Conrad brings us face to face with a complex and unpleasant truth about the white colonisers who wished to bring their ‘civilised’ ways in to the unenlightened world. Heart of Darkness explores not only the dark heart of the jungle, but also its effect on the unaccustomed Europeans who have come far from their safe, structured cities. The book attempts to symbolically trace the root of evil itself, and to discover what happens when you strip away the binds of society and reveal the nature of the bare human spirit in all its primal drives.
Coppola’s film adaptation (which he co-wrote with John Milius) changes the setting of the story to war-time Vietnam. The protagonist is an intelligence officer named Benjamin L. Willard, and the infamous 'Kurtz' is a rogue Colonel who has gone beyond the control of the US Army. The film also adds a voice-over narration written by Micheal Herr.
Kurtz was played in this film by the great Marlon Brando, an actor who was then aging and well in his physical decline. Brando was a notoriously difficult actor to direct and Coppola went to great pains in order to work with him once he finally showed up on set. Brando was grossly overweight and underprepared for the role (he appears mostly at the end) but in spite of all this, his portrayal of Kurtz is a powerful and memorable performance that breathes life into the conclusion of the film.
Apocalypse Now begins with a montage of explosions and tropical scenery, the sound of helicopters merges with “The End” by the Doors, and images of war-torn jungle blend with shots of a weary face staring at the ceiling in a hotel room. The room is lit by afternoon daylight, which filters through the blinds as Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) observes the street below. He is in “Saigon”, (what is now Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. Disheveled and groggy, languishing in a half-stupor induced by alcohol and a post-traumatic state of mind, Willard reflects on his torn psyche. His suffering is rooted as much in his past horrors as it is in his desire to return to the battleground, “Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle” we hear him narrating “when I was here I wanted to be there, and when I was there all I could think of was getting back.”
This powerful opening sequence is a masterpiece of sound and video editing, and like most parts of this film, loaded with interesting back-story; The drunken and delusional Martin Sheen is in fact barely acting at all – Coppola had Sheen do this early sequence by actually getting extremely intoxicated, to the point that he was really experiencing a break-down on camera. The idea was to help get Sheen into the character of Willard by getting in touch with his own inner turmoil. This realism includes a scene where the actor punches a mirror and begins to bleed from his hand onto his bed-sheets and floor. Later on that year Sheen also suffered a heart-attack which kept him out of shooting for four weeks.
The character of Captain Willard is waiting for another mission, and just as he disintegrates almost completely into alcohol induced madness, his mission finally comes. By the time the GI’s enter his room, they have to force him into the shower and carry him out. “It was a real choice mission,” he narrates “and when it was over, I’d never want another.”
The soldiers are intelligence officers, and we soon learn that Willard usually works regularly on such “special missions”, often as an assassin. This assignment however, is very different: Willard must go up the Nung River into Cambodia, in order to track down US Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who is a decorated American Colonel. He needs to find him and kill him. This is shocking even to Willard, who has of course never had to carry out a mission against an American, let alone one of such high rank.
During the secret briefing, we learn that Kurtz has apparently lost his mind and started a cult army of his own, which he has made with a group of natives who treat him like a god. He is leading this army outside the Vietnam warzone into the neutral zone of Cambodia, and is leaving a horrible trail of bloodshed behind him. Kutz has become increasingly elusive, has shown a growing disconnect from the chain of command, and generally seems to have gone mad. Thus the army has decided to stop him, and they have chosen Captain Willard to find him and carry out this secret mission.