The dark core of human nature has been a timeless notion, explored and extrapolated by many literary critics. Both the core text, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and it’s film appropriation, Apocalypse Now directed by Francis Ford Coppola, ignite interest as to question whether humans are essentially creatures of dark nature when stripped down to bare essentials. When these are linked to values of greed and hunger for power and domination, these forces emerge through extreme characterization.
Furthermore, through the manipulation of the setting, one can also see the dark forces are reflected in the surroundings. Under the guise of civilisation, the central characters pursue domination of the cultures they have invaded and the ramifications of this behaviour is reflected in the themes of madness, absurdity of evil and loss of spiritual centre. A post colonial reading of these texts would explore the idea that “power and knowledge gives the Wests the power to name people, places and cultures and control them. ” – Edward Said Orientalism 1978
The value of imperial domination is explored in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness through the character Marlow and Kurtz. The novel was written during the time of New Imperialism where European countries were in conflict with one another, trying to claim African territories known as the “Scramble for Africa. ” This context is reflected in the novel when the narrator, Marlow, thinks aloud in, “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration… hen I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there. “
This shows the innate want and need to dominate in European culture, expressed through accumulative listing. Furthermore, the use of high modality language in “I will go there” coupled with the act of possession in putting a “finger on it” further heightens this notion. The descent into darkness is reflected through the setting as the characters journey closer to the river. There it is before you—smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out. ” Through the use of personification and asyndeton, the jungle is presented through Marlow’s eyes to be enigmatic and insidious which foreshadows the meeting with Kurtz and mental distress that follows. Exploitations of the natives through European domination are exhibited when Marlow recalls his first sight of human life within the jungle as “this scene of inhabited devastation”.
The connotation of “devastation” reveals the drastic state that the natives live in, further explored when they are described as “mostly black and naked, moved about like ants. ” The comparison of the natives to “ants” symbolises their objectification as menial slaves who can be easily disposed of. Also, the inversion of natural imagery of the sun being a source of power and comfort, it is described instead to be “a blinding (sun)light (that) drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence glare. ” The negative connotation of “blinding”, “drown” and “glare” all imply the evil nature of the environment and its inhabitants.
When Marlow nears Kurtz’ site, he comes across one of Kurtz’ soldiers, and he describes him as having “seemed to take me into partnership in his exalted trust. I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings. ” The irony that Marlow believes he is part of a “great cause” that is “just” is presented here, shows his blurred sense of moral judgment. In conjunction to develop further this notion, Conrad uses the smoke to symbolise the distorting impact of imperialism on Marlow’s moral sense.
The smoke that comes from the Winchester’s dated guns symbolises the violent and aged approach of imperialism. Marlow directing the boat despite poor vision further symbolises how blurred his task’s significance is to him and represents his inability to decide if his imperialistic mission is right or wrong. The confusion in morality manifested in mentality changes can also be found through the driver of the boat seen in, “That fool-helmsman, his hands on the spokes, was lifting his knees high, stamping his feet, clamping his mouth, like a reined in horse”.
The use of simile and animal imagery shows Helmsman losing his mind. Marlow describes Kurtz as “being a gifted creature” and of all his attributes, the one that “stood out pre-eminently, was his ability to talk, his words–the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness. ” Through the use of high modality language and asyndeton, Kurtz Ultimately, Conrad presents to the audience that one cannot simply go forth to dominate another culture and not be affected.
This is highlighted in the end of the novel as Marlow sits in contemplation and comments, “the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness. ” The use of pathetic fallacy leaves the audience with an unsettled feeling that is unresolved, as the ending leaves it up to the reader to make judgments. Apocalypse Now is the film appropriation of Heart of Darkness directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979. Similarly, the film indicts the American presence during the war in Vietnam, which is seen by its critics as yet another version of western imperialism.
