Heart of Darkness & Apocalypse Now: Comparison

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  • 0:02 Heart of Darkness
  • 1:33 Apocalypse Now
  • 2:35 Similarities
  • 4:13 Differences
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ryan Bing
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a short novel published in 1899. Apocalypse Now is an epic 1979 film by Francis Ford Coppola set during the Vietnam War. What do they have in common? Come up the river with me a little ways, and let's find out!

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a novel written by Joseph Conrad and published in 1899. It tells the story of its narrator, Charles Marlow, and his time as a riverboat captain working for a Belgian company trading ivory via a river implied to be the Congo River in a continent implied to be Africa. Over the course of his work, Marlow becomes interested in a Mr. Kurtz, one of the company's most successful ivory procurers.

When Kurtz is reported ill, Marlow is sent up the river to retrieve Kurtz from the outpost Kurtz has established deep in the jungle. After an arduous journey, Marlow succeeds. According to Marlow, Kurtz has brutally established himself as ruler of a group of native people. As evidence of the violence of Kurtz's rule, Marlow describes a row of human heads on stakes in front of Kurtz's hut.

In the end, Marlow retrieves Kurtz, but Kurtz dies aboard ship before the trip downriver can be completed. Kurtz's dying words are among the most famous in modern literature: 'The horror! The horror!'

During his journey up the river and back, Marlow comes face-to-face with the horrors of colonialism and imperialism. The novel also confronts philosophical questions about the nature of evil and the question of civilization vs. savagery.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now is an epic war film by Francis Ford Coppola set during the Vietnam War. The film follows U.S. Army special operations officer Captain Benjamin L. Willard as he travels through Vietnam in the early 1970s on a mission to kill the renegade U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.

As Willard travels up the Nung River in pursuit of Kurtz, Willard is repeatedly confronted with the horrors and absurdities of war. Willard eventually reaches Colonel Kurtz, who has established command over a village of Montagnard warriors. Willard eventually carries out his mission, killing Colonel Kurtz, whose last words echo those of Kurtz in the novel: 'The horror… the horror.'

In both plot and themes, there are striking parallels between Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness. There are also some important differences. For the remainder of the lesson, we'll compare the film and the novel.


Both stories deal with imperialism. Both Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness deal with the horrific dark side of imperialism and colonialism. In Heart of Darkness, the Belgian company is the imperial power in Africa. In Apocalypse Now, it is the U.S. military in Vietnam. In both cases, the imperial power is shown committing wanton atrocities against the native people. Both stories also examine the dehumanizing effect of colonialism on the colonizers. Kurtz is perhaps the epitome of this dehumanization in both stories.

Both stories address savagery vs. civilization. Both Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness problematize the supposed dichotomy of savagery vs. civilization. In both stories, the imperial powers believe they represent civilization and the native people represent savagery. However, as each story progresses, we see the supposedly civilized imperial powers engaging in incredible brutality. If anything, the advanced firepower and organization of the imperial powers allows them to be more violent than the supposedly savage native people they are dominating.

Both stories deal with the nature of evil. In both Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, we see multiple characters react to violent surroundings and institutionalized evil by becoming violent and evil themselves. Both stories suggest that, given the right circumstances, the potential for evil lies within each one of us.

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