The Moral Ambiguity of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now”

May 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

Marlon Brando gets no more than eighteen minutes of screen time in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but his performance goes down as one of the most legendary in cinematic history. His portrayal of the Colonel Kurtz painted a dark picture of a tribal leader gone mad. Similarly, Kurtz in the book “Heart of Darkness” has a mysterious aura around him, one that suggests ambition as well as malice. However, the most interesting thing about Kurtz is that most of the information we know about him is second-hand, and thus, for most of the book, his character is revealed by what others say about him. Looking at Kurtz’s parallel in the movie, there are some small but crucial differences that end up changing the viewer’s opinion of Marlow.

The very first mention of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness” occurs when Marlow runs into the Company’s very well dressed chief accountant:

One day he remarked, without lifting his head, ‘In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr. Kurtz.’ On my asking who Mr. Kurtz was, he said he was a first-class agent; and seeing my disappointment at this information, he added slowly, laying down his pen, ‘He is a very remarkable person.’ Further questions elicited from him that Mr. Kurtz was at present in charge of a trading-post, a very important one, in the true ivory-country, at ‘the very bottom of there. Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together …’ He began to write again. The sick man was too ill to groan. The flies buzzed in a great peace … He remained thoughtful for a moment. ‘When you see Mr. Kurtz’ he went on, ‘tell him from me that everything here’—he glanced at the deck—’ is very satisfactory. I don’t like to write to him—with those messengers of ours you never know who may get hold of your letter—at that Central Station.’ He stared at me for a moment with his mild, bulging eyes. ‘Oh, he will go far, very far,’ he began again. ‘He will be a somebody in the Administration before long. They, above—the Council in Europe, you know—mean him to be.’(85-86)

From this, we learn several things. Kurtz, for one, is very highly regarded within the company, because of his ability to bring in massive amounts of ivory, more than all the other workers combined. But then how is this possible? Is he merely an excellent worker, a genius at collecting ivory? Or is there another illicit method that Kurtz is using to collect that much ivory. Given the shady history of the ivory trade, it is very likely that the Company knows about Kurtz’s illegitimate methods but chooses to ignore them for the sake of profit, casting doubt on both Kurtz’s and the Company’s intentions. This is further evidenced by the fact that the accountant states Kurtz’s future rise to senior management as a certainty rather than a possibility. This whole passage – which serves as an introduction to Kurtz’s character – has a creepy overtone to it, suggesting many things about Kurtz and the Company, but never stating them outright.

By contrast, when we look at “Apocalypse Now”, we see that Willard has taken on a specific mission to kill Colonel Kurtz. What this does is to turn the viewer more definitely against Kurtz, painting him as a villain rather than a mysterious character from the beginning of the film. Yet Willard does not see the need to “terminate with extreme prejudice” while the U.S itself is busy fighting a war in which millions of lives are senselessly lost. Why does the U.S want to devote so much time and energy fighting a colonel who, in the grand scheme of things, does not seem to have much impact on the overall outcome of the war? Willard, however, seems to doubt Kurtz’s evilness rather than search for it as Marlow does.

When Marlow travels to the Middle Station, he is uneasy meeting the Station Manager. He notices that the Manager is “obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness” (89). We can look at the Manager as a foil to Kurtz, who seems to have influence, even on those people he technically does not have command over. Marlow even goes so far as to think that the Manager does not deserve his position:

His position had come to him—why? Perhaps because he was never ill … He had served three terms of three years out there … Because triumphant health in the general rout of constitutions is a kind of power in itself. When he went home on leave he rioted on a large scale—pompously. Jack ashore—with a difference—in externals only. This one could gather from his casual talk. He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man.(89)

However, when the time comes around to discussing Kurtz, the Manager gets anxious and restless. He wishes to travel down to the Inner Station to check on Kurtz, citing his importance to the company. The two people who know Kurtz so far seem to have an fixation, almost a reverence of Kurtz, speaking of him in high terms. But the sudden change in the Manager’s attitude and his nervousness about Kurtz’s condition makes us curious what is going on behind the scenes. Just a few pages later, however, we get a glimpse into the Manager’s true intentions: “As I approached the glow from the dark I found myself at the back of two men, talking. I heard the name of Kurtz pronounced, then the words, ‘take advantage of this unfortunate accident.’ One of the men was the manager”(92). Is the Manager merely a man, jealous of Kurtz’s success, or is there another ulterior motive? The Stations’ brickmaker, however, speaks of Kurtz as “a prodigy”(94), calling him “an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else.”(94). Finally, we overhear the Station manager and his uncle discussing Kurtz and his possibly growing influence, and how it threatens the Station Manager’s position: ‘It IS unpleasant,’ grunted the uncle. ‘He has asked the Administration to be sent there,’ said the other, ‘with the idea of showing what he could do; and I was instructed accordingly. Look at the influence that man must have. Is it not frightful?’ … ‘Yes,’ answered the manager; ‘he sent his assistant down the river with a note to me in these terms: “Clear this poor devil out of the country, and don’t bother sending more of that sort. I had rather be alone than have the kind of men you can dispose of with me.” It was more than a year ago. Can you imagine such impudence!’ ‘Anything since then?’ asked the other hoarsely. ‘Ivory,’ jerked the nephew; ‘lots of it—prime sort—lots—most annoying, from him.’ ‘And with that?’ questioned the heavy rumble. ‘Invoice,’ was the reply fired out, so to speak. Then silence. They had been talking about Kurtz.(102)

