Study Guide

Apocalypse Now Good vs. Evil

Good vs. Evil

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.

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