‘Biohackers,’ a Science Fiction Short Story

Max Henderson, a young man in a red uniform, smashed through a first-floor window, escaping from the InterCorp building. Only some of his injuries were from the fragments of shattered glass that chipped into his skin: others were bruises from security officers’ batons that had hit him on the head, back, and arms.

Then, there was one bruise in particular—the one on his forearm, just below his wrist. It was a huge spot of purple and blue, in which tiny dots of flashing orange could be seen.

This bruise was self-inflicted.

Before he’d pounded his arm, a blue dot would sometimes flash. A green one, too. And a yellow one, whenever he was disobedient…he was given electrical shocks when that one flashed.

He ran, staggering down the sidewalk. Five men in black uniforms with yellow stripes ran after him; they all had batons in their hands, ready to beat him again.

Within a minute, they’d caught up with him. One officer grabbed his arm; the slave picked him up and threw him ten feet away, where the officer’s body struck a tree. The other four men started beating the slave, clubbing him on the head, chest, and arms. Many blows hit him in the face, breaking his nose and knocking out a few teeth. Though he was receiving new bruises, the bloody cuts from the chips of broken glass were already healing, and the original purple-blue spots were shrinking in diameter, even the one he gave himself.

Still, this new, concentrated beating he was getting was not one he could heal from quickly enough to survive; his healing app wasn’t that effective. Those batons just kept slamming down on his body. After about twenty hard blows to the head, his skull cracked, and he lost consciousness.

The flashing orange dots were no longer visible on his arm. He lay there, lifeless. No quick healing from his microchip implant would save him now.

His body had been taken offline.

Lineups of Lumps, men and women in red, green, orange, and blue uniforms were waiting to have their microchip implants tested. Nora Lee, teary-eyed, stood in line with the green-uniformed Lumps, behind a man being tested by an officer in the same uniform as those who’d beaten Max to death.

“OK,” the officer said, handing the slave, or Lump, a handful of nails. “Look at that stack of wood to your left. With the nails, use your implant to make the wood into a bookshelf.”

The Lump raised his right arm and pointed his fingers in the direction of the wood. A white dot began to flash just under the skin on his wrist. The wood was raised up in the air by a signal from his implant, then shaped in the form of a bookshelf, the shape being determined by the Lump’s thoughts, which were transferred through his nerves into the implant. It was as if the Lump had the power of telekinesis, hence the name ‘telekinesis app’ put into his implant.

The hand that held the nails now flattened. A pink dot flashed to the right of the white dot. The nails flew out of his hand, like a shot from a gun, and over to exact points where they were to be nailed to the wood, only it was as if invisible hammers were nailing them in place. The officer examined the bookshelf.

“Excellent,” he said. “Your implants are fully functional. You will do carpentry for Amy Millhouse, starting today,…” then the officer checked his computer to type in the date, “…April 5th, 2037. The blue dot will guide you to her home. Go now.”

The Lump stepped out of line and left. Nora, still sobbing, stepped forward.

“Ms. Nora Lee, former journalist,” the officer said as he checked her information on his computer implant, with a few taps on his wrist. “Made a Lump as punishment for writing op-eds critical of InterCorp. Of all the stupid ways to lose your freedom. Well, that explains your tears. Give me your arm.”

She reached over to him. He tapped her wrist where a yellow dot could be seen. “Ah!” she screamed as she felt an electric jolt shoot through her body.

“Good,” the officer said. “The restraining app is functional. Can’t have you crying and running away on the job, eh?”

She stopped sobbing, but lowered her eyes and frowned.

“Now,” he said. “Your job will be to wash dishes, make beds, take out garbage, do laundry…domestic chores in general…for George and Tasha Jonson, who bought you earlier today. OK, look at the pile of plates on my desk, and the dishrags beside them.” She did. “Use the pink-dotted app, and make like you’re cleaning them.”

By thinking of it, she made the pink dot flash, then raised her hands and pointed her fingers at the dishes and rags. Each dish hovered in the air with a rag, which then rubbed in circles on the dish. The officer smiled to see five floating dishes being ‘cleaned’ by five floating rags.

“Good,” he said. She made the dishes and rags come back down gently on the desk. “You will go to the Jonsons immediate…”

A disturbance was heard from three desks away, to Nora’s right. A large black Lump in a red uniform had lifted a car over his head with the help of his ‘strength app’, and was about to throw it at the officer testing him. The yellow dot was made to flash on his arm by the officer; the electrical shock forced the Lump to drop the car. The fender hit his leg, making him shout in pain and fall to the floor.

“Whatever injuries he has will heal quickly enough, thanks to his healing app,” Nora’s officer said, then looked at her. “See what happens when you don’t obey?”

Carl Fredericks was walking down the street when he saw Nora in a green uniform. She avoided his widened eyes in shame, her own teary.

She was his girlfriend.

“Nora!” he said. “They got you, too?”

She could answer only in sobs.

“It was for that last op-ed you wrote, wasn’t it?”

She nodded.

“Oh, I warned you not to publish any more of those! How long must you be a slave?”

“You know,” she sobbed. “For life.”

“I’ve got to free you,” he said.

“You can’t. I have to go. They’ll use the yellow app on me if I take too long getting to the Jonson family.”

“You’re working for George and Tasha?”

She nodded. “We can’t see each other anymore. Goodbye.” She walked away, always sobbing.

Now Carl felt like sobbing. George and Tasha hate each other, he thought; Will handsome George and my pretty Nora like each other? I won’t be able to bear it.

A computer programmer, Carl came up with an idea to free Nora. He tapped on his wrist to connect with the central computer, which had control over all the Lumps around the world…though his interest was solely in freeing her.

He knew how to hack through firewalls, and though he was aware of the danger of being caught, his love for Nora compelled him to take the risk. He found his way to the implant that was controlling her, and he put in a virus to free her of her masters’ control as soon as they dismissed her for the day. He knew that slaves’ masters tap a ‘dismissal’ function on their wrist implants to send their Lumps off to sleep. Once that function had been tapped, she would receive a message from Carl, letting her know she’d been freed, and that she should meet him outside of Toronto, in his aunt’s home in Mississauga.

Though she sneaked out of the Jonsons’ house without being seen by anyone in the family, Carl’s implanting of the virus immediately caught the attention of George Jonson, whose own implant was flashing a green ‘alert’ dot.

George had taken a liking to Nora as soon as she entered his home, not just for her brunette beauty, but for the tears in her eyes. The Jonsons were black, and so the father of the house had an instinctive hatred for slavery, though his wife insisted on buying Nora, as Tasha hated having to do housework. He’d fought with his wife over having a Lump at home, but his wife always won their many fights. Their son wept almost every night from the sound of his parents’ yelling.

Should I let her go, or should I get her back? he thought; I’d rather have her than Tasha, that’s for sure. After ruminating over what to do for an hour or so after her having left his house, he tapped his wrist implant, alerting a squad of officers to find her and Carl.

The next morning, officers took Carl and Nora to George’s house. George removed the virus and, curious about it, stored it in his implant.

“Nora,” he said. “Go make our breakfast.” She immediately went over to the kitchen. He smiled as he watched her walk by.

“Nora is mine!” Carl protested, his eyes squinting at how George had looked at her. He tried to run over and stop her, but he got a shock from the new apps added to his microchip implant.

“Have him fitted with a blue uniform,” George said to the officers. “That was a clever virus you made, Mr. Fredericks. Your intellectual abilities, enhanced with mental apps, will be a great asset to InterCorp. Take him away.”

“No!” Carl shouted as the officers were dragging him out of the house. “Nora! Jonson, don’t you touch my girl! I know what you want to do with her!”

In a blue uniform and with a bluer face, Carl was taken into the office of Brent McDonald, CEO of InterCorp.

“So, this must be Carl Fredericks,” McDonald said, getting up from his desk. “You may go,” he said to the officers who brought Carl in. They left. “I understand that you, originally a software engineer who worked on the fifth floor under Mr. Jonson, attempted to liberate your girlfriend, a Nora Lee, by putting a virus into the programming in her implant. Naughty, but clever. Your obvious aptitudes can be put to good use by doing data analysis and data mining for InterCorp.”

“But I have no experience in those fields,” Carl said.

“The apps we’ve added to your implants will enhance your intelligence to the point that you’ll learn quickly,” Brent said. “And since you’ve been reduced to the status of Lump, as Nora was, for crimes against InterCorp, I can get this normally high-paying work from you for free.”

“I’ve always wondered why slaves are known as ‘Lumps’,” Carl said. “Why, if I may, are…we…called that?”

“You are entitled to know, Carl,” Brent said, smiling. “You’re Lumps because you’re lumps of shit, for daring to challenge the new order established by the Free Market Revolution of 2022! No government will protect your so-called ‘rights,’ because the corporations of the world’s Jurisdictions are the state. L’état, c’est le marché! Now, go to your office and get to work. Your apps will give you all the training you’ll need. Off you go.”

Carl left the office, a blue dot on his wrist guiding him to his new office.

That evening, in George Jonson’s house, Nora hid in the kitchen as she heard the yelling in the living room.

“I see the way you look at that Lump scum!” Tasha shouted at George. “If you think that white girl’s so much prettier and shapelier than I am, go fuck her! I’m going!” She stormed out the front door and slammed it.

George let out a big sigh, then ran his hands over his face. He saw Nora standing by the entrance to the dining room from the kitchen.

