The European/American characters in the plot are all put in a situation which forces them to either abandon their morality and sink into evil, or die because they are unwilling or unable to adapt to the savage moral climate. Ultimately, the portrayal of this choice reveals the opinion that those who succumb to evil rather than accept death are weak and worthless men, while those who attempt to defy death by choosing to resist evil such – as the Kurtz’es and the protagonists, are noble.
In Heart of Darkness, the characters’ choices are between savagery and death by disease. All men exposed to the jungle unequivocally fall to one fate or the other. The Eldorado Exploring Expedition is an example of what happens to those who adapt to the savage climate; they lose their moral code and turn evil. The group is described by the protagonist Marlow as having “no moral purpose at the back of it than there is burglars breaking into a safe” (Conrad, 27).
This observation that Marlow makes is expressed as an analogy; it is read as the expedition trying to find ivory is analogous to burglars breaking into a safe in terms of moral purpose. Marlow attempts to explain the twisted morality he sees in the expedition, refusing to abandon the hope that the white men were still civilized by trying to relate them to a kind of person who would exist in European society – the burglar.
In doing so he keeps himself in the civil ground, foreshadowing how he must inevitably be afflicted by the death/disease that results in such a choice. The Expedition’s value of their life over their morality is shown again when they hear shrieking sounds in the fog – they were “greatly discomposed” and “trembling” (Conrad, 36) at the sounds, in contrast with Marlow, who is not fearful of death, and the black crewmen who are native to the moral climate and to the situation that is so unfamiliar to the white men.
The style shows Marlow, standing idle and bemused by the juxtaposition between panicking civilized/white men and calm savage/black men. The irony in the situation incites a cynical view towards those white men who are so afraid of death, and gives the opinion that men who chose evil over death are weak and useless – as opposed to Marlow, the morally good hero who is the only one capable of saving the day. In Apocalypse Now, the choice given to the characters is the same – madness and inhumanity or death.
During the scene when a soldier attempts to helicopter his wounded friend to safety, his act of civility and humanity is punished by a Vietnamese woman who throws a grenade into the helicopter, causing a painful death to the soldier and his wounded comrade. This scene exemplifies how nice men end up dying when they try to apply their western standards of morality and good to the situation in Vietnam. The crew of the boat that the protagonist Willard travels in fall prey to the same fate.
They are purposefully depicted by the director as marginally saner then the rest of the American Army, which is beset by madness. However, this leaves them only the option to die for not adapting to the climate, which they all do. The exception is Lance, who lives because he falls prey to Kurtz’s madness upon arriving in his camp and consorts with the native Cambodians, as shown in the scene where he must be dragged away from them by Willard after he has killed Kurtz.
The other exception is Captain Willard himself, a decision made to parallel how Marlow in Heart of Darkness was also able to survive why staying morally good, because they are the protagonists, the romantic hero. There are almost no scenes in the movie which depict American soldiers dying – which reveals how those who have become insane and lost their humanity reap the benefits for choosing evil over death by living, much like Lance. Both Coppola and Conrad have a specific character to highlight the choice of evil over death – Conrad has the Manager of the expedition and Coppola has Colonel Bill Kilgore of the first camp.