Expository Writing E25: Introduction to Academic Writing and Critical Reading
Instructor: Julie Anne McNary
23 December, 2009
Essay 3 – Final Draft
Are all of the best stories focused on the biggest challenges faced by the protagonists therein? Are all stories made more compelling if they are narrated by those protagonists at the highest moment of their darkest challenges? This question can be posed to both Marlow, Joseph Conrad’s protagonist in Heart of Darkness, and Captain Willard, Francis Ford Coppola’s on-screen protagonist in Apocalypse Now. In turn, this question can also be posed to Coppola himself, who fills the role of antagonist in his documentary, Hearts of Darkness. Coppola struggles with the challenges of adapting prose to the on-screen format. As chronicled in the documentary, his personal struggles to bridge the worlds of creative expression and the corporate side of filmmaking are highlighted. All three protagonists, including Coppola himself, must endure the agonizing challenges in order to deliver their stories. Their collective successes are evidenced by the reflective mediums through which their stories are ultimately revealed. They all three find themselves locked in the jaws of defeat and the grip of failure, but summon the courage to endure. Thus, all three confirm for both the reader and the viewer, that their accomplishments are direct results of their shaping and narrating that which they sought to overcome. It is through the lens of great adversity that all three find the road to triumph. Ironically, in spite of the hardship and suffering they endure, we find these protagonists, in turn, acting upon others in an equally distressful way. Through their actions they perpetuate the very adversity which they themselves struggle against.
Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, is the story of a hired English seaman, Charlie Marlow, serving the National corporate interests of Colonial Imperialist Belgium during its brutal, racist, ivory exploitation of The Congo. Assigned to retrieve, repair, and ultimately captain a sunken steamboat, protagonist Marlow, travels up the Congo River to reach his post. Upon his arrival, he is quickly immersed in the military-like structure of this particular ivory-trading company, with its “cutthroat” competitive hierarchy, its “stations and agents” and its ultra-racist subjugation of the indigenous population. After months of repair on the steamship Marlow is to captain an excursion, whose crew includes the Station Manager, several company men, and a host of indigenous hired-hands, up river to retrieve, dead or alive, Mr. Kurtz, the company’s top station agent. Mr. Kurtz, after ascending the company’s hierarchy and being groomed for management, has gone rouge. Left unsupervised for some time now, due mostly to his consistently exceeding expectations with record-setting ivory procurements, his “unsound methods” have become more than the company can tolerate.
During the hundreds of miles of treacherous river traveled to Mr. Kurt’s station, Marlow slowly becomes indoctrinated with the mystique of Kurtz. Close to their arrival at Kurtz’s station, the crew comes under primitive attack from the indigenous tribes seemingly under the influence of Kurtz. Save for losing their helmsman to an ambitious toss of a local’s spear, the crew arrives successfully to find Kurtz gravely ill and functionally insane. Shutting down his operation, they are able to wrest Kurtz from his enchanted followers, however, he dies during the return trip. Before expiring, Kurtz wins the respect and awe of Marlow and entrusts him with his remaining worldly possessions, a series of writings, both personal and professional. Marlow, mission completed, returns to Europe, fends off opportunistic grabs at Kurt’s property, writings and such, ultimately delivering them to his one true love, while sparing her the revelation that he had gone stark, raving mad.
Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is a film adapted loosely from Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness. Set in the jungles of Vietnam, protagonist, Captain Benjamin Willard, a decorated Green Beret commando, is charged with a clandestine mission by the architects of the Vietnam War. Traveling “below the radar,” Willard is transported up the Nung River in a non-descript Navy patrol Boat, manned by a motley crew of four Navy Seamen. Willard’s mission is to locate and exterminate Colonel Walter Kurtz, a fellow decorated Army Green Beret, who despite being fast tracked on the path to becoming a general, is suspected of going insane. Kurtz has been using local indigenous villagers to conduct his own rouge war campaign in neighboring Cambodia.
Leaving behind a failing marriage and the deafening silence of the civilian world, Willard succumbs to the primal madness of “the bush” and feeds his insatiable appetite for war with an ever-increasing obsession with his target, Colonel Kurtz. His journey up-river peels away the layers of sanity, reducing him to a primordial warrior who hardens his violent resolve every step of the way. His transformation plays out in a mostly contentious coexistence with his subordinate shipmates who, for most of their journey, are unaware of Willard’s objective. Willard and the crew inch further away from the sanity of the designated war theatre and closer to the insanity of Kurtz and his remote jungle. Finally reaching Kurtz’s outpost, which is an abandoned Cambodian temple, Willard and the surviving members of his crew witness first hand the atrocities carried out by Kurtz. Ultimately, the horrific potential of war is revealed to them as they themselves become captives of Kurtz. Later freed, Willard carries out the assassination of Kurtz, liberating him and his followers from the madness that has ensnared them.