Like in Heart of Darkness, as the characters travel up the river and journey further from comfort towards the mad Kurtz, who represents complete madness caused by imperialism, they slowly fall into madness. The protagonist, Captain Benjamin L. Willard is sent on a mission to “exterminate” the renegade and presumably insane, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz joined with 4 other crew members. Willard encounters the cavalry’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore who is meant to be their escort.
However, his initial professionalism is exploited as he is shown to direct his attention to Lance, a pro surfer, rather than giving water to a wounded man. Irony is further explored when the lieutenant calls a Vietnamese woman a “savage” for blowing up the helicopter and tells the men to shoot her down, when it was he who initially instigated the attack on the Vietnamese. The use of high angle shots of the lieutenant in the helicopter shows his power and ability to dominate. Captain asks the boys “what do you think” and the guy thinks he’s talking about the war but he’s actually referring to the waves.
LOL The still image of the river at night through the blue filter highlights the cold and feelings of isolation. The ironic voice over when the young black boy dies says “To celebrate you coming home.. stay out of the bullets” shows Coppola’s attempt to humour the pointlessness of war. Right in the next scene, it is dark and the boat is partly enshrouded in fog and mist with a blue backdrop. Accompanied by a solo line of some sort of high-pitched instrument, it highlights the stress of the situation as they venture deeper into unknown territory.
The boat is then completely covered by mist shows that the crew is unclear of what’s ahead. The value of domination is then questioned when Willard makes a pit stop when welcomed by the friendly French. As they sit around the dinner table, the war is brought into question and there is a sudden outburst by one of the French as he mocks America as he claims, “Fighting for freedom – bullshit! You America are fighting for the biggest nothing in history”. Because there are no background noises except the voice coupled with the close up on face, it highlights the importance of this message.
A somber mood is then presented as silence follows and the camera shows half of face in the shadows of orangey light from sun. Later that night, Willard talks to one of the women as the close up on her face shows the intimacy of the conversation and also adds an element of fear as she says, “There are two of you, don’t you see? One that kills and one that loves”. Her husband then replies, “I don’t know whether I am an animal or God” in which she answers looking directly at Willard, “But you are both”. This demonstrates how one man’s spirituality can be torn through his want to dominate and also acts as a warning for Willard.
The growing paranoia amongst the crew is reflected in the more frequent use of the fog motif. This is evident when the crew travels further up the river and Lance begins making animal noises with non-diegetic sounds of clapping and tribal music. When Willard reaches Cambodia, there is a high angle tracking shot representing White dominance over the natives. This shot is accompanied by non-diegetic sounds of pulsing beats of 2 creating tension and dramatic effect. The colour symbolism of red mist in background further shows danger.
Upon his arrival, Willard is caged underground engulfed in darkness with only streams of lights that flows through the cracks. This physical portrayal of him being in darkness is only the beginning of his mental descent into madness. The pathetic fallacy of heavy rain on the 2nd visit matches the voice over when Willard confirms Kurtz’ insanity. It is made clear that Imperialism takes its toll on the individual as Willard says, “He (Kurtz) only took orders from the Jungle anyway” revealing Kurtz’ loss of all human empathy and formality having become wild and animalistic.
The final scenes of cross cutting between Willard slaughtering Kurtz and the natives slaughtering the buffalo acts as an ironic metaphor of the unrestrained behaviour of the American soldier with their use of gratuitous violence. At this point, Willard is at his peak of mental instability. However, despite Willard’s identification with Kurtz, he does not take up Kurtz’s throne and instead kills him, metaphorically killing the part of Kurtz within him.
He then leaves the site, rejecting the power that he could potentially possess and presumably heads back to civilisation. While Apocalypse Now implies that war effectively displaces the self and the rights and wrongs of morality, its conclusion suggests that the soul is capable of rejecting such darkness whereas Heart of Darkness has a more open-ended resolution. Nevertheless, both texts shows that imperialism comes at a high price of having the ability to corrupt the soul and ultimately, the efforts are in fact revealed to be futile.