Joseph Conrad, 20th-Century cinema, & Hearts of Darkness

Colonel KurtzTHERE IS A particularly portentous moment in Peter Jackson’s King Kong: the ship boy, all along, has been reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, having been attracted to it because it’s a maritime adventure story; however, they’re nearing Skull Island, and he finishes the book, reflecting “It’s not just an adventure story, is it?”. The subplot probably wasn’t necessary in a film that’s already a three-hour remake of a 100-minute film, but it’s indicative of the mythopoeic approach Jackson took on it (by the way, I really enjoyed Jackson’s Kong: I can handle a little pretension). Soon afterwards, there’s a Conradian moment where the crew end up getting themselves bitten by one of the native boys, trying to bargain with him using a chocolate bar.

That what was, in 1933, a straightforward adventure film should become, in 2005, an epic with literary & philosophical ambitions shouldn’t be surprising. The influence of Heart of Darkness extends not only to those intellectuals who embraced it, the T.S. Eliots & Orson Welleses, but to the entire adventure genre. Previously, there had been other writers working within the same broad colonial adventure genre; there was, for instance, H. Rider Haggard, whose novels & short stories present vast imaginative vistas, or the political consciousness-raising of Rudyard Kipling, but Conrad’s stroke of genius his presentation of the journey into the heart of wilderness as a philosophical voyage into the dark heart of humanity has had a transformative, though slow, effect on that type of narrative, & you would now have to look hard nowadays for travels into the wilderness that aren’t Conradian. Even the source material suggests this, with Marlow’s early line that the Thames, too, has been one of the dark places of the world*.

One major early Heart of Darkness was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Parodying R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, where that novel an entry in the prolific “Crazy Island” genre saw a group of British schoolboys create a paradise of reason & order upon being shipwrecked, Golding’s novel has them descend by choice into savagery. Filmed in 1963, 1976, & 1990, Lord of the Flies is a major high-school text, & many subsequent Hearts of Darkness have drawn equally upon it & the original witness, for instance, the Alex Garland novel/Danny Boyle film The Beach.

Hearts of Darkness are, for whatever reason, especially prevalent in the cinema. John Boorman’s Deliverance & Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood, both based on novels, locate their heart of darkness in the forests of America. Rural America is a brutal, cannibalistic place in a huge number of horror films, the most notable of which include Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre & Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (both of which, naturally, received remakes). Lars von Trier’s foray into torture porn, Antichrist, draws on several of the pictures cited here & makes its rural landscape literally hostile.

Great Britain as a setting is largely too small & orderly to accomodate the necessary wilderness, but a few have gone for it anyway. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs has quiet American Dustin Hoffman move to Cornwall, wherein he is bullied by the local nasties to the point of violent retribution. Rod Lurie’s 2011 remake moves the action to the American Deep South. Eden Lake featured an encounter with a brutal gang of happy-slapping delinquents in the English woods, while Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (based on a novel, Ritual by David Pinner) sends an evangelising Christian policeman to a remote Scottish island full of pagans, with unhappy results. The Wicker Man‘s remake, by Neil LaBute, unprofitably moves the island in question to the Pacific Northwest, while the sequel The Wicker Tree, which was first published by Hardy as the novel Cowboys for Christ, implausibly finds paganism alive & well in the Scottish Borders (“with England”!).

Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust depicts the clash between civilisations in the rainforests of South America, as do a host of lesser cannibal movies. South America was also the setting for Werner Herzog’s twin colonial-satire masterpieces, Aguirre, The Wrath of God &, even better, Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo is the tale of a Jesuit who goes mad in the jungle, insisting a river steamship be dragged overland up a mountain, in order to deposit it in a different river, & became all too literal a metaphor when its director went mad in the jungle, filming the picture by dragging a real steamship over a mountain. Roland Joffé’s The Mission plays almost like a more respectable, less immediate version of Aguirre, The Wrath of God.

A number of Australian films find their heart of darkness in that strange, mystic landscape: Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout; Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock & The Last Wave**; Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend, which also got a remake by Jamie Blanks, & which plays like a mash-up of Roeg’s WalkaboutDon’t Look Now, in which a heart of darkness of sorts is found in the foul waterways of Venice.

