he says “I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I ahd a notion it somehow would be of help to that of Kurtz whom at the time I did not see-you understand. He was just a word for me” (Conrad, 1909).

Introduction of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now

Martin Sheen as Captain Charlie Willard in “Apocalypse Now”

Unlike Heart of Darkness, Willard is sent into the darkness specifically to find Kurtz, and assasinate him. Marlow and Willard have similar motivations for going on their journeys, as both are drawn to the foreign terrains. The difference is Marlow is drawn to a place he has never seen, while Willard had served his tour in Vietnam and was drawn back to it, just looking for the Army to give him a mission. Unlike Marlow, who only finds out about Kurtz once he is in the jungle, while from the start Willard knows his mission will lead him to Kurtz.

Coppola does not portray Kurtz as the perfect army officer as Conrad portrays his Kurtz. We are introduced to Colonel Kurtz as Willard meets with the Army officers who assign Willard the classified assignment to assasinate Kurtz. Unlike the book, and unlike Marlow, Willard and the vieweing audience are immediately given an image and a voice to Colonel Kurtz. Willard is given a picture of Kurtz as a young officer, as the audience sees a young picture of famous actor Marlon Brando, who played Kurtz in the film. The officers also play a recording of Kurtz in his present state, giving the audience a reason to believe the Army’s claims. Colonel Kurtz says, “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor and surviving” (Coppola, Apocalypse Now). Kurtz is also recorded saying, “but we must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig. Cow after cow. Village after village. Army after army” (Coppola, Apocalypse Now).

These statements is Willard’s and the audience’s view into Kurtz’s madness, but like Heart of Darkness, we are also told of his incredible qualifications. General Corman tells Willard, “Walter Kurtz was one of the most outstandint officers this country ever produced. He was outstanding in every way. And he was a good man, too, a humanitarian man. A man of wit and humor. He joined the special forces. And after that his…ideas…methods, became… unsound. Unsound” (Coppola, Apocalypse Now). Willard is shocked that the army wants Kurtz to be killed when he looks at his credentials in the dossier for his mission, which becomes a springboard for the film to let Willard think about Kurtz.

Marlow’s Journey to Kurtz

At the beginning of the second section of the novella, Marlow overhears a nephew and his uncle talking about Kurtz, and listening the them talk finally gave Marlow an image of Kurtz. Marlow says, “I seemed to see Kurtz for the first time. It was a distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home-perhaps; setting his face towards the depts of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station” (Conrad, 1913). Marlow becomes fascinated with the character, and his reasonsor going up the river became soley to meet Kurtz, as he says, “For me it [the river] crawled towards Kurtz-exclusively” (Conrad, 1915). After getting ambushed by unseen foes, shooting arrows at Marlow and his crew, Marlow and his crew believe that Kurtz is dead and the Inner Station is probably destroyed. Marlow says, “There was a sense of extreme disappointment, as though I had found out I had been striving after something altogether without a substance. I couldn’t have been more disgusted if I had travelled all this way for the sole purpose of talking with Mr Kurtz. Talking with…I flung one shoe overboard, and became aware that that was exactly what I had been looking forward to – a talk with Kurtz” (Conrad, 1924). This revelation reveals to Marlow and the audience how much Kurtz had influenced Marlow only through word of mouth.

In the second section, Marlow goes onto a tangent talking about Mr. Kurtz, and his upbringing, much like the information Willard is supplied by the U.S. Army officers and the dossier they supplied him. Marlow describes an eloquent report Mr. Kurtz wrote for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, but like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, his eloquent words have a very ominous, dangerous power to them. Marlow describes the powerful note at the end of the report in relation to the rest of the work, saying, “It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!'” (Conrad, 1927).

This interlude from main plot of Marlow going up the river towards Kurtz gives us a more complete view of the man, as we see how Marlow views him now. Marlow says, “He won’t be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witchdance in his honor; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings…No; I can’t forget him” (Conrad, 1927).

Most of the crew believed that Kurtz was dead, after they are ambushed by the unseen assailants, but eventually, they find “a long decaying building on the summit” (Conrad, 1928), which is Kurtz’s station. At the station, Kurtz meets a Russian man, who is a devoted follower of Kurtz, and Marlow sees the incredible devotion in this man to Kurtz. Marlow says, “I did not envy him his devotion to Kurtz, though. He had not mediated over it. It came to him, and he accepted it with a sort of eager fatalism” (Conrad, 1930). Marlow also says, “I suppose Kurtz wanted an audience, because on a certain occasion, when encamped in the forest, they had talked all night, or more probably Kurtz had talked” (Conrad, 1931).

