By Rob Lemkin:

Joseph Conrad’s visceral critique of colonial power rooted in fact, not fiction and still causing controversy today

Heart of Darkness is one of the most widely read and discussed classics of English literature. It ranks among fiction’s most searing critiques of imperialism while also coming under strong criticism itself for being racist.

It shone a light on colonial atrocity when empire was the primary  source of wealth and national pride (Victorian England in 1899). But its depiction of Africans –as the ‘other’, without a voice– has led to calls for it to be removed from the canon of literature The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe called Conrad ‘a bloody racist’. Other authors like Bonnie Greer have rallied to its defence which  forensically describes Europe and Europeans, not Africa and Africans, as being the Heart of Darkness.

It offers an uncomfortable view of Africans seen through the racist and imperialist gaze of the main protagonist which brings the ’Horror’ of imperialism into sharp relief.

While the language is of its time, its critique is almost contemporary and exposes an understanding of colonialism which is still ignored today.

“They (the traders and colonialists) grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale’

Heart of Darkness centres on a ship’s captain, Marlow, recounting his experiences in the Belgian Congo. He tells of his journey upriver to find and bring back a successful ivory trader who has become power crazed and despotic. The trader, Mr Kurtz, has been lauded by the Belgian colonial powers for as long as he brought in the ivory, but now his murderous mission and violence have become a problem for their interests.

In African Apocalypse, Femi Nylander follows Voulet, Just as Marlow follows Kurtz, discovering the depths to which Voulet had sunk. The film also parallels the journey of Marlow and Nylander, with the latter similarly discovering more about himself as the story unfolds.

Heart of Darkness was inspired by Conrad’s own experiences in 1890 as the captain of a river steamer in the Belgian-controlled Congo Free State. In our film wWe discover that Conrad may have even been aware of Voulet from contemporary accounts in publications where Conrad himself was writing.


In the following years the book has inspired many adaptations. Orson Welles adapted it twice for radio in 1938 and 1945 and wrote a screenplay based on the story in which he intended to portray Kurtz and the narrator Marlow. The film was never made, Welles choosing instead to develop Citizen Kane.

There were two American television versions shown in the 1950s, a 1968 adaptation by the Italian director Ettore Scola, a 1978 Spanish rendition called El Corazon del Bosque and Nicolas Roeg’s 1994 account starring Timothy Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz.

Apocalypse Now

By far the best known, however, is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now featuring Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz and Martin Sheen as his assassin Willard with Dennis Hopper in the role of Kurtz’s crazed acolyte, in the book a Russian trader, in the film a photo-journalist. Coppola, working from a script by John Milius, transposed the story from Africa to Vietnam. His film became an indictment of American imperialism and its involvement in the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s.

African Apocalypse nods to Coppola’s film not only with its title but also in the way we structured the storytelling of our journey. Just as Willard’s route to Kurtz is marked by the opening of several dossiers of intelligence about the target, so in our film Femi’s journey towards Voulet and his grave is interspersed with scenes of document and archive discovery. As in Coppola’s film with Kurtz and in the book, the encounter with Voulet, albeit a century later, is transformative. The ‘horror’ that remains is still shocking.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857 – 1924) was born Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in what is now Ukraine to Polish parents. At 17, he left for Marseilles and started a career as a merchant seaman. After 20 years’ service all over the world, he settled in England, hoping to forge a career as a writer.

By September 1898, Conrad had published two works and moved into Pent Farm in Kent where he wrote Heart of Darkness. It was published that year and continues to inspire and divide opinion.

Rob Lemkin
October 2020

Rob Lemkin, Writer and Directo rof African Apocalypse