The biggest & probably best of all of these cinematic Hearts of Darkness was, of course, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which brilliantly relocated the novel to Southeast Asia in the Vietnam War. Dense, yet also sprawling, the picture brilliantly identified all of the many inter-related thematic threads of the novel: the insanity of colonialism/war; the inner darkness of humanity; the ultimate failure of language; the façade of civilisation; the brutality of invading cultures to indigenous ones. So complete an adaptation was it that by the time a more faithful version arrived, directed by Nic Roeg & starring John Malkovich as Kurtz, it felt superfluous; not only had it been done better already, but Roeg himself had already gotten Heart of Darkness out of his system with Walkabout (ostensibly based on a minor novel). Even the Apocalypse Now making-of, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, felt more authentic, depicting Coppola, Herzog-like, going mad in the jungle.

Even the less thoughtful pulp adventures, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or certain of Tintin’s adventures, tend to have a touch of Conrad. Videogames, too, have had their Hearts of Darkness, though the otherwise fine Heart of Darkness wasn’t one of them. Spec Ops: The Line draws equally from Heart of Darkness & Apocalypse Now, while setting its action in Dubai. Far Cry 2 explicitly drew on Heart of Darkness, but really every title in the series owes something to it. We might even get a whiff of it in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a game of jungle survival & weighty introspection, which received two similar sequels. Michael Ancel, who proved a left-field choice to develop Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie, explored another Heart of Darkness with Beyond Good & Evil, which, like the aforementioned game Heart of Darkness, really didn’t owe that much to the text it was named for.

Personally, I hope we see many more of these. It’s probably my favourite novel, & it might well be my favourite genre, too.

*This line, & how fertile the simple idea of transplanting Heart of Darkness to other settings has proven in practice, suggests Chinua Achebe is wrong in asserting that Conrad’s novel relies on a racist, imperialist view of Africans. The rest of Conrad’s bibliography succeeds in imbuing a similar horror to South America, the West Indies, London, & the open sea.

**The Year of Living Dangerously & The Mosquito Coast, too, are suggestive films. Weir must be the cinema’s foremost Conradian.



5 thoughts on “Joseph Conrad, 20th-Century cinema, & Hearts of Darkness

  1. technicalities

    Nothing deep to add:

    Laplace [the set engineer] is talking about levelling the slope to a mere 45 percent grade; but that would look like the narrow strip of land that forms an isthmus. I told him I would not allow that, because we would lose the central metaphor of the film.
    ‘Metaphor for what?’ he asked. I said I did not know, just that it was a grand metaphor. Maybe, I said, it was an image slumbering in all of us, and I happened to be the one to introduce him to a brother he had never met… he said he could not go working under these conditions, and wanted to leave.

    – from Herzog’s filming diary

    – Haggard gets no respect! But then he is nastier than Kipling, whose mere proximity to colonialism is enough to unseat him from the syllabus. I found this highly charming:

    – Yer asterisks are backward



    1. Christian Robshaw Post author

      Thanks! I’ve rearranged those damned asterisks so many times over that they no longer know what they’re even doing. Nobody reads Haggard any more &, in my opinion, they’re missing out. His Nada the Lily is a considerable literary achievement, & has to be one of my favourite novels. He was an enormous admirer of the Zulu civilisation, but had some mean things to say about other Africans, which has obviously cost him.

      I’ve skimmed those Herzog diaries before; it’s frightening how perfectly the man fits the “mad visionary”, Kurtz rôle.


        1. Christian Robshaw Post author

          Cohen leavens what he has to say with eroticism & dark humour, but I’d definitely say “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” or “Famous Blue Raincoat” are depressing songs. “Field Commander Cohen”‘s depressing, too, & I think that one’s meant to be wholly tongue-in-cheek. Agreed that Nietzsche’s a sweety though.

          Yes, I’ve read that post of yours before (worth a re-read, though). Perhaps Herzog’s more “visionary” than “mad”, or maybe I got him mixed up with Klaus Kinski.


  2. Pingback: Nada the Lily, Black Panther, & the colonial adventure | Fact, Conjecture, & Occasional Jokes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s