Culture Magazine

From Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Montage AN 9 Willard+stoneguy
We know that Apocalypse Now was conceived as a film in which the story of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would be not re-created but more like re-imagined with materials from the war in Vietnam. Signs of the kinship are obvious, from the idea of a trip up the river into the deep jungle, thought the death of the boat’s helmsman, to Kurtz’s final words in both texts, “The horror, the horror!”
Beyond such borrowings is there a deep structural similarity between the two? Neither story has much of a plot. There’s a mission. It starts at the mouth of a river, goes up the river, things happen, the mission is accomplished, end of story. Is there something deeper than that?
I think so. But we’re going to have to do a bit of work to find it.
As I’ve said many times on this blog, I was much taken with the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss early in my career, especially The Raw and the Cooked. There he undertook a form of analysis that can be parodied as follows: We have two myths that are much alike, M23 and M78. Where we have the grandfather in M23, we have a second cousin in M78. It follows from that that, as the grandfather in M23 must go up the mountain to start a fire, so the second cousin in M78 must go down the river to fish for salmon.
That is, Lévi-Strauss had the idea that these stories exist inside a closed economy (which he likened to an algebraic group), such that if you changed one item in a myth, that will force correlative and compensating changes. That closed economy is at least one of the constraints on form.
The differences between Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are legion, as are the similarities, not to mention that outright repurposing (aka aesthetic theft) of material from the former to the latter. So doing that kind of Lévi-Straussian analysis is ultimately futile. Still, that’s what I’m going to attempt.
Cardinal Points: Heart of Darkness
Let’s start by aligning cardinal points, if you will. We’ve got the beginning, the middle, and the end. I’ve already said quite a bit about the structural center, which I’ve called the nexus, of Heart of Darkness in an earlier post, The Heart of Heart of Darkness (downloadable version HERE), so I won’t repeat that analysis. But, while I’ve said a great deal about the beginning of Apocalypse Now in a post on the opening montage, I’ve not discussed the opening of Heart of Darkness. So let’s start there, then look at the middle and the end and then move on to Apocalypse Now, starting in the middle. Once we’ve got that staked out we can step back and take a look at things.
Heart of Darkness begins with what is in effect a prelude that seems pretty much outside the main story. We’re on a yacht in the Themes with five people, the Director, Lawyer, and Accountant of the company – Conrad doesn’t give them names nor does he name the company – Marlow, and the narrator. The narrator sets the scene:
And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, "followed the sea" with reverence and affection, than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen's Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men.
And then Marlow begins to tell the tale. But he has some prefatory remarks:
"I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago—the other day. . . . Light came out of this river since—you say Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine—what d'ye call 'em?—trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft the legionaries,—a wonderful lot of handy men they must have been too—used to build, apparently by the hundred, in a month or two, if we may believe what we read. Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the color of lead, a sky the color of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages,—precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore.
He goes on in the vein for a bit and finally gets around to telling his tale.
What Conrad has done in this prelude is situate this particular story in the context of two millennia of exploration, conquest, and exploitation.
The structural center of the story, as I’ve demonstrated, is an incident in the trip upriver to the Inner Station. The helmsman is killed in a skirmish. Between his falling to the deck and Marlow pushing his body overboard Conrad inserts a long paragraph, the longest in the text, which is a précis of Kurtz’s life and accomplishments. Because of its centrality I’ve called this paragraph the nexus. This nexus mentions his Intended, his general brilliance, his depravity, and his report on the native population. The paragraph ends with Marlow weighing the life of the gifted Mr. Kurtz against that of his unfortunate and barely competent helmsman and finds Kurtz wanting. That judgment is surely at the moral center of this story.
The text ends with a conversation in which Marlow discusses Kurtz with the Intended. It is here that we learn that Kurtz was motivated by a need to acquire wealth in order to made himself worthy of this woman:
I listened. The darkness deepened. I was not even sure whether he had given me the right bundle. I rather suspect he wanted me to take care of another batch of his papers which, after his death, I saw the manager examining under the lamp. And the girl talked, easing her pain in the certitude of my sympathy; she talked as thirsty men drink. I had heard that her engagement with Kurtz had been disapproved by her people. He wasn't rich enough or something. And indeed I don't know whether he had not been a pauper all his life. He had given me some reason to infer that it was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there.
At the beginning of the nexus paragraph Marlow quotes Kurtz as uttering “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—“. That phrase recurs later in the text, just before Kurtz dies, though not in exact repetition:
The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mold of primeval earth.