“Could you go upstairs and make the bed, please, Nora?” he asked. Timidly, she went up to the bedroom. She could hear his son sobbing in his bedroom as she walked by. She wished she had the freedom to hold him, a fellow sufferer.

Standing at the foot of the bed, she pointed her hand at it. The pink dot on her wrist flashed. The messed-up blankets rose up a few feet over the bed, flattened out so the edges would be lined up with the sides, head, and foot of the bed, and then the blankets came down on the bed perfectly.

Knowing what was on George’s mind, she had planned to spin around and leave his and Tasha’s bedroom. But before she could even turn, she felt his hands on her shoulders. “Ah!” she screamed.

“Nora, relax,” he said. She turned to face him, the terror of soon being raped in her eyes. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to…”

The pink dot on her wrist flashed, and a big, hardcover dictionary flew off a bookshelf to his left and hit him on the head. “Oof!” He fell to the floor.

Before she could run out of the room, the yellow dot on her wrist flashed. “Ah!” she felt a shock, and fell to the floor beside him. She looked in his eyes, shaking all over.

“OK, I get it,” he said, rubbing his head. “You don’t like me. You still love Carl. I don’t blame you.” They both got up. “Don’t be afraid. I won’t force myself on you, or use our implants to keep you in my control. I’m not that kind of man. I was just hoping that maybe you’d like me, unlike my wife, who stopped loving me years ago. I understand how you feel about slavery, being a ‘Lump.’ But there’s nothing I can do about it.” He paused and looked at her. “You can go to bed.”

She saw the flash of the brown ‘dismissal’ app on her wrist. She left for her room.

Then, George remembered Carl’s virus, and how he’d saved the program in his implant’s memory.

I wonder if I can improve on it, he thought.

The afternoon of the next day, Carl was in Brent McDonald’s office showing him and Gord Hoskins, CFO of InterCorp, some data mining he’d been doing from the morning until then, assessments of spikes in demand for weapons to be sold for use in wars in the ‘Disputed Areas,’ namely, the developing world.

“Good work, Carl,” Brent said as he looked at Carl’s printouts. “I told you those apps would get your mind working faster. In a mere day, you’ve made huge strides. Go back to your office and get some more for us. We need assessments on the acquisition of fossil fuels in the Disputed Areas.”

“Shouldn’t I be allowed some break time?” Carl asked. “I’ve been at this for ten hours now.”

“You don’t feel tired, do you?” Brent asked, glaring at him.

“No, not at all,” Carl said. “But surely, I should be…”

“Then get back to work,” Brent said in an almost angry tone. “You know full well that the apps implanted in you give you boosts of strength and energy sufficient to work twenty hours a day, seven days a week. A food app gives you nutrients without you even needing to chew on anything. Now, get going.”

Carl left for his office, a permanent frown etched on his face.

“I still can’t help worrying about those performance-enhancing apps in the Lumps’ implants,” Hoskins said. “What if they figure out a way to disable the restraining app permanently, through a virus, like the one that very Carl lost his Petty status for, just to save his girlfriend? We could have strongman, red-uniformed Lumps beating us to death one day, throwing us out of windows to our deaths.”

“Gord, you worry too much,” Brent said, laughing. “We’ve been controlling millions of Lumps globally for over ten years now, with only minor, individual acts of defiance here and there. Remember that we members of the Grande class, as well as those of the Petty class, have apps of our own, secret enhancers to surprise the Lumps should we ever have to fight them.”

“The number of defiant Lumps has been increasing in recent months,” Gord said. “Some in the Petty class have secret sympathies for the Lumps, too. Remember Nora Lee?” Gord gestured with his head in the direction of Carl’s office.

“Yes, but she was caught quickly, her op-ed deleted within hours of publication, before too many people could have read it,” Brent said. “Remember Max Henderson, who bruised his arm to damage his restraining app, a common Lump tactic of rebellion, then broke through our window and tried to run to freedom? Our officers chased him, and managed to beat him to death with their normal strength, and neither Max’s strength app nor his healing app could do enough to save him. We could have killed him by simply activating the death app, but we wanted to let the officers enjoy beating Max to death with their own strength. We also did it to test them—to see if their natural strength alone could kill Max.”

“I hope your confidence is justified,” Gord said.

Carl was finally released from work at 10:00 that night. As he walked down the street to his apartment, he passed by Nora, whose eyes avoided his.

“Nora?” he said. She ignored him and kept walking past, then entered a 24/7 convenience store to buy groceries for Tasha.

“Mr. Jonson’s had her,” Carl whispered. Whether seduced or raped, she let him have her, I’m sure of it.

Back in the Jonsons’ home, husband and wife were having another argument.

“You were hoping to screw pretty Nora, weren’t you?” Tasha said to George with taunting eyes. “I see the guilt in your eyes. She resisted you, though. I see the failure in your eyes.”

George just stared away from her, scowling. “Tasha…”

“She doesn’t like you, because no woman ever would,” Tasha taunted further. “You didn’t use the restraining app on her to rape her, for the same reason you didn’t do her with her consent: you’re not man enough to!”

“Tasha!” he shouted, raising his hand to slap her, but stopping.

“See?” she said with a grin. “You’re not man enough to fight back.” She laughed and walked out of the bedroom. “Go to bed, Ryan!” she shouted at their frowning son, who’d been listening to the arguing in the hall.

I’m man enough to set her free, George thought, remembering Carl’s virus, saved on George’s implant. He left the bedroom and entered his study.

He sat at his desk and went through some notes he’d written about modifications he was about to make to the virus.

Stuck in a shitty marriage, he thought while modifying the malware in his implant. He logged into the central computer, connecting the virus with all Lumps, Petties, and Grandes worldwide. I have to protect Ryan from Tasha. Like Carl and Nora, I’m in a trap. They love each other, but being Lumps means they can’t be together. We’re all slaves to the Free Market Revolution, in one form or another. If I can free them, Carl can love Nora for me. She cares for Ryan; I’ve seen her smile at him. Maybe she’ll kill me and Tasha, who’s the one who wanted to buy her, then take Ryan to safety when the Lumps kill everyone else.

He sent the virus into the central computer. It was 2:00 AM. The virus woke every Lump up. They read a message on their forearms: NOT YET. WAIT.

Carl checked the functioning of his apps, suspecting correctly that the message hinted that the Lumps’ electronic shackles, as it were, had been broken.

All the other Lumps came to the same conclusion, but many assumed ‘NOT YET. WAIT.’ to mean, ‘Get what little sleep you’re allowed (four hours, thanks to their energy-enhancing apps); revolt the next morning.’ And indeed, many Lumps did.

Brent looked through his office window and saw, in the building across the street, a man thrown out of a ninth floor window, shattering the glass in an explosion, him screaming all the way down till his skull’s bloody cracking on the pavement silenced him. “What the hell?” Brent shouted.

Gord watched video on Brent’s computer monitor showing one of the InterCorp manufactories having been set afire, the whole structure burning to the ground. “I foresaw this years ago, Brent,” he said.

“Security will handle it, don’t worry,” Brent said. He checked his computer for video of the rebellion: he frowned as he saw Lumps assaulting Petties and Grandes, even killing some with knives that flew spinning in the air telekinetically. Then he switched to video of another area, where officers were beating and shooting Lumps, killing scores of them. Now he was smiling.

Carl and Nora were among the smarter Lumps. They never let on that they were free. In fact, amid the chaos and confusion around noon, Carl slipped away and tapped his wrist, making further modifications to the new programming, and stopped all the rioting Lumps’ violence immediately.

Grandes and Petties used their restraining apps on the now-still Lumps, and grinned as they saw the men and women in red, green, orange, and blue shaking from their electric shocks.

Back in Brent’s office that afternoon, Gord had been tracing the setup of the virus. “Carl set it up!” he told Brent. “His digital footprint is all over the virus. I told you these enhanced Lumps were dangerous, Brent! He should be executed at once.”

“Wait, no,” Brent said as he scrutinized the digital footprints. “Carl originally used this virus to free Nora, but he also used it to regain control over the Lumps. Look carefully.”

Gord looked again, then said, “OK, but why would he want to help us?”

“I don’t know,” Brent said, “but if you look here, in the middle of the programming, you’ll see the digital footprint of George Jonson, assistant manager of sales, and Nora’s owner.”

“Why would George, one of our managers, want to help Lumps?” Gord asked. “Perhaps he prefers that pretty girl to his overweight wife?”

“We’ll find out the reason,” Brent said. “Then, we’ll kill him.”

Back in the Jonsons’ home…

“Now that the Lumps are all under control again, the officers are going to catch me, and kill me, since they’ll know I spread the virus,” George told Nora. “All I ask of you is to protect Ryan in any way you can. Protect him from Tasha. You’ve seen her hit him. I’d hoped the Lumps would plan a more careful revolution…”

They heard a knock on the door.

“Maybe Carl can find a way to modify the…”

The door was kicked open. Three armed officers walked in the house.

“Mr. Jonson, come with us,” one of them said.

As George left his house with them, he looked back at her and said, “Protect Ryan. Please.”

“So, that was your reason?” Brent McDonald asked George after a mere five minutes of interrogation in the CEO’s office. George nodded. “A black man, who bought a slave, sympathizes with slaves now? Of course!”

“My wife bought Nora,” George said. “I didn’t want her.”

