Inherent inside every human soul is a savage evil side that remains repressed
by society. Often this evil side breaks out during times of isolation from our
culture, and whenever one culture confronts another. History is loaded with
examples of atrocities that have occurred when one culture comes into contact
with another. Whenever fundamentally different cultures meet, there is often a
fear of contamination and loss of self that leads us to discover more about our
true selves, often causing perceived madness by those who have yet to discover.
The Puritans left Europe in hopes of finding a new world to welcome them and
their beliefs. What they found was a vast new world, loaded with Indian cultures
new to them. This overwhelming cultural interaction caused some Puritans to go
mad and try to purge themselves of a perceived evil. This came to be known as
the Salem witch trials.
During World War II, Germany made an attempt to overrun Europe. What happened
when the Nazis came into power and persecuted the Jews in Germany, Austria and
Poland is well known as the Holocaust. Here, humans evil side provides one of
the scariest occurrences of this century. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi counterparts
conducted raids of the ghettos to locate and often exterminate any Jews they
found. Although Jews are the most widely known victims of the Holocaust, they
were not the only targets. When the war ended, 6 million Jews, Slavs, Gypsies,
homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, and others targeted by the Nazis,
had died in the Holocaust. Most of these deaths occurred in gas chambers and
mass shootings. This gruesome attack was motivated mainly by the fear of
cultural intermixing which would impurify the “Master Race.”
Joseph Conrads book, The Heart of Darkness and Francis Coppolas movie,
Apocalypse Now are both stories about Mans journey into his self, and the
discoveries to be made there. They are also about Man confronting his fears of
failure, insanity, death, and cultural contamination.
During Marlows mission to find Kurtz, he is also trying to find himself. He,
like Kurtz had good intentions upon entering the Congo. Conrad tries to show us
that Marlow is what Kurtz had been, and Kurtz is what Marlow could become. Every
human has a little of Marlow and Kurtz in them. Marlow says about himself, “I
was getting savage (Conrad),” meaning that he was becoming more like Kurtz.
Along the trip into the wilderness, they discover their true selves through
contact with savage natives.
As Marlow ventures further up the Congo, he feels like he is traveling back
through time. He sees the unsettled wilderness and can feel the darkness of its
solitude. Marlow comes across simpler cannibalistic cultures along the banks.
The deeper into the jungle he goes, the more regressive the inhabitants seem.
Kurtz had lived in the Congo, and was separated from his own culture for quite
some time. He had once been considered an honorable man, but the jungle changed
him greatly. Here, secluded from the rest of his own society, he discovered his
evil side and became corrupted by his power and solitude. Marlow tells us about
the Ivory that Kurtz kept as his own, and that he had no restraint, and was ” a
tree swayed by the wind (Conrad, 209).” Marlow mentions the human heads
displayed on posts that “showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the
gratification of his various lusts (Conrad, 220).” Conrad also tells us “his
nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending
with unspeakable rights, which were offered up to him (Conrad, 208),” meaning
that Kurtz went insane and allowed himself to be worshipped as a god. It appears
that while Kurtz had been isolated from his culture, he had become corrupted by
this violent native culture, and allowed his evil side to control him.
Marlow realizes that only very near the time of death, does a person grasp the
big picture. He describes Kurtzs last moments “as though a veil had been rent
(Conrad, 239).” Kurtzs last “supreme moment of complete knowledge (Conrad,
239),” showed him how horrible the human soul really can be. Marlow can only
speculate as to what Kurtz saw that caused him to exclaim “The horror! The
horror,” but later adds that “Since I peeped over the edge myself, I understand
better the meaning of his stare it was wide enough to embrace the whole
universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness
he had summed up, he had judged (Conrad, 241).” Marlow guesses that Kurtz
suddenly knew everything and discovered how horrible the duplicity of man can be.
Marlow learned through Kurtzs death, and he now knows that inside every human
is this horrible, evil side.
Francis Coppolas movie, Apocalypse Now, is based loosely upon Conrads book.
Captain Willard is a Marlow who is on a mission into Cambodia during the Vietnam
war to find and kill an insane Colonel Kurtz. Coppola’s Kurtz, as he experienced
his epiphany of horror, was an officer and a sane, successful, brilliant leader.
Like Conrads Kurtz, Coppola shows us a man who was once very well respected,
but was corrupted by the horror of war and the cultures he met.
