by William Cadbury
What does Apocalypse Now mean—the film as we have it, considering the minimal difference between the 35mm version with the title sequence and the 70mm version without, but ignoring all the pre-release stories and versions, preliminary scripts, and encrusted commentary? Perhaps a guiding thread might be a question of comparison. Consider this description: We are taken into the soul of a strong leader of a semi-military, semi-familial band of peasant foreigners who are engaged in a project purported to be alien from the American national purpose, but which is entirely congruent with it, and we watch that finally empty soul passed on to its natural inheritor, a son worth of his inheritance but left virtually catatonic by it, bereft of its illusions of morality. The Godfather? Yes, but Apocalypse Now too, in many ways.
But while Marlon Brando is both Vito and Kurtz, Willard is not Michael Corleone. Michael becomes and embodies the moral darkness we just barely perceive in the Brando/Vito who plays at horror, stuffing an orange-skin under his lip, at peace outdoors among his tomatoes. Willard leaves the moral darkness with the Brando/Kurtz who plays out horror, stuffing a pomegranate-skin under his lip indoors among his severed heads. Yet it takes the whole film to realize the difference, and from the beginning Willard’s identity with Kurtz is suggested: Willard on his bed at first snatches a buzzing fly, and Kurtz near the end does too, as he squats on the floor (as Willard had squatted in a ritual with cups which prefigured Kurtz’s ritual bowl). The whole film seems, like that instance, to lead toward what was presented from the start: “This is the end,” sing The Doors at the beginning, and on “the end” the jungle in Willard’s dream explodes in flames, while at the end (in the title sequence which is in the codes of a beginning) a flare drifts down and the jungle explodes again. And Willard has the scar at the beginning which, illogically, we see him get during the film’s course.
Willard’s confrontation with Kurtz will seem then to be a fulfillment of what was latent from the start. In Willard’s dream, his face shares the screen with the idol at Kurtz’s camp which looks like Kurtz and which Willard cannot literally then have known. His face is upside down across the screen from it, and Willard’s image comes upright as he wakes. But Willard will be turned completely over—and his image too—by Kurtz’s “children” who make him ready for Kurtz by revolving him in the mud and starting the change in his appearance toward Kurtz’s. This change will culminate in the film’s last image (except for the title sequence), in which Willard’s face, this time right side up, emerges from and then returns to merge with the idol from which he had been separate at the beginning.
Willard’s course of “becoming the idol” follows and parallels Kurtz’s. Kurtz, like Willard, learned on a “first tour” in Vietnam about the “necessity” (as Kurtz puts it) of making horror one’s friend, about the grotesque absurdity (Willard’s image) of cutting someone in half with a machine gun and offering them a Band-Aid, and about its alternative (Kurtz’s image) exemplified by the “will” involved in the enemy’s cutting off the American-inoculated arms of little school-children, a will “perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure,” a will which bespeaks “strength.” Both Willard and Kurtz, responding to the lessons of a war conducted like this one, abominate “lies,” and they set against those lies the logic of the snail on the straight razor, a logic which refutes the “nabobs” of hypocrisy and accepts that “we must incinerate (the enemy), pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army”—we must have “the strength to do that,” despite “the horror, the horror.”
The film’s structure of suspense, then, puts a question: Will Willard kill Kurtz as his General requires, and hence avow, for all its faults, the Band-Aid world, the world of what men who are as obviously insane themselves as are the General (played, not accidentally, by G.D. Spradlin, the man who played the Senator in The Godfather) and the CIA man think of as “decent restraint, . . . acceptable human conduct”? Or will he join Kurtz and avow the “strength,” the “horror” which like Kurtz he has seen? Kurtz follows the logic of the snail to its expression in his Cambodian stronghold. Willard follows the logic to Kurtz, at whose camp he sees not crystalline purity, nor even the “unsound methods” which the General deplored (Willard says “I don’t see any method at all”), but an obsessive, death-haunted, fruitless, indrawn, mystical garbage dump. The “photo-journalist” may “wish I had the words” to express the directness, so unavailable to him, with which Kurtz “meant it” when he told him he would kill him, but Willard, who can be direct too, need be less impressed. That he can understand and reject Kurtz, though at the cost of taking on the guilt of doing so, is what distinguished Willard from Michael Corleone.
