Literary Whiteness Exposed via Embodied Post-Colonial Dominion in ‘Apocalypse Now Redux’

By Jaime Dunkle

I deliberately chose the word “embodied” instead of “personified” in the title of this essay because the film Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) deals with the manipulation and mutilation of actual bodies: whether it be Captain Benjamin L. Willard, the U.S. soldiers, Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians and soldiers, subordinates of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, his victims, or, most importantly as the title implies, Colonel Kurtz himself—who embodies whiteness and post-colonial dominion. This emphasis on the body in turn signifies the concept of biopower  (Foucault), whereby the study and conditioning of the body aims at making long-lasting and efficient workers—who not only produce products but also even more workers—out of everyone in society that exists outside of the heads of The Establishment, which is now colloquially referred to as the 1% ever since the Occupy movement in 2011. Colonel Kurtz pointedly reiterates this Foucauldian truth, vis-a-vis the disciplinary technology of the industrial military complex, upon meeting Captain Willard for the first time when he says: “You’re an errand boy sent by a grocery clerk to collect a bill. (Coppola)” Meaning, all bodies signify the capitalist bottom line of bodies equal production and profit; regardless of the seemingly righteous act of taking out Colonel Kurtz, Captain Willard is a pawn for the U.S. Army fighting a war in foreign and recently de-colonized land rich with oil, coal, natural gas, and the threat of communism. This means imminent doom for white supremacy and capitalism because without hoarding natural resources, and without terminating threats of toppling geo-political capitalist agendas, dominant systems will lose global power and control, and whiteness will lose its dominion over the world. 

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux was influenced by Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness[1]. Colonel Kurtz’s contradictory character in the film is one way that Coppola differs from Conrad who created the original character in his novella. Unlike Conrad, Coppola tries for an objective, historically plausible view of a foreign world, even if he still does so through the societal imprint of literary whiteness and orientalism[2].

Without directly defining literary whiteness, in her book Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison asks the question: “How is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction?’” My interpretation is that literary whiteness is a manifestation of implicit bias and shows what happens in literature without examining “the impact of racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and racial vulnerability and availability on nonblacks who held, resisted, explored or altered those notions (Morrison).” Apocalypse Now Redux represents a time capsule of social progress, not only in contrast to Heart of Darkness, but in comparison to itself because the original version, released in 1979, didn’t have as much reference to the vile inhumanity of post-colonialism and imperialist war that is apparent in the extended river scenes and the French rubber plantation sequence.

France colonized Vietnam from 1858 to 1954 and rubber was the motivator for colonization, according to the National WWII Museum (Robert Citino). This at least partially explains why the screenwriters of Apocalypse Now Redux, John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, decided to add a French-owned rubber plantation to the storyline. This essay will unpack two river scenes and some of the plantation sequence to show a possible nod from Coppola to Chinua Achebe’s post-colonial critique of Conrad and his problematic novella that promulgates anti-humanism, especially toward African people and culture, and more subtly any person who is not white. Notably, anti-humanism often deals with the misrepresentation and demonization of bodies that signify cultures of otherness (Achebe). Subliminal messages of violence against nonwhite culture does not equate to art, as Achebe points out; and I’ll add: it is, in fact, propaganda. Therefore, anti-humanism in literature equals biopolitical terrorism.

Furthermore, the god complex of Colonel Kurtz acts as a metaphor for interpellated institutional whiteness. The mad colonel illustrates the concept of “individual as always-already a subject, even before he is born (Althusser)” because of his white identity in context of war time. Colonel Kurtz was recruited to become Power and Control, but almost any infamous white guy would do. Depending on the era, he could’ve been Aleister Crowley or Jordan Peterson. Either way, the interpellation of whiteness would be evident in whatever white male body is cast for the role.

Colonel Kurtz’s predestined delusion also acts as a byproduct of the disciplinary technology (Foucault) of the military, which ironically wants to take him down for going too far, and hires Captain Willard to kill him. The unseen quest for Colonel Kurtz’s identity implies his search for private property, a search inspired by the alienation brought on from the traumatic experiences of his career in special forces and the military in general. He is alienated in the Marxist sense (Marx 719) because he is owned by the U.S. Army and federal government. He becomes a self-realized biopower war machine. Consequently, Colonel Kurtz finds the last frontier of personal pleasure by embodying power as life-taker (i.e., destroyer); power as life-taker being the concurrent method of political control before the Enlightenment period (Foucault).

During the French plantation sequence, there’s a dinner party scene that unpacks post-colonial rage toward otherness, and in this case: the Vietnamese. Jay “Chef” Hicks, a saucier from New Orleans, asks the French family who made the food, and he’s appalled and uses racial slurs when he learns the person is Vietnamese and not French. Then there is a segment whereby “attacks repelled,” by the plantation family—i.e., a death toll—are read aloud, and when Captain Willard reads six Americans on the list, he sulks at the horror. Additionally, the eldest patriarch at the table retells the history of the Viet Cong and America’s role therein. After the dinner, Roxanne Sarrault asks Captain Willard if he knows “why you can never step into the same river twice,” and he says, “yeah, because it’s always moving” (Coppola). The river is a central setting in the film and carries the state of perpetual becoming: of the captain, the colonel, and the way dominant culture depicts otherness as time moves into the ephemeral and horrific future. 

