Apocalypse Now Redux ranks as one of the greatest war films of all time. I just posted on the “I love the smell of napalm in the morning speech” by air cavalry officer Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore.
Earlier today, to mark Remembrance Day, I tweeted a link to a Feb. 27, 2008 post: The horror, the horror.
I want to expand on why I thought the writing in that scene was so good — and so truthful.
Kurtz was right: Most of us truly can’t understand what horror is unless we’ve experienced it. Nor can we understand how war is a test of wills, with the willingness to inflict horror being part of the test, unless we’ve been in the crucible.
In a twisted way, Kurtz was right in seeing admirable qualities in the Viet Cong insurgents who would hack off the arms of children who had just been inoculated against polio by his Green Berets:
… that they had the strength, the strength … to do that.
If I had 10 divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral, and at the same time, who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion. Without judgment. Without Judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.
The paradox of Kurtz’s thesis is that you need strong, moral warriors can utilize horror as a weapon while killing without feeling or passing judgment. That’s a very difficult combination of qualities to manage in a person. Ultimately, Kurtz himself couldn’t resolve the contradictions.
It should also be said that most people would not find hacking off a child’s inoculated arm to be an act of strength. They would see it as something monstrous beyond comprehension.
Before Kurtz gives his speech, Willard tells us: “If the generals back in Na Trang could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? More than ever, probably.
“And what would his people back home want if they ever learned how far he had really gone? He broke from them — and then he broke from himself. I’ve never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.”
At the beginning of the film, at a lunch meeting where he got the orders to “terminate the colonel’s command … with extreme prejudice,” Willard was made to listen to radio recordings of Kurtz as roast beef and shrimp were passed around:
But we must kill them, we must incinerate them — pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army.
And they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie. They lie and we have to be merciful. For those who lie, those … nabobs — I hate them. I really do hate them.
“Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get … confused out there,” said Gen. Corman (G.D. Spradlin). “Power. Ideals. The old morality and practical military necessities. But out there, with these natives, it must be a temptation to be … God. Because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil — and good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
“Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have it. Walt Kurtz has reached his. Very obviously he has gone insane.”
As he travelled up river, Willard tells us as he reviews Kurtz’s dossier, “I couldn’t believe they wanted him dead.”
Kurtz had been in the club. He was third-generation West Point, graduating second in his class, had a master’s degree and had served in progressively more senior army leadership roles.
“I heard that voice on the tape, and it really put the hook in me,” Willard says. “But I couldn’t connect the voice with this man.”
We learn that Kurtz’s perfect record started to slip after returning from an advisory tour in Vietnam in 1964. “His report to the joint chiefs of staff and (then U.S. president) Lyndon Johnson was restricted. Seems they didn’t dig what he had to tell them,” he says.
Kurtz volunteered for grueling airborne training while 38 years old and then joined Special Forces in 1966 — a career-limiting move, in Willard’s estimation.
After that, Kurtz returned to Vietnam.
“He could have gone for general, but he went for himself instead,” Willard muses.
Kurtz started veering from the playbook, but got results in the process. This did not endear him to his superiors.
By autumn of 1968, Kurtz found his men subjected to frequent attacks in the Central Highlands. To resolve the issue, he ordered the assassination of four South Vietnamese officials, two of whom were ARVN colonels. The attacks stopped.
“The army tried one last time to bring him back into the fold. And if he’d pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. But he kept going, and he kept winning it his way. And they called me in,” Willard says.
Did Kurtz go insane? Sure (Kurtz: “And what do you think of my methods?” Willard: “Sir: I don’t see any ‘method’ here — sir”). But then again, the Vietnam War was an insane conflict. Perhaps realizing the depths of the insanity — and how, in his opinion, it wasn’t being conducted to win* – broke Kurtz.
* The script is actually conservative in this sense ( o-screenwriter John Milius also wrote the latter Cold War film Red Dawn and co-wrote Dirty Harry, according to this 2001 Guardian article). In the aftermath of the conflict, many held the view that if only the U.S. had conducted the war differently, it would have “won.” The anti-war absurdities in the film came from director and co-writer Francis Ford Coppola. In a 2001 L.A. Times article, Milius said: “We argued about politics, but we never conflicted about art.”
Alternatively, what’s more insane than doing something in a way that you know is doomed to fail? By early 1968, the U.S. knew it was on a track to lose (Willard’s mission would have taken place some time in in late 1969 or later; according to the Guardian, Milus started writing the film in 1969). Yet one can easily come up with examples of where corporations would rather have something done their way and fail than another way and succeed (Willard tells us at one point that Kurtz was being groomed “for one of the top slots in the corporation”).
Quite obviously, the hypocrisy of his military and political masters also got to Kurtz (watch the full movie). But if you watch the ‘better angels of our nature’ scene, one could be left with the impression that perhaps they were forced to conclude Kurtz is the insane one. Because otherwise, it would mean they were the crazies — or, at the very least, that they helped make him that way.
Willard noted in the film that if Kilgore was considered normal, what did the brass have against Kurtz?
The horror. The horror of not knowing where the truth stopped and the lies began, of means versus ends, of humanity versus inhumanity, of conformance versus independence, of hypocrisy versus honour. The horror.
But to a lesser degree, these can be the horrors of life itself.
The film places a disappointing number 46 on the TIFF list of 100 essential films. I could kick myself, because film editor Walter Murch was in Toronto on Oct. 9 to talk about working with director Francis Ford Coppola to expand the film into Apocalypse Now Redux.
Missing him speak? The horror, indeed!