Hearts of Darkness is a documentary that chronicles the behind the scenes making of Apocalypse Now. It was shot primarily by Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, during the years of filming. In this piece, which can be compared to and contrasted with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now, the logistical nightmare of trying to complete this film is detailed. Footage and interviews from the Philippine location present Coppola’s own “river” and his own “Kurtzian antagonist”, who he himself personifies dually with the role of protagonist. The back door deals that Coppola made with the Philippine government to secure use of land, sea and air, compare to those his fictional protagonist, Willard, participated in when receiving his mission back in Saigon. The negotiated use of Philippine military helicopters, when they weren’t abandoning Coppola’s set to actually engage separatist combatants in the South, drew comparison to Willard’s arrangement with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore of the Air Cavalry Division for transport of his designated Navy PBR from the shallows to deeper waters of the mouth of the Nung River. Through this documentary, the viewer is able to construct a lens through which Apocalypse Now should be viewed. It succeeds in providing just enough insight into the film without spoiling it for the viewer. Apocalypse Now proves to be such a powerful film that viewing it’s behind the scenes footage and fabricated sets, in no way inoculates viewers against the film’s authenticity. Hearts of Darkness stands as the metaphoric bridge which we must cross to truly appreciate Apocalypse Now.
On the surface, Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Apocalypse Now, are far more different than similar. The film is an adaptation developed loosely around Conrad’s novella. They share nothing with regard to period or setting, save for a river. Heart of Darkness is set in the Congo at the height of the Colonial Imperialist period, while Apocalypse Now is set on the fictional Nung River at the height of the Vietnam War. Since the two stories are so vastly different, there are few sequences of events which can be compared and contrasted. Conrad’s protagonist, Marlow, elects to participate in a campaign which many of his race and social strata found acceptable, in spite of the horrors it visited upon the indigenous people of the African continent. Not only did he embrace his sea faring assignment as an adventure, but as a duty to the cause of European expansionism as well. Conversely, Coppola’s protagonist, Captain Willard, executes his plan as a matter of chain of command. Given his status as a Green Beret Commando and covert CIA operative, he has been trained to follow the orders of his superiors and carry them out without question.
In keeping with the notion that the most compelling stories are ones narrated by the protagonists at the heights of their respective challenges, it is necessary to hone in on the antagonists even before attempting to further analyze the protagonists of these stories. Both fictional pieces, Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, do share two very distinct antagonists, Kurtz and The River, while Hearts of Darkness presents a sole antagonist, Coppola himself. Both Kurtz characters, while from different periods and stations in life, share a hypnotic mystique, which solicits near blind allegiance and reverence of them. Coppola, as both protagonist and antagonist in his documentary, struggles against the revered filmmaking reputation he has enjoyed and fallen victim to with the success of his Godfather franchise, and soldiers on to deliver a finished product with wide box office appeal and unprecedented credibility. Both fictional stories share a character that speaks no dialogue, but plays a central role - The River. Both the Congo River, which cuts deep into the heart of the Congo, and the fictional Nung River, which cuts deep into the heart of the Southeast Asian conflict, transcend designation as setting, springing to life and driving both plots. Coppola’s metaphoric river in Hearts of Darkness proves to be akin to a setting, the infrastructure required for shooting a film on foreign soil during a time of military conflict. It presents as many bends and curves, unknowns and threats, as did both The Congo and the Nung. The process of negotiating that “river” proved to be just as physically grueling and psychologically taxing as did the Congo to Marlow and The Nung to Willard.
As we examine the plots of both fictional pieces, it is obvious that they share few surface similarities, however do embrace a similar theme. Both speak to the ability of the jungle to reveal primal nature and the internal war men wage to prevent succumbing to it. Marlow set out as a wide eyed, ambitious adventurer of sorts and was eventually beset by the Congo jungle. Willard set out on not so much a routine mission, but one in which his expectation of successful execution was indeed routine. He learned otherwise. Additionally, they both address the fine line between genius and insanity. Coppola’s non-fiction plot shares in both, as we witness the physical and psychological metamorphosis he undergoes in his quest to deliver Apocalypse Now. From his dramatic weight loss, to his knee-jerk replacement of lead characters…from his budget exploding shifts in course, to his firing and re-hiring of writers, Coppola scratches and claws his way through the dark much like Marlow and Captain Willard. It was a shared confidence which morphed into arrogance that eventually humbled these protagonists. It was a belief in the power of their superior technology that led them to underestimate the antagonism of the jungle and the river. And it was in this process of being humbled by the forces of nature that brought them to the edge of insanity, forcing them to question things about themselves that they had never before pondered.
