We have heard it said that “history repeats itself”. In our progressive, increasingly open-minded country, young adults may not always perceive the relevance of issues that are not present in their everyday lives. However, the older generations will probably testify that such “irrelevant” lessons from the past are not outdated, but are in fact crucial to our understanding of the present. Modern teens need to be exposed to the hard lessons taught by history, and this can be done quite well by using literature and film that include such seemingly outdated themes. Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart recognizes Africa’s struggle between the traditions of the past and the turmoil left behind by colonialism. Likewise, Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (1979) depicts the darkness of war and explores the madness that can be created as a result of such dark atrocities. Interestingly, both Achebe and Coppola share the same inspiration for their work: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Not only are Things Fall Apart and Apocalypse Now influenced to various degrees by the same text, the two works would thematically complement each other in a classroom because of their comparable interpretations of both racism and gender.
Summary and Background
Written in 1968, Things Fall Apart tells the story of a Nigerian tribe being colonized by the British. Achebe’s novel largely serves as a response to racist stereotypes of Africans. Indeed, in an essay titled “The Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe argues that Conrad’s novel embraces such negative stereotypes and completely ignores the voice of the Africans. (Achebe). Written from the perspective of the tribe, Things Fall Apart offers a unique and personal look at the lives of those who suffer from an oppression of their culture because of the interests of the Western world. The plot is composed of several intertwining stories, all of which revolve around Okonkwo, a strong and wealthy warrior in the Umuofian clan. Though his biggest fear is to appear cowardly, Okonkwo embodies the tribe’s definition of a “real man” and leads a life of power and recklessness. A series of misfortunes lead to Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world – a progression that illustrates the age-old conflict between the individual and society. The last part of the book shifts focus to a clash of cultures, as Okonkwo’s world and tribal customs are slowly and dramatically destructed by the arrival of forceful white missionaries. Essentially, the novel serves as a critique of racism in Western depictions of Africa.
While Achebe’s novel is only partly influenced by Conrad’s work, Francis Ford Coppola’s, Apocalypse Now (1979), admits to be a definite adaptation of Heart of Darkness. Though the film’s choice of setting during the Vietnam War is very different than the African wilderness of Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now cleverly adapts to Conrad’s novel to depict the war as a horrific descent into primal madness. The movie portrays U.S. Captain Willard’s journey to find and “terminate” a colonel by the name of Kurtz who has reportedly gone astray from the U.S. forces and is launching and commanding his own questionable operations against the Viet Cong. During the course of the film, Captain Willet muses about Kurtz’s loyalty and slowly unravels the mystery of how one of the Army’s best soldiers could sink to such wild despair. When he finally locates Kurtz’s camp, the captain is faced with a nightmarish landscape strewn with dead bodies where natives and soldiers guard and worship their leader Kurtz. After being held captive and listening to Kurtz’s philosophical rambles, the Captain ritualistically kills the Colonel and emerges among the natives as their new leader.
Because Achebe views Things Fall Apart as an antithesis to the racist ideas in works like Heart of Darkness and, consequentially, Apocalypse Now, finding thematic similarities about the depiction of race in the two works would prove worthwhile. Interestingly, both the novel and the film strongly portray racism as a production of history. Throughout the majority of the novel, Things Fall Apart gives agency to the Umuofian clan in a way that is not under the microscope of the Western world. The Africans hold the spotlight and the imperialists are seen as the “Other.” However, by the end of the novel – when we reach the suicidal death of Okonkwo – the perspective shifts and the label of “Outsider” transfers over to the Africans. When Okonkwo dies, the Igbo people no longer matter; their customs, traditions, and vibrant lives become nothing more but a “primitive” culture. In fact, as the white District Commissioner ponders how he will document the latest occurrence in the lives of the “natives”, he strips Okonkwo even of his name. Indeed, the Commissioner reduces the African warrior to merely a paragraph in his book as he ponders, “One could almost write a write a whole chapter on him [Okonkwo]. Perhaps not a whole chapter, but a reasonable paragraph at any rate. There [is] so much more to include and one must be firm in cutting out details.” (p 209, TFA). Thus, the right to an accurate historical representation is taken away from the Africans and rewritten by the white “victors”.