His Intended, his station, his career, his ideas, those were closely linked in Kurtz’s mind, as though they were different facets of the same thing.
The Intended wants to learn Kurtz’s last words. They were “the horror, the horror!” But Marlow lies to her and tells her that her name was the last thing Kurtz said. Here’s his last utterance, the penultimate paragraph of the text:
“I heard a light sigh, and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. ‘I knew it—I was sure!’ . . . She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark—too dark altogether. . . .”
By lying to the Intended Marlow feels that he betrayed Kurtz, he betrayed Kurtz to protect the Intended’s memory of him.
So, for Heart of Darkness:
  • Beginning: Establish history as the framework.
  • Middle: Weigh Africa against Europe.
  • End: Betray Kurtz to his fiancé.
Does that make any sense? How does the end answer to the beginning and what has it to do with the nexus? As we’ll see, Apocalypse Now is similarly odd.
Cardinal Points: Apocalypse Now
What does Apocalypse Now look like? The beginning and the end are easy to identify, so let’s set them aside for the moment. The structural center is tricky, and interesting. The death of the helmsman appears in Apocalypse Now, but it’s not the structural center; it comes after the center. The structural center is surely the sampan massacre, for which there is no parallel in Heart of Darkness. What’s going on? Are we sunk already?
I think not. Let’s look at what happens to the helmsman. In Apocalypse the man is not merely a helmsman, he’s the Chief of the boat. That is, he’s the commander of the boat, small though it is; Willard (the Marlow character) is only a passenger on the boat, though of course, the mission is his mission. The boat and its crew are there to serve, not Willard, but his mission.
There is a racial difference between Willard and the Chief, as there is between Marlow and his helmsman and there may be a class difference as well – within the military the difference between commissioned and noncommissioned officers functions as a class difference and, historically, it was based on class difference. But that difference is not at the center of this movie. Nor is it anything like the difference between Marlow and his helmsman, which IS at the center of Heart of Darkness. Marlow’s helmsman is an African; he’s a member of a group that has been subjugated by the Europeans. That relationship is at the moral heart of the book, and that’s (obviously) why his death is at the structural center of the book. Willard and the Chief are on the same “team.” They’re both American citizens, and both are in the military, though different divisions of the military.
That long paragraph about Kurtz that’s inserted into the helmsman’s death scene serves both to tell us about Kurtz, whom we will meet in a bit, and to set up the comparison between Kurtz/Europe and the helmsman/Africa that is made in the structural center. It is because the relationship between Willard and the Chief IS NOT at the center of the film that that incident cannot function as the film’s structural center. As for the précis of Kurtz, as Walter Murch reminded me (via email), Apocalypse Now performs that function with the dossier, which Willard examines periodically, and in voice over narration.
To state the obvious, while Heart of Darkness is very much about the relationship between Europe and Africa, Apocalypse Now is NOT at all about THAT relationship – though one is certainly free to see the racial politics of AN as a historical descendent and relative of that relationship. Apocalypse Now is about the relationship between the United States of America and Vietnam and, more deeply, about what one might call the cultural psychogeography of that relationship. And THAT’s what’s put before us in the sampan massacre.
What happens is simple: one big SNAFU born about in part through tensions and conflicts on the boat. The basic underlying tension, of course, is that they’re going up-river in time of war in territory that as likely belongs to enemies as to friends. Willard is the only one who knows what the mission is and the men on the boat, the Chief especially, resent that. There is thus a “structural” conflict, that is, one inherent in the situation and thus independent of the personalities involved, between the Chief and Willard.
The men spot a sampan and prepare to board it and search it in accord with standing orders, to which Willard objects. Chief overrules him, tension mounts, the inspection goes forward, there’s movement on the boat, and the men open fire. People are killed, but a woman remains alive, though badly wounded. The Chief wants to take her for medical help, but Willard simply shoots her so he can get on with his mission. The Chief was doing his duty; Willard was doing his. Innocent people died.
Willard has killed before; that’s what he is, an assassin. But we have no reason to believe that any of the others have actually been in battle. This is their first time. And it’s the first time in the film that we’ve seen Willard kill anyone. Now they’re in IT in blood.
And now we have a very strong parallel with Heart of Darkness, for there is death at the center of that text as well, the helmsman. In both narratives there is a line dividing US from THEM. In Heart of Darkness that line is between Europe/white people and Africa/black people. In Apocalypse Now that line is between America and its people of whatever race and Vietnam/Asians.
apoc now 6 the shot
In both narratives the mid-point death occurs to THEM. But the killer is different. In Heart the helmsman is killed by another African; the helmsman, of course, is in service to the Europeans. In Apocalypse the people in the sampan are killed by Americans.
