Alexander M Gross

Literature | Language | Culture

The Postmodern Apocalypse

This article concerns the representation of history in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 classic Apocalypse Now, and the relationship of the film with Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness.

The Postmodern Representation of History in Apocalypse Now

My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like, it was crazy.

Francis Ford Coppola

Francis Ford Coppola's acclaimed 1979 film Apocalypse Now documents the American experience of the Vietnam War by adapting the basic narrative of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which was first serialised in 1899 before its publication in novel form three years later. Conrad's main character Marlow, speaking within a frame narrative, recounts his journey up the Congo river in search of an infamous ivory trader named Kurtz, who has assumed exploitative control over the indigenous population. Marlow's exposure to horrors leads him to question his personal values as well as those of his society. The film re-imagines this basic plot in Vietnam, with Captain Willard narrating the story of his journey up the fictional Nung river under orders to assassinate Col. Kurtz, a renegade officer who has reputedly gone insane. Like Marlow, Willard suffers psychologically as he nears the climactic meeting with Kurtz. The 1991 documentary entitled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse begins with Coppola's famous statement that “the way we made [Apocalypse Now] was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” The director's assessment of the production process and its similarity to the war experience points to Apocalypse Now serving as a representation of the historical event of the Vietnam War but also as a journey into the self that retains the self-conscious and unnerving themes of its source narrative, Heart of Darkness.

Conrad's novella, with its vivid language and at times disorientating narrative, preempts developments in form and style that would follow the turn of the twentieth century. Heart of Darkness came at the apogee of the British Empire, at the end of a century that had seen unprecedented industrial development and territorial expansion, and its narrative is invested with colonial ideologies, moral concerns, and fin-de-siècle anxieties. The story offers itself to countless forms of interpretation and its symbolic qualities are indicative of the onset of literary modernism, with the delineated narrative and framing device espousing the movement's nascent techniques while also rejecting the Victorian traditions of coherence and the omniscient narrator. Conrad himself asserted the importance of symbolic qualities in his work, stating that “a work of art is very seldom limited to one exclusive meaning and not necessarily tending to a definite conclusion. And this for the reason that the nearer it approaches art, the more it acquires a symbolic character” (Life and Letters, 204-05). The use of a first narrator that frames the story told by the main character is in itself a departure from traditional form, but it is the words invested in him by Conrad that offer the clearest indication of the author's ambition to create a transcendent, elitist work:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical [. . .] and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

The complexity of Marlow's account, and the multitude of meanings that may be constructed from it, posed a challenge to Coppola in bringing Heart of Darkness to the screen, albeit in an updated setting. Its disorientating and incoherent characteristics nonetheless served as apposite points of reference for Coppola's vision of the war, since Conrad's work was a departure from the Victorian novel form much like Vietnam was different to any war that had passed before. The subject proved incompatible with the structure and techniques of the traditional war film, and Apocalypse Now can be seen to embrace the early modernist features identifiable in its principal source text in that it is elitist, unconventional, and at times incongruous. Both texts shun the totalising impulse of the respective traditions in which they are situated, an impulse that Linda Hutcheon defines as “the process [...] by which writers of history, fiction, or even theory render their materials coherent, continuous, unified” (62), and which characterises both Victorian literature and American war films before Vietnam. However, although the lack of a coherent and teleological narrative presents a problem to any filmmaker, Linda Cahir has pointed out that Conrad's narrative structure may in fact be deemed “inherently cinematic” thanks to the framing device that means Marlow's tale is mediated at all times by the unknown narrator: “The recording eye of Conrad's anonymous narrator functions much in the same way as the camera functions in a film [...] the camera and Conrad's interposed voice both function as narrative devices that create the illusion of an unmediated relationship between the tale teller and the tale hearer” (184). In Apocalypse Now, the camera is the filter of Willard's narrative, and as such there is a similar subtlety to the presence of the mediator in each text.

The denaturalising imagery and symbolism of the novel is embraced by Coppola, who begins with a filmic stream of consciousness that draws the audience into the inner workings of Willard's mind from the outset.