Rivers open the narrative to dehumanization in both the novella and the film, but from different positions of the white gaze: one outward and the other inward. According to Achebe, Conrad’s novella takes place on the Thames River, then the River Congo, comparing them in a way that shows the River Congo, and the African culture it winds through, as “the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization (Achebe 1138).” Apocalypse Now Redux is mostly set traversing the fictional Nung River. As the boat crew—Chief Phillips, Tyrone “Clean” Miller, Lance B. Johnson, and Chef—accompanies Captain Willard up the river on his classified mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz, there are several river scenes that depict the U.S. soldiers as uncivilized, but this essay will only gloss over two: the puppy scene and the toy arrow scene[3]. During the puppy scene, presumably Vietnamese people on a boat are transporting crops and goods. When a woman on the boat runs, the U.S. soldiers assume she is hiding a grenade. The captain’s crew senselessly annihilates everyone on the boat, only to discover the woman was protecting a puppy. This is one of the most brutal displays of dehumanization in the film. In the toy arrow scene, locals attack the boat crew with toy arrows. Even though Lance knows the arrows are harmless, and snaps one with laughter, he proceeds to maniacally shoot into the forest. Chef does, too. The captain screams over the gunfire to Chef and Lance to stop firing because the arrows are toys only meant to scare them. Even Chief loses control and shoots at what he calls the “savages” using only toy weapons, until a spear pierces his heart. Noteably, the locals only brandish lethal defenses after a barrage of gunfire from the boat. The only one on the boat not giving into anti-humanism is the captain, until fatally wounded Chief tries to strangle him, which the captain responds to by suffocating him. In the end, the entire crew is guilty of absurd violence and the destruction of bodies, due to their own embodiment of post-colonial dominion, which is an artifact of literary whiteness. The progression pans from depicting an outward white gaze, whereby Conrad behaves with unbridled bigotry through the literary choices he makes that strip African culture from its humanity; to an inward white gaze, whereby Coppola points the camera at the demented violent tendencies of those operating within the dominant power structure, interestingly regardless of their own race, as being the ones who lose their humanity.

As the boat crew pulls up to the village where Colonel Kurtz hides, the prevalence of literary whiteness shows up quite literally as the Cambodian natives in the river, passively protecting the land, are painted all white from head to toe. This stark symbolism reminds me that there are not any Vietnamese or Cambodian characters with significant speaking parts in the movie. I wonder how different the story would be if there was more cultural representation. Imagine if Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk known for peacefully protesting the Vietnam War and being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Hanh), had a part in the film. It would decry the Vietnam War even more, and with some cultural agency. However, by doing so, perhaps the movie would no longer be double-voicing Coppola’s own autobiographical reflections.

Ultimately, Colonel Kurtz has his own moment of reflection and sacrifices his body to Captain Willard because he knows he’s gone too far with his contribution to the horror he denounces at the end of the film. This is done in conjunction with the water buffalo sacrifice scene, a tradition in Cambodia and other parts of Asia. Interestingly, the water buffalo sacrifice caused bad press for the movie’s director (Mandell). Is the criticism Coppola received a result of how Americans are programmed to view traditions from the East: i.e., with dis-ease? Coppola stated he didn’t direct the scene and that it was completely organic (Mandell). Was Coppola’s intention not only artistic but a way to be unlike Conrad by showing a genuine tradition that symbolizes interdependence in a community that relies on its traditions for sustenance and survival especially while war-torn and massacred by actual monsters like Colonel Kurtz and the traumatized and prejudiced soldiers on the boat with Captain Willard? Or is Coppola doing what Stuart Hall mentions: constructing (and dare I add, in this context: assuming) cultural identity through narrative and myth (Hall 1194)? 

Maybe not unlike Coppola, by going inward, Colonel Kurtz internalizes The Establishment he is trying to escape. Colonel Kurtz’s identity is in a constant state of becoming, but as an inversion of Hall’s identity-as-process because the process of realization backfires on Colonel Kurtz, and he becomes just as gruesome and destructive as The Establishment he revokes. This is something Coppola avoided by adding the scenes to the redux version of his film, as discussed herein. As Colonel Kurtz’s identity thickens off screen, viewers eventually meet him when he thinks he’s living outside of The Establishment of Control, but really, he is a microcosmic flesh mirror of Control. Unlike Conrad and Colonel Kurtz, Coppola did not make the same mistake, even with the inescapable dominant white gaze.

Works Cited

  • Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.” Literary Theory: An Anthology (2017): 1137-1146.
  • Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses.” Literary Theory: An Anthology (2017): 768-777.
  • Apocalypse Now Redux. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. 2001. Film.
  • Foucault, Michel. “Right of Death and Power Over Life.” Literary Theory: An Anthology (2017): 778-791.
  • Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Literary Theory: An Anthology (2017): 1191-2101.
  • Hanh, Thich Nhat. Being Peace. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1987.
  • Internet Movie Database. Apocalypse Now: Full Cast and Crew. n.d. October 2022. <;.
  • Mandell, Andrea. “Coppola defends killing water buffalo in ‘Apocalypse Now’: ‘That was the way they do it’.” USA Today. 2019.
  • Marx, Karl. “The Philosophic adn Economic Manuscripts of 1944.” Literary Theory: An Anthology (2017): 717-729.
  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imaginiation. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
  • Robert Citino, PhD. Article: The Vietnam War. 18 September 2017. October 2022. <;.
  • Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology (2017): 1109.

[1] Full disclosure: I did not go to high school, so I never read this book. I didn’t have time to read it before this assignment was due, but it is on my to-do list.

[2] In this context, I mean orientalism as in what Edward Said describes as, “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said 1109).

[3] The fact my initial thought was to name these scenes after objects and not after the people murdered says a lot about my own white gaze. I left that diction here for heady and meta effect in showing more evidence of literary whiteness. 


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