Why We Just Need To Snuff Out Col Kurtz – Apocalypse Now
Posted by inspir3d on January 15, 2007
“Apocalypse Now” (AN) is perhaps the quintessential Vietnam movie to end all Vietnam movies. Although it got mixed reviews, audiences were unanimous: Apocalypse Now was a movie that had all the powers to disturb. With some extraordinary set pieces, Coppola certainly achieved his aim of wanting to give his audience a grand scale of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam War.
The quest for Col Kurtz, (played by an obese Marlon Brando) loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s 1902 short novel, “Heart of Darkness” is like a nightmarish Disneyland ride which ends when we and Capt Willard (played by Martin Sheen) are forced to listen to twenty minutes of the muddled mumblings of the crazed Brando, as he quotes T.S. Eliot. But it has a kind of grandeur of the preceding hundred and twenty minutes or so. Brando’s last words, “The horror! The horror!” summed up not only the theme of the film, but also Coppola’s personal belief that the film had become his own personal Vietnam, and he was turning into Kurtz.
“It’s scary to watch someone you love go into the centre of himself and confront his fears, fear of failure, fear of death, fear of going insane.”
Eleanor Coppola once wrote about the precarious mental disposition of Francis Coppola during the difficult filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines which was dogged by unfavorable weather conditions, budget overruns, bureaucratic red tape and a temperamental cast.
After three and a half years after it started shooting, with the initial thirteen-week schedule becoming two hundred and thirty-eight days, and the budget having risen implausibly from $12 to $31 million, much of it coming out from Coppola’s own pocket, Apocalypse Now finally opened in New York in August 1979. Although it got mixed reviews and would take nearly five years to break even – it was a resounding success.
In defense of the cost of the movie, Coppola said, “I don’t see why this amount shouldn’t be spent on a morality story, when you can spend it on a giant gorilla, a little fairy tale or some jerk who flies in the sky.”
In April 1980, Apocalypse Now was nominated for 8 Oscars, but won only for its sound editing and cinematography. There was a suspicion that this epic was too philosophically bizarre for even the academy. Whatever the reasons, its maker clearly wasn’t expecting to win: he didn’t come to the ceremony. By that time, Coppola was digging himself further into debt and disaster on another film.
From a historical standpoint most film pundits regard AN as a radical departure from the typical way Hollywood usually produced movies – for one, the entire script departed from the well traveled road that yarn targeted somewhere in the happy and safe statistical median. Instead AN rejected the whole notion of imitating its previous predecessors who typically featured John Wayne type characters who never ever needed to go to the toilet, replenish their spent magazines or even seem to pick their noses.
The depiction of a very human chain smoking Capt Willard cast amid the decaying backdrop, a man who undergoes a slow metamorphosis from a cold mechanical assassin to one, who simply asks, “what’s going on here?” mirrors the reality of the war, it raises disturbing philosophical questions – throughout the river journey as the “plastic boat” (as Willard affectionately refers to his craft of destiny) sails deeper into the abyss of darkness towards the enigmatic and tragic figure of Col Kurtz, the man who he is tasked to snuff out “with extreme prejudice.”
We the viewers are reminded of how these figures parody real life. It doesn’t take a whole lot of brain juice or academic rigor to figure out why the plot is so enthralling: here we have the quintessential hero who simply had enough of what he calls, “the hypocrisy of the old boys network.” He cares even less for their bookish ways of waging a textbook war, one he knows they can never ever aspire to win, if ever any of them ever bothered to step into the jungle and do the “dirty job” themselves. He’s gone bad, he’s gone to the deep end, the far side, where he decides to do it all by himself, his way so to speak. And they (the establishment) are sending in Willard, the conformity policeman, to silence him.
It’s an old story retold in a modern context, like Hamlet being shot and directed in the 20th century – a tale that most of us can find enough threads to hold on to and follow, only to recount a sad figure who we once either came across or heard about.
Col Kurtz, the highly decorated scholar soldier who simply went bad is like the proverbial empty photo frame waiting for us all to fill in the blanks with a familiar face.
A fellow student who simply dropped out of a course, we can’t really recall his name. But we all remember he had a certain charm which told us all – this is the one who would end up at the top of the heap, he’s got “the right stuff.” And now, he’s snubbed his nose at the whole establishment, he’s gone bad, real bad they say, like those dainty models who go off to Los Angeles only to end up with that glazed look in some cheap porno movie.
Or in my case, a man in my church who decided to stand alone for no other reason because he believed in his version of the truth. It didn’t endear him to the elders, but it mattered not to this one man, so like a lone figure who continues to come only to disappear every Sunday. I watch him come and go, all the while wondering how long he would hold out and whether it would be worthwhile for him to remain in the cold – why, can’t he just wise up and be like the rest of us all? Just play ball, be the team player and not stick up like a nail? Doesn’t he know that the nail that sticks out will be hammered down!
