Fictionally, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz is based on Kurtz (of "Mistah Kurtz—he dead" fame) in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a Belgian ivory trader in the Congo Free State who's accused of brutally suppressing the indigenous people whom he rules as a god, and who's the target of a manhunt. He's descended into a kind of pre-civilized condition. The screenwriter also knew about CIA operative Anthony Poshepny, who ran a private paramilitary group in Laos and dropped severed heads on enemy positions to terrify them. (Source)
He must have been a big hit at parties.
"Colonel Kurtz—He Awesome"
Walter Kurtz was headed toward a stellar career in the military. A West Point grad and distinguished Korean War vet, he was tasked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to evaluate American strategy in Vietnam. Evidently, Kurtz didn't like what he saw. At the advanced age of 38, he became a Green Beret and returned to 'Nam to organize a group of Montagnards—Vietnamese mountain tribal people—to fight the Viet Cong near the Cambodian border and protect Vietnamese villagers. According to General Corman,
CORMAN: Walt Kurtz was one of the most outstanding officers this country has ever produced. He was a brilliant and outstanding in every way, and he was a good man, too. Humanitarian man, man of wit, of humor.
Then something happened.
"Colonel Kurtz—He Losing It"
After listening to some tapes of Kurtz in Vietnam, General Corman and others come to the conclusion that Kurtz's methods over there with his Montagnards have become "unsound." Not "unsound" as in "not reasonable"; "unsound" as in "insane." Kurtz has developed some troubling ideas about how to conduct the war and he's gone rogue, refusing the army's efforts to bring him back.
KURTZ: 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. How I hate them...
At the moment, Kurtz is way beyond the army's control. He assassinated two South Vietnamese intelligence agents whom he suspected of being spies. He was probably right, because the number of unexplained American killings plummeted. But no matter. He's gone off the grid, and in the army, the chain of command is everything.
Lucas tells Willard that the Montagnards have come to worship Kurtz like some kind of god. Corman concludes his briefing to Willard:
CORMAN: Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.
Captain Willard's assignment: to terminate Kurtz's command "with extreme prejudice." They want him dead.
"Colonel Kurtz—He Complicated"
Willard doesn't know about the heads yet. He's intrigued about what pushed Kurtz over the edge. How could such a stellar officer become an assassination target by his own army? We learn a little more about Kurtz as Willard reads his journals on his way upriver toward the Cambodian border, where the army thinks Kurtz is holed up.
WILLARD: At first, I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn't believe they wanted this man dead. Third generation West Point, top of his class. Korea, Airborne. About a thousand decorations. Etc, etc.... I'd heard his voice on the tape and it really put a hook in me. But I couldn't connect up that voice with this man. Like they said he had an impressive career. Maybe too impressive...I mean perfect. He was being groomed for one of the top slots of the corporation. General, Chief of Staff, anything.... In 1964 he returned from a tour of advisory command in Vietnam and things started to slip. The report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Lyndon Johnson was restricted. Seems they didn't dig what he had to tell them. During the next few months he made three requests for transfer to airborne training in Fort Benning, Georgia. And he was finally accepted. Airborne? He was 38 years old. Why the f*** would he do that? 1966 he joined the Special Forces, returns to Vietnam...
In case you're wondering about what Kurtz said on the tape, here's what Willard heard:
KURTZ: I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream. That's my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor, and surviving. […] 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.
Willard reads some more about Kurtz's successful operations in Vietnam (he's got plenty of free time on that slow boat upriver):
WILLARD: November: Kurtz orders the assassination of three Vietnamese men and one woman. Two of the men were Colonels in the South Vietnamese army. Enemy activity in his old sector dropped off to nothing. Guess he must have hit the right four people. The army tried one last time to bring him back into the fold. And if he pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. But he kept going, and he kept winning it his way, and they called me in. They lost him. He was gone. Nothing but rumors and rambling intelligence, mostly from captured VC. The VC knew his name by now, and they were scared of him. He and his men were playing hit and run all the way into Cambodia.
"He kept winning it his way." That's what the army couldn't tolerate. After Kurtz was charged with murder for the killing of the South Vietnamese intelligence agents, he writes a letter to his son explaining what happened.