In this sense, then, there is a deep similarity between the superficially different structural midpoints of these two narratives. But within that similarity – death across the divide – there is a different valence.
Moving on, this incident is also a geographic turning point. Shortly after this they cross the border into Cambodia and they’re not supposed to be in Cambodia. Willard’s mission, of course, is a secret one. He and it don’t exist. At this point the entire crew of the boat in effect drops off the face of the earth. They don’t exist.
This incident is both a metaphor and a metonymy for the war in Vietnam. It’s something that happened without anyone intending it too but now they’ve got to deal with it. That’s the structural midpoint of the movie.
What about the beginning? It consists of a montage focused on Willard. We see scenes from the war – aerial strikes and flames – and we catch glimpses of the very end, when Willard kills Kurtz. We even see the large face of a stone Buddha that will be the last image in the film. Willard’s voice over informs us that his marriage is over and that he’s in Saigon without anything to do, no connection to the world. He’s just waiting for a mission. A mission he completes at the film’s end. Both scenes have “The End” by the Doors playing on the soundtrack.
At the end of the film Willard does kill Kurtz, as he was tasked to do, in an off the books mission. Officially, it didn’t happen. Willard has had several such missions.
But the end is not quite that simple. The scene where Willard kills Kurtz with a machete is intercut with a scene where the villagers sacrifice a caribao. The caribao is sacrificed by the village and on behalf of the village. Are we being asked to see Kurtz’s death as some kind of sacrifice? Is Kurtz in effect a sacrifice to appease the insanity of the war?
So, for Apocalypse Now:
  • Beginning: Willard is a man without ties to the world except through his position in the military as a secret assassin.
  • Middle: A massacre that just happens without intent and which serves as a metaphor for the war as a whole.
  • End: Willard kills Kurtz while a village sacrifices a caribao.
Does that make any sense at all? For that matter, does Heart of Darkness? What does the opening invocation of history have to do with the closing lie about a romantic relationship?
What’s Going On? Frames for a Narrative
Consider Leslie Fiedler’s classic book, Love and Death in the American Novel (1966) one of the most influential studies of American literature in the last half-century. Fiedler argues that, while the 18th- and 19th-century European novel is focused on courtship and marriage, the American novel — which is necessarily based on European prototypes — is about “a man on the run, harried into the forest [e.g., Cooper’s Natty Bumpo] and out to sea [e.g., Melville’s Ahab], down the river [e.g., Twain’s Huck Finn] or into combat [e.g., Crane’s Henry Fleming] — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and a woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility” (p. 26). Of the European novel Fiedler remarks (p. 25):
The novel, however, was precisely the product of the sentimentalizing taste of the eighteenth century; and a continuing tradition of prose fiction did not begin until the love affair of Lovelace and Clarissa (a demythologized Don Juan and a secularized goddess of Christian love) had been imagined. The subject par excellence of the novel is love, or more precisely–in its beginnings at least–seduction and marriage; and in France, Italy, Germany, and Russian, even in England, spiritually so close to America, love in one form or another has remained the novel’s central theme, as necessary and as expected as battle in Homer or revenge in the Renaissance drama. But our great Romantic Unroman, our typical anti-novel, is the womanless Moby Dick.
Conrad is writing at the end of that version of the European novel. Heart of Darkness is not at all about love and marriage. But it is haunted by it.
That emblem of Kurtz’s – “My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas” – links marriage, and its narratives, to this story of empire, Kurtz’s career and ideas. The effect of Marlow’s lie to the Intended is to preserve that connection in an ideal state while isolating the Intended from the truth of his career. The fact of that lie also has the effect of asserting, or at least implying, that love and marriage are themselves based on a lie. Whatever that lie preserves from the Intended’s point of view, it is devastating from the reader’s point of view. The Intended doesn’t know it was a lie. We do.
As a framework within which to spin fictions about deep truths, love and marriage has been laid to waste.
And Apocalypse Now?
Love and marriage are explicitly absent. In the opening montage we learn that Willard is divorced (Heart tells us nothing about Marlow’s marital status). Kurtz has a wife and a son, to whom he writes letters which we see on screen and hear in the voice-over narration. He’ll never see them again and he knows it.
