Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "Mysticism, Foreign Invasion, and Heroes: The Parallels Between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now" by Olivia H. (Spring 2014)

"Mysticism, Foreign Invasion, and Heroes: The Parallels Between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now" by Olivia H. (Spring 2014)

           Set as a commentary on the Vietnam War, the plot of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now initially seems to differ extensively from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novella about the colonization of Congo and ivory trade. The details of the plots of the two are quite different, both in place and time period, but what link the two are the thematic elements. Both serve to show the horrors associated with colonization, interventionism, and foreign invasion. The works show the racism and ignorance that are rampant among western countries through the sense of mysticism both give to the foreign lands. The respective heroes of both tales serve as instruments of this commentary, as they are both exposed to these new and frightening lands and experiences and fight to adapt. A number of critics have noted the obvious parallels and thematic similarities between Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness.

           While Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness inspired Francis Ford Coppola, he chose to do a modern take on Conrad’s story. Coppola wanted to “respect the spirit” of Heart of Darkness and use the critique featured in Conrad’s work, but to point the critique at the highly controversial, recent event of US intervention in Vietnam (1979). The war was officially ended in 1975 just a few years before Coppola’s 1979 film. Coppola wanted to apply Conrad’s critiques of invasion and supposed civilization to the Vietnam War and, while Conrad’s critiques were aimed at colonization, they still hold true and were easily applicable. The release of Apocalypse Now was met with high accolades and a strong positive response from critics. Coppola defended the critiques of the war in the movie and the negative war images saying, “my film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam” (1979). Just as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a representation of some actual events in the Congo, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was a representation of some actual events in Vietnam.

           The official movie poster made by artist Robert Peak for the film Apocalypse Now that features the film’s two stars, Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen, and an image of Vietnam (1979). The poster captures the attitudes and themes of the film and contributes to the commentary the film has on the Vietnam War. The use of faded overlays of images represents the overlapping themes of the themes. The color choice for the poster was solely red and black (Peak, 1979). The overall color scheme is dark and ominous, just as Vietnam is meant to be. The film focuses on the mysticism and perceived savagery of foreign, non-western lands and the use of these colors outline the dark mystery commonly associated with these lands. The darkness of the poster can also be seen as an allusion to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his use of darkness. Overall, Peak’s movie poster for Apocalypse Now (1979) summarizes the movie and its dark themes, tying them all together through artistry and color use.

           In her analysis of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, Linda Cahir explores the similarities between the two, specifically the narration styles. Her main point of focus is the “frame-story” that appears in both tales through series of flashbacks and the “narrative within a narrative” style (Cahir, 1992). A shadowy narrator follows both the main characters and tells their stories. There has been significant debate over the identity of these mysterious narrators, be they Coppola and Conrad or someone else. Cahir analyzes the significance of the narrator and when the narrator chooses to become more and less obvious.

           Critic Rachel Harrison argues that one of the reasons Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness serve so well as parallels to one another is the continued relevance of foreign invasion. Both pieces contain a plot centered on foreign invasion into a non-Western culture and the portrayal of these foreign cultures. Harrison argues, “so little has changed” in how Westerners view foreign cultures (2012). Even though Heart of Darkness was published in 1899 and Apocalypse Now was released in 1979, there are obvious similarities in the portrayed treatment of foreigners. They are portrayed as uncivilized and savage and are repeatedly tortured and abused by the foreigners.

           In Margot Norris’ paper centered on the modernism of Apocalypse Now and the large amount of similarities it shares with Heart of Darkness, through both the thematic elements and the main characters. She argues that pieces are examples of modernist works, as they are told in an almost “surrealist” way and their messages are applicable today (1998). Both stories are told in a philosophical, modern way, which allows them to truly explore society. She explores the similarities between the respective heroes of both tales, Conrad’s Marlow and Coppola’s Willard. Both characters, as well as the audience, are “forced to…choose between nightmares,” these nightmares being the physical violence and the moral corruption (Norris, 1998). Our heroes are both on a journey through darkness to find a commander in their own company that has gone astray.

           The parallels between Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness have been outlined by various critics and Coppola himself. There are a variety of thematic parallels including mysticism, foreign invasion, and the heroes of the stories. Critics have analyzed various aspects of these points of intersection. Linda Cahir (1992) argues that the similarity between the two is due to their narrative styles while Rachel Harrison (2012) analyzes their commentaries on foreign invasion and Margot Norris (1998) compares the main characters. While they focus of different aspects of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, they all share the objective of pointing out the similarities between the two works.

Work Cited

Cahir, Linda Costanzo. "Narratological Parallels in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now"." Trans. Array Literature Film Quarterly. . Vol. 20 Issue 3. Salisbury, MD: Salisbury University, 1992. 181. Print.

Coppola, Francis Ford, dir. Apocalypse Now. Writ. John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael Herr. Zoetrope Studios, 1979. Film.

Harrison, Rachel V. "Up the Congo River into Cambodia: Literary and Cinematic Journeys to the Dark." Asian Affairs. 43.1 (2012): 49-60. Print.

Norris, Margot. "Modernism and Vietnam: Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now." MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 44.3 (1998): 730-766. Print.

Peak, Robert M. Movie Poster for Apocalypse Now. 1979. United Artists Studio, Beverly Hills, CA.