There are two reasons why Willard is able to reject that aspect of identification with Kurtz which would mean joining him. The first is that he has an object lesson in his predecessor, Captain Colby. In the letter scrawled to his wife, Colby had written “I’m never coming home,” but then had scratched out “home” and written “back” instead. One of Willard’s most telling remarks is that “I had been home, and I knew it didn’t exist any more.” Moreover, in the beginning when trying to stay “strong” in his hotel room Willard continues his bowl ritual with a martial arts exercise in which he shatters a mirror and stares agonizedly at his bloody right hand. At Kurtz’s camp he comes upon Colby, his fellow Captain and shattered image, holding a scalp-bedecked rifle with a similarly bloody right hand.
We think “Willard has found himself,” but similarity is not identity. After the mirror-shattering, Willard throws his head back in a silent scream; when Kurtz drops in his lap the severed head (not of a racehorse this time, but) of Chef, a head which has the iconography of Our Lord in His agony, Willard’s head goes back in the same way as before, but this time he screams “Oh Christ,” a change and perhaps even a context marking his ability to break free from the identification with Colby and with Kurtz, to change, to work it through. Rather than a disfigurement of Willard’s end, Colby provides a reason not to join Kurtz in the death-worship to which obsession with “strength” brings one, as it brought Michael Corleone.
But we could still ask why Willard is able to resist becoming Colby. The answer is the second reason Willard can avoid joining Kurtz. Willard comes to Kurtz, after all, only after the rest of the film, after that trip up river with the American-microcosm, Fuller-war-movie-like crew who may be inadequate to the challenges of the river but of whom, as much as of Colby, Willard is the inheritor. Willard is not alone on this mission (as he annoyedly remarks at its start), and what the Americans with whom he travels provide—the vulnerable openness of Lance, the innocent exuberance of Clean, the gentle culture of Chef, the dutiful rationality of Chief—becomes, in the aggregate, a defense against Kurtz, the reason not to think that Willard or we must make our choice between the apparent alternatives of Band-Aids and horror. The film is structured with classical rigor (amazingly, given its history), detached episodes interspersed with gradually illuminating reveries on Kurtz by Willard, and each episode, focussed on, and from the point of view of, one of the members of the crew (in an order which is itself significant), while it demonstrates what kind of disaster can come out of the aspect of the American character for which the crew member stands, and hence seems to eliminate that aspect as a viable alternative to Kurtz, at the same time gives us (and Willard) an image for what value ought not to be so disastrously lost. The values are established here which, no matter what we make of America after Vietnam—and I don’t think Coppola is obligated to predict what Willard and Lance will manage—decisively refute the moral which all too many Americans seem ready to draw from that war, Kurtz’s moral: “If I had ten divisions of men like (the ones who hacked off the children’s arms], then our troubles here would be over very quickly.” If we had allowed ourselves Kurtz’s logic, we would have become like Kurtz, like Michael Corleone.
After accepting from Jerry the cigarette he had refused at the beginning of the lunch scene (as throughout he refused food) and hence assenting to his mission on behalf of the “program,” Willard starts to see with astonishment what the program means by “tolerable human conduct.” Lance focuses us in the Kilgore episode, accepting the grotesque inadequacy of emotional affect with which “Big Duke 6” treats the destruction of a peaceful village (to Wagner, in an echo of Sam Fuller’s- equation of Wagner with Nazism in Verboten) in terms of a glamorous cavalry, giggling beach party, and surfing. Lance has a kind of innocence which can go along with it, find the attack “exciting”, and urge that they wait for the tide for better surfing: this receptivity will get Lance through, but Willard is amazed at the folly of it, the wasted energy and lack of prudence, to observe which brings him closer to Kurtz.
