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Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” & Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” Essay

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Updated: Jul 26th, 2022

There can be no doubt as to the fact that Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Coppola’s movie “Apocalypse Now” significantly differ from each other, in terms of plot’s composition, geographical settings, and the most important – in how Conrad and Coppola exploit the theme of “white man’s burden” in their works. This can be explained by the simple fact that, by the time Conrad was working on his novel, White people throughout the world were not being infused with the psychological complex of “historical guilt”, as it became a commonplace occurrence since comparatively recent times. It is namely during the course of the sixties, when the obscure ideology of neo-Liberalism started to gain popularity among citizens in Western countries, which was one of the reasons why it became a gesture of good taste, on the part of “lefties”, to badmouth American soldiers, while they were executing their professional duties in Vietnam. What Coppola did, was taking Conrad’s idea that it is impossible to “civilize” non-White savages, and transforming it into the idea that the very concept of Western civilization, as we know it, is metaphysically evil. This is the most important difference between the book and the movie. In this paper, we are going to explore this thesis in detail.

Nowadays, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is often being referred to as such that criticizes the very concept of European colonialism. We can agree with such point of view to a certain degree, but it is not because the novel’s main character Marlow views the process of European colonists bringing the light of civilization to primeval savages as “immoral”, “intolerant” or “racist”, but because Marlow comes to a conclusion that it is something utterly unnatural for a White person to have any dealings with African cannibals, in the first place. As a true European intellectual of the 19th century, Marlow does not even consider Blacks as people, in the full sense of this word: “We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil… The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell? They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly” (Conrad, Ch. 2). What shocks Marlow the most, is the fact that, by remaining in Africa for a prolonged period, White people are being deprived of a significant part of their humanity. He subconsciously senses that close socialization with Blacks, on the part of White colonists, represents a transgression against the laws of nature, and therefore, would have negative consequences in the future. Thus, we can say that “Heart of Darkness” is actually a prophetic book, because it is only today that we slowly begin to pay the price for the greediness of our ancestors – the countries that pursued the policy of colonial conquests with utmost vigor (Britain, France, Belgium), are now being colonized by hordes of non-White illegals themselves, with the status of White natives of these countries being gradually reduced to “second class citizens”. In his novel, Conrad does not criticize the adventurous spirit, which prompted European explorers to set foot on the African continent in the first place, but White men’s tendency to forget their true calling as promoters of cultural and scientific progress, in time when they begin to think of material enrichment as the only purpose of their existence. This is how Marlow describes the White men that traveled on a steamboat with him, up the Congo river: “Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them” (Conrad, Ch. 1). There is no doubt in Marlow’s mind as to the fact that Blacks around him are dangerous and bloodthirsty sub-humans, who should be treated with utter caution; however, it is not them who terrifies him the most, but his own people, as their sheer greed turns Marlow’s companions into the beings that are even worse than African cannibals. We can compare Marlow to the character of Ripley, in the movie “Aliens” – at one point in this movie, Ripley realizes the Carter Burke (corporate lawyer for the Weyland-Yutani Corporation), is even more vicious and evil than the embodiment of evilness themselves – aliens, as he is willing to cause harm to his own kind, simply because of his greed for money.

