From The Vault--September, 2013
Born in 1857, to political activists in Russian-occupied Poland, Joseph Conrad seemed destined for social awareness. Conrad's parents were active in the insurrection of 1863 and after the unsuccessful attempt to escape from Russian rule, Conrad's family was exiled to Vologda, Russia. The exile proved fatal for his parents and Conrad became an orphan by the age of twelve. As a result, Conrad's uncle raised him, and at the age of seventeen, Conrad joined the crew of a French vessel; later at twenty one he joined an English merchant ship and began a life at sea. It was during this time period that Conrad was preparing for his writing career; he used his life experiences as subject for his literary works. After leaving the merchant navy in 1894, Conrad accepted a position as a riverboat captain on the Congo River. It was an interesting era, since King Leopold's Belgian Congo Free State had a reputation for brutality and oppression of the native people. The Heart of Darkness was written as a direct response to Conrad's experiences while on the Congo and his disgust over the contemptible treatment of the African natives by the Belgian government. Conrad's novel has been studied many times by historians and literary scholars alike: not only for its literary contributions, but for its historical accuracies, as well. In 1994 TNT-Turner Pictures took on the difficult feat of transforming Conrad's complex novel to film.
Directed by Nicolas Roeg, the movie stays true to Conrad's novel about a river boat captain who is hired to retrieve a lost inventory of the Belgian Congo Company's ivory, and his experiences while attempting to complete his task. As the movie opens, Marlow, the primary character, explains his behavior while on the Congo and his continued actions since his return. The movie then flashes back in time to show Marlow's arrival in Africa and continues to follow him through his journey into the interior. The filmmakers obviously made a conscious decision to honor Conrad's literary genius and aspired to bring to film what Conrad created with the written word. The character of Marlow, played by Tim Roth remains very similar to its religious genius. Roth portrays Marlow as a man looking for adventure, although he is unsure of what that might entail or how it will affect him. Cinematically, Roth is able to bring Marlow from naive and young to a mature man, who, after witnessing great atrocities, decides to no longer be a part of them. Conrad's depiction of Marlow as being disgusted by his fellow "civilized" man and his rebellion against all that is dark and evil in humanity is visible in Roth's portrayal.
Like Conrad, Marlow, the film's protagonist, realizes and acknowledges that the supposed savages of the Congo are in reality more civilized and honorable than the white men who have come to exploit them. In tracing Marlow on his journey to find the missing ivory and the ailing and mysterious Mr. Kurtz, the film recreates a voyage of discovery.
John Malkovich portrays Kurtz in a watered-down version of Conrad's original character. Perhaps, in attempt to make a simple deranged villain out of a very complex character, Malkovich, unfortunately, misses Kurtz. Kurtz is a character who combines the savage within all men, while arrogance allows him to believe he has risen above common men to a greater understanding of life. When Marlow finds Kurtz, the latter is close to death and has become insane with power over the natives who treat him as a god. It is perhaps an impossible task to portray Kurtz's dementia on-screen because he is a combination of all the characters Marlow has been witness to on his journey up the Congo. (Yet, ironically, Marlon Brando's performance in Apocalypse Now may come close.) Malkovich simply shows Kurtz to be a man who has been alone too long and has fallen victim to his own ego in an ultimately one-dimensional character.
Certainly, Malkovich could have been influenced by Marlon Brando's portrayal of Kurtz in the critically acclaimed movie Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola directed the award-winning movie in 1979 with a young cast of future leading men, including Martin Sheen, Dennis Hopper, and Lawrence Fishburne. Apocalypse Now is set in Vietnam, with Sheen's character traveling up a Vietnamese river to retrieve the renegade Colonel Kurtz. Just as Marlow hears rumors of Kurtz's mental state on his journey, so does Sheen's character. When Sheen finds Kurtz, he has set up his own kingdom with the natives of Vietnam, and they, too, worship him as a god. Coppola used the theories of Conrad to express his distaste for the Vietnam War and its effect on "civilized" man. Brando plays the Kurtz that was written for Apocalypse Now, and it is not the Kurtz of The Heart of Darkness. Perhaps Malkovich derived too much, or too little, from Brando and could have used a different interpretation of the original character.
Conrad gave proper names to very few of his characters, yet every character in The Heart of Darkness holds meaning. Each station manager, accountant and African slave depicted within the story stands for either civilized or savage men. Each group contains both foreigner and native, black and white, but sadly, most of this is lost in the movie. What is not lost, however, is the destruction the Belgian government wrought on native culture. At one point during the movie, King Leopold is acknowledged as directing the disgraceful ivory trade in Africa. It was his control over the Congo region of Africa that caused Conrad to write of his experiences on the riverboat and of the destruction European society brought to the Congo.
In 1884 King Leopold of Belgium claimed South Africa, particularly the Congo River, as his territory. Surprisingly, he was met with little opposition, in part due to his promise of free trade for all European countries as well as his proclaimed desire to spread Christianity throughout Africa. A contemporary of Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, addressed the issues surrounding Leopold's colonization of South Africa in his book, The Crime of the Congo. He wrote about the despicable actions taken against the native people and the stripping away of Africa's ivory resources. Doyle believed that, with knowledge, people of other countries, especially Britain and America, would protest such behavior. Doyle wrote his book in the hope that reform would take place. Instead of writing fiction, he wrote an informative and interesting historical account of Belgian rule over the Congo and its subjugated people. Conrad's attitudes mirror the factual accounts found in Doyle's version of life in Africa under Leopold. Speared heads, like those Conrad depicts in Kurtz's village were actually found around a manager's camp. Doyle proved all his allegations of native starvation as well as the completely indifferent attitude toward the dying in his book, The Crime of the Congo. Not only did he educate readers in the horrors taking place in Africa under the guise of "good" government, he also put forth suggestions for an alternative to the tyrannical rule of Leopold.
The movie version of The Heart of Darkness stays as true as it possibly can to the original literary version. It has a factual historical base, because the novel itself does and the movie stays within the boundaries of time, location, and setting. In a simple way, it is a movie about a riverboat captain sent to retrieve missing ivory, a captain who was suspected to be sick, his adventures along the way, and his return to "civilization." With a deeper and longer look, it shows the dark side of greed, arrogance and power and how these things destroy the human spirit. While the movie follows the original story closely, it will be better understood with the added knowledge-and literary joy-that comes from reading Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. The strength and fear of Marlow, the callousness of company employees, and the insanity of Kurtz are all enhanced when seen directly through Conrad's writings. It is impractical to expect a director and his actors to be able to portray the brutality of ivory trade with subtlety and expect it to come across on the screen. Conrad's work is distinguished because of its stark portrayal of humanity, pure and evil, and with the reading of his novel, the movie simply adds to the ability to picture the savageness of the ivory trade under King Leopold during the late nineteenth century. Watched with no prior knowledge of the history, the movie will leave the audience wondering and befuddled. Watching through the eyes of Conrad's novel, however, the audience will understand the meaning of Kurtz's last words, "The Horror! The Horror!"