Professor Mark Dintenfass’s notion that “the intent of the novelist—of all artists, in fact—is to re-create for us an image of the messy world itself” is clearly illustrated in the chaos of both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now.
While both the novel and film depict a man’s journey through physical darkness, Joseph Conrad and Francis Ford Coppola use their respective mediums to illustrate humanity’s psychological descent into darkness as well. Conrad and Coppola’s respective depictions of Kurtz’s chaotic world and Marlow’s/Willard’s, opinion of him allow the reader/viewer to experience and explore their own interpretations of humankind’s “heart of darkness.” According to Dintenfass’s idea of the artist’s intent, Conrad’s objective in writing Heart of Darkness is to render an image of the disorder in the world. This idea is shown in the way that Marlow describes his surroundings as he floats up the Congo River, “It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman.
Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman” (Conrad 58). This implies that as Marlow draws closer to Kurtz, he is also journeying further into an immoral and uncivilized society. Similarly, in Apocalypse Now, Coppola depicts the same idea of chaos in a different manner. There is a scene in which Willard speaks to a soldier fighting from a trench. Willard asks him, “Who’s the commanding officer here, soldier?” The soldier responds, “Ain’t you?” Willard does not speak often in the movie, instead his descent into the darkness of Vietnam is shown with vivid camera shots of the war and short, but poignant quotes such as this one. Aspects of Kurtz’s mission, as well as other’s opinions of him, are frequently revealed to Marlow throughout Heart of Darkness. However, Marlow remains skeptical about who Kurtz really is, but in an epiphany, realizes that he never imagined Kurtz the man, only his renowned oration skills.
Marlow describes this revelation, “I made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him Kurtz as doing, you know, but as discoursing. I didn’t say to myself, ‘Now I will never see him,’ or ‘Now I will never shake him by the hand,’ but, ‘Now I will never hear him.’ The man presented himself as a voice…The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness” (Conrad 77). This quote shows how Kurtz’s voice contained his power. It could either be used to illuminate and educate or to deceive and deprave. Coppola uses the same characteristic of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.
He uses the character of the American photojournalist to explain to Willard how Kurtz has enthralled an entire society of people into following him with just his voice. The photojournalist says, “Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet-warrior in the classic sense….And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say, ‘Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”‘ I mean, I’m no, I can’t, I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s, he’s a great man.” Coppola uses this quote to show how Kurtz uses his voice to enthrall and control his followers. Coppola also uses limited lighting in Kurtz’s scenes to keep him hidden in the darkness.
This invokes a sense of mystery about him and allows the viewer to create their own opinions. It also presents Kurtz’s voice as his main attribute. The suspense surrounding the revelation of Kurtz is transfigured into the anticipation of hearing him speak. Throughout Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, the reader is able to form their own opinions of the “darkness” and of Kurtz.
Conrad and Coppola allow the reader to do this by vividly describing and depicting Marlow’s and Willard’s respective journeys down the rivers, but not analyzing or interpreting their thoughts and actions. They also divulge very little about Kurtz’s character right up until and through the end of the novel. This allows him to keep an air of mystery and provides the reader/viewer with only the information that Marlow and Willard have gathered about him to formulate their opinions about humanity’s “heart of darkness.”