Imperial powers overstretch and bend the limits of what is reasonable and what is possible. Individuals in the fringes of the known world, faced with the brutal indifference of an overpowering nature, struggle to keep shut the gate that comes between civilization and barbarism.
“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago—the other day. Light came out of this river since … But darkness was here yesterday.” It is the voice of Marlow on board the yawl Nellie cruising the Thames River, pitch dark at night, on the scene that opens Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Marlow goes on: Imagine the feelings of a commander of a Roman trireme, or of a decent young citizen in a toga. “They were men enough to face the darkness … Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery. The utter savagery had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.”
They were the possessors of an empire, those Romans—they were “conquerors,” Marlow states. And what is “conquering”? According to Conrad’s narrator, the conquest of the earth is not a noble cause, but just a historical coincidence sprung from civilization’s superiority: “For that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of … since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.”
Werner Herzog’s 1972 Aguirre, The Wrath of God shows the Spanish empire’s conquest of the Americas on the verge of disintegration. I have found Aguirre visionary and mesmerizing since the first time I watched the film, more than thirty years ago. The incarnation of the historical process of Spain’s imperial decline is Gonzalo Pizarro’s fearless general Lope de Aguirre. Aguirre (played by Klaus Kinski) leads a doomed expedition to the heart of the Amazonian jungle, in search for mythical Eldorado. Overtaken by the darkest elements of human nature –personal greed and wish for power— Aguirre violates all social rules and sacred oaths (to power and superiors, to family, to fellow soldiers, to religion).
Herzog in Aguirre follows in Conrad’s footsteps: Madness, and a temptation to be God, invades the heart of the white man. Aguirre is to Herzog what Kurtz is to Conrad. The last scene of Aguirre is memorable. The raft he is on is just in complete shambles, floating down into some void of the Amazon basin. All the remaining people are either dying, or they are already dead. Hundred of little monkeys have invaded the raft, and they are all over. Aguirre grabs a monkey, and he talks to the monkey: he is planning on founding the purest dynasty on earth with his own daughter, who is actually dying. “I am Aguirre, I am the wrath of God. Who else is with me?” he says –and then tosses the monkey away.
Aguirre, like Apocalypse Now, is the journey to the heart and the mind of a mad man. And what better way to convey the complete madness that possesses Aguirre—delusional dreams of grandeur as his expedition has disintegrated, proud speeches to an army of monkeys? “Unsound,” is the adjective that Marlow uses to characterize Kurtz, the station agent. Coppola’s script rescues the adjective from Conrad’s text (just one among the many loans, both literal or in spirit, that the film borrows from Heart of Darkness). And Captain Willard’s superiors make use of the euphemism to describe the rogue Special Forces colonel Kurtz operating in the border of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Yet madness does not explain it all. In Herzog’s Aguirre and in Coppola’s Kurtz there is the sound desire of seceding, of cutting ties with the established powers, of creating a new entity according to an extreme set of ideals and morals. Aguirre may well be a mad man, but he understands well the mechanisms of government, of imperial power. “Because of our mutiny, we have to make our position legal,” he explains to an assembly of his followers; he then makes the priest read an official document dictating to the expedition the terms of their new enterprise: “We are forging history. We rebel to the death and we solemnly declare the House of Hapsburg devoid of all rights.” “Let’s cut our ties with Spain,” Aguirre shouts; and in place of king Philip II Spain, he crowns the noble Don Fernando de Guzmán of Seville Emperor of Eldorado.
In a similar way, Kurtz establishes his fiefdom at the heart of the Vietnamese jungle. There rules the new moral law that emanates from Kurtz’s mind, a deranged mixture of inspirational wisdom and unapologetic violence. To his followers, Kurtz’s wisdom is almost indecipherable but sacred. “He is a poet warrior,” an American photo-journalist who follows the rogue colonel says. Like Aguirre’s, Kurtz’s enterprise is dead from the beginning. “This was the end of the river all right,” thinks Willard. Kurtz had broken from his people, his family, “and then he broke from himself.” “This is how the world ends,” the journalist states: “with a whisper.”
