WILLARD: I'd wake up and there'd be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said "yes" to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I'm here a week now...waiting for a mission...getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.
Willard's been at war so long that he's more adjusted to being in the war than in normal life. Makes you think of all the vets who struggle to adjust to civilian life after what they've witnessed.
KURTZ: We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig...cow after cow...village after village...army after army...
This is Kurtz's whole philosophy of war: total annihilation. The key to success is complete ruthlessness. Holding back just enables the enemy and extends the war. You can't keep doing this and hang on to your sanity.
KILGORE: Charlie don't surf!
It's this mentality that allows Kilgore to be so casually destructive. He dismisses the value of another culture and figures that the Americans have the rights to this particular beach even if they have to destroy the adjacent village.
KILGORE: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like…victory. Someday this war's gonna end.
Kilgore's so hopped up on the war that the smell of napalm—a blazing gel that burns people to death—makes him feel great. This is a hint to the viewer that Kilgore has…let's just say, lost perspective. War's a game to him. He's a little wistful when he says that someday the war's gonna end.
WILLARD: "Someday this war's gonna end." That'd be just fine with the boys on the boat. They weren't looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I'd been back there, and I knew that it just didn't exist anymore.
Willard thinks that the young guys are probably a little less sentimental about war than Kilgore. "Home" doesn't exist anymore—either because the war has ruined their ability to relate to normal home life or because the tensions over the war have changed the U.S. When then the Vietnam vets got home, in many cases they were treated like murderers and called "baby-killers" because the war was so unpopular.
Lots of the people who called them that, btw, were young people of draft age (19-26) who didn't enlist and were just lucky enough not to get drafted. The Vietnam draft was based on birth dates, which were randomly drawn in a lottery. If you were a man (women weren't in the draft pool) born on September 14, for example, your number came up first and you were called up. They got through the first 195 birthdays and that satisfied the need for servicemen. You can imagine how guys felt sitting by the radio listening to the birthdays being read.
WILLARD: Well, he [Kilgore] wasn't a bad officer, I guess. He loved his boys, and he felt safe with 'em. He was just one of those guys with that weird light around him. He just knew he wasn't gonna get so much as a scratch here.
Kilgore might feel invulnerable, but he subjects his men to unnecessary danger, like ordering them to go surfing while a battle is still raging. Willard's right—he does seem to have a force field around him.
WILLARD (quoting Kurtz): In a war there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action—what is often called ruthless—what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it, directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.
Kurtz doesn't see his ruthlessness as excessive—just as something necessary to win the war. He thinks it's important to be able to separate moral judgment from the actions that need to be taken to win the war.
KURTZ: I remember when I was with Special Forces...seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember...I...I...I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn't know what I wanted to do!
Kurtz at one time had compassion. He still thinks he has compassion—he's just able to put it aside in order to do what it takes to win the war.
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.
Kurtz isn't a fan of letting your morals get in the way of doing your soldierly duty. He thinks it'll just lead you to wimping out and not doing what really needs to be done.
KURTZ: We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won't allow them to write "f***" on their airplanes because it's obscene!
Here's an insight into one of the many moral paradoxes of war. You can see how Kurtz has given up on the Army's logic and is living by his own set of rules now. He doesn't see his reasoning as any more twisted than the Army's.
KURTZ: The horror...the horror...
Kurtz is lost in a universe of pain. No wonder he kinda wants Willard to put him out of his misery. There's still ambiguity in these last word. Is he talking about the horrors of the war? The horrors he's inflicted himself? Maybe he's just fond of quoting Joseph Conrad.
WILLARD: "Never get out of the boat." Absolutely goddamn right! Unless you were goin' all the way... Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole f***in' program.
Willard seems to be saying that once you've abandoned the plans the army's laid out for you, you're at risk for becoming seriously unhinged. Once you've left the metaphorical boat, you're in the lawless jungle.
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.
For Kurtz, reality boils down to that raw struggle for survival—it's both his dream and his nightmare. You have to live on the thin edge between life and death. Ugh—once you've imagined that snail, you can't un-imagine it.
LANCE: You know that last tab of acid I was saving? I dropped it.
Here's how one commentator described Lance's drug use: "This may be camouflage more than anything; while sanity would stand out against this background, insanity blends right in" (source).
WILLARD: (reading) "There has been a new development regarding your mission which we must now communicate to you. Months ago a man was ordered on a mission which was identical to yours. We have reason to believe that he is now operating with Kurtz. Saigon was carrying him MIA for his family's sake. They assumed he was dead. Then they intercepted a letter he tried to send his wife: SELL THE HOUSE. SELL THE CAR. SELL THE KIDS. FIND SOMEONE ELSE. FORGET IT. I'M NEVER COMING BACK. FORGET IT."