Lance is lost by being opened up: Chef is lost by being closed down. With Willard, looking for mangoes in an outsized glowing forest. Chef explains how his repugnance at the ruin of good food brought him here. There is a strain in the American character which New Orleans and its culture connotes, an innocent pleasure in the sense of good senses, which Chef comes touchingly to represent, not effete or Europeanized or even middle class, but gentle and moral—and utterly repulsed by Vietnam. The tiger attacks, and Chef responds as much to what it stands for as to what it is, to its complete alienation from himself and his purposes: “I didn’t get out of the goddamn eighth grade for this kind of shit. All I want to do is fuckin’ cook.” The only rule for him from here is “never get off the fuckin’ boat.” It is a refusal of Vietnam, the opposite of Lance’s acceptance, and Chef sticks with it—he has to be commanded to get off to search the sampan (which yields more proof he was right), and he urges Willard back to the boat at Kurtz’s, where finally and tragically even the boat is no refuge. A surrogate for home; for Willard it too ceases to exist.
The major episodes alternate between spectaculars and dramas in the quiet jungle. Clean’s episode, a super-spectacle, is next, what he rightly describes as “sho’nuff a bizarre sight in the middle of this shit.” The metaphor of Vietnam misconstrued as a Western movie, begun in the Kilgore episode, is continued and deepened in the Bunny episode, in which a Playmate of the Year, dressed as a cowgirl and shooting and then thrusting her hot pistols between her legs (“grease my gun” cries a soldier) is flanked by two plain Playmates, one dressed as cavalry and the other as Indian. Willard observes with a less apprehensive disdain than he had shown for Kilgore’s frivolity—he could have been killed on the beach, and indeed must receive there the slight cheek wound covered so obtrusively by a large Band-Aid (echoing Michael’s bandaged nose) through the next scenes—as the war is read as cowboys and Indians, but the point is, of course, mostly sexual. The pistol dance and the lewd shouts of the soldiers (“ride my spurs” to the cavalry Playmate, “suck on my peace pipe” to the Indian one) imply the sexual connotations of the Western myth itself, as the Kilgore episode revealed the oddly fascistic elements of the surfer imagery.
But what is most telling here is the way this trivialization of sex itself, this absorption of it into the war program, is all that the enthusiastic and charming Clean will ever experience. As we learn later when Chef twits him about it (“Cherry boy!”) Clean is a virgin at his 17 years. He enthusiastically haggles with the venal supply sergeant for the Playmate poster he later displays prominently on the boat, and after the show he is ecstatic to Chef about having seen the girls, as he never could have managed in the Bronx. He blows kisses with abandon (the only one of the crew to get close-ups), calls to the girl to “sign my centerfold” (a Playmate does sign one, but not his), and the recollection of his enthusiasm is unbearable when, after he dies, Chef and Chief mourn over his body while his mother’s voice on a mail-tape, intimate and ironic and everything a mother’s voice should be, speaks of the wife and children he will never have: “It has always been my dream to have more than one child, but then again I got one good one, and so I’m hoping that pretty soon, not too soon but pretty soon. I’ll have a lot of grandchildren to love and spoil, and then when your wife gets ’em back she’ll be mad at me, ha ha.” Vietnam transforms the surfer Lance into a zombie, but with Clean it destroys a generation.
