Captain Willard and Colonel Kurtz are the only important characters in Apocalypse Now, especially sense Willard is the narrator and the story is being told mostly through his thoughts and perceptions. As the story unfolds, it is the voyage to “ find the insane Kurtz that is of paramount importance; all the other characters exist only to symbolize some aspect of the war” (Eperwein 100). Although the film is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Willard’s journey upriver into Cambodia is really a mythic tale the carries him into the heart of the Vietnam War, which in this movie is really Kurtz’s war. He is the heart and soul of the conflict, and has abandoned all moral restraint and human decency because he has decided that it cannot be won in any other way except by exterminating the enemy. Indeed, Kurtz is even willing to use nuclear weapons and would annihilate Vietnam completely in order to ‘ save’ it. This is not why the U. S. military (the ‘ corporation’, as Willard aptly calls it) want to assassinate him, though, for as Willard says there are plenty of officers in Vietnam who are at least as crazy and murderous as him. Col. Kilgore is one of these, and far from being punished the army allows him free reign. Kurtz’s problem is that he is now acting independently, without orders, using his own private army of mountain tribesmen to wage war on his terms. He is also making radio broadcasts and generating publicity that is embarrassing to the military and the U. S. government, so the CIA assassin Willard is sent upriver to ‘ terminate’ him. From the start of the film, when he hears the recording of Kurtz’s voice from one of his broadcasts, Willard admits that something about Kurtz has really put the hooks in him. Indeed, the Colonel has that effect on many others who have gone upriver to find him, including the previous assassin sent there before they found Willard. Willard is not certain whether he will kill Kurtz or join him on his mad crusade, although in the end he decides that Kurtz must die.
Throughout the journey upriver into Cambodia, Willard looks through the files on Kurtz and becomes more and more fascinated by him. In this movie, the plot centers on Willard’s “ quest to find Kurtz”, his reflections on how he turned into a madman and what he will do when they finally meet (Corrigan and White 242). He is in great danger of becoming just like Kurtz, in fact, and joining his private army for he too is a victim of the war. Willard is also a member of the Special Forces and after he assassinated people as part of the CIA’s Operation Phoenix, he assassinated people. Kurtz volunteered for Vietnam and underwent all this specialized training when he was already much older than anyone else in the courses, and Willard admires him for that. In the Special Forces, he could advance no higher in rank than colonel, and the army already had him on track to become a general and maybe even chief of staff. He was a highly educated and intelligent officer, with a master’s degree from Harvard on the counterinsurgency war in the Philippines, and was also a very humanitarian man. Something about Vietnam drew him in, though, just as it did with Willard and so many others, and the military finally agreed to let him go there only when he threatened to resign. Once in Vietnam, Willard saw that he continued to act independently, just thinking up operations on his own and carrying them out with orders, which he found admirable. Kurtz also executed three Vietnamese officials without permission from above because he had concluded they were really enemy agents. He was about to be arrested for that when he fled into Cambodia with his tribal army and started operating as in independent warlord. Willard finds all of this highly attractive and appealing, and as much as he is going upriver on his own initiative, he realizes that Kurtz (and the jungle) are also drawing him there.
As Willard at the crew of the patrol boat get closer and closer to Kurtz, reality becomes more warped and distorted with every major event. Almost all of these events are seen through Willard’s “ limited point of view”, and all the other characters “ appear increasingly bizarre, unpredictable, and even inhuman” (Corrigan and White 242). They are all being drawn into Kurtz’s twisted and distorted mentality, indeed, into his nightmarish world, and Willard realizes that he might become lost, too. Apocalypse Now is therefore a surrealistic film rather than a realistic one, and its “ dependence on myth and symbolism to communicate the insanity of the war hindered audiences from believing that they were seeing Vietnam ‘ the way it really was’” (Eberwein 103). Symbolically, all the young crewmen on the boat are the men of that generation who were sent to Vietnam without understanding what it was all about. Clean and the Chief are young black men, who were killed and wounded all out of proportion to their actual percentage of the population, and both die on this journey (Eberwein 101). In the end, the Chief comes to hate Willard for dragging them into this insanity, and was about to fight him when he was killed by a spear thrown by one of Kurtz’s tribesman. Lance, the young surfer from California, turns into a zombie by the time the reach Kurtz’s base and is already one of his followers. Chef, the cook from New Orleans, also explodes when he learns that Willard’s orders are to “ kill one of our own guys”. He was not going into Cambodia to blow up a bridge but on this “ typical Vietnam mission” to cover up the army’s embarrassment over the demented Kurtz. They certainly were not assassinating him because he was evil or a killer, for as Willard notes, prosecuting people for murder in Vietnam was like “ handing out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500.” Col. Kilgore was at least as crazy as Kurtz, and flew around Vietnam blowing up villages while playing Wagner’s music, and forced Lance and two other men to go surfing in the middle of shellfire.
Willard finally confronts Kurtz face-to-face, in his jungle headquarters where bodies are hanging from the trees and severed heads litter the ground. It is an unholy place that reeks of disease, decay and death, and this is where Kurtz makes his rambling broadcasts every night from a Buddhist temple. Chef agrees to help Willard simply because he regards this place as demonically evil and Kurtz as a pagan idol worshipper, but the colonel soon cuts off his head and tosses it into Willard’s lap. After a brief confinement, Kurtz then releases him and leaves him free to make the decision about whether or not he would carry out the assassination. All the other characters have turned into followers of Kurtz, including lance and a crazed American journalist played by Dennis Hopper, who hangs around the compound drawing inspiration from every world the colonel utters. Kurtz like to read poetry, for example, including The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot, and has a number of proverbs such as “ the middle word in ‘ life’ is ‘ if’”. When Kurtz finally meets Willard, he tells him that he is not a soldier or an assassin, but a “ delivery boy sent by clerks to collect a bill”. He could kill him if he wanted, but he no right to judge him. Kurtz explained that he learned to fight the war through horror, evil and moral terror, and that it could be won in no other way.
Willard finally decides to carry out the assassination of Kurtz, during a tribal ceremony in which a bull is being ritually sacrificed. He did this not because he was just carrying out orders, and said that even though they would make him a major for this he was no longer even in their army. His real reasons were that Kurtz had become too separated from humanity and any type of morality, and this could not be allowed. On some level, even Kurtz also realized how broken and separated he had become, and also wished that it would all end. Willard came up on him with a machete as he was making another one of his broadcasts, and Kurtz made no effort to resist as Willard struck him. He died at the same moment as the bull, uttering “ the horror, the horror” as his departing words. By rejecting Kurtz, Willard also turned his back on that part of himself that had been attracted to the jungle and the colonel’s embrace of evil, terror and slaughter. In the end, he also guides Lance out of the abandoned compound, just before calling in a B-52 strike that incinerated and purified the place.
Corrigan, Timothy and Patricia White. The Film Experience, 3rd Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.
Eberwein, Robert. The War Film. Rutgers University Press, 2005.