Cold War, Modern Day, Pre-WW1

Heart of Darkness: The Man who Inspired ‘Apocalypse Now’

If any film sums up the experiences of the Vietnam War, it’s Apocalypse Now. Director Francis Ford Coppola led his cast, crew and ultimately the audience on a cinematic journey like no other. The movie’s dialogue, from “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” to “the horror, the horror” have long passed into popular culture.

However, the inspiration for Coppola’s epic was a 19th century novella that wasn’t set in Vietnam but Africa. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad forms just one part of the author’s bibliography, yet remains arguably his best known work. Who was Conrad? How did he come to write the novella? And just how did it wind up as a Vietnam War movie…?

Joseph Conrad

Born in the city of Berdychiv, northern Ukraine in 1857, Conrad’s actual birth name was Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. His father Apollo worked as a writer and activist. Conrad’s mother was named Ewa Bobrowska but sadly there doesn’t seem to be much information about what she did.

He was raised against a backdrop of social and political turmoil. As described by CliffsNotes, Ukraine and Poland have a long and tangled history. Put as simply as possible, the latter territory was “one-third of its size before being divided between the three great powers”. These were Russia, Prussia and Austria. As Conrad entered the world, “Russia effectively controlled Poland.”

Joseph Conrad
The author Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness after his own experiences in the Belgian Congo.

Proud countryman Apollo Korzeniowski rallied against Russian authority. His actions would land him in serious trouble. In the early 1860s, when Conrad was just a child, both his parents were arrested and exiled to the town of Vologda in Northern Russia. They died of tuberculosis before the decade was out. Conrad developed his own health issues, such as epilepsy, and struggled to be a good student in his new home of Krakow, Poland.

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With an interest in storytelling and a maritime career seeming to beckon, Conrad was slowly turning into the adventurous author we know today. As he entered his thirties, he took a job that would greatly influence his powerful novella.

‘Heart of Darkness’

Initially published as a serial in 1899 before becoming a book 3 years later, Heart of Darkness tells the personal and harrowing story of sailor Charles Marlow. Sent into the then-Belgian Congo by his employers, he encounters an ivory trader and trading post commander named Mr Kurtz. This latter character embodies the “heart of darkness” in the title – Kurtz has embraced and been taken over by the dark, primal forces inside him, which are brought out by the tough jungle environment.

Charles Marlow has deep connections to Joseph Conrad. Indeed, the story of Heart of Darkness was inspired by the author’s own experiences. In 1890, he worked on a steamer which travelled up the Congo. At one point he needed to take command of the vessel from its captain, who’d fallen ill. Conrad kept journals, which sparked his imagination later when thinking of the novella.

Belgian Congo
This map of the Belgian Congo was published as late as 1930. It was a country made from spilt blood.

With Belgium exploiting the territory for its resources, the story examines colonial conquest, civilization vs so-called savagery and how these two areas overlap. In its 2011 review of the book, The Guardian notes that Heart of Darkness is partly “an invaluable historical document” which looks into the “horrific human consequences of the imperial powers’ scramble for Africa”.

Orson Welles

Naturally there was interest from producers, who wanted to make Heart of Darkness into a motion picture. Conrad died of a heart attack in 1924, so didn’t get to see what happened to his acclaimed story. No less a figure than Orson Welles had a great interest in the book, producing a radio adaptation in 1938. He also wanted to make a movie of it, but this ultimately didn’t happen. Reports state that Welles and co-writer John Houseman reworked the original narrative to focus on a fictional fascist dictator.

In 1958 a TV version was made, starring Roddy McDowall as Marlow and Boris Karloff as Kurtz. Again, this wasn’t a straight adaptation of Conrad’s book and took some liberties with the source material. When Heart of Darkness did finally make it to the big screen, it was changed even further. The time period and setting had been transferred to a whole other century, but why…?

From Africa to Vietnam

Flash forward to the late 1970s. Francis Ford Coppola was a hot property, having helmed The Godfather (1972), The Conversation and The Godfather Part II (both 1974). With a reputation for crafting large scale, complex dramas, Coppola was surely the person to steer Heart of Darkness to the screen. CliffsNotes mentions that Coppola kept the basic structure of Conrad’s novella and created his own vision around it.

The starting point was writer John Milius, who had unsuccessfully attempted to join the troops during Vietnam. Asthma stopped him from volunteering, but he did come up with the idea of a war-themed Heart of Darkness adaptation. Technically, you can thank Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for giving him the impetus. They reportedly urged Milius to write a screenplay about the conflict. He was also inspired by the notion that Conrad’s book was kind of unfilmable, and a tough nut to crack for filmmakers.

Rolling Stone

Was there interest in making the picture from studios? Seemingly not. In a 2019 interview with Rolling Stone, Coppola said: “No one else wanted to make it! I had to put up the money”. Describing it as having “a bit of a strange reception”, the film nevertheless made approximately five times its money back at the box office. Just as well, because expectations for the movie weren’t high. The making of Apocalypse Now took the director and his team on an odyssey worthy of Conrad’s protagonist Charles Marlow.

