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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)












15 Responses to “Why We Just Need To Snuff Out Col Kurtz – Apocalypse Now”

  1. Lizzy said


    Very strong set piece. I don’t mean to be rude or condescending, but I detect a very strong after taste of darkness in the way it was is written. Did you work with him on this piece? Or are you perhaps like Willard subconsciously going through your own private journey of self discovery? 🙂

    Reading your pseudo film review/satire/commentaries. I do agree with you it is always frustrating for mavericks to function in an environment where everyone expects them to think, behave and act in a certain way.

    I was educated in NUS but eventually pursued a masters program in the UK which I paid for by working part time as a waitress. I noticed the teaching style was not only significantly different, but students were even encouraged to sharpen and hone their own sense of individuality. As for the conformity police, I spoke to them over the phone every week, my mama and kong kong – fortunately they were much too distant to have any significant impact. How very fortunate, if only you knew harpy.

    I dug this up just for you.

    Btw I still dont know whether to call it a satire or just a self effacing piece of hyper indolent critical analysis? Does it matter really? I enjoyed it very much.

    Do send love to bambie, where is he? Enjoy and well done.

  2. deep blue said

    That’s a hard hitting one that just blindsides you and makes you really sit up and think!

    Could it all really be true? Could it?

    Hate to second the quorum, but no doubt abt it, there is definitely a heavy dose of darkness in this piece.

    Was he around when you wrote it? Nonetheless a very exciting read and your spelling has definitely improved!

  3. killamaru said

    thought provoking like the smell of napalm early in the morning……I like the way the different streams of media converge your writings then Liz post on an excerpt of the movie. I’ve seen the movie many times but never like this bfr

  4. sphgirl said


    I can relate to your article slamming imitators. I happen to know this girl from my church and she is pressured by her spiritual mentor to give 10% of her salary in the name of God, but when she realized her pastor is going around in a spanking new BMW sportscar while she has to make do with her EZ link card.

    She started asking some questions like, how is this money used? They told her it is none of her business, so she said, if that is the case, then I am simply not going to sign off a blank cheque.

    I guess she went awol like Colonel Walter Kurtz and though it has been nearly 3 yrs, she still clings to her belief despite being sent to Coventry by her other so called pious and enlightened church members.

    What I am trying to say is if ppl have the right belief, you will really be surprised how long they can hold out and when they simply do what they do – it compels others who comes across them to really think abt the merits of their actions and this in my view is not such a bad thing.

    After all we all have a RIGHT TO THINK!

    I can only say, we all fight our battles against the imitators who so wish us all to think, behave and be like them, but I just think these are misguided people.

    As darkness once said quite prosaically, just because you have a majority view doesn’t really mean anything, if you never bothered to ask whether it is first right or wrong. It just means there are more stupid than enlightened people.

    Don’t bother abt the imitators Harphy. I couldn’t help feeling your post contained a hidden codex perhaps abt something that disappointed you terribly.

    Keep your chin up always.

  5. Harphoon said

    Hi DB,

    Actually it was inspirid who did most of the writings and corrections. thx. I am all thumbs with my communicator.

    Hi all,

    Its an introspective piece, I did speak to darkness during our regular MTB sessions and I guess he did express alot of comments concerning astroboys post.

    Darkness did not write this article or even help me. I did it all myself with a large measure of assistance from inspirid (our friendly webmaster).

    He doesnt micro-manage that is not his style.

    If anything he feels Astroboy needs to be properly introduced to many of our new readers. Most of our loyal readers already know his style.

    Astroboy is one of the original thinkers of the brotherhood, his articles always have the power to provoke bc he is famous for the lateral train.

    I guess darkness felt due the limitations of word count in his first article, a follow up would help our readers to tie up many of the loose ends. Happy reading and many thxs. cheers. Harphoon.

  6. tomahawk said

    I happen to know that man you are talking abt in church – for one he is not an ordinary man – he is the man who rolls his own cigarettes – a man who commands the respect of over 2,500 men who represent the elite of Singaporean society – you are right, we are all wondering why. You are so right harphy.

    There is power in silent dissent, there is.

  7. tomahawk said

    As for the pastor he is just a ******** con man.

  8. oberon said

    We are with the man who stands alone in church. They will not get one cent from me.

    The man will bring the church down – it will take time, but eventually the clever money will do the talking.

    At the end of the day, it is all abt $ when it comes to mega churches.

  9. chronicler said

    If only history could be erased so easily – I think the management of the church has sleepless nights, after all the man is good at psychological warfare is he not?


