Based on the 1902 novella by Joseph Conrad, this made-for-TV movie is not calculated to thrill the action-adventure crowd, but it has a tone of authenticity and a 19th century literary quality. It opens with Captain Marlow (Tim Roth) in London, already returned from a journey to Africa. He is guarded with his information, but flashbacks return us to his departure for East Africa and his trip up the Congo. He has been sent by a Belgian firm to discover the disposition of one of their people who has disappeared into the interior. This is the time of Empire, and the presence of the Belgians in this land is meant to demonstrate “the superiority of Civilization over the lives of the savages.” The scenery along the shore of the river and scenes of African life are very well shot. Occasionally, the film is reminiscent of Fitzcarraldo (1982). They are chugging up the river in an old paddle wheeler. Mysterious masked figures lurk in the jungle. There is anxious talk of cannibalism. The film seems oddly derivative. Moments of danger on the river appear to be inspired by the Coppola movie, Apocalypse Now (which was inspired by Conrad’s novel), and there is an occasion where a native guide seems to do a parody of Hannibal Lechter’s sucking his teeth (The Silence of the Lambs), relishing the thought of human flesh.
They come upon a shed tragically filled with hundreds of ivory tusks. Kurtz (John Malkovich) arrives in a native boat, emaciated and wrapped in a filmy robe. Marlow finds his way into Kurtz’s living quarters and discovers paintings of a woman he once loved (one resembling a John Singer Sargent canvas, and another a Frida Kahlo). Malkovich does not bring power to this role for which he seems ideally suited, only his trademark strangeness. The paradox of the Kurtz character is that he sees himself on one hand as the last bastion of Civilization against the encroachments of the barbaric jungle, and on the other he is the perpetrator of a brutal agenda to exterminate savagery. There are heads on pikes and dried skulls everywhere around his compound.
This is a meditation on the slipperiness of the boundaries between Civilization and barbarism. Malkovich delivers an incomprehensible monologue on the matter. Marlow is knocked unconscious by a beautiful African woman (Iman) who sees him as a threat. He awakens to find Kurtz dying on the floor, “the horror, the horror.” He returns downriver, leaving the trove of ivory behind. Back in London, he visits the dark woman of the paintings. They speak cryptically of Kurtz. Something appalling appears to have happened in the heart of Africa, but the film seems not to know what it was. It was shot in London and Belize.
For background on the breakdown of Civilization in the Congo, largely based on the 1998 book, King Leopold’s Ghost, see the documentary below.
Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death (2004)
This is film as political action. It tells the little-known story of Belgium’s domination of the Congo region under King Leopold II (1835-1909). Leopold was related to Queen Victoria and other royalty of Europe but felt inadequate in the face of greater powers. He needed a colony and searched the world until he found the Congo, which would bring him great wealth from rubber production. He founded the Congo Free State and ran it with an iron hand. His treatment of the Congolese people was exceptionally brutal and his regime is remembered for the scandal caused by revelations of his atrocities. A common practice among his soldiers was the cutting off of hands, feet, and heads. This is a kind of dramatized documentary, with several narrators, re-created scenes, and an actor playing Leopold, who sits stoically as testimonies to his cruelty are given. The usual justifications of remembering that it was a different time and all colonial powers were brutal are presented, but primary emphasis is given to the belief of the European elite that they were on a civilizing mission. Even some Africans express gratitude to Belgium for “teaching them about Civilization.” With this in mind, it become all the more difficult to understand how the occupying force could act with such consistent and horrific barbarity. An epilog speaks of the progress made by the present Democratic Republic of Congo, but a visit to Wikipedia gives a picture of continued brutality resulting from ongoing civil war. It is said that conditions here, notably rape and killing, are among the worst in the world.