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"Foreshadowing the Darkness: How Conrad and Apocalypse Now Shaped Our Perception of War" by Adrian L. (Fall 2013)

Despite being one of the greatest literary classics of the 19th century, Heart of Darkness was a difficult novel to interpret into a movie. As John Milius, the writer for Apocalypse Now, attested, “Heart of Darkness has been attempted many times, and it beat Orsen Welles…various other people have tried it, and they failed” (Milius). It was no easy task, and on the surface Apocalypse Now was a war film rather than a film of a dark journey. However, through Milius’ dedication and talent, Apocalypse Now has made Heart of Darkness culturally relevant in today’s world, keeping many of the novel’s original themes and morals in mind and even directly paralleled scenes. Thus Apocalypse Now has become allegorical story that continues to convey its message across through the common ground of humanity and war. Even other myths such as the Cyclops and Odysseus and the Sirens made its way into his work and fit well to both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. Today, its message is not lost in the midst of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has fundamentally changed the way we see war and its effects, certainly the mark of greatness as a modernist work of art. 

John Milius, writer of Apocalypse Now, provides background information and his own interpretation of Apocalypse Now in his interview by Francis Ford Coppola, the director, on writing the screenplay. The most important factors that he attributed to his success were the military draft for Vietnam and his teenage years in Colorado reading Heart of Darkness. Milius had set his sights on flying with the Marines in 1968, but was forced to leave after he revealed his asthma condition and thus “had to reconfigure my life” (Milius). While his friends were away fighting a war across the world, Milius had to decide what to do with his life now that he didn’t expect to die before the age of 26. And his answer came in the form of his writing class, led by a benevolent but harsh Professor Erwin Blacker of USC. This is where Milius learned of the challenge posed by Heart of Darkness, and the beginnings of Apocalypse Now was formulated. Previously, during his teenage years, Milius spent much of his time roaming in the forests and reading Conrad, giving up his amenities in the wilderness and “gave myself to the forest”, which was “exactly what Heart of Darkness was about” (Milius).

One of the things that was wonderful about the whole theme of heart of Darkness was: the jungle has a force in itself. That it corrupts you because of your fear, because you realize the jungle is primeval, and it’s a force that you have to give yourself to something (Milius).

Spending time so exposed to nature and her elements was one of the ways that brought Heart of Darkness closer to him, surrendering to the forests and placing himself in the same position as Kurtz, who too has given himself to the jungle. When others were corrupted by their fear of the jungle, however, Kurtz was corrupted by his love of it, and embraced its force all too willingly and turned his back on everything else. With his intimate and personal understanding of Hearts of Darkness, and talking to his friends returning from war, he was set “when it came time to do it, to write Heart of Darkness as an allegory for Vietnam” (Milius). Thus he created ideas such as Willard being “a poster boy for PTSD”, the “Californian culture clashing against the ancient, mystified oriental character”, playing Wagner during a helicopter attack and much more was created by Milius in line with Heart of Darkness and its own themes (Milius). His writing revealed much more about the nature of the Vietnam War: the Playboy’s as “the Sirens luring the soldiers” with their primal urge and lure, the constant, attritional and pointless fighting over the Bridge in Cambodia between the US and Vietcong that achieves nothing, even Kurtz’s own line: “We 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!” (Milius). This level of insight and connection between Heart of Darkness, Vietnam and Apocalypse Now is what allows this movie to have become so timeless and successful while maintaining the meaning and substance.