“But you wanted her back, after Carl here tried to free her,” Gord said. “I hear that Nora’s a pretty one, and that your wife is insufferable.”

Carl, showing Brent more data printouts, those of profits made from InterCorp’s dealings in the Disputed Areas, tried to pretend he wasn’t listening to the conversation. George remained impassive.

“Nora means nothing to me,” George said. Carl saw an actor’s eyes in George. “I just can’t tolerate slavery. My wife insisted that I get Nora back, that’s all.”

“Very well,” Brent said, then tapped on his wrist. “If you really don’t love Nora, who Tasha brought here, by the way, and if all the Lumps are as well under control as they seem to be, we’ll put it to a test.”

Nora, frowning, entered the office. She was holding a large meat cleaver. Her arms were trembling with it in her grasp.

“Nora,” Brent said. “Send that cleaver flying so it cuts off George’s head. Tasha won’t miss him, and he knows it. In fact, he’ll recognize the cleaver from his own kitchen, since his not-so-devoted wife gave it to you to use on him. Indeed, Tasha got a few bruises from the Lump rebellion, and she was furious to know her husband was behind it. Go on, Nora: you know how to make the telekinesis app work.”

Nora was shaking all over now. Tears were forming in her eyes. The app, connected to her nerve endings as all the implants were, sent a signal into the cleaver, raising it in the air a few feet in front of her face. It rotated there, like a horizontal propeller, level with George’s neck.

“Do it, Nora,” Gord commanded, “or do you need a shock?”

Tears ran down her cheeks.

“Remember,” Gord added, “if you’re thinking of using it on yourself, we can shock you so quickly, you won’t be able to kill yourself with it.”

“It’s OK, Nora,” George said. “I don’t want to live anymore, anyway. I can’t face Tasha after what happened. Remember Ryan.”

She made eye contact with Carl, whose blank face made it impossible for her to intuit his thoughts.

“Nora!” Brent shouted.

The knife spun at George. His head tumbled into a corner of the room, and blood sprayed from the stump of a neck all over the floor. The others in the room dodged the red.

“Good work, Nora,” Gord said. “Now, clean up the mess.”

Worldwide, TV screens showed George Jonson’s headless body hanging from the top of InterCorp headquarters, with his head on a spike beside the body. A universal shudder was felt, the Lumps shaking the most.

That evening, Carl and Gord were in Brent’s office.

“I must convey my appreciation to you, Carl, for stopping the Lump rebellion,” Brent said. “In fact, as a token of my gratitude, I’m considering restoring you to the Petty class, or maybe even raising you up to our Grande class.”

Gord’s eyes widened. “You can’t be…”

“I’m considering it,” Brent said, “provided Carl…passes certain tests…in order to prove his loyalty to InterCorp. I wonder, though, what motivated you, Carl, to put the online restraints back on the Lumps. Were you anticipating a promotion of the sort that I just described?”

“The thought crossed my mind, I must confess,” Carl said.

“Was there any other motive?” Gord asked.

“Yes,” Carl said. “I wanted George Jonson dead.”

“Why?” Gord asked. “Was it because he had your pretty Nora?”

“Yes,” Carl said with a sigh. “I saw the way he looked at my love—my former love. She’s shown me no affection since she became the Jonsons’ servant. When I’d escaped with her, she resisted; she claimed she didn’t want me to get in danger, but it was already too late to worry about that—she liked her handsome master. Didn’t you see how she wept when she was made to kill him? All proof that not only had he had her, but she’d fallen for him. I gave up my freedom for that disloyal bitch. I don’t care about Lumps; and my life—free or not—has lost all of its happiness. Let the Lumps suffer, even if I stay one of them.”

“And ending the rebellion would facilitate our execution of Jonson,” Gord said.

“Yes,” Carl said. “That’s happiness enough for me, regardless of whether you keep me a Lump, or free me.”

“Interesting,” Brent said. “Still, I’d like to see if you’re worthy of a promotion to Grande. Gord, let’s take Carl and Nora down to Basement Two.”

“Yes, Mr. McDonald,” Gord said. He tapped his wrist to summon Nora.

Outside of Basement Two, no one would see or hear what Brent and Gord were doing with Carl and Nora.

“The program modification Carl made to tame the Lumps isn’t exactly the same as that of the original restraints, but it seems close enough,” Brent said. “We just have to test it, as we have to test the death of his love for Nora…which will be a test, also, of his loyalty.”

“What do you want me to do?” Carl asked.

“Use the electrocution app on her,” Brent said. “The one we use in brief zaps to discipline the Lumps. But,…set it to maximum.”

“You mean, you want me to kill her?” Carl asked, and saw a nod from Brent.

Nora, slouching and hanging her head low, as if she were already dying, seemed acquiescent. “In killing George,” she said, “I’d killed myself right then. Killing me now would just be a formality.”

I knew she loved him, Carl thought, then looked deep into her eyes for a few seconds, as if his eyes were talking mouths.

“Well?” Gord said. “Do it!”

Carl tapped his wrist. She did nothing at first, surprised at not feeling anything.

Then…her whole body alternated between shaking and stiffness. She let out staccato screams. She fell to the floor, still shaking and screaming. Finally, she lay still.

A tear ran down Carl’s cheek, beside which was the bitterest of scowls, as he stared at her motionless body. He tapped something on his wrist—‘Juliet’—as Gord approached the body.

After several seconds of checking, he said, “She’s dead.”

“Good work, Carl,” Brent said. “I’d say you’re a Grande already.”

Two Lumps were recruited to pick up Nora’s body and take it away to be buried. Brent, Gord, and Carl got in the elevator to go back up to the executives’ floor.

“Let me take you to your new office, Carl,” Brent said, tapping his app to free the new Grande from his servitude.

“Thank you, Mr. McDonald, but not right now,” Carl said. “I’m exhausted, both physically and emotionally, after all that’s happened today.” He pressed the first floor button. “I’d just like to get off here, on the first floor, and go home to sleep. I can see my new office tomorrow, if that’s alright with you.” The elevator stopped at the ground floor, and he got off.

“Very well, Mr. Fredericks,” Brent said. “I understand how you feel. In fact, we’ll let you enjoy an extra-long sleep—at least ten hours. Hell, you’ve earned it.”

“Thank you, but seven or eight hours should suffice,” Carl said, then walked off. “Goodnight, gentlemen.”

“Goodnight,” Brent and Gord said.

“Extraordinary man,” Gord said as the elevator continued up. “Killed his own girl for InterCorp. She must have really broken his heart.”

“What matters for our purposes is that he’s firmly in our trust,” Brent said as the elevator stopped at their floor. “Who cares what his personal reasons were for doing our…”

A red light started flashing on Brent’s and Gord’s wrists. The men rushed out of the elevator and into Brent’s office, where he switched on his computer. The monitor showed a mob of red-uniformed Lumps running through the streets, a few with knives and a baseball bat or two. They were attacking Petties and Grandes!

“What the hell?” Brent said. “Was Carl’s program deficient?”

“Was it deliberately set up to fail?” Gord asked.

“He killed his own girlfriend for us, didn’t he?” Brent said. “You’re too distrustful, Gord.”

“I’m distrustful because things like this keep happening!”

“Calm down. The officers are already on them—see? The Lumps are getting cut down by machine gun fire.”

“A few of the green-uniformed Lumps are also using the telekinesis apps to throw knives at the officers—see?” Gord pointed at a corner of the monitor.

“A few knives and baseball bats are no match for guns,” Brent said. “I’m gonna contact Carl and…wait a minute.”

“What is it? Carl’s with the rebellion, isn’t he?”

“No. According to the messenger app on my implant, Carl’s life readings are blank. He’s dead, offline. Somebody must’ve killed him.”

“Was it the Lumps? No, he’s still in a blue uniform. He’s still a Lump, as far as they know; why would they kill one of their own?”

“I don’t know,” Brent said. “Maybe he removed the outer blue vest on the way home, and the Lumps saw him in only black, and thought—correctly—that he’s one of us. Maybe they checked his digital blueprint, and saw I’d freed him.”

“That’s a stretch, Brent.”

“Maybe he got hit by a car! Maybe an officer confused him with one of the rebelling Lumps amid the rioting and shot him? Who knows?”

“Wait, yeah, an officer must have shot him by mistake.”

“Anyway, forget about Carl, and let’s focus on finding out what went wrong with their restraints. Let’s analyze the modified program.”

The two men looked through the coding of the program: virtually nothing looked different from before.

“I don’t understand!” Brent said. “The Lumps should be as secure as always.”

“It must be a virus so subtle, our eyes have missed the differences,” Gord said. “Let’s look again.”

A group of red-uniformed Lumps broke into a weapons storage area. After breaking down the doors and fighting off the guards with their enhanced strength, they rushed at the officers inside. The officers weren’t fast enough with their guns to stop the rush of Lumps, who practically flew at them.

Though a few Lumps were shot, most of them got on the officers, beating them to death with their bare fists, choking them and crushing their windpipes, or picking them up and throwing them across the room, their backbones breaking against the walls.

The Lumps that didn’t take the guns from the dead officers broke through the glass coverings of racks of rifles. They took those and small boxes of ammo, loaded the rifles, then ran out of the building, shooting anyone who got in their way.

A group of green-uniformed Lumps—racing through the streets under cover of night, the dull green of their uniforms being difficult for the officers to spot in the shadows—were headed for the InterCorp headquarters.

