A Comparison of the movie Apocalypse Now to the short story “Heart of Darkness”

by Mario Mélançon

The stories in the movie Apocalypse Now and in the short story “Heart of Darkness” are similar on many accounts. In fact Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and presented for the first time in a shortened version in 1979, was loosely based on the story of “Heart of Darkness”, which was written in 1902 by the British author, of Polish origins, Joseph Conrad.

In “Heart of Darkness” we follow a British sailor, Marlow. He is the captain of a steamboat going up the Congo River to “relieve the stations”.  Marlow has to get to the ultimate station and to bring back an agent of the Trading Society of Ivory by the name of Kurtz. In Apocalypse Now we follow a U.S. Army Captain by the name of Willard who is sent on a secret mission to “terminate the colonel’s command”. The name of this colonel is Kurtz as well. Both stories are narrated by Marlow and Willard respectively from a first-person point of view.

The background of each story is the clash of civilizations. In “Heart of Darkness” the recently industrialized Europeans, especially the British, French, and Belgians are taming the Africans in order to extract as much wealth as possible from Africa. In Apocalypse Now, the United States with its overwhelming technological and military powers is trying to prevent the Communists from taking control of Viet Nam and from spreading further into other Asian countries. This is in accordance with the domino theory, popular during the Cold War of 1948-1989 between the United States and the former Soviet Union which advocated that if one lets a country fall into the hands of Communists; neighbouring countries might fall as well.  Within this clash of ideas there are individuals who will have to confront their values.

First Marlow and Willard are not traveling alone. Marlow embark on a steamboat and brings with him the crew consisting of Natives, the manager and his assistant, plus a group of pilgrims and their Winchester guns. Willard is from the Army. He gets on a small Navy boat and has to get acquainted with its crew of four sailors. Marlow and Willard are solitary men. Marlow has been traveling around the world all his life without establishing any clear, deep and permanent connection with anyone. Willard has just divorced from his wife and is alone in Viet Nam. Both will have to learn to deal with strangers in an environment as constricted as a boat.

Marlow and Willard are constantly in a dual situation. When they go up the Congo and Nong rivers, they cruise through the meanders of these rivers lined by wilderness. They reach places with unfamiliar names like “Little Popo”, and “Dolong”. The native population looks different, speaks differently. They are the Blacks and the Wild Asians living in the jungle of Congo and Cambodia, an archetype of darkness. As Marlow and Willard are drawn further up the rivers they get to know more about Kurtz. As they get to know about Kurtz, they get deeper literally and figuratively into unknown territory. They learn on the one hand that Kurtz is a “remarkable man, first class agent”, “Heart of Darkness”, “outstanding officer, first of his class” Apocalypse Now but at the same time that Kurtz has “unsound methods” “Heart of Darkness” and Apocalypse Now, that he is “acting beyond the pail of any reasonable human conduct” Apocalypse Now that he is “a pestilential fellow” “Heart of Darkness”. They are left by themselves to wonder, to judge who this Kurtz might really be.  The more they know him the more they wonder whether he is good or bad.

Then they get to the compound where Kurtz is living or hiding. They discover a place that has more to do with an image of hell that anything decent. They witness the heads on pikes, the effect of someone who has gone beyond the restraints of human civilization. Kurtz has numerous amounts of followers among the tribes living in these countries. It is as if the jungle had freed energy, which was imprisoned by civilization, from Kurtz. It allowed him to be stronger than the natives of these lands and thus enabled him to lead them into doing what he wanted. In “Heart of Darkness” it was to harvest as much ivory as possible. In Apocalypse Now it was to get rid of the enemy, the Vietcong.

Kurtz had developed a following, close to idolatry. Some of the White people such as the Russian in “Heart of Darkness” and the photojournalist in Apocalypse Now are like apostles to Kurtz. They talk to Marlow and Willard in similar terms about the marvellous poetry Kurtz writes and recites: “Oh, he enlarged my mind!”

Kurtz has gotten out of the boat of civilization. Both Marlow and Willard are somewhat in admiration of him. They take account of his freedom. They understand why he wants to get away from the entire lie and injustice of civilization which, to Kurtz, is “the horror, the horror”.  Ultimately they both refuse to follow Kurtz. It is as if both, Marlow and Willard had concluded, unconsciously, that humans need to be in perfect balance between reason and passion, rational and irrational, spiritual and animal. They go back to their own reality, their own rationality. Both perform the ultimate act of reason. When Kurtz’s lover wants to know Kurtz’s last words, Marlow responds with a lie, “your name”. Willard like a true soldier abides by the orders, wakes up, stands up and terminates the colonel’s command.

Kurtz went too far.  He always had a link with civilization through commerce or as a soldier. Civilization would not let him go astray as if he was one of its infant. Both Apocalypse Now and “Heart of Darkness” depict the struggle of someone who discovers what is beyond reason and civilization. This freedom can be very attractive but turns out to be very destructive as well.    


Conrad, J. (1902). Heart of Darkness. New-York: Penguin Group

Coppola, F.F. (Director). (1979). Apocalypse Now (Motion Picture). United States: Zoetrope