Professor Margot Norris of UC Irvine, on another hand, interprets Apocalypse Now from a modernist perspective; Miller’s interpretation of Heart of Darkness as an allegory worked very well and pinpointed how we perceive war today. Norris identifies that Coppola and Milius could draw out “the great philosophical themes of the modern” such as “the arbitrariness, randomness, chance, and absurdity of the universe” that Conrad, too, has pinpointed in his writing, and “gave them a precise function and figuration in the critique of colonialism” namely the arbitrary, random and almost ridiculous nature of war (Norris pg. 739). Much like Marlow’s experiences with the Company in the Congo, US forces were too ineffectual, lacked direction, and led by inept leaders who did not understand the situation from miles away. Norris also recognized the role of military leadership as the true villains in the story, similar to how the Company directors and managers are shown in Heart of Darkness. Willard and Marlow’s missions were assigned to them by their chain of command, but both come to realize how little they knew about the man they are hunting and how they begun to “sympathize” with the enemy:

Willard's journey up the river takes its spiritual form as the processing of information (briefings, dossiers, photos, data) and the shaping of knowledge and judgment about Kurtz's moral nature. Throughout the episodes of this processing--which is the heart of Willard's actual mission--the camera, and thereby the film's point of view, takes its place on the dark side of the military: secretive, occlusive, censoring, as Willard looks in shock at photographs we are not shown, shuffles others we only partly see, and in general refuses to give us a frank glimpse of either military, or Kurtz's paramilitary, operations in the Vietnam War. (Norris pg. 747)

This was a dark point that came up in the novel too, and subsequently our perception of the military since. The Pentagon Papers blew apart the US military much like how the Casement report blew apart King Leopold II, and its effects on the public linger on today. It is the same sense of distrust, a lack of communication that we today would make of the military’s overt and clandestine power. There is also much to reveal about the culture clash that Milius had identified earlier. Coppola took time to expose “gloss American "democracy"” in his film through the scene in the supply depot; a “panoply of noncombat consumer goods--the motorcycles, for example, that suggest a thriving black market”, which, to the Vietnamese locals and Vietcong, was the antithesis of Communism and an “an ideology of unbridled greed, materialism, and consumerism” (Norris pg. 738). American brutality was also prevalent, especially the scenes with the sampans and merciless bombardment of a fishing village by the helicopters: this all offered a degree of similarity to the “savageness” of the Vietnamese and their way of fighting, to put on equal, if not lower footing between US and NVA forces, much like how the savagery of the “pilgrims” are not above the Africans’ own.

Apocalypse Now proficiently relates to and expands on the many layers and themes in Heart of Darkness, combining the narrative of war and all of its splendor with the degradation of humanity and civilization in the darkest of situations. Milius’s writing has translated well throughout the years from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. Conrad’s own writing, too, has been served well and continue to reflect and portray our own humanity, something that will not erode or shift with the times.

Works Cited

Milius, John F. "Apocalypse Now - John Milius Interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola." Interview by Francis F. Coppola. YouTube. YouTube, 16 Nov. 2011. Web. 31 Oct. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZswrVALi2M>.

Norris, Margot. "Modernism and Vietnam: Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now." Project MUSE. Purdue Research Foundation, 1998. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.<http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/modern_fiction_studies/v044/44.3norris02.html>.


Additional Resources 

Coppola, Francis F. "We Will Never Get past Viet Nam If We Sweep It under the Carpet." Letter to Marlon Brando. 1976. Letters of Note. TinyLetter, 13 Jan. 2011. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.        <http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/01/we-will-never-get-past-viet-nam-if-we.html>.

Exhibit/Background Source. A letter penned by Coppola to Brando, as an apology for the hiccups during film, explains his character Kurtz and the significance of the film in context of the Vietnam War.

Ebert, Roger. "Apocalypse Now: Movie Review and Film Summary." Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert, 28 Nov. 1999. Web. 31 Oct. 2013. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/apocalypse-now-1979>.

Exhibit/Argument Source. Legendary critic Roger Ebert’s review of Apocalypse Now at the time of its release provides a contemporary perspective with the experience of a seasoned film buff. 

Syn, Benjamin. "The Story in History: Examining Apocalypse Now by Looking at The Things They Carried." Movies in 203. University of Colorado Denver, 24 Jan. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2013.

Argument Souce. The Things They Carried, a Tim O’Brien novel from the perspective of a Vietnam soldier, is similar to Conrad’s writing in it’s impressionistic manner that leaves the reader with more of the emotion rather than the objective. This side by side analyzes the differences between the two but also expresses what impact they have left.