Comparing the Setting of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

Comparing the Setting of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now
Joseph Conrad?s Heart of Darkness, written in 1902, deals with themes relating to self discovery and the hypocrisy of European imperialism in the late 19th century. Francis Ford Coppola?s film, Apocalypse Now, saw the successful transfer of the themes discussed in Heart of Darkness to a 20th century format ? the Vietnam War.
Conrad?s novella follows the journey of Willard along the Congo River, into the heart of Africa. While in search of the infamous Kurtz, Willard experiences the brutality and mindless insanity as a result of European colonisation. Willard?s journey becomes one of self discovery as he delves further into the foreboding country. In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola used his directing genius to transform the features of Heart of Darkness, including setting, plot, themes and characters, such that they could be appreciated by a 20th century audience. For numerous reasons, the battlefields of the Vietnam War lent themselves well to the style of Conrad?s novella, hence becoming the obvious choice for locating this 20th century Heart of Darkness.

At the simplest level, Vietnam provided a backdrop that mirrored the geographical setting of Heart of Darkness. Climatically, Vietnam was similar to the central African Congo region, with hot, humid weather conditions. Vietnam was also able to feature the dense, seemingly impenetrable jungle seen in Heart of Darkness. Vital to the plot, the river and its use as a method of transportation was an element of the book that could be used in the Vietnam setting. Likewise, the presence of native peoples was also able to be used in film version. These basic features of setting were left largely unaltered for use in the film. Some features however, underwent changes in order to suit the time period in which Apocalypse Now was filmed.

A key feature in Heart of Darkness was European imperialism throughout the African continent, and the ulterior motives behind the occupation. Claiming to be undertaking a project of ?civilisation?, European nations, in this case Belgium, gained control over African lands. There was however an ulterior motive of self gain through trade. In Heart of Darkness the ivory trade is featured as the Belgian interest in the region. Along Marlo?s journey, he encounters torture, cruelty and slavery of the native inhabitants of the land. The political situation behind the Vietnam War mirrored this 19th century imperialism. The war was described by former US president Reagan as being ?a noble cause?. In reality, there were ulterior motives behind the US?s involvement. Not only did it want to wipe out the threat of communism and promote capitalism, the US wanted to assert its dominance as a military world power. In doing so, thousands of innocent lives were lost, with no significant result being achieved. In the same way that European nations imposed power upon the people of Africa, the US attempted to assert its dominance over the people of Vietnam.

Willard?s journey along the Congo can be divided into three sections: the outer station, central station, and the inner station. These three regions each have increasing levels of isolation and ?darkness?. In Apocalypse Now the same three sections were used, however they were changed slightly to suit the Vietnam setting. The outer station was represented by Lieutenant Kilgore?s camp, central station was represented by the Du Lung Bridge, and Kurtz? compound in Cambodia, represents the inner station.

The idea of insanity as a result of venturing into the ?Heart of Darkness? is a dominant theme in Conrad?s novella. Willard is first warned of this threat while visiting a doctor prior to his departure. The following extract from Heart of Darkness relates some of this scene:

?I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,? he said. ?And when they come back, too?? I asked. ?Oh, I never see them,? he remarked; ?and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.? He smiled, as if at some quiet joke.

Throughout Willard?s journey he encounters many bizarre scenes that make him question the effect of this unknown land on its inhabitants? sanity. A prime example of this was when Willard came across a French man-o-war shelling an empty coastline for no apparent reason. This effect of the land and situation on its inhabitants was a theme carried into the Apocalypse Now film version. It is estimated that 20-60% of all US Vietnam veterans may be suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (ptsd) as a result of their experiences in the war (Pacific University, 2002). Characters such as Lieutenant Kilgore, Chef, and obviously Kurtz, show characteristics of ptsd and psychological illness. Willard too begins to loose track of his mental awareness in the latter stages of the film. War, and in particular Vietnam, was an ideal method of retelling this theme in 20th century terms.

Another feature of the insanity theme throughout Heart of Darkness is its use as a front for self exploration. Throughout his journey, Willard examines the capacity for his psychological being to cope with the seemingly insane situations that he encounters. As Willard is the narrator for much of the novella, he is able to relate his thoughts to the reader. Through this medium, Willard?s weakening mental stability can be expressed in great detail. In Apocalypse Now however, there are numerous characters whose self exploration and growing insanity is conveyed to the audience. Without the luxury of being able to delve into the thoughts of each character through lengthy written prose, a more graphic method was chosen. Through extensive drug use, characters, including Lance, Chef, Clean, and the Photo Journalist, were able to lose touch with reality. The Sampan scene, in which a boat load if villagers were brutally gunned down, was an example of where the mental stability of the boat crew is questionable. As the audience is made fully aware of this drug use, the apparent insanity of the characters does not seem unrealistic and therefore retains its impact as a mode of self exploration for the characters. Drug use is know to have been widespread in US soldiers during the Vietnam War, making this once again is an excellent use of a 20th century issue in portraying a Heart of Darkness theme.

Much of the Heart of Darkness novella is devoted to the development of the character, Kurtz. At each stop along his journey, Willard, and the reader, gain a greater understanding of him. Gradually, throughout the course of the first two chapters, Kurtz is built up to be somewhat of a hero to Willard. ?Word of mouth? is a realistic form of communication in Heart of Darkness. For a 20th century film based around military proceedings however, a dossier is a more effective and realistic form of communication. The effect remains the same ? as Willard reads Kurtz? dossier and it is narrated to the audience, a picture of the character slowly develops. The following extract from the Apocalypse Now transcript shows Willard as he develops a picture of Kurtz:

?At first, I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn?t believe they wanted this man dead. Third generation West Point, top of his class. Korea, Airborne. About a thousand decorations.?

In 1939, revered actor, writer, director and producer Orson Welles, came to the conclusion that a Heart of Darkness film could not be successfully written, let alone produced (Alford, R.). Thirty years later, in 1969, John Milius proved him wrong, writing the first drafts of Apocalypse Now. In 1979, after an accident plagued filming that took over a year, Francis Ford Coppola?s Apocalypse Now was released. Apocalypse Now went on to earn $150 million throughout the world and was awarded multiple Academy, Golden Globe and Cannes Film Festival awards. One is forced to consider how Welles, a writer and director of such enormous talent, could believe that a Heart of Darkness film was not possible. Perhaps if Welles had been at work in the time of Coppola and Milius he too would have been able to see that Vietnam in the late 1960?s was a logical choice for locating a 20th century Heart of Darkness.

Comparing the Setting of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now 9.2 of 10 on the basis of 2296 Review.