Willard reflects on the Bunny episode. Kurtz-fashion, that Charlie’s idea of R&R was cold rice and rat meat, that our four- star clowns will give the circus away with this absurdity, but the next (and final episode of these which articulate the characters of the crew exposes not the trivialization of the American plan of “decent restraint” and its lunatic intersections with reality, but the impossibility of the plan’s restraints actually governing human conduct. This episode is Chief’s, the proof of his inevitable failure to control by “the book” the forces pandemic on the river. Chief begins to be emphasized after the Bunnies: his dignity contrasts with Lazzaro’s foolishness in mooning the boat. To Willard’s complaint about Clean’s drumming (visually) on his head while Willard reads about Kurtz, Chief responds that maybe Clean feels that Willard busts his balls, feeling the same way himself Right before the sampan episode he berates Chef for mocking Clean, for smoking dope, for wearing a scuzzy Army shirt (oddly, since Chef is shirtless at the time)—”you are a sailor.” Against Willard’s suggestion to “forget routine,” then, he insists on checking the sampan since duty requires it, and we watch him in emphasized close-ups (like the others in their episodes) as he tries and fails to control the men in the massacre— Clean, the wildest, who fires first, and then is disturbed, lifting and dropping the concealing shades when all is over; Lance who is morally outraged for the only time— “you had no right!”—and who sublimates at once with his compensatory and regressive attachment to the rescued puppy; and Chef, whose revulsion at getting off the boat and at disturbing the vegetables and fruit that are so important to his values, sets up the tensions released in the massacre and who despairs at it, defeated by Vietnam: “Let’s kill all of the assholes, you can shit on all of them, why not” (weeping)!
The unspeakable spasm over, Chief intends to take the wounded woman to “friendlies” because “the book says. Captain, that . . but Willard, the film now becoming his and he becoming Kurtz, simply shoots her dead, and the scene closes on a fade of Willard’s hunched body at the bow, an oval lens flare over his torso, his heart, as the screen goes to black. The exposition ends, and the screen is dark for a long while (some theatres have an intermission here), after this inability of Chief, the most decent, serious, and dutiful of men, to give order by “the book,” to make “decent restraint” be anything but a mockery. Willard’s murder of the young woman proves him to have gone over to Kurtz’s logic —he has just read in one of Kurtz’s letters about what he has practiced here, the necessity for “moments of ruthless action, called ruthless, but only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done, and doing it, directly, clearly, looking at it.” The values of Lance’s vigor, Chef’s sweetness of culture, Clean’s innocence, and Chief’s moral rigor have been clearly established, but shown (by Kilgore, the tiger, the Bunnies, and the frenzy of the moment at the sampan) not to be availing. The bearers of those values will themselves be destroyed, but that the Kurtz alternative, apparently urged by what we have seen, is no better, will be shown.
Lance presides over the proof: the film’s style, progressively more fantastic, is only assigned directly to Lance in the episode of the Do Lung bridge when sights and sounds reflect the fact the Lance has taken LSD, but it continues and deepens that vein, and in the episodes to come Lance is a guide overseeing Willard’s progress. Like an extension of Kilgore, Lance is unscathed at the bridge, but his attention is not for surfing’s sake, but for the sheer beauty of the display of a war where “there’s no fucking C.O.,” but only catatonics like Roach and sad frenzied maniacs like the soldiers who scream “take me home” to the passing boat. Chief tries to reassert rationality: “Don’t make no sense” to travel beyond this “asshole of the world” where the bridge is nightly rebuilt to be nightly destroyed! But Willard can command him on, here beyond reason and “the book,” and Lance presides, his tutelary genius. Lance’s “purple haze,” his “rainbow reality” smoke grenades, dominate the reading of the mail which makes explicit the equation between the trip we are seeing and the change of the America, the “home,” it is supposed to be for, but that no longer exists. Reading the mail, Lance responds to a letter that a better place than Disneyland exists here in Vietnam; Clean thinks, from the evidence of his friend shot robbing a store in New York, that Vietnam is safer; Chef thinks Charles Manson’s orders of slaughter as protest are “weird”, as he will think Kurtz’s orders similar. For all of this Lance’s smoke grenades set the scene.