KURTZ (Willard reading): I'm afraid that both you and your mother would have been worried for not hearing from me these past weeks. But my situation here has become a difficult one. I've been officially accused of murder by the army. The alleged victims were four Vietnamese double agents. We spent months uncovering and accumulating evidence. When absolute proof was completed, we acted, we acted like soldiers. The charges are unjustified. They are in fact, under the circumstances of this conflict quite completely insane.
Then he lays out his philosophy of war:
KURTZ: In a war there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action, for what is often called ruthless, what may in many and many circumstances be the only clarity; seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it directly, quickly, aware...looking at it. I would trust you to tell your mother what you choose about this letter. As for the charges, I'm unconcerned. I'm beyond their timid, lying morality. And so I'm beyond caring.
After he shoots a wounded Vietnamese woman, Willard sees a lot of Kurtz in himself. He begins to think that maybe Kurtz isn't any worse than other officers conducting the war.
And then he sees the heads.
"Colonel Kurtz—He Crazy"
Holed up in an abandoned Cambodian temple, Kurtz goes in for the Poshepny school of interior decorating in a big way. The area around his compound is adorned with severed heads and crucified bodies hanging on trees.
WILLARD: Everything I saw told me that Kurtz has gone insane. The place was full of bodies: North Vietnamese, Vietcong, Cambodians.
If the point is to terrorize, we'd have to say that it works. In case Willard is tempted to give Kurtz the benefit of the doubt, like maybe it's just temporary insanity, Chef has his own take on Kurtz:
CHEF: This colonel guy—he's wacko, man. He's worse than crazy. He's evil. I mean...it's f***ing pagan idolatry. Look around. S***, he's loco.
An American photojournalist who's been covering the war and become part of Kurtz's bizarre realm tells Willard that the man's a genius, a poet, someone who's beyond the understanding of the rest of us mortals. He says all the local tribespeople are Kurtz's spiritual "children." The journalist's sanity is a little, well, questionable, and he both fears and reveres Kurtz. In a brief moment that Shmoop finds hilarious, the journalist notices that Willard's a little skeptical, to put it mildly.
PHOTOJOURNALIST: The heads. You're looking at the heads. I, uh—sometimes he goes too far, you know—he's the first one to admit it!
Well, then, we guess it's okay.
Method in His Madness
When we finally meet him, Kurtz is in fact as enigmatic as Willard thought. Part of the reason is that he's shot almost completely in half-shadow because Brando showed up weighing about 200 pounds more than the role called for and Coppola needed to hide his girth. But the lighting confirms that there's something sinister and mystifying about the man.
Willard's led into Kurtz's compound, which he's set up in an abandoned temple in the jungle. After some small talk, Kurtz gets right to the point. He knows the army wants to kill him and they've sent Willard to do the deed. His demeanor is completely detached.
KURTZ: They say why...Willard, why they wanted to terminate my command?
WILLARD: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
KURTZ: It appears...that its no longer classified, is it? What did they tell you?
WILLARD: They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your methods were unsound.
KURTZ: Are my methods unsound?
WILLARD: I don't see any method at all, sir.
Kurtz is disgusted by the whole business. You can see that he's got nothing but contempt for the rest of the army. He demeans Willard as being no soldier, just an "errand boy, sent by grocery clerks" to collect a bill. He tosses Willard into a cage. Just to make a point, he tosses Chef's severed head into his lap.
Visiting Willard in his cage, the photojournalist then makes a surprisingly (for him) on-target remark about Kurtz. He says, "The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad." Here's what we think that means: we'll see later, from listening to Kurtz himself, that his actions haven't come from the ravings of a crazy person. He's very clear on why he's become so brutal; he's got absolute clarity about his motives and what it takes to win the war quickly. But it's that truth that has made him sick, made his soul "mad."
It makes us think of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An estimated 150,000 people were incinerated or died from radiation poisoning in the attacks, but President Truman had a clear rationale: it would end the war and spare millions of Allied deaths from a drawn-out conflict in the Pacific. It wasn't an impulsive idea coming from an irrational person. It did end the war. But imagine if Truman had to do that every week—kill hundreds of thousands of people to protect Allied interests. That would do a serious number on his soul.
This is Kurtz's undoing, the journalist thinks, and it's why Kurtz hasn't killed Willard.