  10. 0apjiyukk9 said


    I am not particularly convinced that Col. Kurtz/ Capt. Willard comparism is an accurate analogy in illustrating the ills or at least the reasons of why imitation occurs. Accepting the fact that Apocalypse Now is messy (in more ways than just thematically), I think the theme of the banal imitator and the inspired but socially doomed innovator does not really do justice to even a bare treatment of the characters of Kurtz and Willard.

    Captain Willard for most of the early part of the original film, remains relatively inactive as compared to the more boisterous and outrageous characters and situations. But the “action” within Willard is more internal – his voiceover commentary provides an explanation not only of at least a view of the war but also of his own character. For at least most of the movie, that ‘cold mechanical assasin’, remains for the audience the closest thing to themselves. But (or perhaps because) not all is well within Willard – his monologues betrays a moral conflict even in a man who is more a sinner than a saint. Indeed in the first scenes, Willard is seen as smashing his fist into his own image in a mirror and painting his body with blood, something is wrong with the war and with himself – and Willard knows it. Willard does not merely want to follow orders, he wants to go kill Charlie in the jungle, he wants it so bad he cannot go back ‘home’. The war has changed him – he needs the war more than it needs him. The mission to kill Kurtz is just an excuse to go back ‘home’.

    For most of the journey, Colonel. Kurtz remains an enigma, a totem, lying deep within the mists of the jungle. Willard and the audience learn about him through tantalizing fragments, enough to convince us that there may be truth in his vision, not enough to convince us that he is mad. Despite his invisible presence, Kurtz is rendered almost omnipresent through Willard, the narrator and guide of the movie. This is because we see the movie through Willard’s perception of the war and the conflict – and Kurtz seems to speak the truth that Willard confesses to himself and us . The similarities off the Willard and our knowledge (and hence perceived image) of Kurtz are there if you look close enough.

    Kurtz is charged for killing supposedly S.Vietnamese double-agents, Willard himself has killed a govt tax collector.Like Kurtz, Willard sees the generals as getting in the way of the war and that the enemy is somehow mentally ‘stronger’ than the Americans. Kurtz performed operations on his own initiative and so has Willard in counter-intelligence according to his superiors. Both Kurtz and Willard have willingly given up their futures in ‘normal’ life because they cant let go of the war. And finally, just like Kurtz, Willard is obsessed about the war but also obsessed about himself. From the very beginning Willard probably sees the similarities. The hypocrisy of his actions and that of the government is clear, The government and Willard’s business is murder and Kurtz seems to be pretty good as a venture capitalist at it. But Willard doesn’t need to question – he is capable of judgement but he can forgo that in order to do the job he is meant to do, just like Kurtz.

    The more we learn about Kurtz, the more we also learn about the quagmire that is the war. And both instill admiration for the Colonel. Willard in fact feels no different – his monologues begin to be similar to the tape recorded messages of Kurtz. They both feel that what is needed is cold hard determination to win even despite (or because of) the insane enviroment, the cold hard determination the enemy has. Both hate the lies, the lies of the government, the lies of the soldiers, the lies of paying lip service to morality because it gets in the way of doing what needs to be done. Finally Willard’s crew mates gun down a boat of Vietnamese civilians by mistake and Willard never fires a shot. Upon learning their mistake they want to help the surviving Vietnamese girl, Willard fires for the first time and it is because saving her would take too much time.

    The truth is Willard is the image of Kurtz.

    But we soon learn that we are not alone in hero-worship of the idea of Kurtz – the idea of (I hesitate to use the word in its Nietzschean capacity though) an ubermensch. The previous assasin sent by the military, a cowering photojournalist, a tribe of Degar see hima s a warrior-God. Kurtz has become more than just a man, he has become an abstraction, a kind of truth, a God in War. It is true that his tantalizing image, hidden from scrutiny within the jungle, has become a totem that allows us to project our own darkness and desires of strength and brilliance. We cannot wait to meet Kurtz, and neither can Willard. We are drawn to him because he illuminates a part of ourselves, at the same time he is also much more. Fearless Leader seduces us because he promises us a freedom from our own fears.

    But If the journey is towards the inner psyche of Willard and humanity, it is also back through time. But the end of the river is not Rosseau’s savage paradise, it is a primal hell, filled iwth tangled mounds of rotting bodies, strewn with severed heads and the stench of death.

    Apocalypse Now.