But Lance’s delight in the sensations of the Disneyland world beyond all restraint is short-lived, as the world reveals its darker side and Lance retreats into protective acceptance of whatever the world offers: “camouflage,” he had called it before the sampan when his initial huge sun-reflectors had shrunk to the tiny signal mirror by which he painted his face like a savage. His puppy had been a link with home and childhood on the Do Lung bridge, but when Clean is killed the puppy is lost. Chief weeps over Clean’s body, for the loss of all the war had promised—he had looked at his own hand, stained with Clean’s blood, in a guilt and rejection quite the opposite of Willard’s inspection of his hand after his martial arts episode—but Lance sits painted in the bow (while the boat moves through fog, as always right to left) and gives unearthly moans and yells to match those of the unseen natives beyond, whose totems and piles of corpses are glimpsed through the fog like the broken body of the downed plane, also totem and corpse, beneath which the boat passes.
The fog clears, and Lance is delighted with the Disneyland aspect of the natives’ arrow attack, fashioning an arrow-through-the-head joke and ignoring the danger while Willard tries to keep Chief from responding to the attack. But Chief breaks down, this time in moral indignation after his breakdown in grief: Willard claims “They’re just trying to scare us,” but Chief knows better—”you got us in these waters. You got us in this mess and now you can’t get us out.” Like Chef on the sampan he screams “Let’s fight fire with fire,” shooting at the shore—but on the sampan there was no danger, though the crew thought there was, and here there is danger though Willard at least thinks there isn’t. Chief, the American black whose vision of himself is that he has been brought from the jungle by white men to a civilization which should be characterized by his own restraint and reasoned dignity, knows that these white men have betrayed their promise, and have brought themselves and him with them back to “these waters, this mess.” They don’t even know the dangers. But he knows. The spear transfixes him: “spear,” he says numbly in a terrible recognition of this final return of everything his character has rejected, and it is the film’s best moment, to my mind, when dying Chief strangles Willard, trying to pull Willard down breast to breast to be pierced and killed by the spear sticking from his own chest. It is just what these white men deserve for their regressive fascination with violence and the savage. In an immediately pre-release version (if we may be forgiven for one instance) Chef sums it up, perhaps so overtly it was deleted: “You’ve gone now Chief, we ain’t got nothing—fuckin lost, Oh God!”
Chef takes over as best he can Chief’s role as the voice of reason and duty, insisting only that the mission continue “on the boat,” but the way they go on the boat remains Lance’s. He performs Chief’s obsequies, painting his face and laying him to rest in the ancestral river into which Chief disappears leaving only a bubble (though Willard will seem to take Chief with him when he emerges himself from the river, like the opening image of Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, to sacrifice Kurtz). Lance is agonized over Chief too, climbing back on the boat with his play arrow still on his head, and from here he simply joins the jungle: we see him lead the boat with a surfer dance on the bow as they near Kurtz. It is Chef who, despite his clear-headed rejection of Kurtz’s appeal, is vulnerable to Kurtz, and it is Lance whom Willard takes with him for the confrontation, as if Willard knew that this irrationality, this appeal of a “logic” which is finally a kind of madness, has to be worked through in terms more appropriate for Lance than for Chef.
But of course Lance’s appropriateness for it means absorption by it, no use to Willard. We see him crouch on the bow holding a spear, and he watches detached and amused as Willard is muddied, twirled, and led into Kurtz’s temple. From there, Lance simply goes native—we see him dance around the fire with the natives in a loin-cloth, gather little children round him during the ceremonies, and seem to lead in the sacrifice of the water buffalo, smearing its head with blood and sharing in the milling of people around the dead beast, the dimly-rendered rituals of the hacking off its flesh for burial to ensure fertility of the fields (since The Golden Bough’s reading of such rites in Cambodia is surely what is connoted here). Willard’s sacrifice of Kurtz, then, is the way to get Lance home. The acts are the same, the slaying of the carabao and the slaying of Kurtz, yet different: Lance would stay in that world, but that Willard kills Kurtz permits what Jessie L. Weston (in the other book that we see that Kurtz reads) calls “the freeing of the waters,” and their healing rain washes the mud from Lance’s upturned face. Apocalypse Now faces up to Lance as what is left of America, and redeems him by the rejection of Kurtz.