John Milius
John Milius was urged to write the screenplay for Apocalypse Now by two other movie giants. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

You might expect the making of a war flick to be somewhat chaotic. Yet this production set a new standard in terms of truth and fiction blurring into one. A documentary on the making of the movie – 1991’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse – brought viewers the full story on how Coppola and co suffered for their art. How did it all go so wrong, before finally emerging so right…?

The making of ‘Apocalypse Now’

The shoot for Apocalypse Now took place largely in the Philippines. It was an enormous undertaking, one that apparently overwhelmed Francis Ford Coppola, as unexpected things happened that seemed to suggest the fates were conspiring against him. The devastation of Typhoon Olga, which destroyed some of the sets, not to mention star Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack that nearly killed him, piled on the pressure in an environment that was already highly concentrated.

With so much invested in the project, both financially and creatively, it was only a matter of time before Coppola felt the strain was too great. As mentioned by Far Out Magazine, he had an epileptic seizure, mirroring author Joseph Conrad’s medical condition. And there were darker times still, when he reportedly wanted to end it all. The “constant mindless chaos and start-stop nature of production perfectly paralleled the central message of the novel and movie —death, life and rebirth” Far Out notes.

Harvey Keitel

If the finances and the treacherous location played on Coppola’s mind, then the performers he selected to bring Apocalypse Now to life must have similarly preoccupied him. Sheen had health issues, and he wasn’t the first choice for the role. Steve McQueen was the director’s ideal lead character of Willard (i.e. Charles Marlow). When he turned it down, it was reportedly offered to Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood and numerous big names. Coppola settled on Harvey Keitel, however he later changed his mind and Keitel was let go during the shoot. If you want to know more about that situation, then our article on the casting should be useful!

Max Hastings
The Vietnam War itself was like a surreal movie set at times. It leant itself to the making of Apocalypse Now. British journalist Max Hastings is at far right of the picture.

As for Kurtz, Marlon Brando was hired, a decision that proved uniquely challenging. Coppola had worked with Brando before on The Godfather movies, yet the star’s talent sometimes came with a fair amount of baggage. Brando was also not top of the list, with Orson Welles and Lee Marvin refusing the part before an approach was made. It took Brando a few days to start filming – not that there wasn’t any filming to be done.


The actor reportedly decided to prevaricate before going on to make Kurtz his own. The production team’s fears were exacerbated by the fact that the legendary but expensive Brando was clearly out of shape.

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Coppola would go on to compare the shooting of Apocalypse Now to the war in Vietnam itself. Contrary to what he may have thought at the time, the experience didn’t end his career. In fact, it added to his status as a director.

Francis Ford Coppola post-‘Apocalypse’

Following Apocalypse Now, Coppola made a number of diverse and ambitious films. Some of these soared and others flopped. However, he had a reputation as a risk taker and master craftsman who serious actors wanted to work with. 1987’s Gardens of Stone starring James Caan touched on the Vietnam War once again, albeit on a smaller and more intimate level. He eventually returned to the Godfather franchise with Part III in 1990. His last Hollywood epic was Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992.

Today Coppola is filming Megalopolis, another huge project that he’s had in development for decades. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the shoot has been reported as chaotic, though the director has denied the stories.

Conrad and Coppola’s legacy

Even well into the 21st century, the making of Apocalypse Now is famous for its audaciousness, not to mention its triumph over adversity. It wasn’t seen as a potential hit, but went on to impress and influence audiences on the big screen and beyond. In 2001, Francis Ford Coppola oversaw and released the Redux version of the movie, which has a substantially longer running time. As well as deleted scenes, the edit includes specially-composed music.

A Final Cut was later released in 2019, and is Coppola’s preferred end product. Talking to Graham Fuller for Vanity Fair at the time, Coppola made a suitably fiery comparison when describing the process of editing Apocalypse Now once again. For him, it was like fiddling with a cigarette lighter! He said that you “might change the flint, put in more fluid, pull the wick out, and keep doing little things so finally it lights.” He believed that in order to make his old film burn brightly he needed to do “some tweaking”.

From Africa to Vietnam. An unlikely journey. A PBR crewman with his .50 calibre machine gun. (Original photo by JOC R.D. Moeser.National Archives)

Marlon Brando

Of course, nothing would have blazed at all were it not for Joseph Conrad. Aside from Heart of Darkness, he also wrote Nostromo (1904) and The Secret Agent (1907) among other classic titles. Like with Apocalypse Now, there were trials and tribulations as people attempted to film the stories. Nostromo almost became a movie directed by David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) but sadly he passed away. In an intriguing move, Marlon Brando had joined the cast. The story was eventually filmed for TV in 1996.

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Heart of Darkness itself eventually received a straight adaptation in a 1993 TV film, directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) and starring Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Mr Kurtz. Like Apocalypse Now at the time, it didn’t receive glowing reviews. The production may not have been as chaotic and attention grabbing as Francis Ford Coppola’s production, but at least it presented a clearer version of Conrad’s original work. Though we can’t guess what he would have made of Coppola’s vision.

Interestingly, both Conrad and Coppola confronted things inside themselves when making their respective stories. Be it a heart of darkness or an all out apocalypse, the core of the narrative resonates many years – indeed centuries – on from when Joseph Conrad first sat down to write his iconic novella.