Colonel Kurtz exists in his own private world of warcraft where he wields complete power over his followers and his enemies. He sets himself up in an abandoned Cambodian temple, which adds to his godlike mystique with the indigenous people who do his bidding. Since we come into the middle of Kurtz's story, we're not sure exactly how he managed to do this, but we're guessing it has something to do with the severed heads and crucifixions all around his compound. Fear, random violence, mystique, drugs—probably all of these have given Kurtz his power. Reading T.S. Eliot to the Montagnards probably helped, too. It sure scared us in high school.
Just like in Heart of Darkness, the novel on which the film is based, Kurtz's power over the native population in Apocalypse Now is symbolic of the subjugation of an indigenous people by a more "civilized" power. Coppola seems to be saying that Kurtz's power over his Montagnards is nothing compared to what happened to the rest of the Vietnamese civilian population during the war. Kilgore's copters blaring "Ride of the Valkyries" while strafing beaches and villages—that's definitely a display of power no less crazy than Kurtz's severed heads. Ditto Willard and his special ops assassinations.
Funny thing is, none of the characters—except maybe Kilgore—feel very powerful. They all feel like their fates are shaped by forces beyond their control, whether it's the army brass or the law of the jungle or just the craziness of war. Nobody's really a winner in this power play.
Questions About Power
What effect does wielding power have on Kurtz?
Are the U.S. generals who oppose Kurtz threatened most by his brutality or by the fact that he's stolen control from them?
Does Willard want power?
What's Kurtz's justification for wielding the kind of power he has?
Chew on This
Kurtz learns that brutal displays of power are necessary to inspire loyalty.
The people who command Kurtz are attacking him not because they disagree with his tactics, but simply because they want to be the ones running the show.