But that it is finally a rejection, when Willard kills Kurtz, remains to be proved. Kurtz, after all, who incites Willard to it, thinks the act is a ritual sacrifice affirming what he takes to be the truths revealed in Frazer and Weston—the ritual sacrifice by which a new priest/king takes on the functions and power of the old one by killing him, but hence affirming the truth of his reign, becoming — not rejecting—him. There is much reason to say that, as Willard learned the premises of Kurtz’s logic on the trip up river, he learns its conclusions with Kurtz: since civilization is “lies” and leads to the world of “paralyzed force, gesture without movement” described in The Hollow Men, the world of the hollow generals and their “program,” when what the photo-journalist calls “dialectics”, the argument that “fractions” are a trivialization next to the simplicities of whole numbers and of love and hate, requires an acceptance of “primordial instincts to kill, without feeling, without passion, without judgment.” The unmotivated alternation of lights and darks (begun at Do Lung, and with Roach, a pre-Kurtz)—Willard and Kurtz illuminated, fading, fading back again sometimes themselves and sometimes as the other—suggest Willard becoming Kurtz, different only in that, in tune with that harmony with the natural cycle from which vegetation rituals derive their form and meaning (dark and light alternating, like the episodes in the film), Kurtz is an old wintry king, a Fisher King, whose lands are barren simply because regeneration requires a preceding death, and Willard, the new king, must replace him (to become old in his turn) as spring replaces winter.
This is the very ground and justification of Kurtz’s obsession with death (as it is often a rationale of violent people); the belief that in some primeval sense the fertilizing sacrifice, the shedding of blood, will ensure (by sympathetic magic) that the cycles will go on—death will guarantee life, and life will be renewed. Kurtz prepares Willard, like a medieval knight, for his initiation: we see a long period of waiting, a purgation and cleansing by rain, and by the final proof that there is no counting on Chef’s trust in “the boat.” Though Willard (as always) rejects the food offered him after this ordeal, he receives further instruction from Kurtz in the mysteries: Kurtz reads The Hollow Men while the photojournalist glosses its dialectics; Willard is given an empty time to inspect the medals and pictures and books; Kurtz tells the story of the severed arms while eating a pomegranate, the fruit associated with Persephone, the very symbol of the dependence of resurrection on death. At the close of the story Willard looks at, and flexes, the hand being called upon to do the ritual deed (as he does again just before he does it; while Kurtz, with insistent implication, asks him to bear his son the truth “if I were to be killed, Willard.”
Everything asks Willard to kill Kurtz, and it is the irony that strikes him most, that he will be promoted for it “and I wasn’t even in their fucking army anymore,” since killing Kurtz will be the profoundest possible way of joining him and leaving “the program.” The sacrifice will say “yes, Kurtz was right, his kind of strength, crystalline pure, is the only way to be in tune with the nature of things, though of course like the year itself the principle decays into the appearance of chaos and its deep underlying order has to be reaffirmed, a spring-time version needs to come.” And Willard kills Kurtz while Lance kills the carabao which had stepped from Kurtz’s side, a multi-level assent to ritual (the people to their imitative version, the priest/kings to their canonical one) being established, an assent to the nature of life as dependent on assent to death. The Vietnamese paroxysm will have become (so Willard and Lance can carry the message back to America) life-affirming, not guilt-inducing. Willard’s face recedes behind the idol’s, but that might simply say that now we know what reality is and we assent to it, to a stratum of the irrational, the primordial, as the true rock and grounding of our lives.
