One of the most brilliant pieces of short fiction in the English language, albeit in an unsmooth version of the language, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was first published in 1902, sixteen years after the Ukrainian-born author, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, became a British subject. A mariner, Conrad often wrote about the sea, his appointment to the command of a Congo River steamboat providing the basis for his celebrated novella. The central character in Heart of Darkness, Marlow, had already appeared in Conrad’s short story “Youth” (1898) and the staggering novel Lord Jim (1900), part of which he narrates. Marlow, though, is an unreliable, unself-critically subjective narrator; one can’t trust a word he says. The reasons for such a narrative approach are many and exceedingly complex, but one of the motives is to question authority and its accuracy—in this case, the shibboleth of “firsthand experience.” In Heart of Darkness Marlow works for an ivory company, in which capacity he travels the Congo River, showering us generously with his racist language and chauvinistic orientation. He is, at heart, a colonialist, and another aim of his narration, from the point of view of the author, is that we should question Marlow’s mindset and the power structures that shaped and project it, imposing it on a part of the world misperceived as “inferior.” Marlow’s mission is to locate and assume command of a stranded company cargo ship. In the process of doing this, he meets a company representative who has established his own domain, his own world, really, in the African wilds, which he rules as a bloody tyrant. This man is Kurtz, who embodies—this is truly one of the most terrifying characters in world literature—colonialism stripped of its civilized veneer. Human heads, spiked by standing poles, announce Kurtz’s bloodthirstiness, the terror of his rule. Kurtz now is dying, and Marlow’s journey downriver, during which Kurtz rationalizes what he has done, what he has become, suggests that he is, somehow, the most dire projection of Marlow’s own desire for African conquest, which, on a different level, the company’s hunt for ivory, and the slaughter this entails, similarly project. Kurtz’s dying utterance is famous: “The horror! The horror!” What “horror” we can never know. The horror of colonialism and Kurtz’s own foul deeds? The horror of death? The horror of what Kurtz sees on the other side of death, awaiting him? The horror that Marlow is blind to the kinship among these horrors? All these horrors, and more?
In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola’s transmuted film version of the Conrad story, stupidly and pointlessly retitled Apocalypse Now (to justify the unconscionable: that the credits don’t even acknowledge the Conrad source), premiered at Cannes, where, oddly mistaken for an antiwar film and one critical of America’s recently ended military involvement in Southeast Asia, it took the top prize. Coppola called the film “a work in progress.” In 2001, again at Cannes, he premiered an expanded version of the same film, to which he gave an even dumber and more pointless title: Apocalypse Now Redux. The film is at such cross-purposes—adoring violence and hating violence; in raptures over war and detesting war; sorrowful over America’s failure to “win” the war and angry that we ever got mired in the war in the first place—that it’s, finally, silly. Much of the film’s contradictory nature comes from a script authored by Coppola and John Milius—two persons impossible to imagine on the same page. Racist and chauvinistic in the extreme, presumably as a result of Milius’s fascistic contribution, the film quite undoes Conrad’s nobler intentions. Now a renegade Army captain who has become a tribal leader in Cambodia, Kurtz is the object of a brass-ordered “hit” by Marlow, who has been rechristened Willard for the occasion, and who executes his assignment savagely, even though, as in the novella, Kurtz would be dead shortly anyhow. If Coppola’s aim was to turn Heart of Darkness into jungle farce, bull’s-eye. Nothing so underscores the reduction of Conrad’s fiercely beautiful piece of work as the fact that Coppola and Milius give their Kurtz the same dying utterance—only now, rather than enigmatic and haunting, it’s meaningless. If these two jerks had had the slightest sense of humor, they would have had Kurtz say with his last breath, “Rosebud.”