The significance of Heart of Darkness in the context of the modernist movement is perhaps best encapsulated by T. S. Eliot's citation of “Mistah Kurtz – he dead” in the epigram to his poem The Hollow Men, as Eliot is among the most eminent of modernist writers and his 1922 poem The Wasteland is regarded as one of the major landmarks of the movement in English. Coppola's concern with retaining Conrad's modernist hallmarks is underlined by moments of intertextuality, such as Kurtz reciting The Hollow Men and the use of James George Frazer's The Golden Bough as a prop, a book also in dialogue with Eliot. These devices allow Coppola to reiterate familiar questions in a contemporary setting, suggesting that “the unregenerating death of men like Kurtz, no matter how morally terrifying their manifestation was, is the greatest horror; it leaves us with nothing except a world of hollow men” (Cahir 193). Numerous distinctive features of Conrad's writing that allow for Heart of Darkness to be considered as a proto-modernist novel can also be seen to find their aural and visual manifestation in Apocalypse Now. As well as the basic structure already mentioned, the denaturalising imagery and symbolism of the novel is embraced by Coppola, who begins with a filmic stream of consciousness that draws the audience into the inner workings of Willard's mind from the outset. Discordant images are layered and dissolved while helicopter sounds interrupt the music in a similarly confusing manner, and the presence and eventual foregrounding of Willard's face implies that we are complicit in his chaotic and disordered memories of the war.

The use of fog and dream-like sequences that pervade later parts of the film also recalls Heart of Darkness where Marlow explains: “When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid.” Again the documentary A Filmmaker's Apocalypse sheds some light on the director's ambition to recreate the images conceived by Conrad, with Coppola demanding “whisps of fog close to the ground and a place that's like a dream” for the so-called French Plantation scene that was ultimately cut from the film. The literary inspiration for the film's use of psychedelic music and a discordant soundscape is also evident in Heart of Darkness: “A complaining clamour, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears [. . .] to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all sides at once did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise.” Throughout the film, sound effects and music play a key role in the representation of Conrad's surreal and at times disturbing imagery. Allied with atmospheric scenes of fluctuating light and barely perceptible, dream-like visions, these features allow the film to take a progressively unnerving course as Willard and his men travel upriver towards Kurtz. The sensations of dislocation and bewilderment that Conrad develops are not diminished by the shift in time and space to Vietnam, as the literary and the filmic texts share these basic traits and Willard's mental torment recalls that of Marlow.

The narratological and symbolic qualities shared by the two texts indicate how Coppola negotiated the considerable challenge of bringing the moral and philosophical concerns of Heart of Darkness to the screen in a contemporary setting. However, the eighty years that separated him from his inspiration cannot be ignored, and an equally pressing concern for the director was the need to represent America's involvement in a war that was unlike any other, and which required an altogether different mode of representation from that of the conventional war film. The purpose of the Vietnam War remained unclear to many in America as it was acted out in unknown, distant territories with unprecedented media coverage, while those that were directly involved underwent psychological torment largely attributable to the sense of unknown for which the origins and nature of the conflict stood. More than any broad political issues, it is the individual trauma of the Vietnam War that Coppola endeavours to highlight in Apocalypse Now, largely through the use of Conrad's transcendent thematic concerns. The director states in the documentary A Filmmaker's Apocalypse:

One one level, the film is an action-adventure story. It's a story of a journey into a strange and unknown area, but it also will hopefully exist on a philosophical and allegorical level so that, ultimately, my desire is that it sheds some light on the events that took place and why they took place and what it did to the people involved in them.

Coppola's purposeful focus on the metaphorical journey of the individual soldier called for the use of the innovative cinematography, editing, and sound that would yield two Academy Awards (for Best Cinematography and Best Sound) and which ultimately renders the film an embodiment of the fluid and pliable distinction between modernism and its so-called successor, postmodernism. Themes of self-consciousness pervade postmodern texts, and in her discussion of literary postmodernism, Maria Beville has identified the key feature of the denaturalised, decentred subject as one of its distinguishing characteristics: “While self-consciousness is also a central occupation of modernist writing, literary postmodernism expands to examine the self as alienated from the community and also from itself” (46). On notions of subjectivity, she concludes that a postmodern text “operates to expose the nature of those basic binary oppositions that uphold our concepts of self” (47). Both these statements are clearly contiguous with the central themes of Apocalypse Now, as the absence of social arbiters and resultant moral dislocation experienced by Willard and his men find their ultimate expression in the figure of Kurtz, whom Coppola demanded to be “a character of a monumental nature who is struggling with the extremeties of his soul and is struggling with them on such a level that you're in awe of it.” The so-called textual awareness of postmodernist literature, also referred to as metafiction, is perhaps best evident in the Air Cavalry scene that sees Willard confronted with the various lurid absurdities of warfare during his rendezvous with his escorts to the Nung river. This is a scene that merits close examination in terms of the satirical and critical perspective on the war that is effected largely through the filter of the main character, Willard.

Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola

The remarkable Air Cavalry scene begins with explanatory narration from Willard as he arrives at the location where the notorious division is consolidating its stronghold over a small village. Willard sardonically informs that “what they were mopping up now hadn't even happened yet an hour ago,” and the image is one of mismatched military might, as a large amphibious tank emerges from the water with helicopters flying overhead. Cahir comments that “the machinery looks absurdly indomitable when counterpoised against the straw huts and the women and children who populate the scene” (189). There follows a surreal moment that exposes the interrelated experiences of American soldiers in Vietnam and the filmmakers of Apocalypse Now. In a brief cameo, Coppola himself plays a news reporter who is attempting to direct the “action” of the war. As an instance of dizzying metafictionality, it is the most obvious moment of postmodern self-consciousness in the film, and Willard's bemused expression hints at the implied relationship between the various absurdities of modern warfare, and the attempts to represent it on film. The denaturalisng effects of this brief interjection are underscored by the appearance of Coppola himself as the fictional director. Linda Hutcheon has pointed out that “postmodernism ultimately manages to install and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conventions and presuppositions it appears to challenge” (1-2). Remembering Coppola's recollections of the imperialist nature of his self-financed film project, which exploited a cheap labour force in the Philippines, it is clear that his cameo represents a moment of ironic doubleness as described by Hutcheon.

The subsequent introduction of Col. Kilgore puts the film in dialogue with Heart of Darkness once more as this character's unflappable nature and disciplined appearance recall Marlow's unexpected encounter with the company's chief accountant at the beginning of his journey up the Congo: “I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision” (36). In an obvious moment of subversion that points to the irrelevance of military protocol in a bewildering war situation, the colonel ignores Willard's paperwork and asserts his authority. Kilgore is in consummate control of an apparently chaotic situation, and is shown helping an injured soldier but also dealing out “death cards” and belittling the dead. With his brash leadership and distorted priorities of finding a good place to surf during operations, the character adds to the confusion of the scene and points to the implications of imperialism since he is shown to be both compassionate and heartless in the same sequence. The indication is that soldiers could be driven to immorality by such men as Kilgore who were held in high esteem, and the film audience is no different, as Cahir explains: “The scene shows us man at his most cruel, arrogant, and ignominious; and we sit watching; transfixed, fascinated, and, perhaps, even a little delighted by it all” (190).

The Air Cavalry scene contains examples of themes and techniques that recur throughout the film and gradually build the unnerving sense of dread that reaches its climax upon Willard's arrival at the Kurtz compound. The soundscape is a discordant composite of psychedelic music, sounds of human and animal suffering, and the noise of irrepressible war machinery, chiefly helicopters. This is allied to unsettling lighting and arresting images, such as a cow airlifted by a helicopter, and the representation of institutions and rituals of the West, such as a ruined church and a group of soldiers united in prayer amongst falling bombs. The audience experience of this scene, as throughout the film, is mediated by the reaction of Willard, in terms of his narration and facial expressions. It is through Willard that the audience can make sense of the chaos, because his apparent bewilderment at the very specific absurdities of the Vietnam war – disorganisation, powerless opponents, surfing – is a link to a more conventional and reassuring reality with which the audience can identify.

It is difficult to reconcile a rupture between modernism and postmodernism in a film that so intricately combines a contemporary, postmodern self-consciousness with the surreal and elusive imagery of Conrad.

Hutcheon has written in The Politics of Postmodernism about the shared features of modernism and postmodernism and also the ways in which they contrast, pointing to a “basic underlying opposition between those who believe postmodernism represents a break from modernism, and those who see it in a relation of continuity” (27). With Apocalypse Now so heavily steeped in the symbolic qualities that distinguish Heart of Darkness from Victorian literature and which allow for associations with the modernist tradition, it is difficult to reconcile a rupture between the two concepts in a film that so intricately combines a contemporary, postmodern self-consciousness with the surreal and elusive imagery of Conrad. The major factor that distinguishes it from an early-modernist text like Heart of Darkness is its access to technology, with its spectacular resources and imperialistic production process creating a curious hypocrisy in its criticisms of the American involvement in Vietnam, and leading to a fundamental questioning of the self at its heart. A better position, therefore, is perhaps to consider Coppola's magnum opus as a postmodern text firmly rooted in the elitist ideals of fin-de-siècle proto-modernism, as both texts share a questioning of social values and the traditions of their respective fields, but the new modes of representation employed in Apocalypse Now allow for a fragmentation of the subjective viewpoint and a focus on the development of the self during the journey upriver, particularly in terms of Willard, Kurtz, and by implication the filmmaker and the viewer.

Gross, A. M.


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