Now this, Kurtz’s vision of what Willard should make of himself, would be indeed to read Willard as Michael Corleone, except that the transformation would be approved—the jungle left to the idol and the healing rain is different from Michael Corleone among the autumn leaves in his moral emptiness. But I think one look at Kurtz told us, as it told Willard, that Kurtz for all his appeal was wrong, and I think we must not be enticed by what is Kurtzian about Willard’s act into thinking that Coppola ha changed his mind about the final rejection we must make of the apparently compelling, but ultimately false, Corleone/Kurtz logic.
Indeed Willard sacrifices Kurtz, but not to replace him or to roam in the sacred grove like Frazer’s slave/priest/king. Willard does seem almost to become Kurtz as he performs the ritual murder, his head resembling Kurtz’s and his hands finally, in fulfillment of the film’s beginning, becoming the bloody focus of the final shot of the sacrificial ritual. But there is a difference nonetheless. Willard becomes a smeared and Kurtz-like mask when he appears for the natives adoration at the top of the stairs like Kurtz before, but his smeared face is not patterned, painted like Lance’s or like Kurtz’s when he dropped Chef’s head in Willard’s lap. Experience costs Willard and we see the price, but Willard does not ritualize it, paint himself in tune with it, or institutionalize it as Kurtz does. Coming down the stairs Willard tosses down the ritual knife (whereas Lance and the natives gleefully capered around the dead carabao) and all around him the natives lay down their weapons, relieved, it seems, to be rid of this madness, this elevation of life’s sad component, death, to the principle behind life itself.
No doubt the natives will sacrifice buffaloes for their crops’ fertility again, and no one denies the continued existence of the idol in the jungle behind which we know there lurks one face of human nature. But as the PBR pulls away from the camp and turns, for the first time in the film, to go from left to right, the U-turn it made at the start of the trip to Kurtz seems decisively reversed—we have looked Kurtz’s logic in the face, like Willard, and seen that it was not good. One can think of the film’s ending as the quiet image which concludes the 70mm release, of the idol in the jungle and the rain, or as the air-strike and destruction of the camp which goes with the final titles of the 35mm version. In the former Willard leaves the jungle to its peace, knowing that it stands for a certain part of him which he disavows by leaving it. In the latter he disavows that part more explicitly, destroying the site of Kurtz’s institutionalization of horror as a principle of conduct. But in neither case is Kurtz affirmed, as it was the whole thrust of the film’s sequence to seem that he would be.
Willard has found in the film what it means to carry Kurtz’s logic to its end, and has rejected it in an act which Kurtz foresaw and which is Kurtzian, but which pulls back from Kurtz—not to the General’s half-way measures, but to a position of understanding which we can share. It is, after all, Coppola’s genius to make little moral essays, using all the resources of the Hollywood colossus, about which we can think. The way of “strength,” we can see, is as wrong as the half-baked way of “decent restraint.” The sacrifice of Kurtz was not obsessional but cathartic. The horror can be worked through and hence, in part, overcome. It is always there, Willard’s face (and ours) behind the idol, but perhaps we need not, for all of that, be obsessed with the way the peaceful jungle can sometimes explode in flames, or see this obsession as a prefigurement of Apocalypse.
It is a whole movie we have seen, after all. It included not only the cathartic ritual of Kurtz’s death, but all that lead up to it, especially that trip up river which established not only the absurdity of civilization but, by the sheer value of those who stood for America in frailty and contradiction (but in sanity and sweetness of spirit too) the necessity of rejection of its alternatives. This film suggests not that we should have become Kurtz, made horror our friend, and cleaned up Vietnam, but that we should face up to what has been Kurtzian in ourselves, recognize it, but also reject it and that cult of strength and certainty for which it stood. We never should have been in Vietnam in the first place, and we are not committed to thinking ourselves exemplified by Michael Corleone because we have to assent to the fact that we have acted like him.
Cinemonkey, Summer/Fall 1979 Volume 5, Number 3/4; pp. 40-44