Film: Apocalypse Now Redux– Francis Ford Coppola (dir), 2001(1979)

Book: Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad, Penguin Popular Classics 1992 (1902)


Heart of Darkness is a novel set in Africa in the late nineteenth century. Apocalypse Now is a film set in Vietnam during the late twentieth. Yet here is an example of one story being knowingly sprung out of another. The differences are massive, but the references to the earlier work are explicit and intentional. Coppola was not merely taking Conrad’s story and using it for his own purposes, but was insisting that you, the viewer, knew he was doing so.

            Coppola’s film, in the making, was itself almost as much of an epic as the story it tells. Interrupted by a war (the helicopters came back with real bullet holes, and real bloodstains), threatened by out of control budgets, almost losing its star to a heart attack, it has been the subject of a documentary (Heart of Darkness -) almost as exciting, certainly as bizarre. Consequently it is a rich source of speculation and debate. I shall stick to a bare couple of threads that I feel make an interesting comparison between the ways in which books and films might get on with their jobs of entertaining and engaging us.

            The most obvious parallel is, I guess, that both versions are a quest for Kurtz, a rogue trader in the book, a rogue soldier in the film. Both stories are built around the balance between our expectations of Kurtz, created and examined during their journeys, and the realities of him on arrival. In both stories the narrator is forced to reassess himself and his values as a consequence of the encounter. In fact there is a second comparison to be made here between the Redux version of the film, a cut that, to my way of thinking, presents a much fuller and more rounded Kurtz, and therefore demands a much more thoughtful reaction to him, and the original general release of 1979. AN Redux is much more than a re-issue of the earlier film with extra minutes bolted on. As it says on the tin ‘it is a completely re-thought, re-mixed and re-edited interpretation’. 

The other element that I am interested is that of the river-quest. It is the way the river journey is presented, in text and pictures, that interests me and along the way I’ll dip my paddle in a few other comparable journeys.

The boat is a curious concept. Not surprising that early flying machines were air-‘ships’, nor that spacecraft are space-‘ships’, because the boat is a device that enables us to exist in an environment for which we are not equipped. It floats upon a medium in which we cannot survive for long, connecting us with and detaching us from normality at the same time. In the film, following their brush with a tiger, a character tells himself ‘never get off the boat’. The boat is not only the means of reaching a Prospero’s Isle, where all things may be experienced and reflected upon, but can also be a version of it. The boat is what carries us, but it also becomes our proxy world; and on a river, as opposed to the sea or a lake, it carries us in a particular direction.

By way of contrast, in the film Fitzcarraldo, the boat itself is carried overland, but when finally launched reasserts its own authority over the story, and the characters in it! There have been other overland boats. The story of Hugh Glass, the American Mountain man is one, and so is Peter Shankland’s excellent account of the WW1 ‘naval’ campaign on Lake Tanganyika, not quite a parallel to The African Queen.

Bogart and Hepburn’s story though is primarily a river story. The boat carries them, though they pull it from time to time, and the river sets the course of the journey. River journeys fall into two types. Those who go downstream are carried by the current. Those who go up battle against it. In Deliverance the primitive violence of the river is paralleled by that of the local hillbillies. The ‘city-boys’ are carried from one danger to the next, all the way down to their final denouement. In Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship takes to the Great River and is carried south to its fateful meeting with the Orcs above the Falls of Rauros.

The search for Kurtz though, is upstream, and through unknown territory. In penetrating into the hinterland, in both book and film, the narrator is taken deeper into mystery and danger. Coppola neatly parallels some of the passages in the book, and passages is an apposite word here, for it is not only specific locations and incidents upon the river that test the characters in both stories, but sections of the river. Passages within the greater journey have their own identities.

Perhaps the most specific parallel is the attack out of the mist (p64 in the Penguin Classics edition), where the natives shoot ‘sticks’, and where a black man in both cases, dies with a spear through his chest. In the film this signals a distinct move away from the realistic ‘horrors’ of the Vietnam War, towards the nightmarish ones of Kurtz’s world.

There are other more general echoes though: the film’s photographer at Kurtz’s village parallels the Russian manager at the book’s trading station, and it is the same figure in both who tells us first of Kurtz’s writings, and of his voice. In film and book it is he who tells us ‘you don’t talk with that man, you listen to him’. Even the French outpost of the Redux film (absent from the earlier general release) reminds me of one of the abandoned stations Conrad’s boat calls in at.

