Brutality and Disillusionment in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

April 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Individuals have the capacity for brutality and disillusionment in the desperate pursuit for power in human nature. Humanity has the potential to adopt methods of hypocrisy and dishonesty leading to an atavistic descent into brutality, or conversely discover a concealed truth, leading to disillusionment about the nature of humankind. This capability to transcend the limitations of individuals’ sensibilities is explored in both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, where both narratives explore the universal capacity for brutality and hypocrisy through Kurtz’s atavism, while the potential for disillusionment for these actions is expressed through Marlow and Willard’s journey into self-discovery and uncovering the lie of their civilisation. Conrad responds to King Leopold’s hypocrisy and atrocities committed in the Congo Free State, while Coppola re-contextualizes this in terms of the hypocrisy and absurdity of the US in the Vietnam War.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad originally establishes Kurtz as a perfect embodiment of European civilization, but who engages in an atavistic descent towards brutality in Africa, suggesting the universal capacity for brutality in mankind when the constraints of civilization are removed. Conrad describes Kurtz as “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress,” as well as a “universal genius” with “higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose,” with polysyndeton and tricolon used to elevate his character, a perfect embodiment of civilization. Conrad also uses him as an Everyman, when he writes that “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” presenting Kurtz as a universal figure of European civilization. However, the fact that even Kurtz, in his pursuit for power in Africa, engages in euphemistic “unspeakable rites,” and “certain midnight dances”, with “skulls” surrounding his compound, reveals the universal capacity for brutality in human nature, emphasized through the links to connotations of cannibalism here. Conrad uses metaphor to reveal that Kurtz has “kicked himself loose of the earth,” becoming “an animated image of death carved out of old ivory,” suggesting through metaphor and the motif of ivory that he has become the thing that he has amassed in his greed, having disconnected himself from the constraints of civilisation. This responds to the greed of king Leopold, leading to the brutality seen in his Congo Free State, where hands and limbs of native Africans were cut off under his empire, unless they collected the desired amount of ivory. It was described as a “completely commercial enterprise,” involving such brutality, and Conrad responds to this context by using Kurtz to reveal this capacity for brutality in human nature. The metaphorical “darkness” and “wilderness,” representing all dark aspects of human nature, has “taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation.” Conrad uses diabolic imagery with personification and asyndeton to allude to a Faustian pact between Kurtz and the wilderness, as if the wilderness has completely transcended the limitations of his sensibilities, ultimately implying that underneath the facade of civilization, when societal constraints are removed in the “dark continent” of Africa, all that remains is brutality and “horror,” revealing this universal capacity for brutality in human nature.

In Apocalypse Now, Coppola also constructs Kurtz as an elevated figure of perfection, who engages in an atavistic descent, to further explore the capacity for brutality in human nature in every man. Coppola uses the recurring motif of the photo of a younger Kurtz to create a mythic presence around him, furthered by his status as “brilliant,” “outstanding in every way … humanitarian.” However, as in Heart of Darkness, we learn that this perfect embodiment of the US war effort in Vietnam has become someone acting “without any decent restraint,” Coppola picking up on the motif of restraint in Heart of Darkness. Kurtz’s methods have become “unsound,” emphasized through the mise en scene of his temple compound. The naked, dead bodies and severed heads strewn throughout the frame, hanging from trees, coupled with the diegetic sound of carrion flies buzzing, all create a sense of decay, with the wanton disregard for the sanctity of human life picking up the extremity of Kurtz’s brutal behavior. Coppola also shrouds Kurtz’s face in dark lighting when he says that “horror has a face,” suggesting that he is a representation of horror, savagery, brutality. This ultimately demonstrates the universal capacity for brutality, even in so called civilized individuals, as is the case in Heart of Darkness. In Apocalypse Now, however, Coppola reapplies this idea to the Cold War context, with the potential for an all out nuclear war and man-made apocalypse at the time reflecting this idea of man’s inherent brutality. The 1974 Watergate Scandal also revealed the capacity for greed and corruption even in people of power, reflecting Coppola’s depiction of this inherent atavism in human nature. The visual similarity of Kurtz and Willard at the closure of the film, Coppola giving Willard slick-backed hair, a muddy face and low angle shots all suggest the potentiality of Willard to replace Kurtz, and become this figure of evil. This therefore furthers this idea of inherent brutality, as Willard, who has shown restraint to the “jungle” throughout the film also has this capacity to descend into atavism.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad demonstrates Marlow’s disillusionment of the “philanthropic pretence” of empire, but reveals the ultimate inability to acknowledge this dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of empire. Conrad uses the journey metaphor into the “heart of darkness,” to discover the “flabby devil” of empire. On his journey he meets the Accountant, who Conrad uses as one of the Hollow Men of the novella, described as a “hair dresser’s dummy,” putting books in “apple-pie order” starkly contrasted to the suffering of the natives in the “grove of death”. Conrad describes the natives as a “gloomy circle of some Inferno,” with Hellish connotations in an allusion to Dante’s poem of damnation. One native even “tied a bit of white worsted round his neck,” as if Empire has a noose around the natives, reducing them to mere “black shapes.” Marlow’s use of irony suggests his disillusionment with these atrocities, labeling them “high and just proceedings,” having to “[turn] my back on that station … [to] keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life,” symbolically distracting himself from the truth, when he knows it deep down. This reflects the dominant contextual attitudes of the late 19th Century, believing in the “white man’s burden” of empire, “civilising the savages,” as symbolized through the beliefs of Marlow’s Aunt, who labels Marlow “one of the Workers,” with religious imagery emphasizing the sanctity of empire, (“an emissary of light … a lower sort of apostle.” However, Marlow recognizes the “insanity” of Empire, the personified “sordid farce acted in front of a sinister backcloth,” and its oxymoronic “faithless pilgrims,” revealing his disillusionment of imperial endeavors. However, Conrad uses fact that Marlow lies to Kurtz’s Intended in a response to the ignorance of European civilisation to these atrocities. Conrad is responding to contextual Western attitudes of the 19th Century, as symbolized through people like Marlow’s Aunt, the archetypal men on the boat, as well as the Intended, who believes Kurtz’s “goodness shone in every act” who do nothing about the hypocrisy and atrocities of empire, perpetuating the lie of civilization, suggesting that ultimately our civilization is unable to fully become disillusioned with “The horror! The horror!” that Kurtz’s story has expressed.