Apocalypse Now cleverly intertwines the sphere of war with the theme of human limitations (of empire and the self). States General Corman, in the second scene of the movie, as he is lying out the mission Willard is about to undertake in the heart of the Vietnamese jungle, up river: “In this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.” What better emotional framework than war (a phenomenon that is just organized madness, and a process that entails the total transformation of a civilized order), to explore the total disintegration of Kurtz’s soul and principles—but also the total disintegration of the United States’ policy in Vietnam?
Nature plays a major role in accelerating the mental and moral dislocation of these white men. “We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth,” says Marlow. Aguirre and Apocalypse Now are visual feasts. They offer constant shots of an oppressive and menacing jungle, “a colossal jungle so dark green as to be almost black,” as described in Heart of Darkness. Nature is just not nature; it’s the manifestation of something else: “I felt as though instead of going to the centre of a continent I were about to set off for the centre of the earth.”
And then, there are those rivers—timeless, eternal, powerful, animalistic. Marlow’s Congo River resembles “an immense snake uncoiled”: “And the river was there, fascinating, deadly, like a snake.” In Apocalypse Now’s shots of the river (shots that are, by the way, very similar to Herzog’s) Coppola perfectly captures the essence of Conrad’s narrative: “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world … An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.”
In his famous 1975 public lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe argued the text promoted a prejudiced image of Africa that “depersonalizes a portion of the human race.” Achebe was right. But his reading is equally reductionist, as he failed to point out, though, that in Heart of Darkness the depersonalization of Black Africa is as powerful as the condemnation of Western man’s excess. The two movies and the text discussed here denounce the extreme violence empire is perpetrating on the colonized people. Coppola makes the point in one of the most famous scenes on the film, the deadly helicopter ride. Among all the absurd and limitless destruction the American “cavalry” is infringing in a Vietnamese coastal enclave, a young Vietcong girl throws a grenade in a helicopter. “Fucking savages!” shouts the colonel in charge of the attack (played by Robert Duval), as he cruelly engages on a sadistic retaliation that breaks all rules of war, and escalates to the napalm-burning of the shoreline.
Conrad’s text, and Aguirre, and Apocalypse Now, do not celebrate the Western conquering of the unknown –its reigning over Nature and the indigenous people. It’s actually the opposite: Human nature and the natural world mercilessly overpower the white man.
“I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t know it,” says Willard’s voice at the beginning of Apocalypse Now. That place is the dark heart of a human being overrun by evil and madness, whether he is a white or a black man.
Post-Scriptum: Resources for the reader
A couple of friends who read the post and were not familiar with one (or more) of the works discussed, suggested me to give some references for them to get acquainted with the titles:
- The following review (from a certain Gordon Briggs) is a great introduction to Aguirre, the Wrath of God: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvrTIjVB0CM. Very accessible and true to the spirit of the film.
- You can find the full movie in Youtube too: here for instance in German with English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weuYp-XFxAo. But I bet you can find it in English too.
- If you are interested in Aguirre I recommend a 1998 Werner Herzog interview by Terry Gross in Fresh Air: http://www.npr.org/2014/08/22/342471828/werner-herzog-talks-about-madmen-and-caves-in-interviews-from-fresh-air-archives. Herzog discusses the making and main themes of Aguirre.
- I quote Conrad’s Heart of Darkness after the 2006 Norton edition. I especially quoted from three passages critical for understanding the work: p. 5-7 (opening scenes in the Thames River), p. 34-37 (Marlow’s thoughts on nature of Congo River), and p. 67-69 (death of Kurtz).
- The Norton edition has at the end several essays from scholars comparing Heart of Darkness to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (p. 484-505). They are worth reading for those who love the movie.
- Paramount released in 2006 a two-DVD set called Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier. On top of the movie, those interested can find many segments about the movie’s production and post-production process, including a one-hour-and-twenty-minutes documentary in which Coppola basically explains the film, scene by scene. Illuminating, for those Apocalypse Now fans out there.