The narrator/protagonist in both cases is isolated from his compatriots aboard their respective boats, and it is his isolation that gives perspective to his changing view of Kurtz, again, in both cases.  The final location for film and book is similar too, with its hanging bodies and naked warriors, more so in the Redux edition. It is in the earlier version film alone that Kurtz’s village is obliterated at the end. Both though, like the book, use his repeated mantra: ‘The horror. The horror’

A difference between film and novel is in where the story is being told from, in where a story can be told from. The novel begins on a boat in the Thames, and after a seemingly conventional first person introduction, resolves into a story being told, also in the first person, by one of the characters introduced to us by the original narrator. This is not an unheard of technique. H.G. Wells does something similar, for example in The Invisible Man, allowing his eponymous hero to give his own account of events, at length, to another character just before the climax of the otherwise third person narrative. In Conrad’s story, the second narrator dominates until the end, with only brief interjections by the original narrator. Coppola, through voice over in the voice of Willard, his equivalent to Conrad’s Marlowe, mimics this, but cannot talk away the viewpoint of the camera which is always a narrator beyond.



Rivers are a powerful metaphor. A contemporary road-oriented view emphasises their quality as a barrier. They must be crossed; forded, swum or bridged. That emphasises the country on the other side; the what that lies beyond. The decision making process is emphasised too; we ‘cross the Rubicon’, and are committed to our ventures, and adventures. We seize, hold or burn our bridges.

            At first glance the ‘road’ movie may seem a contemporary version, but to my way of thinking roads are less prescriptive than rivers, though they have their ports of call, at way stations and homesteads. They too bring us into, and take us out of situations, but their byways and turnings allow more choice, for both characters and stories.

            Besides, rivers were once the routes of humankind, not their obstacles, and that element of the metaphor is still understood, and retains its potency. From ‘Deliverance’ to ‘Fitzcarraldo’ the river carries us into our uncertain futures. Going down-river we are borne onward to our destinies, The African Queen to battle on the Lake, the Fellowship of the Ring to its breaking above the Falls of Rauros, Aguirre to his solitary denouement on the endlessly flowing waters.  Going up-river we battle against the current, and are taken deeper into the hinterland, eventually into mountains, where we must disembark and face Kurtz, in any of his guises. At either end, a river journey brings us to changes and final confrontations, to the mountains or the sea and their equally powerful associations. 

            But what sort of adaptation is this? Care has been taken to make the connection throughout the story, even to the point of stretching credulity, yet it is not a retelling of the same story. Coppola is making a film about war, not about ivory trading. He is making a film about America in Asia in the late twentieth century, not one about Europe in Africa during the nineteenth. Is it therefore a sort of homage to the earlier work, rather than a re-working of it? Was it Coppola’s intention to borrow the aura of that work, the way gardeners sometimes borrow a view that lies outside their own garden, but which may be seen from within it? Or did Conrad’s Heart of Darkness merely provide a useful template for Apocalypse Now’s similar journey of discovery, and self-discovery?

            It is Kurtz, as much as the river that binds the two tellings together, or should that be three, because, as I mentioned before, the Redux version differs from the earlier release as much in its handling of Kurtz than in any other aspect. The raw footage that has been added, in terms of minutes duration may not centre on Kurtz, but the scenes that include him significantly change our perception of him. In particular we see more of him, and we see him more clearly. We see Willard listening to him. In Conrad’s novel Kurtz dies, and his story is taken back to a fiancé, who makes of her memory of him almost a religious experience. Coppola’s Kurz is given a family, and lays on Willard the task of taking back, and communicating a testimony to Kurtz’s son. He carries too Kurtz’z typescript testimony.

            The endings of book and film diverge here, but how could they not? Conrad’s Kurtz has a personal meaning for his narrator, and that fiancé, but Coppola’s must carry a public statement about the Vietnam war. Conrad was not, I think, making a political point about imperialism in the way Coppola was about America. The endings of the two films diverge too, for in Redux we end with the boat leaving to make the return journey, while the rains pour noisily down to a soundtrack of ‘local’ music. In the earlier film, as the boat leaves, a silent bombardment obliterates Kurtz’s village. These are two quite different statements to make at the end of the ‘same’ story, two different responses to it. In all three cases though, that repeated ‘the horror’ is present.

            Both book and film strive to show us that ‘horror’, and to take us on a journey towards it. In both cases we are shown a Kurtz who has made that journey, and a Willard/Marlowe who has tried to understand him. Is whether or not we, as viewers and readers, can accompany either of them dependent on what we bring to the stories, as much as what we have been told, and shown?