Brent looked out the window and down onto the street. He saw the fighting of the officers, the killing of many unarmed, red-uniformed Lumps. He smiled.

“Good,” he said. “It looks as though we’re winning.”

“I’ve been analyzing this code,” Gord said. “I’m starting to notice the modifications. There’s source code, too. Messages like, ‘NOT YET. WAIT.’ Then, next to a modification, ‘TOGETHER. STOP.’ Then, ‘TOGETHER. GO.’ But Carl was killed before the time of this change, wasn’t he? If you check the times given.”

“Yes,” Brent said. “The modification of his life readings switching off –at 9:23—are definitely before the time of that ‘TOGETHER. GO’ modification, which was at 9:29.”

“It couldn’t have been Carl who started this rebellion,” Gord said. “Now we just have to focus on…”

Suddenly, they heard a storm of gunfire and broken glass.

“What the hell?” Brent growled. Both men ran to the window and looked down onto the street. “The Lumps don’t have guns, do they?”

They went back to the computer monitor to get close-up visuals of the fighting, the monitor being linked to video cameras on the streets.

They saw red-uniformed Lumps gunning down officers.

“What?” Brent said. “They’re armed! How did the Lumps get their hands on guns?

“They’re organized, too,” Gord said. “I was afraid this would happen. I knew that implanted tech would be used against us one day. Giving Lumps superhuman strength, telekinetic powers, enhanced intelligence—it was a stupid idea!”

“It saves money,” Brent said. “Unpaid slave labour to build things, lift things, move things about instead of paying for the building and maintenance of machines. We just need to fix the programming, to get the Lumps under control again.”

“Until the next virus?” Gord said.

“The restraints were working well for years, Gord!”

“Who is their leader? It’s too dark to see their faces.”

The fighting in the streets raged on. The bloodied bodies of men and women in uniforms of red, green, orange, blue, and black and yellow were sprawled about the roads and sidewalks.

Their leader wore a green uniform, racing out in front with an automatic firearm set to burst mode and filling officers’ chests and bellies with bullets. Still, the darkness of night made the faces of all the Lumps difficult, if not impossible, to identify.

Some green-uniformed Lumps held pairs of knives, one in each hand, and used their telepathy apps to make them fly in the air like propellers at the officers’ chests or faces; as soon as the blades dug into the skin, they were made to fly back, the handles coming back into their throwers’ hands. As soon as they were caught, the knives spun in the air to stab into officers’ guts once again.

Red-uniformed Lumps used their enhanced strength to jump as high as ten feet into the air, dodging officers’ bullets and landing with their feet on officers’ heads or chests. Then they took the officers’ rifles and shot at those behind the ones they’d jumped on.

When the Lumps had beaten back most of the officers, and were standing in a mob in front of the InterCorp building, two red-uniformed Lumps each picked up an officer and hurled him, screaming, through the glass. The army of Lumps stormed the building.

“The Lumps are inside!” Gord said.

“Haven’t you made any progress in finding out what’s wrong with the restraints?” Brent shouted.

“No. Whoever set up this virus did a clever job of keeping it untreatable.”

“For God sakes! They’re going to kill us!”

“That’s why I’m opposed to this tech we gave them.”

“We’ll have to use our own,” Brent said, tapping his wrist and getting ready. “Get away from that computer, Gord, and get ready to fight! We’re running out of security officers.”

Gord tapped his wrist implant to get ready.

“Attention: everyone in the building,” Brent said into an intercom. “Weaponize your microchip implants. The Lump rebels are inside the building. Our officers have not been able to fend them off. Kill every Lump in sight.”

Gunshots and fighting could be heard on the lower floors. Screams were also heard, screams that suggested Brent’s employees, unaccustomed to fighting, were losing.

“I can’t believe this!” Brent shouted.

“I can,” Gord said, scowling at Brent. “I saw it coming.”

The men could hear the trampling of feet on their floor, stomping growing louder, approaching their office.

“Are you ready?” Brent asked, then gulped.

“Let’s take as many of them with us as we can,” Gord said.

The windows to Brent’s office shattered into pieces as tiny as the microchips in everyone’s forearms, as red-uniformed Lumps jumped in. Brent and Gord tapped black dots on their wrists.

A swarm of tiny, invisible projectiles flew from Brent’s hand, causing the chests of the first row of Lumps to burst with blood. Then the next row of red-uniformed Lumps entered the office through the huge holes where the windows had been.

Gord’s hand sprayed out a toxic, invisible mist. The Lumps clasped their throats, squinted, coughed, and fell dead on the floor. The next row of Lumps was in green uniforms. Brent and Gord were about to fire on them, but two knives flew in the air, spinning at their upraised hands. The tips of the blades stabbed into the men’s forearms, disabling their implants. They screamed in pain, clutched their bloody arms, and fell to the floor. The crowd of Lumps approached, knives held up high and ready to come down in stabs on the two men.

“No!” a female voice called out from behind the mob. “Don’t kill them. Bring them outside, for all to see our victory.”

Brent and Gord were dragged to the elevator; dripping blood in two red paths, and taken down to the ground floor, then dragged outside. The Lump who’d just spoken approached them and showed her face.

“Nora!” the wounded men gasped together. “But…we watched…you die!” Brent said.

“Just an acting job,” she said. “As was our return to submission. The solidarity app just made us act under one will, and the Juliet app helped me play dead by keeping me still, as well as making my heartbeat, pulse, and breathing undetectable.”

“But you two wanted me to kill her!” a familiar male voice called out from the mob of Lumps, then showed himself, in a blue uniform, to Brent and Gord.

“Carl!” Brent groaned.

“Just as I suspected,” Gord panted. “The message of your death was faked.”

“We were going…to bring you…into the Grande caste,” Brent said. “You two still love each other?”

“The love between Nora and me is no more,” Carl said as he scowled at her. “And I blame our coming apart on you, on your slave system. But this is not the worst thing. I learned, through all that data mining and data analysis, that InterCorp’s plan was to invade more and more land in the Disputed Areas—Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia—to profit off their lands, just as the competing multinationals, who’ve replaced all nation states as Jurisdictions and promised a peace they never delivered, but kept their wars a secret from the public. The tyranny of the Free Market Revolution is about to come to an end…with worldwide revolutions going on as we speak, and with the deaths of these two murderers, right now!” He stared at them with murderous malice pouring out of his eyes.

“No!” Nora screamed. “I want no part in any more of this bloodshed. If even a fragment of you still loves me, Carl, turn off the solidarity app, so we no longer act on your will alone. Those Lumps who still want revenge may do so freely, but I promised George’s son I’d protect him.”

“Very well,” Carl said with a sneer as he tapped his wrist to free all the Lumps. “Do your will, you whore. You slept with George, you loved him; go be a mother to his son after we kill his wife.”

“I never slept with George! He made a move on me, but I resisted, and he respected my wishes!” she protested.

“You expect me to believe that? Pfft. Who cares, either way? Go. You can leave.”

She ran away, sobbing. What happened to you, Carl? she wondered; I’m wishing I had let George have his way with me. I’ve got to find Ryan before those maniacs kill him along with Tasha.

“Now, as for the rest of you,” Carl said to all the red- and green-uniformed Lumps who were surrounding Brent and Gord, their knives and rifle butts raised up high and ready to beat and stab their two oppressors to death. “Are you ready to do this thing we have to do? Are any of you as soft-hearted as Nora? If so, you may leave.”

A handful of Lumps walked away, mostly those in orange and blue uniforms; but the rest, scores of furious Lumps, ready to carry on the revolution, stayed, though some had hesitation in their eyes as for further killing.

Brent looked up at Carl. “The heads of the Jurisdictions will stop you, Carl.”

Carl sneered at him. “What’s happening here is being repeated all over the world,” he said. “All the heads of the Jurisdictions will die!”

Carl looked at the continued hesitation in the eyes of the Lumps. 

“Need I remind you of the suffering you all were subjected to?” Carl said. “Working ceaselessly, without pay, with a mere four hours of sleep every night, kept awake by the energy enhancements in our implants, enhancements that would have lead us all to early deaths from accumulated sleep deprivation, had we not revolted!

“Of course the Grande class can always replace us by breeding new Lumps, by raping women in the Disputed Areas, and conditioning the resulting offspring, from the beginning of their lives, to accept their lot as slaves, for they’ll have no knowledge of even the notion of life as free people.

“But we are free now, thanks to this Lump Revolution. And to ensure no return of the Grandes, we’ll slay them all, them and their families. We’ll do the same to those of the Petty class if they resist us. For by violence did they acquire power, and by violence is how we shall achieve our new society, our freedom, our destiny!”

Carl looked out on the crowd of rapt Lumps, who all stared back at their godlike leader and liberator, ready for their next command.

“So,” he said, “how shall we dispose of Mr. McDonald and Mr. Hoskins here? Shall I reset the electrocution app and fry them to death, as they’d have had me kill Nora? Or shall you kill them the way they had Max Henderson killed, beaten to death by these men’s security officers? Shall McDonald and Hoskins die Henderson’s death? I leave that up to you, my red- and green-uniformed brothers and sisters.”

Still, the Lumps held their rifle butts and knives up high, ready to strike. Brent and Gord, lying on the ground with bloody hands, looked up at the men and women in red and green surrounding them. The two men looked up in the eyes of the rebels with defiant frowns, wanting them all to see the eyes of the men they were about to murder.