Or that lone inventor or strange guy in the office who always has a new idea but somehow management never seems to back him because he doesn’t quite have the right papers or play golf with the right crowd. And one day you just know like Col Kurtz, he’s way gone. The rot starts off slowly of course, it always does, his long lunches, bouts of disappearances, lousy timing and the way his tie always seems lopsided. But as you look on at this chap, you just know he’s a million miles away and he’s going to go off soon to pursue his slice of madness which he is convinced will change the world.
Some of you may find yourself disagreeing with Astroboy’s post on the perils of imitation, as I did after the first read. After all someone said, it’s rooted in evolutionary psychology – it’s written in stone – our predilection for imitating others.
Following a well worn path through the jungle may not make you an explorer, but at least you won’t end up finding yourself in the tummy of T-Rex. Fair enough you say, but it also means you expect others to do as you do. And if someone just opts off the well trodden trail, you’re probably the first to howler, “if you get lost, don’t expect us to send a search party. Did you hear me!” You only wished he heard you, but deep inside, you know he’s listening to another voice that’s as old as the call of the wild. The one where every climbing season one just seems to find all sorts of men from all over the world congregating beneath the foot of mountains – bus drivers, janitors, stock brokers, scientists and even dog catchers who simply know they have to summit that mountain. They don’t expect others to understand them, neither do they care to explain. It’s just something they need to do – for whatever reason only known to them.
It riles us no end, we the imitators who seek comfort in the balm of familiarity, you know the word – conformity. It is important not only to be safe, but also to be accepted. Conformity has deep biological roots; it’s right under our skins. Any behavior that deviates from the norm compromises not only the individual’s ability to be part of our clique, but it also rubs our comfy world and produces the static of having to accommodate someone who is perhaps slightly different from us. God forbid if that man manages to summit with the knot which we all never bothered to learn because we had all been told, this is the knot you must use and no other. Our world would simply crumble to dust, so like all good imitators, we need to bring this man down. That way at least, we wouldn’t have to confront our limitations in knowing our fervent reasons, for conformity is rooted deeper in the fear of confronting any prospect of change.
Perhaps we the imitators do the things we do because we still need to believe someone up there has all the answers to the questions. We need to believe that the other guy knows better and we don’t want to rock the boat. We fear that the rocking will only manage to send the rest of us off the edge of the world. So, we abdicate responsibility for our decisions about how to live our life or plan the great journey of life to others somewhere up there – it doesn’t matter if all the levers of power are connected to nothing or that the world is changing so fast nothing can be predicted with certainty any longer – we need to believe or at least be seen to feign belief, least we have to confront the reality that our destiny actually lies in the palm of our hands.
And finally, the only reason why we the imitators continue to make sense of our decrepit world is simply greed. We imitate the other guy because we want what he has – there’s nothing that riles us more than relinquishing our kiasuims. We just can’t stand the prospects of someone getting richer or proving us all wrong by inventing a better mouse trap. This wide spread fear of missing out is at the heart of all speculative bubbles, it’s the reason why we do the things we do, though we dress it up with serious words like competitive, resourceful and passionate. But in truth, if we really looked at it long and hard, we just don’t want to be the one standing with a dumb look last in line – and so we must play the tragedy of the commons by continuing to imitate.
Now you know the reason why three quarters into the movie, I found myself rooting for Col Kurtz. On every turn, I wished some act of God would take out that chain smoking conformity policeman, Capt Willard – perhaps through lung cancer, or maybe that he would choke on his toothpaste, or that a branch would snag on his trigger and take him out – anything to stop him from killing Col Kurtz, the scholar soldier who just went bad for no reason other than that he realized there was more than one way to fight the war, and that he simply did it his way.
But as the story unfolded, I realized the lies men tell themselves, how good always needs to be seen to prevail over evil by the slimmest of margins and how at the very end even when it all ends, nothing is ever lost nor really gained, not even when the curtain comes down and we are the only one left sitting all alone in the theatre of life – we the imitators can always step into the light and join the rest of the crowd.
Excerpt From a 1997 interview between Ronald Bergan and Francis Coppola:
Coppola: “You really want to know why there will never be another film like Apocalypse, not ever! My film is not a movie; it’s got nothing to do with Vietnam. It is Vietnam! That’s the whole trouble and those cigar chomping boys who make all the decisions just ain’t going to bank roll me or another crazy to make that sort of movie ever again!”
(By Harphoon, The Brotherhood Press / Philosophy / Politics/ Sociology 88920-IJ 2007)
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