Similarly, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now strips the Vietnamese of voice and agency. Nonetheless, while Achebe at least recognizes the culture of the Africans, Coppola’s film completely ignores the Vietnamese identity. Although Apocalypse Now is a film about the Vietnam War, there are no Vietnamese characters in the entire film, and the few Vietnamese whose faces are shown are not significant enough to be given a name. Instead, the Vietnamese people are constantly referred to as “dinks… gooks… slopes” and even “fucking savages.” Surprisingly, the director of the film is often quoted saying, “My film is not a movie. It’s not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” (IMDb). Vietnam’s identity thus becomes rape, pillage, and warfare – merely what the Americans see when they look at the country, disregarding what the Vietnamese actually are or how they would portray themselves if given the opportunity. At one point in the film, an American soldier refers to a certain location in Vietnam as “the asshole of the Earth.” Indeed, the country’s identity is dragged down so low, that the very last words of the dying Captain Kurtz – “the horror, the horror” – leave the audience with the impression that everything about Vietnam is shrouded in this “horror”.
Such eradication of a people’s identity in both Apocalypse Now and Things Fall Apart challenges the definition and interpretation of what racism really is. After all, racism is more than the mere feeling of superiority towards “different” individuals. In the case of Achebe’s novel and Coppola’s film, racism becomes the act of entirely erasing a people and rewriting their identity, or, even worse, ignoring their identity. Such re-defining of history attempts to fit a nation into a prejudiced depiction that only portrays the qualities that the “dominant” race wants the rest of the world to see. Not only are the victimized people of Umuofia and Vietnam re-defined, they are consequentially denied any representation of their own selves from their own perspective. Clearly, racism thus becomes a production of history and is created by those that end up with the power to chronicle the story of a nation.
Another thematic connection that can be drawn between the novel and the film consists of each work’s complex interpretation of gender. In both Apocalypse Now and Things Fall Apart gender roles are overly sensitized, particularly where female roles are portrayed. For instance, in Things Fall Apart, the men in the Umuofian clan try very hard to maintain their traditional versions of male and female gender roles. Whenever Okonkwo feels guilty, he checks himself, attributing his emotions to a weakness typically seen in women. Speaking to himself, Okonkwo asks, “When did you become a shivering, old woman? How can a man who has killed five men in battle fall to pieces because he has added a boy to their number?” (p 65, TFA). Indeed, Okonkwo does not think very highly of the female gender, as he frequently subjugates and beats the women in his life. Moreover, he is so sensitive to his culture’s interpretation of gender roles he believes that being called a “woman” is a nasty insult. For example, when a man contradicts him in a meeting, he snaps back saying, “this meeting is for men” – an insult that further highlights the culture’s hyper-sensitivity to gender roles.
Likewise, in Apocalypse Now the representation of the female gender is blown to extreme proportions. Although women are practically non-existent throughout the majority of the film’s duration, the few instances they do appear make their appearance all the more significant. The only women who have speaking lines in the film are three Playboy “bunnies” that have come to entertain the lustful, rowdy crowd of American soldiers. Not only are the women portrayed as having no place in war alongside the soldiers, they are reduced to mere sexual objects to be used for entertainment purposes. Soon after the women begin their dancing, the men start acting savage, screaming things like, “taking it off, you bitch!” and rushing the stage. These actions highlight the men’s extreme sensitivity to the presence of females and lead us to conclude that gender roles have indeed become sharpened in the eyes of the soldiers.
Such hypersensitive interpretation of gender roles in both the novel and the film leads us to examine the reason behind such sensitivity. Do the soldiers in Apocalypse Now act in such a brutal way because they are in an atmosphere of war or simply because they have been living with misogynistic ideas and prejudices deep inside? Are Okonkwo’s prejudices against women merely a result of his upbringing? In today’s society, women are generally given the same privileges and respects as men. However, gender equality is a relatively new idea, and differs among various nations, cultures, and historical periods. By comparing the interpretations of gender in both works and by analyzing situations that cause sensitivity to gender, students can explore the very root of prescribed gender roles.
Indeed there is a plethora of lessons we can draw from literature and films that deal with seemingly outdated issues like race and gender. Perhaps such issues may not trouble students today; however, Achebe’s and Coppola’s works can serve as a vivid reminder of the complexity and relevance of those problems in modern society. Because Things Fall Apart and Apocalypse Now serve as a powerful thematic complement to one another, students will have a better understanding of the significance of both works and will be better informed about the complex world around them. Hopefully, the history in Copolla’s and Achebe’s work will not have to repeat itself after all.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” Massachusetts Review.
1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism.
1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp. 251-261.
“Francis Ford Coppola: Quotes” Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com. 1994-2014. Web. 21 May 2014.