    The appearance of Kurtz is a letdown to many reviewers – Brando is too soporific, Kurtz is not as memorable as Kilgore, there is too much rhethoric and not enough bonding in the characters etc… But perhaps, no one could ever be abstract invisible Kurtz as he is on the journey, the real Kurtz is always a letdown because he is too real. With the Bible and the Golden Bough on his shelves and dead bodies in his animal cages – Kurtz the God is also Kurtz the animal – they cannot be separated. His truth – is that to win, there must be no judgement, no morality and yet the one to sacrifice these things must be capable of morality and capable of judgement. The irony is that Willard, the government assasin, is exactly that kind of man. For days they cannot kill each other, they know they are too similar, perhaps they are hypocrites too and are judgement is holding them back. Perhaps judgment of themselves? If Kurtz has become Willard writ large then Kurtz’s conflict is also Willard’s one too. And also similar is the fact that they have come back to the war to find a solution to themselves. A solution to each other.

    Perhaps thats why Kurtz monologues are that of justifications,hurried because there is someone he can finally explain himself to, someone who can and also will not judge him and also finally kill him. He doesnt want to be judged, yet he desperately wants someone to understand his truth and hence why he is not insane, why there is a reason for what he does.He especially desires to let his son know that. To him, it is the neccessity of evil in a situation of horror, he doesnt even question why he is killing only the knowledge that it is what he does. But he too cannot escape the human, he cannot escape its pain. The photojournalist had already mentioned that Kurtz is happiest when he forgets himself. When he becomes Fearless Leader to the Degars and not when he stares into the mirror. Kurtz the man is ready to die. Perhaps his final solution of turning Vietnam into a nuclear holocaust showed that beyond Kurtz, beyond the heart of darkness – is only a dead end.

    The murder is ritualistic.

    The scenes of the Kurtz stabbing are juxtaposed with the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo by the natives – the murder is a spiritual one as it is for Willard.
    The assasination is not done out of following orders, as much as it is done for Kurtz and Willard themselves. An expiation and an exorcism.
    Willard could still have imitated Kurtz, the natives had bowed down to him as he exited with his bloodied machete, Colonel Kurtz would not find a better successor, a man who could understand, experience and was symphatetic to what most of us would label madness. But because he understood, Willard dropped his weapon prompting the Deagrs to drop theirs too. And in the closing scenes (after the first run of the film), as the government were planning to launch a bombing raid on Kurtz compound and the remaining Degars, Willard shut the radio off aborting the attack. He finally exercised judgment. You can decide whether that was a victory or a failure. Whether something was lost or whether something was gained. Whether there is good and whether there is evil.

    At least in the movie of course.

    Perhaps one can imitate the minority and the charismatic as much as the authroitarian and the majority. Perhaps it is not whether you act in the majority or minority but why you act despite of them. Perhaps those that do not imitate exercise their own personal judgment and take the responsibility for being praised or damned by it.

  11. mandy said

    Wow!:) And I thought it was just a very confusing and expensive movie, obviously there is more to it than meets the eye. I so love conspiracy theories, first abt “us” the imitators, now abt a philosophical rambo call Kurtz LOL 🙂

  12. 0apjiyukk9 said

    Hi Mandy,

    Yes I do realize that there is a danger always of reading too much into any an artwork or movie. I did add the caveat that it was a reading limited to the movie and not to real life. Plus I am not sure if either reading by the original poster and me could really be accurately called a conspiracy theory (?), I think they merely are analogies. Perhaps we have drawn trite morals from it, but I don’t think we are speaking of anything more sinister than the apparent motivations of the characters.
    As for “philosophical rambo”, I think it is quite a transparent perspective on Kurtz, and I am not sure it enscapulates either my view or the original article’s. Perhaps All I was trying to say was that Willard is not analagous to the imitator if we follow the movie closely. Kurtz to me is not that much important.

  13. steamboy said

    Hi 0apjiyukk9,

    We would like to save your piece in our archives and reference it along side this post for the future.

    Harphoon describes it as an insightful and very well crafted piece of work that exceeds his own analysis. He goes on to say, it was indeed a very mind blowing and provocative read, one which is in keeping with the brotherhood press tradition, he thanks you and expresses his deepest admiration for your master piece.

    With your kind permission, we will be saving this piece into the brotherhood Press archives.



  14. 0apjiyukk9 said


    Thank you and Harphoon for the kind words. I doubt masterpiece is the best way to describe my post but I humbly submit that it was harphoon’s thought-provoking analysis that prompted me to respond in the first place.

    I should be the one thanking you for admitting it into the archives.


  15. inspir3d said

    Aha! this is an excellent development 😀

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