On meeting the Russian, Marlow begins to talk about Kurtz in a much less faltering light. Marlow mentions to his audience that “the manager said afterwards that Mr Kurtz’s methods had ruined the district” (Conrad, 1932), and that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratifcation of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence” (Conrad, 1932). From hearing this Russian speak, from seeing how pathetically devoted he was to Kurtz seems to repulse Marlow, as though his own fascination with Kurtz could turn him into the same sort of groveling servant. Marlow says, “He [the Russian] forgot I hadn’t heard any of these splendid monologues on, what was it? on love, justice, conduct of life – or what not. If it had come crawling before Mr Kurtz, he crawled as much as the veriest savage of them all” (Conrad, 1933).

Willard’s Journey to Kurtz

Throughout the film, we get different views of Kurtz from Willard through his experience going up the river in light of what he reads in the dossier. One exception to that trend is the comparison Willard draws between Colonel Kurtz and Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duval. Kilgore is a man who puts cards on the dead Vietnamese so that “Charlie know who did this,” as Willard explains to Lance (Coppola, Apocalypse Now), plays “The Ride of the Valkyries” to scare the Vietnamese, and is willing to undertake a dangerous mission in enemy territory because the surfing on the beach is good. Willard says, “If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder. There wasn’t enough of that to go around for everybody” (Coppola, Apocalypse Now).

Dennis Hopper

Willard questions why Kurtz joined the Green Berets at age 38, when that would ruin his chances to be promoted. Willard says, “Kurtz knew what he was giving up. The more I read and the more I began to understand, the more I admired him…he could have gone for general…but he went for himself instead” (Coppla, Apocalypse Now). Willard views Kurtz as a righteous force compared up to the Army, which he views as hypocritcal. One of the Army’s grievances with Kurtz was he killed three Vietnemese men and one woman who he thought were Viet Cong, and then enemy activity stopped in his area, which to Marlow seems like Kurtz is effective and the Army is trying to hold him back. By the time Willard got to the end of his journey, he has the same fascination with Colonel Kurtz as Marlow did with Mr. Kurtz. Willard says, “Part of me was afraid of what I find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him” (Coppola, Apocalypse Now).

Instead of the Russian, Willard meets an American photojournalist, who serves the same function as the Russian in Heart of Darkness. The American says “You don’t judge the colonel like an ordinary man” (Coppola, Apocalypse Now). The American is completely devoted to Kurtz, and although we don’t get Willard’s opinion of the American, his demeanor of him shows the same contempt for him as Marlow has for the Russian.

Comparing/Contrasting Emergent Similarities in Heart of Darkness & “Apocalypse Now”

The first similarities that emerge are the settings the storylines each take place in. While Coppola’s movie is not set in Africa as Conrad’s novel is, the geography of both places is extremely similar. The jungle provides a set filled with darkness and mystery. It is relatively untouched by human hands and so has a wild quality found in very few other settings on the earth. There is also a very large emphasis on waterways. In both the novel and the movie, the protagonist’s journey to Kurtz must be accomplished by way of boat. This too adds to the overwhelmingly dangerous wilderness that both Marlow and Willard must journey through. The geography incorporated into both of these works is of utmost importance because this journey to Kurtz is far more than a dangerous adventure Marlow and Willard are on. Their journey represents the journey into the human mind in its natural state. Understanding what a man truly is outside of social constraints controlling his actions is not a mundane task; but rather one filled with peril. The treachery inside the jungle that awaits both Willard and Marlow on their journies is representative of the trachery that lies in the uncontrolled, natural human mind. In this manner, we see that the setting of the novel adn the movie both come to mean much more than the mere physical setting it provides audiences



Map/Still:The Congo River basin and its drainage network.
Map/Still:The Congo River basin and its drainage network.

The presence and absence of light is another connecting factor between the novel and the film. In Conrad’s novel, we see that the only time true illumination is felt is while Marlow is still in Europe. Once he enters Africa, Conrad employs imagery based largely on shadows and darkness. The same is true of “Apocalypse Now.” When Willard enters Kurtz’s living space, viewers are overwhelmed with the external image Images%5CBorneo%5CNature%5Cjungle1b.jpgdarkness that seems to emanate off of the screen. We see that throughout both the novel and the film, the closer Marlow and Willard get to Kurtz and understanding the depravity that lies inside every man, the less light they experience, symbolizing the darkness felt when a true understnading of the nature of man is grasped.

While the natives in both works are of a different descent, (Cambodians and the Congolese) we see that both groups are easily duped by the magnanimity they associate with their white leader. They are not differentiaited one from nother in either the novel or the film, creating gross generalizations; but this only adds to the “sheep-like” quality they are assigned – that they blindly trust and follow their leader. The difference between the film and the novel lies in the dehumanization that the Africans experience in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The Cambodians, while generalized as blind followers, do not seem to experience the same inferiority assigned to the Africans in the novel. The novel uses diction that focuses on distinct body parts:
“These moribund shapes were free as air-and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish the gleam of the eyes
under the trees. Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length
with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly.”
This passage illustrates the diction Conrad incorporates through his character of Marlow to dehumanize the Africans. Marlow does not describe a man, but body parts to describe the scene before him. By seeing parts of a body rather than a human, we see the Congolese experienced a dehumanization through colonial interactions that the Combodians do not seem to share.