Before Marlow meets Kurtz in person, he reads a report that Kurtz prepared for a philanthropic society, an essay that speaks of the importance of civilizing the supposed “savages” in Africa. Marlow is struck by the beauty of the writing and the persuasiveness of its arguments, and had it not been for the last scrawled note, “Exterminate all the brutes!”(128), Marlow would not have developed his followed ambivalence towards Kurtz: “It was very simple, and the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lighting in a serene sky”(128). It’s worth noting that it is at this time that we get the first glimpse of the dark side of Kurtz. Before this incident, all the information Marlow knew about Kurtz was secondhand – gleaning information from the way people acted and spoke about him. Before Marlow confronts Kurtz, he meets one more person, Kurtz’s personal assistant, described as a harlequin. He sings praises about Kurtz, claiming, “‘I tell you,’ he cried, ‘this man has enlarged my mind’”(133). There are three main points of observation to take away from this. First, we can tell from the harlequin the type of character that Kurtz attracts: an offbeat, impressionable young man. Secondly, Kurtz is indeed the type of person to take advantage of such a person. Finally, the harlequin exposits on Kurtz’s secret: how does he get so much ivory? The truth is far more sinister than Marlow could have imagined – the harlequin states:

Well, I had a small lot of ivory the chief of that village near my house gave me. You see I used to shoot game for them. Well, he wanted it, and wouldn’t hear reason. He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased. And it was true, too. I gave him the ivory. What did I care! (136)

So Kurtz has been illicitly forcing the people around him, including the Russian harlequin and the natives to give up their ivory under threat of death: “‘There’s a good lot of cartridges left even raided the country’, I said”(135).

The harlequin’s equivalent in “Apocalypse Now” would be the American photojournalist, unabashed and free in his worship of Kurtz. But there are some key differences: the harlequin is described as having a “beardless, boyish face”(131) and being dressed in loud and ostentatious colours, yet the photojournalist is middle-aged and dressed in drab clothing – someone who is not as impressionable as the harlequin. However, the main similarity between them is that they are both awestruck by Kurtz and his personality – they would do anything for him. We first encounter Kurtz in person more than four-fifths into the book, and the encounter is a memorable one: the whites carry Kurtz from his hut on a stretcher, and the harlequin warns Marlow that unless he says the right thing to Kurtz, everyone on the steamer will be killed. After Kurtz boards the steamer, Marlow hears him berating the Station Manager for attempting to interfere with his plans. The Manager’s response is to cite Kurtz’s unsound methods for obtaining ivory as a reason, but it is ambiguous whether the Manager truly cares about his methods or that Kurtz may be usurping his position. In “Apocalypse Now”, Kurtz is not shown on a stretcher as a handicapped individual, but rather as a tribal leader through the creative use of shadows. He is more hostile than his counterpart in the book, capturing and torturing Willard as well as decapitating Chef. However, he accepts that Willard has come to kill it and seems to not do much in order to prevent it.

Kurtz’s motives in both the book and the movie are difficult to decipher. On one hand, he is depicted as a power-crazed individual who lost his sanity. On the other, he sometimes looks like a normal, ambitious person who became disillusioned with the european system of morals, and attempted to create his own framework. First of all, he is disliked by many of the people Marlow meets earlier in the book – the Station Manager and his uncle plot to bring Kurtz down and wish that he would be defeated by the climate:

‘Hm’m. Just so,’ grunted the uncle. ‘Ah! my boy, trust to this—I say, trust to this.’ I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river—seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.(103)

Kurtz is portrayed as a mini-tyrant, a dying god to the natives. He both embodies the best of ideal European values – honesty, decisiveness, creativity – yet contradicts other elements. For example, his methods use absolute force to bring in the ivory, but he does not try to hide the fact and is perfectly forthright about what he does. This is what makes him so dangerous to the Company in “Heart of Darkness” as well as the U.S military in “Apocalypse Now”. He is doing exactly what the governing bodies are doing, but without hiding behind a mask of good intentions.

Instead of his earlier philanthropic ideals in “Heart of Darkness” in which he proposed that a “station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing”(104), Kurtz runs into the allure of power. He sets himself up as a god to the natives, and instead of attempting to civilize the natives, he dies believing that they should be exterminated. However, what makes him unusual is that he does not care what others think about his actions: he calls the manager “This noxious fool”(153). Similarly, Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” knows that he can make followers out of past enemies, just as he did with Colby, who was sent on an earlier mission identical to Willard’s. Colonel Kurtz is one of the enigmatic characters in all of literary history, and he is notable for being an anti-villain, a supposed villain who does not show all the typical traits of an antagonist. Even though “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now” take different approaches to the same character, the core is the same: a man disillusioned by the allure of money and the hypocrisy of their governing body who decides to take matters into his hands.

Work cited

Conrad, Joseph, and Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness ; And, the Secret Sharer. New York: Signet Classic, 1997. Print.

Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando. Paramount Pictures, 1979. DVD.

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