How is the ability of the characters to narrate their own individual stories connected to their larger goals or pursuits? Both Marlow and Willard, and even Coppola, with the initiative of wife Eleanor, go through a process, chronicled throughout both the novella and film(s) , in which they face personal demons. The exorcising of these demons, or at least the hard looks in the mirror they take, humanize them, paint them somewhat sympathetic, and ultimately enable them to succeed. And it is this sympathy that draws us in as readers and viewers. It allows us to connect with them in spite of the activities they are engaged in. All three characters, Marlow, Willard, and Coppola, while operating in different theaters, are participating in war - Marlow’s is a resource war, Willard’s a geo-political, and Coppola’s a corporate war. And while we should condemn them for their unique participation in the darker, more exploitative aspects of their respective wars, we don’t. We overlook Marlow’s participation in a brutally violent, ultra-racist campaign against the indigenous people of the Congo and their natural resources. Perhaps we tell ourselves it was Europe’s manifest destiny to rape and pillage the continent of Africa and that Marlow was merely acting as most men did in this period of history. We overlook young Captain Willard’s participation in an equally brutal, violently racist campaign against the indigenous people of Vietnam and their natural resources. Perhaps we tell ourselves that when murdering innocent Vietnamese women and children, Willard was simply doing his part to hold the line against the expansion of communism. And we overlook the financial exploits of Coppola’s Hollywood endeavors. We tell ourselves that the money he and his studio paid to the Western-friendly government of The Philippines for use of their military helicopters wasn’t used to further finance the corrupt and unjust war against Philippine citizens in the South. We tell ourselves that Coppola engaged in noble work when selling out the integrity of art and creativity to the Hollywood corporate interests. We do this because all three characters tell us their story, reveal themselves and show us their flaws. And it is in telling their own stories that they are able to reveal the more symbolic representations of retrieving ivory-trader Kurtz, of terminating Colonel Kurtz’s command, and of making the best damn Vietnam era film ever. In being so revealing, so open, and rendering themselves so vulnerable, they are able to deliver to the reader and viewer the story of their challenges in such an appreciable way.
In telling their stories, Marlow, Willard and Coppola share with us a theme that history has recorded far too many times before. Is it mere coincidence that all three stories involve white men acting in exploit of people of color? Marlow acts in concert in exploiting black people in the Congo. Willard acts as agent of a military that seeks to subjugate brown people in Vietnam and Cambodia. Coppola manages to exploit brown people in the Philippines with his inhumane wages paid to local workers instead of what their U.S. counterparts would have commanded. How often has this scene been carried out across the globe? And again, how can we overlook the sheer irony in these three protagonists raging against the forces of antagonism, while at the very epicenter of their struggles we find them raining down horror, ten-fold, upon the seemingly expendable people of color around them. Why does Marlow’s gratuitous and nonchalant use of the term “nigger” when referring to the Black people around him not move us to condemn his character as racist? “Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed.”(Conrad 73.) We find him capable of exercising decency and humanity in other instances when he refers to the indigenous African people as “black fellows” and “black people.” “Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows.” (Conrad 67.) “A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants.”(Conrad 69.) And what of Captain Willard’s total disregard for innocent Vietnamese life, illustrated by his cold-blooded murder of a young Vietnamese woman, already wrongfully wounded, for nothing more than trying to save her puppy? (Apocalypse Now) How does he continue on, commanding our respect, and at times, sympathy, in the face of such atrocity? What is it that keeps Coppola in our highest regard when he too subjugates the people of color whom he happens upon? Why does his exploit of the Philippine day laborers in his hire not tarnish our image of the great white filmmaker carrying out such noble work? (Hearts of Darkness) All three receive from us a morality waiver because they operate under a banner that, through military and religious conquest, has not only become acceptable, but the norm – white supremacy.
Both Conrad and Coppola are effective in delivering the message of achievement through adversity. Nothing better illustrates this theme than the personal, on-location struggles which Coppola endured. But how did their antagonists, Coppola included, manage to become deified by the very people, who happen to be Black and Brown, they sought to subjugate. Both Kurtz characters and Coppola had visited atrocity and adversity on the people of color around them. De Facto slavery, mass graphic slayings, and what may have been worse on some level, economic exploitation, are but a few of the “miracles” they performed to become “gods” in the eyes of these isolated populations. Conrad’s Kurtz did nothing for the betterment of those he subjugated in the Congo, but they elevated him to god-like status. Coppola’s Kurtz managed nothing more than to mislead and dupe his followers into committing unspeakable atrocities against each other, and they deified him for it. Coppola, in his filmmaking, did little for the financial well-being or international image of those whom he exploited in the Philippines, but the elders of the Indo-Philippine villages where he filmed bestowed upon him honors traditionally afforded only to religious leaders. And while this recurring theme has been played out globally since Whites left the shores of Europe, it begs the question, why? Did the fact that Whites comprise less than ten percent of the world’s population make them so exotic to these isolated traditional communities that they were viewed as “out of this world?” Were these often polytheistic societies so fascinated at the sight of white skin that the only plausible explanation had to be either extra-terrestrial or godly in origin? Whatever the explanation may be, it speaks to man’s primitive attraction to the exotic, with exotic being anything that he hasn’t before laid eyes on. And while this primitive notion has fueled conflict since the dawn of time, it is apparent that modern society is not quite as evolved as we would like to believe.