Captain Richard Colby—he was with Kurtz.
Captain Colby's apparently drunk the Kool-Aid. He saw something in the jungle and in Kurtz that made him throw his life away. When Willard sees the man he assumes is Colby, he looks emotionally dead, expressionless. He looks just like the kind of man Kurtz wants: one who can kill without emotion or judgment.
WILLARD: Could we, uh...talk to Colonel Kurtz?
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Hey, man, you don't talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he'll...uh...well, you'll say "hello" to him, right? And he'll just walk right by you. He won't even notice you. And suddenly he'll grab you, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say, "Do you know that 'if' is the middle word in life? 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you' ...I mean I'm...no, I can't...I'm a little man, I'm a little man, he's...he's a great man! 'I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas...'"
We're guessing that this babbling photojournalist is pretty hopped up on some kind of jungle pharmaceuticals, but being a witness to Kurtz's brutal little community in the jungle probably hasn't helped much. The lines beginning with "If you can keep your head" and "I should have been a pair of ragged claws" are from Rudyard Kipling's "If" and T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," respectively. As we learn, Kurtz is a huge poetry fan.
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 has gone off the deep end, into a world where there are no rules. Just the rein of brutality and ruthlessness. Or has he? This is one of the film's central questions. Kurtz's actions seem completely unhinged, but he has a very clear idea of why he's doing what he's doing. Willard sees no method, but Kurtz later lays it out in detail.
PHOTOJOURNALIST: I wish I had words, man. I wish I had words...I can tell ya something like the other day he wanted to kill me. Somethin' like that...
WILLARD: Why'd he wanna kill you?
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Because I took his picture. He said "If you take my picture again, I'm gonna kill you." And he meant it.
Why doesn't Kurtz want his picture taken? Is he buying into a superstition of the Montagnards who follow him? Or is it that he doesn't want his current degraded state to be witnessed by the world?
PHOTOJOURNALIST: The heads. You're looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far. He's the first one to admit it.
The film is teasing us again. Kurtz does crazy things, but he knows they're pretty extreme. If he were really crazy, would he have that ability to reflect and judge his actions? On the other hand, if you displayed some chopped-off heads once and regretted it, we'd think you probably wouldn't do it again.
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Why would a nice guy like you want to kill a genius? Why? Because they told you he was crazy? The Colonel is not crazy. The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad.
The journalist says that the Colonel is clear in his mind because he really does think extreme brutality is necessary to win the war. But his soul is mad, because at some level Kurtz is horrified by what he's doing. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad wrote: "I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself." That struggle seems to be why Kurtz almost welcomed Willard to kill him. He knew what he had to do to win, but couldn't take it any longer.
WILLARD: How many people had I already killed? There were those six that I knew about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time, it was an American and an officer. That wasn't supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. S***...charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?
The officers want Kurtz dead because he represents a threat to their vision of the war. He exposes that the essence of the war is pure brutality, and dispenses with all their illusions of ideals and humanitarianism. He's way beyond their control at this point.
CIVILIAN: Terminate with extreme prejudice.
This high-ranking government civilian—whoever he is—has one line in the whole movie. It's a menacing line, expressing a command from on high that's suspicious and mysterious. Scenarios like this feed into a belief that lots of people have, that a malevolent government is doing things behind our backs and manipulating us in ways that we can't even imagine.
WILLARD: No wonder Kurtz put a weed up Command's ass. The war was being run by a bunch of four star clowns who were gonna end up giving the whole circus away.
The "four star clowns" aren't really committed to winning the war the way Kurtz is. Kurtz is willing to kill at all costs in order to attain victory, whereas the commanding officers just want to create the appearance that they're winning without actually doing it. Even by 1969 it was clear that the war wasn't going exactly the way the U.S. hoped.
KILGORE: If I say it's safe to surf this beach, Captain, then it's safe to surf this beach! I mean, I'm not afraid to surf this place, I'll surf this whole f***ing place!
Kilgore is so high on the power he wields that he's wildly confident. He's the only major character whose sense of control isn't totally shattered by the war.
KURTZ: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?
WILLARD: I'm a soldier.
KURTZ: You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.
Kurtz expresses his contempt for the commanders in charge of Willard. He doesn't think they're serious about winning the war; they're just trying to settle accounts with Kurtz, who really does want to win. Kurtz has long since quit being controlled by what his commanding officers think he should be doing.
KURTZ: 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.
Kurtz knows that if he had soldiers ruthless enough to chop off the inoculated arms of children, he would be able to win the war easily. In a flash of insight, he recognizes the simple effectiveness of raw power. He doesn't see this as a moral issue at all.
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 Nha 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. Kurtz couldn't have achieved the power he has without haven't gone off the psychological deep end. Even in war, Willard believes there's some limit to how you use your power.