In Apocalypse Now, Coppola demonstrates Willard’s disillusionment at the absurdity, futility and senselessness of the US war effort, and redeems European civilization by admitting and acknowledging the dissatisfaction atrocities and hypocrisy of the US in the Vietnam war effort, in contrast to in Heart of Darkness. Throughout another journey metaphor like in Heart of Darkness, Willard observes the futility of war, especially in Kilgore’s attack of the armed village. Coppola’s use of the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ soundtrack by Wagner, who has links to Hitler, has sinister connotations, juxtaposing the pinnacle of man’s creative ability with its destructive capabilities, attacking the innocence of white-costumed female teacher and children. This scene is rendered futile as Kilgore’s dramatic napalm attack ruins the surf he set out to enjoy, emphasizing the cost of ‘total war’ reworking the costs of empire in Heart of Darkness to the significance of the failures of the American war effort in Vietnam. Marlow begins to achieve a sense of disillusionment at the pointlessness of war, as he says after many point of view shots of his open, observant facial expression, “If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder, there was enough of that to go around for everyone.” This is furthered in the Do Long Bridge scene, where Coppola creates surreal, frenzied images of flames, coupled with a discordant and dissonant soundtrack, with bells accompanied with screams and back lighting, reducing figures to shadows. The strings of lights around the bridge resemble those of a fairground, and the Stygian images of grey water, with men swimming in this “arsehole of the world,” contribute to the overall Hellish atmosphere of the US war effort here. The Sisyphean task of constant rebuilding and destruction in an endless cycle, just so the “generals can say the road’s open,” suggests the need to present an image of control to the US public. Thus this scene picks up the hypocrisy and absurdity of the war effort, similar to Heart of Darkness, just applied to the Vietnam War. The Sampan Massacre, alluding to the My Lai Massacre, is a response to the growing disillusionment of the US public in its shameful conduct in the war, showing its costs, as mirrored in the “grove of death” in Heart of Darkness. The sudden cut to silence after wanton firing renders the scene very poignant, emphasizing the guilt and shame, reflected in the US public during the Vietnam war, witnessing scenes of destruction everyday on television.

Finally, the closure of the film symbolizes a salvaging of US innocence, as Willard symbolically leads the regressing, but innocent boy Lance away from the Montagnard army by the hand. He also does not become Kurtz, having understood the failures of the US war effort and his mission. Dramatically Coppola uses a constant stream of rain from before to after Kurtz is killed, purging the US conscience, admitting the hypocrisy, futility and absurdity of the US war effort, reflecting the growing disillusionment of the US public on the Vietnam War. Ultimately Coppola diametrically opposes the end of Heart of Darkness here, matching the growing disillusionment of the public, as Vietnam was a televised war, fully bringing out the truth, suggesting European society is ready now to accept the truth of their civilisation, in contrast to Heart of Darkness

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