Carl looked on the scene with a smirk. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Nora sneaking off with Ryan. He huffed at the perceived treason of his one-time lover. Then he looked back at the hesitant, but loyal rebels.

A few of them looked over at Carl, their eyes asking his for permission to kill Brent and Gord. The scowl Carl had given Nora seemed to be an answer.

As soon as one Lump brought his rifle crashing down on Gord’s head, cracking his skull and splashing blood in his killer’s face; all the other rifle butts, and all the knives, swung down on his and Brent’s bodies, spraying blood everywhere, spotting them all over with bruises, breaking their bones, and squeezing screams out of them to compete with the joyous yells of their killers.

Carl looked down on the bloodbath, and smiled.

Analysis of ‘Caligula’

Introduction

Caligula is an erotic historical drama film made in 1979, based on the rise and fall of Gaius Caesar, and starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Paolo Bonacelli, Guido Mannari (his English dub voice done by Patrick Allen), and John Steiner. It was produced by Bob Guccione for Penthouse magazine, in an attempt to fuse a feature film narrative, with high production values, with the explicit, unsimulated sex scenes of pornographic films.

Gore Vidal produced a screenplay for the film, for which Tinto Brass was the original director, but both of them disowned the film after constant fighting and a falling out. Guccione added hardcore pornographic content, which with the violence of many scenes resulted in a film that created a storm of controversy on its release. Accordingly, the uncut movie was, and still is, banned in many countries.

Here are some quotes from the film:

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man, and therefore I am a god.” –Caligula (McDowell)

Caligula: Tell me, how is the emperor?

Nerva (Gielgud): Old, like me.

Caligula: I mean, how is his mood?

Nerva: Like the weather.

Caligula: The weather is good today!

Nerva: Changeable.

*********

Caligula: You are a god, lord.

Tiberius (O’Toole): No I’m not, not even when I am dead.

Caligula: Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, they are gods.

Tiberius: So say the senate, and so the people prefer to believe. Such myths are useful.

*********

Nerva: For a man to choose the hour of his own death is the closest he will ever come to tricking fate, and fate decrees that when you die, Macro will kill me.

Tiberius: I’ll arrest him and have him executed.

Nerva: You can’t. He controls you. [Looks at Caligula] Anyway, even with Macro dead, how could I go on living with this reptile?

*********

“If only all Rome had just one neck!” –Caligula

“You see how I have exhausted myself to make your wedding holy. My blessings to you both.” –Caligula, after raping Livia and fisting her groom, Proculus

“As if there ever could be an antidote against Caesar!” –Caligula, after having Gemellus arrested for treason (because the boy’s breath smelled of medicine…a poison antidote?)

*********

Caesonia (Mirren): They hate you now.

Caligula: Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.

Caesonia: They are senators and consuls. They are important men.

Caligula: So important that they approve all I do? They must be mad. I don’t know what else to do to provoke them.

Despite Caligula now being a cult classic, as well as the performances of McDowell, O’Toole, Gielgud, and Mirren being praised, it always has been critically derided…which leads me to my next point…

Why Analyze Caligula, of all Films?

Normally, I write up film or literary analyses of classics, or works otherwise considered ‘great’ in some sense. Now, I’m about to analyze something of the (dialectical?) opposite: a film widely considered among the worst ever made.

Why? Have I, like the Gaius Caesar of legend and rumour, flipped my lid? Am I ascribing immortal, divine status to a film generally deemed a monstrous travesty, like the man the movie’s about? I’ll answer the last two questions in reverse order: no, and I certainly hope not.

As for the first question, here is my answer. There’s something about the movie, in spite of (or rather, because of) its many flaws, that makes it a perfect representation of today’s political world.

I’m going beyond the obvious theme of the corruption of power, as well as beyond a rationalization that the pornographic aspects of the film symbolize the obscenity of all this political corruption. My point is that this movie is a sensationalization of the crueller moments of history for the sake of titillation, the same way much of the reporting of current events is meant more to entertain than to inform. These shocks are a distraction from the real evil of class antagonisms, past and present.

You’ve heard of ‘fake news.’ Now, let’s read about fake history.

An Ahistorical Historical Drama

Any serious historian knows that Tiberius and Caligula, as bad and hated as they were during and immediately following their reigns, were nonetheless nowhere near as depraved, perverted, or mad as they are portrayed in the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter’s Twelve Caesars especially being, in my opinion at least, little more than glorified gossip. So when Guccione (in the documentary ‘Making of Caligula‘) tried to justify the excesses in his film as necessary to give an “historically accurate” portrayal of the wickedness of these two emperors, you know he was being as ignorant as he was being pretentious.

Now, this Penthouse production was of course not the first one to take Tacitus and Suetonius at their word. The author of I, Claudius, Robert Graves, was known for his scholarly but mischievous renderings of historical events; when he wrote the historical novel (and its sequel, Claudius the God), while he tried his best to remain true to the narrative of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, he also felt free to invent wherever the historical record was doubtful. The dramatically superb (though low-budget) BBC miniseries of 1976 that was based on his books sometimes played fast and loose with the history in ways that went beyond even Graves’s own indulgences (compare Graves, page 342, to the end of this I, Claudius episode).

Let’s now consider the excesses that Caligula and Tiberius have been accused of. First, the notion that Caligula committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, is highly doubtful. Roman historians often slandered the emperors they hated with claims of sexual perversity or madness.

Young Gaius grew up watching his family members taken from him, one by one: his father, Germanicus, died when Caligula was a boy; his mother, Agrippina, was banished by Tiberius to the island of Pandateria, where she starved herself to death (G.P. Baker, page 277); his brother, Nero, was also banished (to Ponza), and his brother, Drusus, was imprisoned for treason and left there to starve to death, reduced to chewing the stuffing of his bed (Baker, page 276). Gaius’ sisters were all he had left of his immediate family–it’s only natural that he’d have been more than usually close to them, but in the normal, loving sense. Anything beyond such closeness is gossip.

“With his brothers and parents dead, and without a compatible wife, it might be expected that Caligula would have looked for affection from his three sisters. The enormous favours that he heaped on them at the beginning of his reign had a political purpose, but they also suggest considerable affection within the family. It was doubtless this affection that led to the stories of incest with all three sisters. Such reports are to be treated with scepticism. Suetonius claims that Caligula was actually caught with Drusilla when they were staying at Antonia‘s house, but admits that the story was hearsay. Neither Seneca nor Philo, contemporaries of Caligula who both adopt a highly moral tone, make any mention of incest. Also when Tacitus deals with Agrippina‘s incestuous designs on her son, the emperor Nero, he makes no hint of any improper relationship with her brother–although the context was certainly appropriate–and attributes her moral corruption to her association with Lepidus. The charge of incest has been traditionally levelled against despots, from antiquity to Napoleon.” (Barrett, page 85)

Tiberius was accused of being a lecherous old goat of a man, yielding to such vices as child molestation. Again, it’s mere rumour, with Suetonius giving all kinds of salacious details (Suetonius, ‘Tiberius’ 43-45). The fact is, old Tiberius lived out the remainder of his years on the isle of Capri, unmarried (Augustus forced him to divorce his beloved Vipsania to marry Julia [Baker, page 51], from whom he later separated [page 66]) and alone, brooding over his son Drusus‘ murder by two-faced Sejanus (Baker, pages 268-269), among the few people whom Tiberius had once trusted; the emperor even called Sejanus “the partner of my labours” (Tacitus, pages 157-197). He should have been in Rome, managing the affairs of state: what was the old man doing on Capri? Behaving as some lechers do with underage girls in Thailand and Cambodia today?

Was Caligula’s claim to be a god evidence of madness? A man speaking of himself in such a way today would have been such proof, but not so much a king or emperor in the ancient pagan world. It was a fairly common practice to deify ‘good’ emperors, even to have temples dedicated to them when they were alive. (See Barrett, Chapter 9, ‘Divine Honours,’ pages 140-153; in particular, “Among the Romans the distinction between man and god was not a sharp one. While this blurring is usually associated with the phenomenon of emperor worship in the Imperial age, its origins go back to the republic.”–page 140)

What of his making his horse, Incitatus, a senator? Again, a mere legend. If he did so, he may have meant it as one of his many insults to the senate, not out of a mad belief that his horse had a senator’s abilities.

And Caligula’s occasional cross-dressing? Did that indicate madness? Apart from how offensive such a judgement is today in light of the experience of the transgender community, Barrett notes, “Caligula certainly did have a predilection for dressing up, as Alexander, as a triumphator, even as a woman. To dress up as a god was a natural progression. Suetonius mentions his dressing up as gods or goddesses in the general context, not of his religious ideas, but of his exotic costumes, and Dio notes that dressing up as Jupiter was a front adopted to seduce numerous women. Such behaviour was not unique to Caligula.” (Barrett, page 146) Furthermore, Josephus claimed that Caligula’s apparent devotion to the goddess Isis involved dressing up in women’s clothing and a wig…to perform as a priest of Isis (Barrett, page 220).

