Fighting Nightmares

Some things are so personal, and inexplicable, that they’re difficult to put into words. Not only that, but they often involve other people and I try not to comment on those who actually know me in person. Still, having just watched Apocalypse Now for the first time, I feel I must. One of the people I admire most was a high school teacher. Although I never really said as much to him directly, he is one of the most formative people in my life. He served, and was shot up in Vietnam as a youth. His outlook on life, one that I’ve tried to emulate especially when my petty foibles overwhelm me, is an inspiration. I’m sure that he doesn’t know it, but every time I think of Vietnam he’s always in my mind.

Never a fan of war movies—I’m baffled that anyone can think of war as anything other than pure barbarism—I generally can’t watch them. Apocalypse Now, however, was widely discussed when I was in high school. It was released in 1979, just four years after the war had ended. It illustrates well the fog of war, and the Doors have been seeping in my head ever since the movie faded to black. When my wife and I began renting movies—VHS, of course—we made a list of must-see titles. First, partially for alphabetic reasons, was Apocalypse Now. That it took us almost two decades to get to it says something about the nature of life. And also my fear of war movies. Still, I knew I needed to see it. I figure that unless someone is even more behind the times than me, nearly forty years is safe from spoiler alerts.

The idea, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is that Colonel Kurtz has gone insane and Captain Willard has been called in to assassinate him. As he makes his way upriver Willard finds out that Kurtz is treated like a god. He has a cult following and does appear to have lost touch with reality. In the climatic scene, Willard hacks Kurtz to death as a cow is being hacked to death outside as a sacrifice. Ending with Conrad’s original words, “the horror, the horror,” an ambiguity lingers over what a people will do once their god has been killed. In fact, language of people being gods occurs early in the film as well, bookending this concept. The truth, of course, is that there are no gods here at all. I can’t guess what Conrad would’ve thought of this adaptation of his story. I know that when I saw it my thoughts returned to one man whose impact on my life continues in ways unexpected and deeply hidden.


Darkness, of Sorts

“The horror! The horror!” During high school I was never assigned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Neither was it required for the humanities core course at a highly selective Grove City College. Knowing that my daughter will be reading it for school, I decided to get ahead of the curve for once and read the book. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I had gathered that it was set in Africa, but that is all I knew. I had even somehow managed to live through the ’80’s without ever seeing Apocalypse Now. Conrad layers the darkness thickly in his story of greed and cruelty in the material trade of ivory. The brief story does not dwell or linger on the suffering, but shows the deep scar never healed in Kurtz’s famous last words. It is a story still worth pondering profoundly.

By chance—in as much as anything happens by chance—I also watched Wolf Creek the same weekend. Again, I was unsure what to expect. I had heard about the movie before, but never with enough detail to give away the plot. Harshly critiqued for its exploitative narrative, the film presents a different setting that experiences the same darkness. Australia, 1990’s. Claiming to be based on actual events, Wolf Creek showcases the frightening duality of Mick Taylor, a character who holds many sleepless nights in store for me. Not that the movie itself is so terribly frightening, but the fact that people like Mick Taylor do exist, upon whom movie makers and novel writers base their characters, is darkness itself. It is the lot of humankind to be a mixed cast of characters, some of whom are decidedly unsavory.

I awake to newspapers bearing the cold, inhumane sentiments callously blasted from the lips of Santorum and Gingrich and their ilk stating that the poor can take care of themselves, the unborn have a right to be born into abject poverty, that women should be made to bow to the whims of men. My native naivety has worn off but slowly, hoping as I always have for sparks of kindness and genuine good will. Those who would be remembered as great leaders would do well to study closely the portraits of Napoleon and Stalin and their friends. And read a little Conrad. To find the still beating heart of darkness we need not venture all the way to Africa or Australia. We can find it in our own backyards.

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