Coppola tells us in Hearts of Darkness that Kurtzs major fear is “being white
in a non white jungle (Bahr).” The story Kurtz tells Willard about the Special
Forces going into a village, inoculating the children for polio and going away,
and the communists coming into the village and cutting off all the children’s
inoculated arms, is the main evidence for this implication in that film. This is
when Kurtz begins to go mad, he “wept like some grandmother” when, called back
by a villager, he saw the pile of little arms, a sophisticated version of the
“escalating horrors.” What Kurtz meant by “escalating horrors” is the Vietnamese
armys senseless decapitation, torture, and the like. Kurtz is facing a new
culture and has a terrible time dealing with it. This was the beginning of his
“All America contributed to the making of Colonel Kurtz, just as all Europe
produced Mr. Kurtz. Both Kurtzes are idealized in their function as eyewitnesses
to the atrocities. What is reflected is the threat of loss of self, loss of
centrality, and the displacement of Western culture from the perceived center of
history by those whom it has enslaved and oppressed (Worthy 24).” This tells us
that the evil side and the madness in both Kurtzes was brought out by the fear
of new cultures different from their own, and their inability to deal with this
fear. The disconnection between the opening words of Kurtz’s report “By the
simple exercise of our will, we can exert a power for good practically
unbounded” and the note on the last page, “Exterminate all the brutes!”
illustrates the progressive externalization of Kurtz’s fear of “contamination,”
the personal fear of loss of self which colonialist whites saw in the
“uncivilized,” seemingly regressive lifestyle of the natives. Gradually, the
duplicity of man and reality merged for the two Kurtzes, one in the Congo, and
one in Vietnam. As this happened, the well defined cultural values
masculine/feminine and self/other that had specific segregated roles, could not
be sustained in the Congo or in Vietnam. “For the Americans in Vietnam, as for
the colonialists in Africa, madness is the result of the disintegration of
abstract boundaries held to be absolute (Worthy 24).”
“As it attempts to confront the ‘insanity’ of the war through Kurtz’ s madness,
that of the filmmakers, and the madness of U.S. culture, Hearts of Darkness
exposes the contradictions between the inherent hierarchy and inequality within
the cultural forces of the United States and official democratic principles,
which led to the perception that it could waste what it viewed as insignificant
little people and preserve its own image in the world. Along with that is the
growing realization, since the Tet Offensive of 1968, that the U.S. was somehow
way off the mark (Worthy 24).” American Culture views it self as “correct”, and
we see ourselves as powerful police of the world. Our culture looked down upon
the Vietnamese because they were more simple than us, just as Europe and Marlow
looked down on the Africans. Believing ourselves to be superior, we had a lot of
trouble dealing with the discovery that we are not.
Coppola makes a point to show us that the Chief of a boat armed to the teeth was
killed by a native in a tree who threw a spear. Not even an “advanced” Navy boat
can defend itself against some “simple” natives armed only with spears. This
opens Captain Willards eyes to the horror of the situation he now finds
Even more intriguing, however, is the similarity between the transformation of
the characters in Apocalypse Now, and the cast and crew that created it. In
Hearts of Darkness, (a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now.) Eugene
Coppola becomes the narrator ( a Marlow or Captain Willard) and Francis becomes
“Francis believed that only if he could duplicate Willards experience, could he
understand his moral struggle. In other words, he had to lose control of his own
life before he could find the answers to the questions that his narrative asked
(Worthy 24).” Coppolas main horror was his fear of producing a pretentious
movie. “Eleanor repeatedly calls the making of Apocalypse Now a journey into
Coppola’s inner self. Coppola, like Kurtz, is regarded as a deity. Moreover,
while Willard stalks Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Coppola stalks himself, raising
questions which he feels compelled to answer but cannot, finally announcing his
desire to “shoot himself. ” He means suicide, but the cinematic connotation of
the term, “to shoot,” jointly criticizes both the U.S. and Coppola’s film for
exercising a demented self-absorption (Worthy 24).” Coppola had to deal with
perhaps the most agonizing of his troubles: his shriveling self-confidence. As
the budget soared, as the producers worried, as the crew and actors grew
restless and dispassionate, Coppola worried that he did not have what it takes
to finish the film. He struggled with the ending, with his own creative ability,
and with his sense of purpose.
Martin Sheen, who plays Captain Willard, is the one who really faces the horror.
During the filming he has a nervous breakdown and later a heart attack. Some of
his co-actors believed that Martin was becoming Captain Willard, and was
experiencing the same journey of self discovery.
We live our lives sheltered in our own society, and our exposure to cultures
outside of our own is limited at best. Often, the more technologically advanced
cultures look down upon those that they deem to be simpler. On the occasion that
some member of one culture does come into contact with another, simpler culture,
a self discovery happens. Both cultures realize that deep down inside, all
humans are essentially the same. We all posses a good and an evil side, and no
culture, not matter how “advanced,” is exempt from that fact.. This discovery
often causes madness as this evil side is allowed out. Only those who have
completed the “journey into self” can understand the actions of people such as
Kurtz. They are alone in this world of horror. The Horror!
1. Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Coppola. With Martin Sheen, Robert Duval, and
Marlon Brando. Zeotrope, 1979.
2. Conrad, James. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Great Britain, BPC
paperbacks ltd. 1990.
3. Hearts of Darkness. Dir. Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper. Paramount, 1991.
4. “HEARTS OF DARKNESS — A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE.”, Magill’s Survey of Cinema,
5. Worthy, Kim, “Hearts of Darkness: Making art, making history, making money,
making `Vietnam’.”.,Vol. 19, Cineaste, 12-01-1992, pp 24.
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