Then there was Caligula’s bizarre invasion of Britain, apparently to collect seashells. Again, Barrett notes, “This episode has provided much grist for the scholarly mill. Most scholars assume that a real invasion was planned, but cancelled at the last minute. [One scholar suggested]…that the Britons united in the face of attack, while…[another scholar claimed, perhaps] the soldiers were simply afraid to undertake the crossing of the Channel, and that the emperor ordered them to pick up the shells as a form of humiliation, which, to say the least, would have been a courageous gesture on Caligula’s part.” (Barrett, page 135)

Anyway, to make a long story short (if it’s not too late), the corruption in power in ancient imperial Rome wasn’t all that much more shocking than it is today: the rich and powerful oppress and exploit the poor. As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In today’s world, that class contradiction is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppression being in the form of wage slavery. In the ancient world, class conflict was between masters and their slaves. Though the forms of class war have changed over the centuries, the basic material conditions remain the same: the land-owning rich get away with the enslavement, rape, and murder of the poor. This contradiction must be seen beyond the veil of sensationalism seen in Caligula.

The Beginning of the Movie

It’s ironic that such a sinful film should begin with a quote from The Gospel According to Mark, 8:36: “…what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

We see Caligula and Drusilla (Savoy) openly displaying their incestuous love out in the country, near a shepherd and his sheep. Apart from what I said above, about the dubiousness of the classical sources on this brother/sister relationship, given the particularly strong taboo against incest in the ancient world (consider the Oedipus story, for example), we should find it most unlikely that they would risk revealing their forbidden love to anyone they know fortuitously passing by the scene.

Mixed in with some original music composed by ‘Paul Clemente’ is an excerpt from the Adagio love theme of Spartacus and Phrygia, from Aram Khachaturian‘s Spartacus ballet. This theme is used repeatedly, at sporadic moments, throughout the film. Also featured is the “Montagues and Capulets” (or, alternatively, the “Dance of the Knights“) theme (during the credits), from Sergei Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet ballet.

In all likelihood, these famous themes (from two of the most famous of the Soviet composers, incidentally) were chosen only for the emotional force of the music, and without any thought for their programmatic content. Indeed, that programmatic content seems diametrically (or dialectically?) opposed to the content of the movie’s story. Still, I find it irresistible to find some kind of connection–however consciously unintended, however dialectically antithetical–between the music and the movie.

The Spartacus ballet is about the lawful love between its title character, the once King of Thrace, and his once queen, Phrygia, who have been conquered and enslaved by Crassus. Antithetically, there’s the taboo love between Caligula and Drusilla, he originally being a prince fearful for his life–because of Tiberius’ caprices–then ascending to absolute power. Finally, while at the end of the ballet, Spartacus dies (having tried to free the slaves) and Phrygia mourns him, Drusilla dies and Caligula mourns her (but rather than try to free the slaves, he just insults and offends the other men in power until they get sick of him and kill him).

The “Montagues and Capulets” theme is meant to dramatize the tension and hatred between the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet, as well as that hate between Caligula and the Roman senate. If, Dear Reader, you’ll indulge and forgive my deforming of the Bard’s immortal opening verses, you’ll see how one can relate the thematic content of the greatest love story with, arguably, one of the most outrageously depicted (if not simply one of the worst) love stories.

“Two classes, both alike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, here I refer to the conflict between the imperial family (i.e., the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and the senatorial class.

Another reading (and another butchering of the Bard, if again you’ll pardon me, Dear Reader) could be, “Two classes, both unlike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, I now refer to the conflict between the masters (i.e., imperial family, consuls, senate, patricians, plebs) and their slaves. This second conflict, often bobbing up to the surface from the hidden depths, is the one I urge you to pay more attention to.

Classes Unlike in Dignity

Just as I argued in my Analysis of The Omen, the violence in Caligula (as well as the sex) can be seen to symbolize the material contradictions between master and slave in the ancient world, contradictions as apparent as those between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat today. The slaves in the film, typically naked, are exploited in sexual situations, beaten, or subjected to other forms of sadism. Caligula is like Salò (in which Paolo Bonacelli also appeared) in this respect, except for the problem of the clashing visions of feuding Guccione, Vidal, and Brass, among so many other obvious issues.

Nakedness for the slaves represents their vulnerability and utter lack of possessions. I recall Act IV, Scene vii of Hamlet, when the Danish prince has returned, surprisingly, from a boat trip to England, and in a letter to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet says he’s “naked.” He doesn’t mean he isn’t wearing any clothes; he means he hurried off the boat without belongings or means, for a pirate ship has attacked his boat, and the pirates are holding him for ransom. (See Crystal and Crystal, page 292)

When Caligula arrives in Capri, we see a row of male slaves with hammers breaking rocks into smaller pieces–these men are all naked. At first glance, we’d assume that seeing all these musclemen frontally nude is just one of many examples of the film’s soft-core, indulgent titillation; but consider what I said above about naked slaves.

This observation is especially true of the naked slaves Tiberius uses as his “speaking statues,” who “do more than speak…they do.” What they “do” is engage in all the acts of debauchery that the classical sources spuriously accuse the emperor of indulging in.

Then, there are Tiberius’ “fishies,” the naked swimmers–with shaved pubes–in his large swimming pool; his “minnows,” as Suetonius claimed the emperor called them, are supposed to be the children he molested. Again, as history, there’s no reason to believe this sexual abuse was true of Tiberius in particular; but in a world where masters could do anything they wanted with their slaves–including getting sexual favours from them and getting away scot-free without even an investigation to be then acquitted of–there is merit in using the myth of Tiberius the pervert in a metaphorical sense.

Classes Alike in Dignity

As the emperor–covered in welts, sores, and scabs from all of the sexually transmitted diseases he’s said to have been covered in (another obvious symbol of his moral corruption–Howard, page 57)–talks with Caligula and corrupts his mind with a tour of his speaking, screwing statues, he warns the prince of the wickedness of the senate. Recall the many treason trials in which Tiberius had men executed on trumped-up charges from Sejanus; this is where the emperor got his cynicism about Roman politics.

Of course, slaves weren’t the only sufferers of the whims of those at the top. Wrongly-convicted senators suffered, as did soldiers (in the film, consider loyal Proculus, or the misfortunes of Roman virtue; also consider the guard Tiberius kills for being suspected of drinking wine while on duty).

Finally, even the men at the top suffer. In the movie, Macro strangles Tiberius in his bed (other versions have the emperor smothered with a pillow by Macro [<<<John Rhys-Davies] or Caligula [<<<John McEnery…at 36:00). Caligula was assassinated in a conspiracy led by Cassius Chaerea (Bonacelli), Claudius was fed poisoned mushrooms by Agrippina, and Nero committed suicide when he fell from power.

The fall from power of those at the top reminds us of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic. Caligula, with Macro’s help, rose against his master to become the new master, as Spartacus attempted to do. Caligula’s constant provocations of the senate and army represent the power struggle between them and his family, ultimately leading them to kill him, as Spartacus was killed.

My point is that, in spite of the emperor’s ‘absolute’ power, there’s always a dialectical tension between the ruler and the ruled, the latter struggling to be free of the former, and the former struggling to be free of the danger of assassination. Hence, once Caligula becomes emperor, he must be rid of Macro, then Gemellus…even if they don’t actually pose a threat to him, for always is the emperor paranoid.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. —King Henry IV

(Incidentally, the film’s depiction of Macro decapitated by a kind of giant lawnmower, so to speak, is more fake history: Macro, having been falsely promised the governorship of Egypt, committed suicide after falling out of favour with Caligula. See Graves, page 341.)

Drusilla’s Death, Caligula’s Despair

With Drusilla’s death ends Caligula’s own will to live, so everything he does after his mourning of her is to provoke the wrath of the senate, the army, and the Praetorian Guard in so blatant a way that it must be the expression of a death wish comparable to that of CamusCaligula (“Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.“–Men die and they aren’t happy. [Act I, Scene iv]). His wife, Caesonia (Mirren), warns him not to provoke those powerful men, but her words fall on deaf ears…or rather urge him further.

Devastated by his loss, he disappears from the sight of the Roman nobility, as does the Caligula of Camus’ play (Act I, Scenes i-ii). He wanders among the common people in a blue robe, looking as if he were one of them.

He watches a group of actors putting on a show, standing on a triangle representing the social classes of Rome: the slaves, the people, the army, tribunes, senate, and emperor. None of this display offends Caligula, because he of course benefits from the hierarchy; but when an actress portraying Drusilla mockingly sings of her wish to make love with Caligula, the grieving emperor is infuriated. He shoves the actors off the triangle, making them fall to the ground.

His mingling with the poor, including sharing a jail cell with them (where he meets the ‘giant’ [Osiride Pevarello]), suggests his sympathy for them, but it shouldn’t. As emperor, Caligula only feels antipathy for the other powerful men of Rome, as Tiberius did. Beware of politicians who, however hated they may be by the establishment, only pretend to care for the people.

Fatal Provocations

When Caligula returns and appears before the senate, he begins his fatal string of provocations by declaring himself to be a living god and requiring the unanimous support of the senate, annoying Longinus (Steiner) and Chaerea. His next insult is to make cuckolds of the senators by making whores of their wives.

The soundtrack of the Imperial Bordello, again with naked slaves dancing about, includes an amusingly ironic use of an excerpt from, of all pieces, Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet! At the moment in the music when the clock strikes midnight, and Cinderella must go home, in the movie we approach the money shot!

I can’t help thinking this choice of music was a private joke of the film’s producers. Hearing music programmatically representing the ending of the traditional girl’s fantasy is juxtaposed with seeing the ending of the prurient man’s fantasy: one of the many ways the ruling class divides us is to promote male and female fantasies that are diametrically opposed to each other.