Sexuality, on the other hand, is explicitly present in the USO show with the Playboy bunnies. This presence is amplified in Apocalypse Now Redux, where Willard arrange for the men on the boat to have sex with the women in exchange for fuel and later, when Willard spends the night with a woman at the French plantation. There’s nothing this overt in Heart of Darkness, though there is the African woman Willard assumes to have been Kurtz’s lover.
That is to say, though sexuality is explicitly present in Apocalypse Now, it is also explicitly contained and limited. It has a place within that world, and it is a limited place. There are times and places when sexuality may lead to love, or vice versa, but not in this world.
Nor in the world where the action of Heart of Darkness transpires. But, through the repetition of Kurtz’s emblem – my Intended, my career – it frames the moral sphere of the story. And the story breaks it.
What is broken in Apocalypse Now?
The state. In Heart of Darkness Marlow and Kurtz were agents of an unnamed company operating out of an unnamed country located in continental Europe. But both Willard and Kurtz were soldiers in the United States Army. Kurtz had gone rogue and Willard was brought in to “terminate the colone’s command...with extreme prejudice”. But the mission was off the books, and would take place in Cambodia, where the military was not supposed to be operating.
When Willard finally killed Kurtz, yes he was fulfilling his mission, but at this point in the story the US Military was all but non-existent, just a voice on the radio. Maybe he was avenging the death of Chef, whom Kurtz had decapitated. And maybe he killed Kurtz because it was the only way he could stay alive. Note also that, while one can argue that Willard’s killing of Kurtz fulfills a certain kind of justice, Willard is by no means innocent nor is he merely following orders. He’s the one that killed the woman in the sampan massacre; to be sure, she was probably going to die no matter what, but he DID pull the trigger. To get on with the mission? To assert his authority over the Chief?
Is there any way to disentangle this?
Coppola certainly doesn’t suggest one. What he does do is force us to myth, myth logic if you will, but juxtaposing the killing of Kurtz with the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo. Whatever’s going on here is outside the logic of any state, of Western civilization. That logic has been destroyed, just as Heart of Darkness destroyed the logic of marital aspiration and relations. Does it make sense to say that Marlow’s lie about Kurtz’s final words was a kind of sacrifice, it destroyed a certain kind of integrity in order to preserve a certain social myth? But that myth is preserved only in a very circumscribed way, to one character within the story itself. For those sitting on the deck of that boat in the Themes, the myth is gone. All they’ve got is their proximity to the all encompassing sea.
Here’s the final paragraph from Heart of Darkness:
Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. “We have lost the first of the ebb,” said the Director, suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
Apocalypse Now too ends on a boat, and with the image of Buddha.
Where are We Now?
I’m not sure. I just made this argument up in the last few days. It’ll take awhile before I know whether or not or to what extent and in what terms I believe it.
I feel reasonably sure that there IS a deep structural similarity between these two works, Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. That means that, if Heart of Darkness exhibits center-point construction, the so does Apocalypse Now. I’m comfortable with that, for the moment.
But I don’t think I’ve yet found the terms in which to understand the ending of either work, though I’m a bit more comfortable with my account of the ending of Heart of Darkness. I’m inclined to think that this is kin to a long-standing problem I’ve had with rationalizing tragedy. To be sure, neither of these narratives is a tragedy, not in the classic sense, nor in a looser sense. But they have an air of myth and ritual about them that seems akin to tragedy.
There is an ontological logic about them that seems lyric in character rather than narrative.
That requires some more work.
AN Lance and bull
Still, I’ll offer one final remark, one to connect back to Lévi-Strauss on myth. He accounted for the similarity between myths with the notion of a formal economy, which he expressed in terms of algebraic group theory, and for differences from one myth to another by reference to external cultural circumstances. In this tribe it was the father’s brother who had certain duties; in that tribe the mother’s brother had those duties; and so on. I have been making a similar argument about these two narratives. The formal economy is the same for both. For Heart of Darkness the external circumstance is the rise of and ineradicable awareness of European imperialism; Leopold's depredations in the Congo were inescapably in the public eye. For Apocalypse Now the external circumstance is damage the war in Vietnam did to the credibility of the American state.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog
By Garry Taylor
posted on 18 March at 19:45

Hi we are organising a Overland trip driving from ..................Reykjavik to Cape town. leaving Iceland in January 2015, we will be taking 6 months and going through 20 country's travelling through Europe, West and Central Africa. Mostly camping...getting to some real remote areas....

There will be 14 passangers on the truck...anyone want to join?