Purpose of Kurtz’s Mission
In Conrad’s novel, Mr. Kurtz is sent to the heart of the Congo to run the center trading station and export as much ivory as possible, making the purpose behind his mission largely economic. In the film, Kurtz the colonel was sent into Cambodia to restore order at the military outposet, making his mission purpose largely political. Though the driving forces behind Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” are different in nature, the effects power in general has on Kurtz are the same. In both cases, regardless of political or economic forces, we see that Kurtz gets into a position where he has free reign over his domain and this proves to be the source of his ultimate demise.

The horror! The horror!

Heart of Darkness

Marlow finally does meet Kurtz, who is incredibly sick and decrepit. Marlow’s description of him is less than flattering, saying,”It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory ahd been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made by dark and glittering bronze” (Conrad, 1934). Marlow says of his voice, “A voice! a voice! It was grave, profound, vibrating, while the man did not seem capable of a whisper. However, he had enough strength in him – factitious no doubt – to nearly make an end of us” (Conrad, 1934).

Despite his weakened physical condition, Kurtz gets away from the boat, and Marlow follows him. When confronted with the possibility of stopping Kurtz with force, Marlow sees himself in Kurtz, a reflection of the struggle he faced on his way up the river. “I had – for my sins, I suppose, to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself…He struggled with himself too. I saw it – I heard it” (Conrad, 1939). Marlow and the Company’s crew begin to take Kurtz back downstream, and Kurtz would rant, sometimes “contemptably childish” (Conrad, 1940), according to Marlow. Marlow describe this version of Kurtz, the sick, rambling old man lying on his deathbed on a steamer as, “an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines” (Conrad, 1941). Marlow was with him as he died, and watches Kurtz as he goes through his last moments. Marlow says, “I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair” (Conrad, 1941). Then Kurtz then makes his final, chilling statement: “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad, 1941).

Apocalypse Now

On his second trip into Kurtz’s compound after retreating back to the boat, Willard says, “Everything I saw told me that Kurtz had gone insane” (Coppola, Apocalypse Now). Once he finally meets Kurtz, it is under captivity, as his hands are bound and he is overtaken by Kurtz’s men. Willard is freed, although he really has no choice but to stay because the only surviving member of his crew, Lance, has been brainwashed by Kurtz and his followers. Still, Willard sits around, listening to Kurtz, and does nothing. Willard says, “On the river, I thought the moment I looked at him, I’d know what to do. But it didn’t happen. I was in there with him for days. Not under guard. I was free. But he knew I was going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did” (Coppola, Apocalypse Now).

Kurtz gives him the answer, all but telling Willard to kill him. “Everybody wanted me to do it. Him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up. Not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead. And that’s who he really took his orders from anyway” (Coppola, Apocalypse Now). Willard then goes to kill Colonel Kurtz, which is juxtaposed to the natives under Kurtz’s care slaughtering a cow in a ritual. When the music dies down, and all is quiet, the last word we hear from Kurtz is, “The horror. The horror.”



“We have all read that Coppola took as his inspiration the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, and that he turned Conrad’s journey up the Congo into a metaphor for another journey up a jungle river, into the heart of the Vietnam War.” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Apocalypse Now. “Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ is filled with moments like that, and the narrative device of the journey upriver is as convenient for him as it was for Conrad” (Ebert).

Each work is essentially the same thing. Watching through Apocalypse Now a few times, especially after reading Heart of Darkness, you see small references from the book translated onto the screen, like Kurtz’s postscript on his report in Heart of Darkness on a paper Willard picks up after killing Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Lines from the novel come back in the film, most notably, “The horror! The horror!” Beyond those references thrown into Apocalypse Now, both works chronicle two men influenced by the same savage wilderness, one completely overtaken by the darkness, and the other trying to understand it and save himself from it.


Early draft of the screenplay
Screenwriter John Milius discusses the screenplay (below)

American Zoetrope Website


Apocalypse Now Redux. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper. DVD. American Zoetrope. 2000 Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” The Norton Anthology: British Literature. Vol. 2. Greenblatt, Stephen. New York. 2006. 1890-1947.
Greenblatt, Stephen, and Meyer Howard. Abrams. “Joseph Conrad.” Introduction. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2013. 1947-948. Print.

“Francis Ford Coppola.” Internet Movie Database. 15 November 2007.

Ebert, Robert. “Apocalypse Now.” Rev. of Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Chicago Sun Times. 1 June 1970. <>


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John Morgera and Donna Kellerman