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Oh yeah. He's dying, I think. He hates all this, he hates it! But […] He's got plans for you. Nah, nah, I'm not going to help you, you're going to help him, man. You're going to help him. I mean, what are they going to say, man, when he's gone, huh? Because he dies, when it dies, man, when it dies, he dies. What are they going to say about him? What, are they going to say, he was a kind man, he was a wise man, he had plans, he had wisdom? Bulls***, man! Am I going to be the one, that's going to set them straight? Look at me: wrong! ...You!
Locked in the cage, sweaty and delirious, Willard's not feeling it.
Even though he knows Willard is probably going to kill him, Kurtz springs him from the cage. He reads some poetry to him: T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men, one of the all-time downer poems in literature and definitely worth a read. It'll help you understand Kurtz and also happens to be an awesome poem besides. It's about dead men, hopeless, morally paralyzed, who find themselves in an empty place devoid of meaning or human connection. Here's a brief digression into a few cheerful verses:
Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
[…] Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.
Kurtz feels compelled to explain himself to Willard. He wants to explain the heads and the crucifixions and the tribes. He knows this stuff can't look good. But the way he sees it, he's not doing anything the army didn't send him to Vietnam to do. He's just doing it more efficiently—the way those other officers would do it if they were really committed to winning the war. But like the poem says, "between the idea and the reality falls the shadow." The shadow might be the sickness Kurtz is feeling because of what he believes he's had to do.
Kurtz tells Willard that he learned an important lesson from observing the brutal methods of a group of Viet Cong who cut off the arms of children who'd just been inoculated for polio by American soldiers and put all the arms in a pile for the Americans to see.
KURTZ: I've seen horrors...horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that.... But you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face.... And you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it...I never want to forget. And then I realized...like I was shot...like I was shot with a diamond...a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God...the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men...trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love...but they had the strength...the strength...to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly.
This episode gives Kurtz a sick kind of moral clarity:
KURTZ: 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.
If only the army had let him do what needed to be done, the war would be over. He'd be a hero instead of an object of disgust, a savior instead of a murderer.
In other words, you can do terrible things and still be a person of high moral character as long as you're clear about why you're doing it. Destructive actions, done with intent and clarity, don't reflect on who you really are.
Try telling that to your parents next time your significant other gets caught shoplifting at Target.
"Colonel Kurtz—He Dead"
Willard comes to see Kurtz as a man completely shattered by his experiences in the war.
WILLARD: On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him, I'd know what to do, but it didn't happen. I was in there with him for days, not under guard—I was free—but he knew I wasn't going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did. If the generals back in the 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 just how far from them he'd really gone? He broke from them and then he broke from himself. I'd never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart...
Willard concludes that Kurtz let him out of the cage because he wanted Willard to put him out of his misery. Things had gone so far off the rails for Kurtz that there was nowhere to go—not back to his family, definitely not back to the army—and keeping on with what he was doing was getting unbearable. But there's one last thing: Kurtz asks Willard to explain to his son what he was trying to accomplish in 'Nam. He can even tell him about the gruesome stuff:
KURTZ: I worry that my son might not understand what I've tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything. Everything I did, everything you saw.... Because there is nothing I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you'll do this for me.
The photojournalist was right.
Willard has a Kurtz-like moral clarity himself as he's about to kill the man:
WILLARD: Everybody wanted me to do it, him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up, not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's who he really took his orders from anyway.
Fun fact: you know that poem Kurtz read to Willard, The Hollow Men? The epigraph to the poem is that famous quote from Heart of Darkness: "Mistah Kurtz—he dead." Kurtz was reading about his own death. How meta can you get?
And now, back to our story: when Willard sneaks into the temple to dispatch Kurtz, Kurtz doesn't resist; after the first blow, he stands up, like the soldier he is, as if to make it easier for Willard to kill him. As he dies, by some unexplainable coincidence, he utters the exact same dying words as Conrad's Kurtz: "The horror…the horror…"
What is the horror Kurtz is talking about?
In Heart of Darkness, we're meant to believe that it's not so much the "jungle" depravity and brutality that Mister Kurtz has sunk to, but the whole "progressive" European system of colonization and industrial greed that sent him to exploit the Congo in the first place.
Same with our guy.
He's not only talking about the decapitated heads and arms. Maybe he's thinking about what ultimately led to all this, which was U.S. involvement in what was really a civil war in Vietnam. His last words, superimposed on Willard's face as he turns off the army's voice on the boat's radio, suggest that Willard might be thinking the same thing. Kurtz's dying words are really the film's strongest anti-war message of all.