And just as the slaves and senators’ wives are degraded, so were the Penthouse Pets in the pornographic scenes in the movie. Consider the sad fate of “Anneka Di Lorenzo” (playing Messalina) to see my point. Consider also how Proculus (and the actor who plays him) is degraded: cuckolded before his eyes, then fisted, on his wedding day (in Howard’s novelization, Caligula sodomizes Proculus [pages 154-155]); stripped frontally naked before laughing Messalina and Agrippina (Lori Wagner), then stabbed to death slowly and sadistically; then after he passes out, he’s pissed on and emasculated.

Caligula’s provocations continue with the ‘invasion’ of Britain; he has his soldiers run naked (i.e., he degrades them to slave-like status) into some water and make war…with papyrus. Later, at a banquet, he displays the spoils of his ‘conquest’ of Britain: oysters and pearls placed in naked slave-women’s genitalia are presented by slave men carrying the women.

Caesonia warns Caligula that the “important men” of Rome now hate him; he replies, “Let them hate me–so long as they fear me.” In an provocation comparable to that of Camus‘ Caligula, he confiscates “the entire estates of all those who have failed Rome.”

He then discusses, with Longinus and Chaerea, a conspiracy against him that he’s heard of; he and Caesonia laugh when he brings it up. Caligula finds the notion of a plot against his life amusing because he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. Life is painful, absurd, and meaningless, because happiness–even as lord of the whole world–is impossible to attain. Camus’ Caligula is cruel to everyone for the same reason: even emperors are Spartacus-slaves in life, liberated only by death.

Caesonia still fears for him, and when she sees a bird flying about their bed one night, she screams at the omen–while Caligula looks at it and gives a slight smirk. He’s glad his death is coming soon, for he can then join Drusilla in Tartarus…a happy hell for them, since at least they’ll be able to suffer together.

Finally, Chaerea assassinates the emperor, who defiantly says, “I…live” as Chaerea’s sword cuts into him. He falls down dead, as do Caesonia and their daughter when the latter has her brains dashed on the steps. In death, Caligula is finally happy, as were Cleobis and Biton (Herodotus’ Histories, 1.31), and as Tiberius claimed was the soldier he killed for drinking wine while on duty.

The idea that Longinus and Chaerea choose Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi) to be the next emperor is more fake history, for it was the Praetorian Guard who chose to make him Caesar (as the last man living in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Claudius as emperor was the only way to avert civil war). Claudius would have Chaerea executed for the killing of not only Caligula, but also Caesonia and the child.

In any case, we see–in replacing Caligula with Claudius–the unchanging reality of the contradiction of master vs. slave. Even if Tiberius and Caligula weren’t the depraved madmen/perverts that Suetonius claims they were, they were still masters oppressing their slaves, as ‘virtuous’ Claudius would also be: this latter evil is the one we should be paying attention to…but we don’t.

Conclusion

My original curiosity in this film (as I suspect is the case with many, if not most, other viewers) came in spite of–or rather, because of–its bad reputation. I had a morbid fascination with the thought…just how bad is this movie? How outrageous is it? How shocking? How disturbing? How revulsive? I sure learned how much. (Furthermore, I’d be dishonest if I were to claim that I had no interest in the sexual content in the movie, having written much erotic fiction myself.)

Having already been familiar with other dramatizations of imperial Rome under the Julio-Claudians (the I, Claudius and A.D.–Anno Domini TV miniseries), as well as writings on that period of history (Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and Robert Graves’s Claudius novels), I assumed the depravity of the emperors was true. Then, after reading such writers as G.P. Baker and Anthony A. Barrett, I learned otherwise.

Therefore, I have concluded that if we’re to take a serious look at the wickedness of imperial Rome (and, by extension, of the ancient world in general), the best way to look at it is in the class antagonisms of the time…just as we should focus on the class antagonisms of today. The masters’ brutal exploitation of their slaves is what should be focused on, not dubious reports of sexual perversity or madness in individual emperors.

However virtuous Augustus, Claudius, or Marcus Aurelius may have been in the eyes of their fellow nobiles, and however vile Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Nero, or Domitian may have been in the ruling class’s opinion, what the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors had in common is far more important than what was different between the two groups.

History would have been kinder to Tiberius–who had been an excellent general, and never wanted to be emperor–had he died around AD 23, for that was before the treason trials. Caligula, far from being the ‘anarchist’ that McDowell portrayed him as, actually strengthened and enlarged the personal power of the emperor, as opposed to the power of such men as those of the senate, directing much attention to construction projects and beginning the building of two aqueducts in Rome.

What must be emphasized is that the ‘bad’ emperors were vilified for injuries to the senate and other powerful men in Rome; both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ emperors kept the practice of slavery going unabated, with at best, only minor reforms to address the issue of their oppression. We must learn to ignore the sensationalist narratives, the fake history, and focus on the banal evil that really happened, just as we should turn our heads away from the sensationalist fake news of today (i.e., what naughty things did Trump say last week?) and focus on the real wickedness committed all the time, year after year, regardless of who’s the leader or which political party is in power…a harsh reality that is largely ignored by the mainstream media.

We rightly condemn the Nazis for the roughly 11,000,000 people they murdered, but wrongly forget King Leopold II of Belgium, whose regime was responsible for the killing of up to ten or fifteen million black Congolese. We remember the former killers, because their victims were white; we forget the latter killers, because their victims were black. Similarly, we remember the wickedness of Tiberius and Caligula because their victims were fellow members of the upper classes; we forget the wickedness of all emperors and the other upper classes because their victims were slaves.

The sensationalism of Caligula is tasteless in the extreme, but in a way, appropriately so; for it reminds us of how unhelpful sensationalism and fake news are in understanding the true, everyday, unchanging reality of oppression in the world.

William Howard, “Gore Vidal’s Caligula”, Warner Books, New York, 1979

Robert Graves, I, Claudius, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1934

Albert Camus, Caligula, suivi de Le malentendu, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1958

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Classics, London, this translation 1956

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics, London, translation first published 1957

G.P. Baker, Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, Cooper Square Press, New York, 1929

Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, London, 1989

Analysis of ‘Apocalypse Now’

Apocalypse Now is a Vietnam war film co-written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979. It stars Marlon BrandoRobert DuvallMartin SheenFrederic ForrestAlbert HallSam BottomsLaurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper. It is an adaptation/updating of Joseph Conrad‘s novella, Heart of Darkness, which was about the ivory trade in the Congo Free State back in the late 19th century.

Both the novella and film involve a man named Kurtz (Brando), who has carried the exploitation and oppression of the indigenous peoples to a bloody, mad extreme; both stories also have in common the theme of the evils of imperialism.

Apocalypse Now had a mixed reception at the time of its release; now it is considered one of the greatest films of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

Colonel G. Lucas (Harrison Ford): Your mission is to proceed up the Nùng River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Kurtz’s path at Nu Mung Ba, follow it, and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.

Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen): Terminate the Colonel?

General Corman (G.D. Spradlin): He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.

JerryTerminate with extreme prejudice.

Lucas: You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.

*******

“Charlie don’t surf!” –Lieutenant Colonel William “Bill” Kilgore (Robert Duvall)

“You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like . . . victory. Someday this war’s gonna end.” –Kilgore (bolded line is ranked #12 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema)

*******

Captain Benjamin L. Willard: Could we, uh, talk to Colonel Kurtz?

Photojournalist (Dennis Hopper): Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet-warrior in the classic sense. I mean, sometimes he’ll, uh, well, you’ll say hello to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you, and he won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say “Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you’…” I mean, I’m no, I can’t – I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s, he’s a great man. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas” … (Note: The last sentences here reference first Rudyard Kipling‘s poem If— and then T.S. Eliot‘s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.)

*******

Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?

Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.

Kurtz: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?

Willard: I’m a soldier.

Kurtz: You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.

*******

“This is dialectics. It’s very simple dialectics: one through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without like, you know, with fractions! What are you going to land on: one quarter, three eighths? What are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something? That’s dialectic physics, okay?” –Photojournalist

“I’ve seen horrors, horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that, but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror! Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.” –Kurtz

“We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!” –Kurtz

“The horror! The horror!” [These are Kurtz’s last words, and parallel those of the novella’s Mr. Kurtz character.]

What’s interesting in this story is how it’s the US army that want Captain Willard to find and kill Colonel Kurtz, calling his “methods…unsound.” Certainly, Kurtz’s setting up of a kind of Cambodian pagan death cult, worshipping him as if he were a demigod, is shocking. But were the methods of the US army, in the execution of its military campaign against the Viet Cong, in any way sound?

Throughout the movie, we see the Americans impinging on the lives of the Vietnamese in ways that regularly use needless violence, needless even by the standards of war. Aptly named Kilgore does an airstrike on “Charlie,” including using napalm on tree-lines near a lake, just so a surfer he admires (Lance B. Johnson [Sam Bottoms]) can surf there! As the attack is carried out, racist Kilgore plays Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ over the helicopter loudspeakers because it “scares the hell out of the slopes”…and recall which political ideologues had a fondness for Wagner.

As Willard says in a voice-over, “If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for everyone.”

American propaganda portrays the Vietnam War–one in which the US’s aggravated involvement was based on the Gulf of Tonkin lie–as a fight for freedom against the spread of the ‘tyranny’ of communism. Actually, Ho Chi Minh was leading his people in an effort to free themselves of the spread of the tyranny of Western imperialism and French colonialism.