KURTZ: Have you ever considered any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinion of others...even the opinions of yourself?
Kurtz feels like he's beyond judgment, and that gives him the power to do what he wants. For most normal people, the judgment of others is what reins us in. And, oh yeah, our sense of right and wrong.
WILLARD: It's a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut 'em in half with a machine gun and gave 'em a Band-Aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw them, the more I hated lies.
Willard sees the hypocrisy that the same commanders who are dropping napalm on villages and burning civilians to death are also performing humanitarian gestures that don't make a huge difference.
COLONEL LUCAS: Did you not assassinate a government tax collector in Quang Tri province, June 19th, 1968? Captain?
WILLARD: Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation...nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir.
This is Willard's way of answering "Yes" to this question. Because of the nature of his work, he has to maintain the pretense of acting with intense secrecy even around superior officers who clearly know about his earlier missions.
WILLARD: Oh man...the bulls*** piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it.
Willard is talking about how the generals wanted to discharge Kurtz for launching a successful operation without permission. But when the press found out, the generals promoted Kurtz instead. The generals seem to be more concerned with how they're perceived than with pursuing a strategy to win the war.
WILLARD (quoting Kurtz): As for the charges against me, I am unconcerned. I am beyond their timid lying morality, and so I am beyond caring.
Kurtz thinks the higher-ups do things that are effectively as immoral as anything Kurtz does, but view Kurtz as being worse since he's broken the chain of command. They're all hypocrites in Kurtz's not-so-humble opinion.
CHIEF: You're on your own, captain. You wanna go on? Like this bridge: we build it every night. Charlie blows it right back up again. Just so the generals can say the road's open. Think about it. Who cares?
News of the Vietnam war was on the TV news every single day. Were Americans hearing the truth about the progress of the war?
WILLARD: My mission is to make it up into Cambodia. There's a Green Beret Colonel up there who's gone insane. I'm supposed to kill him.
CHEF: What? Oh, that's typical! S***! F***in' Vietnam mission! I'm short, and we gotta go up there so you can kill one of our own guys? That's f***in' great! That's just f***in' great! S***! That's f***in' crazy! I thought you were going in there to blow up a bridge, or some f***ing railroad tracks or something!
Chef thinks it's a "typical" Vietnam mission because it's totally screwed up: instead of destroying the enemy, Willard's supposed to kill one of their own guys. It just demonstrates that the war is an ethical mess.
KURTZ: What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? A lie. A lie and we have to be merciful.
Kurtz believes that the generals are as violent and brutal as he is. He's just open and honest about it.
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's nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me.
In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the Willard character, Marlow, goes to see Kurtz's fiancée after Kurtz dies. Instead of telling her the truth—that Kurtz's last words were "the horror…the horror…"—he tells her that Kurtz spoke her name as he expired. Do you think Willard can spin this one?
GENERAL CORMAN: Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. 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 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. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.
This little speech from the general sums up the moral ambiguities in the film. The reference to Lincoln is a little corny, don't you think? The whole speech rings a little false—"conflict in every human heart," etc.—and we're guessing Coppola meant it to be that way. From Kurtz's perspective, leaders like Corman are hypocrites who refuse to recognize their own guilt in spite of all their moralizing.
WILLARD: Charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out traffic tickets at the Indy 500.
More moral ambiguity: everybody's done what Kurtz has done. Maybe not to the same depraved degree, but they've done it. Willard knows he's done it.
WILLARD: Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him.
Willard wants to confront the "heart of darkness"—Kurtz himself—and see what he's about. He wants to know what happened to get Kurtz to this point, because he knows what he himself is capable of.
WILLARD: If that's how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder; there was enough of that to go around for everyone.
Kilgore is conducting the war in a questionable way, but still respecting the chain of command. Kurtz has gone rogue, which is what really irks the commanders. Kurtz's "evil" isn't so much the severed heads but that he did it without their permission.
CHEF: This Colonel guy? He's wacko, man! He's worse than crazy. He's evil. It's f***in' pagan idolatry. Look around you. S***! He's loco...I ain't afraid of all them f***in' skulls and altars and s***. I used to think if I died in an evil place, then my soul wouldn't be able to make it to Heaven. But now? F***! I mean, I don't care where it goes, as long as it ain't here. So whaddya wanna do? I'll kill the f***.
Chef isn't buying Kurtz's explanations for what he's doing (trying to win the war by any means necessary). In the "bad vs. mad" debate, Chef goes with "mad."
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.
Kurtz has become so broken by the evil he's perpetrated that maybe he can't live with himself anymore. But he holds onto a definition of what's right—being a brave soldier who can face the consequences of his actions. Maybe he realizes that, all things considered, his death serves the greater good.