Beyond the Male Romance

Repetition as Failure and Success in Apocalypse Now

in Critical Survey
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The question posed by Francis Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now is a very Conradian one: what does this experience mean? Apart of Conrad’s achievement as a writer was to introduce epistemological and existential questions into narratives of adventure. In this way Conrad transformed the nineteenth-century masculine romance of exploration, conquest, war and heroism into a modernist form capable of raising profound philosophical and political issues. While Coppola’s film is not a version of Heart of Darkness so much as a radical reworking of Conrad’s novella in the context of the Vietnam War, Conrad’s text played a crucial part both in the initial idea of the film and in the problematic final stages of its production when the director, tormented by the inability to find a satisfactory ending, returned again and again to Conrad’s text. In this paper we want to suggest that the concern with the problem of meaning which Coppola derives from Conrad initially led the director astray, in a search for existential meaning in a situation where only a politicised account could be ethically responsive. Eventually, however, Conrad’s sense of meaning as above all problematic and elusive helped Coppola to introduce into his film a questioning of its own processes which rescued it from some of the simplistic or ideologically blind features of many Vietnam war films. In particular, it led the film to engage fruitfully if uncertainly with the issues raised by the very project of the representation of war: the complicity of the spectator, the problem of the aestheticisation of violence, the problem of communicability itself. In making this argument we draw on the miasma of inter-texts which surrounds Apocalypse Now like a Conradian ‘misty halo’: these include, not only Heart of Darkness itself, but Eleanor Coppola’s film Hearts of Darkness and her book Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, as well as Dispatches, the documentary narrative about Vietnam by Michael Herr, who wrote the voice-over narrative for Coppola’s film.

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