So, seen in this proper historical context, the US never intended to liberate Vietnam: the war was an invasion. Vietnamese got murdered and maimed merely for defending themselves. Consider such atrocities as the My Lai Massacre (by no means an anomaly during the war) and when little Phan Thi Kim Phuc was forced to run naked in terror after a napalm attack set her clothes on fire and burned her back.

What Kurtz is doing is an extremity of what the US army had been doing the whole time…had done in the bombing and nuking of Japan…had done when they bombed North Korea…and would do (with NATO’s help) to Yugoslavia and Libya, would do to Iraq, and would have proxy armies, in the form of “moderate rebels,” do to Syria.

Still, Kurtz is portrayed as an anomaly in US imperialism…as Trump is portrayed today in the media, rather than just an extreme manifestation of what is otherwise usual in imperialism. The US army will have Willard “terminate [Kurtz] with extreme prejudice,” but they “terminate [‘gooks’ and ‘dinks’] with extreme prejudice” (literally) throughout the movie…as they did throughout the Vietnam War, and have in every war since.

As Willard says in the narration: “How many people had I already killed? There were those six that I knew about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time, it was an American and an officer. That wasn’t supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. Shit… charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?”

On the boat of Quartermaster George “Chief” Phillips (Albert Hall), for example, Willard and the crew meet a group of Vietnamese in a boat loaded with food. Paranoid that there could be hidden weapons on the Vietnamese boat, Chief has Engineman 3rd Class Jay “Chef” Hicks (Forrest) search the boat, then–when tempers flare–the troops shoot the innocent Vietnamese. Willard himself shoots a wounded Vietnamese woman to make sure she’s dead. He has no time to take her to get medical care: he has to find Kurtz.

As we can see, Willard himself can be needlessly violent. The beginning of the film demonstrates his pathological tendencies (as it demonstrates those of the US army and its napalming of a Vietnamese forest). The captain is in a hotel room in Saigon, musing over his obsession with returning to the jungles of Nam once he finished a previous tour of duty, went home, and ignored his wife to the point of divorcing her.

As he says in voice-over, “Saigon… shit; I’m still only in Saigon… Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour, it was worse.”[grabs at flying insect] “I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said “yes” to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now… waiting for a mission… getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.”

Having gotten drunk in that room in Saigon, he puts his fist into a mirror, bloodying his hand. Punching his reflection: he must already have terrible guilt over what he did during that previous tour. And now, for his sins, they give him a mission: to kill a US officer possibly not all that much crazier than himself. That’s the point of Apocalypse Now–every soldier’s a Kurtz, in his own way.

Remember crazy Kilgore, who seems to think he’s Achilles, or something; for he barely stirs whenever Vietnamese ordnance fires upon the ground, mere metres from his feet. Indeed, it seems he’ll leave Vietnam without as much as a scratch. He thinks an area “hairy” with “Charlie” is “safe to surf.”

“Safe to surf”: that could sum up what imperialism is all about. The US army bombs, maims, and napalms the Vietnamese and their land so American troops can enjoy such frivolous pastimes as surfing and USO shows with Playboy Bunnies. The locals can only watch the show from behind a fence.

Willard says in voice-over, “Charlie didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.”

(Walter Sobchak, who personifies neo-con imperialism in The Big Lebowski, says, “I got buddies who died face-down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!” Shut the fuck up, Walter: millions of Vietnamese were maimed, or died face-down in the muck, so imperialism could enjoy exercising its dominance ever since.)

Elsewhere, as the river patrol boat is motoring on the water, Mr. Clean (Fishburne) is dancing to the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and as the boat races by some Vietnamese on the bank, it splashes water on them. Two Vietnamese men get knocked into the water. This scene, along with that of the USO show, illustrate symbolically how Western imperialism forces itself on the world through its all-too-often vulgar pop culture.

Later, the boat reaches the Do Lung Bridge (on the Nùng River, which doesn’t exist–I see a pun on ‘dung’ in the river’s name as well as that of the bridge) at night, and a soldier delivering mail tells Willard, “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain.” They’re entering Cambodia, where Kurtz and his pagan death cult are…deeper into the rectum, which reeks of fetid death, where Mr. Clean and the Chief die. Where Chef will be decapitated by Kurtz. Now, they’re really in the shit.

Finally, Willard, Chef, and Lance find Kurtz and his cult. It’s a horrifying sight, with decapitated heads, and dead men hanging from trees. They’re met by a photojournalist (Hopper), who maniacally praises Kurtz with frenzied verbiage.

This photojournalist, along with a man seen earlier (played by Coppola himself) filming a battle and wanting the troops to keep from looking at the camera (i.e., spoiling the illusion), represent the kind of dishonest media we see far too often, especially these days, people who gloss over and ignore the horrors of war while celebrating the excitement and ‘glory’ of imperial conquest.

Even though the photojournalist (who parallels the Russian in Conrad’s story; both men say that the Kurtz has “enlarged [their] mind” [Conrad, p. 146]) recognizes how crazy Kurtz can be, he downplays the colonel’s extreme moments, while extolling his talents as a poet, etc. How like the mainstream media’s whitewashing of all these wars of the past few decades.

A soldier named Colby (Scott Glenn), who’d been sent earlier to find Kurtz, is now practically catatonic. How symbolic of what happens to soldiers: they’re trained to hate and kill the enemy, and they lose their souls. Like the media, they, and the civilians who worship them, tend to be silent about military excesses.

When Willard meets Kurtz, who is fittingly shrouded in darkness at first, the colonel speaks to the captain as if he were a perfectly reasonable man, all calm and in control. We learn of Kurtz’s cynicism about the US military when he calls Willard “an errand boy.”

Later, we hear Kurtz begin to recite T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” a poem about the emptiness and meaninglessness in people’s hearts. This is most easily seen in the soullessness of the soldiers. The poem was also influenced by Heart of Darkness. The photojournalist makes a reference to the end of the poem when he says, “This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man! Not with a bang, but with a whimper. And with a whimper, I’m fucking splitting, Jack.”

After Willard is tied up by Kurtz’s “children,” we get a taste of Kurtz’s madness when he drops Chef’s head in Willard’s lap. Later, Kurtz describes his admiration of the willpower of those who remorselessly hacked off the arms of south Vietnamese children inoculated against polio. Kurtz contemplates “the genius” of such an unwavering will: if only he had such men, he could win the war quickly.

Finally, Willard–camouflaged as Kurtz was when he beheaded Chef–makes his way with a machete in the darkness to Kurtz. As he prepares for the assassination, a group of Cambodian Montagnards gets ready to sacrifice a water buffalo. We see the Montagnards dancing in their ritual, and their hacking into the animal is juxtaposed with the killing of Kurtz.

What is being implied by this juxtaposition is that the killing of Kurtz is a rite of human sacrifice: Kurtz is the old god-king being killed and replaced by a new god-king–Willard, or so the locals imagine him to be when he emerges, holding the machete and a book of Kurtz’s writings (a holy book, as it were?), before the bowing Cambodians.

Willard won’t be their new god, though. He takes Lance with him back to the boat, and they leave his would-be worshippers. In Heart of Darkness, though, there are suggestions that Marlow, on whom Willard was based, has an almost god-like nature. He is said to sit in a Buddha posture when telling his story (Conrad, pages 69 and 184); and when Mr. Kurtz (who did “live his life…in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender”) dies, saying, “The horror! The horror!”, Marlow blows out a candle (Conrad, page 171), suggesting the etymology of nirvana, the blowing out of a flame–that of desire and suffering, of which the Buddha would have us all free ourselves.

Just as the suffering of the Vietnamese is vividly shown in Apocalypse Now (along with the racial slurs used against them), so is the racism against, and suffering of, the blacks in the Congo (often called “niggers”) graphically expressed in Heart of Darkness. African railroad labourers are horrifically depicted as diseased and starving (Conrad, pages 85-86). It was Belgian imperialism that caused the suffering of the Congolese during the years of the Scramble for Africa, under the cruel reign of Leopold II, responsible for the deaths of as many as fifteen million people.

Lenin noted that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, or its final stage in the pursuit of greater profits. Since the beginnings of capitalist imperialism in such examples as the Belgian oppression of the Congo (using forced labour to collect rubber), and then the imperialist atrocities in Vietnam, we’ve seen imperialism metastasize to its current Kurtz-like form, in which it’s hard to see the human race surviving for much longer, what with the combination of all the current wars as well as the ecocide we’re rushing headlong into.

“This is the end,” Jim Morrison sings at the beginning and the end of the film. The apocalypse is indeed now…or so it seems, at least. [Footage of an airstrike destroying Kurtz’s compound was shot (with full credits shown), but Coppola didn’t want it to be considered part of the story. Handouts of the credits were given to theatre-goers; this is why we never see any credits in the movie, at the beginning or at the end, for Coppola wanted us to “tour” the film as if it were a play.]

“The horror…the horror…” of the story (Conrad’s or Coppola’s) is that the worship of remorseless capitalists and military men will continue after psychopaths like the Kurtzes are killed. Death and destruction will continue in the Middle East, to the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Yemenis, and far too many others; while we in the West worship celebrities and ignore what’s going on in the Third World. We worshippers won’t die in explosions of airstrikes, we’ll slowly fade to black, as the film does, in our state of apathy.

And that’s why this is the way the movie ends–not with a bang, but a whimper.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, Pocket Books Enriched Classics, New York, 2004