In Coppola’s movie, the theme of “White evilness” acquires entirely different subtleties – whereas Conrad perceives such evilness as deriving out of White people’s willingness to descend to the level of savages, Coppola portrays it as the result of Westerners’ (American soldiers) inability to perceive Vietnamese and Cambodian peasants as humans, in the full sense of this word: “They train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!” (Corky.Net. 2002). Coppola’s Kurtz is an individual suffering from a nervous breakdown, which came as a result of Kurtz’ personality being split in half – on one hand, he originally believed that American soldiers were being sent to Vietnam to protect the democracy, on the other, he eventually came to the realization of a simple fact that there can be no democracy among people whose vocabulary consists of 100 -150 words. Whereas Conrad’s Kurtz mental inadequacy is being presented to us as such that originate in the fact that he did not maintain any contacts with Western civilization for a long time, Coppola’s Kurtz insanity appears to have been triggered by the colonel’s inability to perceive the notion of “people’s equality” as nothing but a myth. Conrad’s Kurtz holds absolutely no illusions as to the fact that African savages can never be civilized, whereas Coppola’s Kurtz’ hypertrophied sense of idealism causes him to turn against his own people, as “inhuman”, simply because he proved himself as being incapable to put the notions of Western morality aside while trying to survive in a socially hostile environment. Conrad’s Kurtz was able to do that – he did realize that it is no longer possible for a White man to act like a White man while being surrounded by savages. Yet, he failed at embracing the “spirit of darkness”, no matter how hard he tried; because, just like any White person, Kurtz was born to represent light. This is the reason why Marlow suggests that “existential emptiness” was Kurtz’s main psychological trait: “The wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude – and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core” (Conrad, Ch. 3). On the other hand, Coppola’s Kurtz is full of ideas, yet these ideas appear as being essentially counter-productive, because they are nothing but a result of Kurtz’ inability to adjust psychologically to the realities of the Vietnam war, as not just a war between ideologies, but the war between races. While trying to pose as a man “beyond morality”, Coppola’s Kurtz is nevertheless is being revealed to us as someone deeply affiliated with Judeo-Christian mentality, which he subconsciously strives to impose on others, while lacking the intellectual honesty to admit it even to himself: “We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm… I cried… I wept like some grandmother” (Corky.Net. 2002). This part of Kurtz’ monologue provides us with insight into his existential mode as representative of the post-WW2 generation because it was only after the end of WW2 that White people, throughout the world, began to willingly yield their status of undisputed masters of the world, as the result of being subjected to neo-Liberal and Christian indoctrination. This is the reason why, apart from being insane, Coppola’s Kurtz also appears as being an utterly sentimental individual. He wonders how is it possible to remain a moral and civilized person and to still be able to slaughter non-Whites as wild animals: “You have to have men who are moral…and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling…without passion… without judgment… Because it’s a judgment that defeats us” (Corky.Net. 2002). Such thoughts would never occur to Conrad’s Kurtz, simply because he never had even the slightest doubt that it is absolutely permissible to treat non-White savages in the way we treat animals and insects and that the considerations of conventional morality simply have no place in the process. Do we like chicken? Then we build chicken farms so that we can have an unlimited supply of chickens. Do we find cats and dogs useful? Then we create even more of these pets’ pedigrees, by subjecting them to crossbreeding. Rodents destroy our crops? Then we simply exterminate rodents in a wholesale manner. African Blacks can help us in building schools, factories, and railroads? Then we hire them as physical laborers. Do they begin to shoot at us? Then we mowed them down with machine guns or distribute typhus’ infected blankets among them. It is not the utter uselessness of dogmas of Western morality when applied to African realities, which bother Conrad’s Kurtz the most, but the fact that he had lost his faith in these dogmas as an objective category. In its turn, this came about as the result of Conrad’s Kurtz beginning to realize that there was much more in common between himself and the African “sub-humans” than he would be willing to admit, simply because both: Whites and Blacks are the subjects of Darwinian evolution. Therefore, whereas Coppola’s Kurtz experiences a psychological discomfort from realizing that Vietnamese savages are just as human-like himself, Conrad’s Kurtz is being psychologically troubled by the realization of the fact that essentially, he is a beast, just like African cannibals. This is why Conrad’s Kurtz strives to deny the humanity in Africans – he does it to simply relieve his own psychological anxieties: “When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages – hate them to the death” (Conrad, Ch. 3). Coppola’s Kurtz, on the other hand, strives to deny humanity within itself, for exactly the same reason – he simply wants the surrounding reality to begin making more sense in his eyes: “There is nothing I detest more than the stench of old lies” (Corky.Net. 2002). Apparently, both characters can be described as living “beyond good and evil”, yet they utilize different psychological tools to achieve the state of “existential transcendence”. This is the most fundamental difference between Conrad and Coppola’s visions of Kurtz.

Thus, we can say that even though, both: “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now” deal with essentially the same concept of “white man’s burden”, the book and the movie provide us with metaphysically different outlooks on the issue. “Heart of Darkness” is the attempt to explore the process of a White man’s mentality undergoing a psychological transformation, as the result of such a man being forced to socialize with non-Whites for a lengthy period of time. It is being written by a White writer for White readers, which is why it is now being often referred to as a “racist piece of garbage” by self-appointed spokesmen for tolerance, such as Chinua Achebe, for example, who in his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” had suggested that “Heart of Darkness” should be banned from public libraries, simply because Conrad’s novel does not contain panegyrics to the concept of “racial equality”: “Marlow/Conrad touched all the best minds of the age in England, Europe and America. It took different forms in the minds of different people but almost always managed to sidestep the ultimate question of equality between White people and Black people” (Achebe, 2002). “Apocalypse Now”, on the other hand, is one among many Hollywood movies, which were intended to discredit America’s anti-Communist stance, during the course of the Vietnam War, simply because the propaganda of anti-Communism in America, at the time, was threatening to expose many American Liberal politicians and Hollywood producers as agents of foreign influence. This is the reason why the original pro-White spirit of Conrad’s book is totally missing in “Apocalypse Now”. The movie strives to portray the social interaction between Whites and non-White natives as such that always results in causing a great deal of suffering, on the part of non-Whites, whereas Conrad’s novel portrays such interaction as being counter-productive namely for Whites, and then for everybody else. There are no powerful political undertones can be found in “Heart of Darkness”, while Coppola movie’s political message can even be recognized by small children – White people are innately wicked, they only kill and destroy, under the pretense of “spreading the light of civilization”; therefore, they will need to be instilled with a psychological complex of “historical guilt”, so that they would be more willing to open up their wallets while being approached by hook-nosed spokesmen for “interracial harmony”. Thus, Conrad’s novel and Coppola’s movie can only be formally related to each other (they utilize similar story-line); however, it would be a mistake to suggest that they contain essentially the same motifs, as it is being commonly assumed nowadays.


Achebe, Chinua “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”. 2000. The Modern World.

Conrad, Joseph “Heart of Darkness”. 2006. The Project Gutenberg EBook.

Coppola, Francis and Millius, John “Apocalypse Now – Transcript”. 2002. Corky.Net Feeds.

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