Apocalypse Now is an impossible film for me to like, as it cleverly bumps from moment to moment, each one presenting a point that audience members are free to interpret however they like—pro-war, antiwar: what difference does it make to Coppola, who professed surprise that his wretched The Godfather (1972) was widely viewed (correctly) as being pro-mob, to overturn which troubling impression he made the blatantly anti-mob sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974)? How on earth could Coppola be so blind, the tone of his film so far out of his control, that he couldn’t “see” the Godfather that he was making—or, until the world pointed this out to him, that he had made? The answer is simple: Coppola doesn’t care or think about a film’s intelligent or intellectual disposition. All he cares about are effects and in combining them in what he considers an aesthetic fashion. Thus Apocalypse Now straddles a fence, soliciting diverse core “understandings” from filmgoers. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” Lieutenant Kilgore exults in the field before encouraging cheer in a young soldier under his command and patting his shoulder. Is Kilgore’s utterance admirable or insane? Take your pick, based on whatever your particular stance happens to be regarding America’s Southeast Asian adventure. That’s the maddening kind of film this is. Because Coppola hasn’t a thought in his head, anything can mean anything you want. Thematic unity isn’t his concern. I know: Consider Kilgore’s name. But isn’t that a bit of having your cake and eating it, too, when (apart from the name) everything we see involving Kilgore adheres to the film’s Rorschach nature and schizophrenia?
The writing, elsewhere, is rhetorical. This film may hold the all-time record for lines of dialogue that no one would speak and only in fact do so because the script requires them to do so, to make some point—some point that other lines of dialogue, usually in the same scene, negate or take back. In a passage involving a French family that wines and dines him while his boat is being repaired (this passage is new to the 2001 version), one of the Frenchmen shouts at Willard at the dinner table, “Why don’t you Americans learn from our mistakes!” I’m not making this up; the character really says this. The long passage, overall, is fascinating, as the head of the house, Hubert de Marais (Christian Marquand, in the film’s best performance), presents a heartfelt explanation of why he is at “home” where he is and will not be returning to France ever (Willard remarks later that he will not be returning to the U.S. after the war), a history of French involvement in Indo-China preceding America’s taking up the mantle against communistic inroads in the region, and even an account of how the U.S. itself brought the Viet Cong into being right after the close of World War II. I wish I didn’t have such difficulty deciphering the French-accented English because this is, without doubt, despite lapses into rhetoric, the finest part of the film, and I can’t imagine why it was deleted back in 1979, except, of course, it does interrupt the continuity of the river journey in search of Kurtz. But, as with Kilgore, how you “receive” the filmmaker’s intent is largely up to you.
Good as it is, this passage includes a hopelessly silly line applied to both de Marais and Willard, by a family member—I’m not sure who she is—named Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clément, Aurore Clémenting about), to the effect that each is “two men, one who kills and one who loves.” After telling him this, Roxanne allows Willard to feel up her naked breasts through a filmy curtain surrounding his bed—an arty touch, to say the least.
This film took a heavy toll. Coppola, if we are to believe his wife in a journal she kept and had published, nearly had a mental breakdown, and Martin Sheen, who plays Captain Willard (with little depth but many pensive looks), suffered a heart attack. Filming in the Phillippines wasn’t easy, especially during the rainy season; Coppola, apparently, involved no one in whatever logistical research might have kept production costs down and people’s health intact.
Is there anything of value here, apart from the historical background that the newly restored “French passage” provides? Well, there’s little in the acting, especially since the expanded version adds little, if anything, to Robert Duvall’s energetic Kilgore. Even with additions, Brando’s Kurtz remains murky and unsearched. On the other hand, Vittorio Storaro’s color cinematography, which won an Oscar, is mesmerizingly beautiful, especially during the long river journey. Indeed, a number of images are beautifully crafted by Coppola, although not early on, when his overreliance on closeups is tedious and unhelpful.
Coppola’s Vietnam epic is chiefly an exercise in directorial self-indulgence. It’s heavy-handed and almost obscene in its gleeful penchant for violence. At times, it verges on “borrowing” from Werner Herzog’s masterpiece, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), much as Coppola’s Conversation (1974) “borrows” from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). Nevertheless, Apocalypse Now is many times better than Platoon (1986), which, only because Coppola’s film headed into Heart of Darkness, clumsily grafted onto its crass Vietnam melodrama Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Coppola has enough problems to prohibit his being mistaken for an artist, but he towers over the whining, self-pitying likes of an Oliver Stone.