Intertextuality and Transgression in Apocalypse Now
In discussions of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now, talk inevitably turns to Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, which was used as a basis for the film. Joseph Conrad’s book is about the British imperialist presence in the Congo around the turn of the century, and Conrad uses characters to voice the pro-imperialist thought that was present among the British at that time. Conrad’s notion that Kurtz, who has become sympathetic to the people of the Congo, has “gone native” and must be destroyed, as well as his acknowledgment of some sort of “horror” that is present in the African jungles, has been described as racist by contemporary critics (2005). Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” remains the most well-known of contemporary multicultural Conrad criticism. To Achebe, Conrad’s novel illustrates “the need…in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (1784). Other critics, on the other hand, see the work as a subversive critique of the British imperialist mindset, although, given the time during which the novel was written, as well as his racist, often marginalizing descriptions of Africans in the Congo, it would not be out of the question to assume that Conrad had ethnocentric intentions to disparage the nonwhite people of the world and to establish a legitimacy for imperialism. Rather than to subvert the British imperialist machine, Conrad rather attempts to draw sympathy for the colonizers, who, like Kurtz, face challenges in attempting to bring business to the non-Western regions of the world. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, however, changes the setting to the Vietnam war. Coppola’s film is often regarded as an adaptation or as something that recreates its source material, but Coppola’s film is actually a departure from the source material, transgressing from Conrad’s novel and presenting liberal themes instead of Conrad’s conservative ones. Coppola’s anti-war message and his plea against violence actually act in direct opposition to the agenda Conrad carries in Heart of Darkness, even though this aspect of Apocalypse Now is largely ignored by most viewers who assume it to be a mere adaptation.
Rather than make the (very racist) argument that Conrad makes in Heart of Darkness, the idea that a kind of “native savagery” that exists inherently within the people of the Congo also exists deep in the hearts of the white imperialists, Coppola’s film is a commentary on the violence of the Vietnam War and how the capability for violence lurks within everyone, especially if that violent tendency is encouraged by those in power. As Willard journeys down the river on his way to kill Colonel Kurtz, he is continually noting the seductiveness and the enigma surrounding Kurtz’s life, and subsequently implicitly notes the seductiveness of killing him. Coppola, unlike Conrad, is not stating that the native people of Vietnam are inherently uncivilized. The film is rather a condemnation of violence in general and states that everyone, without any regard to racial or ethnic background, contains the potential for violent activity. War, controlled by governments, forces people into situations (such as Willard’s mission to kill Kurtz) that make them act on these violent thoughts. People also have the potential for nonviolent activity, but, as seen with Willard’s growing interest in killing the enigmatic Kurtz, it is often overshadowed by a political climate (in this case, war) that encourages violence. Conrad’s examination of colonialism is hardly this nuanced, and we can see that Coppola is explicitly critiquing the imperialism and violence committed by the invasive Americans in Vietnam.
We can see that the power relations of American presence in Vietnam, as represented by the side characters in Apocalypse Now, seek to dehumanize the Vietnamese people and to exploit the American soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore, in a ridiculous gesture, forces several American soldiers to go surfing in dangerous territory. To Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, war is about theater and idealistic pursuits. Indeed, his famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” represents an unrealistic, ridiculous attachment to violence (Coppola). Willard is being encouraged to emulate the insane behavior of a man who outranks him, and this will heighten his potential for violent activity. As seen when Willard is fighting his way through a war zone, the media, an institution largely responsible for America’s understanding of their political situation, can often be unreliable or impartial. A news cameraman tells Willard not to look at the camera and to continue forward, directing him in the middle of a dangerous area. The cameraman dehumanizes Willard, seeing him purely as a way to capture exciting news footage. In this implicit way, the media is supporting dehumanization and desensitization, subtly paving the way for the murder Willard will eventually commit.
Perhaps the most telling act of transgression from Conrad’s source material is the ending scene of Apocalypse Now, during which Willard finally murders Colonel Kurtz. Conrad’s portrayal of Kurtz’s death (likely from a disease caught during his time in the Congo) shows him to be a victim of the imperialist system of which he is a leading figure, and the surrounding Africans are marginalized. Coppola’s Kurtz, on the other hand, is far more damning because he is a victim of the violence that is encouraged and fueled by war and needless destruction in the name of ostensibly noble political motives. Kurtz is himself disillusioned with the violence of Vietnam. He has been driven mad by the destruction and, before being killed by Willard, rambles on about the contradictory nature of the rules the American soldiers must follow. Interestingly, Willard’s murder of Kurtz is juxtaposed via a montage effect with the murder of cattle by the Vietnamese people outside. Here, Willard is the one killing a human being, and the Vietnamese people, demonized by American political leaders and the news media, are only killing animals. This scene goes against the myth of infallibility surrounding the American military in Vietnam. The colonized people of Vietnam are shown to be less violent than the American colonizers. This moment is a subversion of the colonialist narrative that imperialist intentions are noble and that the imperialists must save the colonized people from their violent, “uncivilized” lifestyles.
Conrad’s ideology focuses on inherent, inextricable, almost predetermined traits found in people, a fallacious notion that no doubt stems from his racist worldview. Apocalypse Now, in contrast, as seen by the institutions and powerful figures that spur the violence surrounding Willard, shows that people are not predetermined to be violent or destructive. Coppola’s film, which is radically different from its source material upon closer inspection, shows that war and violence are not unpreventable. While not a completely optimistic film, as it shows that violence is always possible when people are pushed in that direction, Apocalypse Now does show, unlike Heart of Darkness, that violent activity is shaped and encouraged by outside influences. Mindsets such as irresponsible political decision-making, the importance of profit over people (as seen with the dehumanizing news media), and fanatical devotion to unrealistic wartime theatricality are harmful to the people of the world. If unchecked, the decisions of those in power can radically endanger the lives of the masses and encourage harmful acts of violence. Conrad’s book is not as politically responsible as its adaptation, since Conrad, unlike Coppola, refuses to accept the atrocities of imperialism.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, W. W. Norton and Co., 2001, pp. 1783-1794. Print.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. F: The Twenteith Century and After, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton and Co., 2012, pp. 1951-2010. Print.
Coppola, Francis Ford. Apocalypse Now. United Artists, 1979. Film.