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Saturday, December 12th, 2009
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Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary (Penguin Classics)

by Joseph Conrad

Apocalypse Then

A review by Doug Brown

The only film I ever faked an ID to get into was Apocalypse Now. I spent half an hour in a social sciences class (ah, the irony) carefully altering the birth year on my learner's permit. That evening, a couple of friends and I went and beheld the spectacle. I recall thinking it was a really weird movie; it wasn't until my second or third viewing in college that I finally started to grok it in fullness. Of course, I had heard it was based on Heart of Darkness, but even as the film grew to become one of my favorites I never bothered to pick up Conrad. Given how the film is such a portrayal of the chaos of the Vietnam War, and knowing how Coppola has a habit of completely rewriting source material, I figured Conrad's novella would only bear a cursory resemblance to the film. However, my classics-year project finally left me out of excuses: it was time for the plunge.

And, amazingly, the film follows the book pretty closely. Many lines of dialogue are straight from Conrad, and many plot points are replicated. Marlow (Willard in the film) tells his story in flashback to a group of friends. He recalls a voyage upriver for an ivory trading company to fetch a man named Kurtz, at one of their furthest outposts. Kurtz has done very well, sending more ivory back than anyone, which has upset the officious balance of things. He's making everyone else look bad, and, worst of all, he isn't paying attention to their orders and communiques. Due to his ruthlessness the locals revere him almost as a god, and fear his being taken away from them. Sound familiar?

I can imagine John Milius (Apocalypse Now's primary screenwriter) reading Heart of Darkness and getting the inspirational flash of using it as an allegory for Vietnam. I anticipated as I got farther into the book there would be more divergence from the film, but the opposite happened. There is a scene where the boat is enveloped in mist and then harmless little arrows bombard the ship as the white men blaze away into the jungle, ending with the black wheelman dying in amazement from a spear. Much of the dialogue for Dennis Hopper's character is almost verbatim from a Russian we meet on the dock in Kurtz's station, guiding the ship in past snags, telling them to blast the steam whistle to scare off the natives, and gleefully bumming a cigarette as the ship pulls in to dock. The Russian tells Marlow, "You don't talk with that man -- you listen to him" and "this man has enlarged my mind," and Marlow recounts that the Russian had said to him that "Mr. Kurtz couldn't be mad. If I had heard him talk, only two days ago, I wouldn't dare hint at such a thing." Another statement of the Russian's (like Dennis Hopper's character, the Russian is never named) Apocalypse fans will recognize:

He could be very terrible. You can't judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. No, no, no! Now -- just to give you an idea -- I don't mind telling you, he wanted to shoot me one day -- but I don't judge him.
Some other references in the film are where Marlow is asked if methods are unsound, and he replies that he sees no method at all; a report by Kurtz with the handwritten "Exterminate all the brutes!" note in the margin; and a line of Marlow's that is put into Dennis Hopper's mouth in the film is the realization that Kurtz's soul is mad. And, of course, Kurtz's famous last words are known to all:

He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath --

"The horror! The horror!"

Fans of Apocalypse Now don't have an excuse not to read Heart of Darkness. It's short and it adds an extra dimension to the film characters (particularly Kurtz). For everyone else, I found this surprisingly well-written. I say surprising because I had expected a lot of manly gung-ho "let's go civilize the savages," but Conrad seemed more to be saying "this is their world, not ours." Whenever the whites with whom Marlow is traveling upriver open fire into the jungle, he complains that all they are doing is making smoke. Marlow's sympathies lie much more with the natives than his European cohorts. There is an element of the civilized white man looking down at the uncivilized blacks, but far less than Conrad's reputation led me to expect. The "n" word only occurs a few times, unlike in Mark Twain where it is in constant use. The whites looking to exploit Africa are the bad guys here; Marlow respects Kurtz because Kurtz embraced the darkness that Africa represented to Victorian Englishmen. But obviously, for Conrad the jungle is really just a metaphor for the darkness in everyone's heart. Take the journey upriver and perhaps get a glimpse into your own heart of darkness. And, remember -- never get out of the boat.

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