Willard and Kurtz: The End of the River


Coppola went through a serious struggle to invent an effective ending for Apocalypse Now. I believe that he succeeded.

He was faced with at least two major artistic challenges. How to create a Colonel Kurtz in the flesh who will live up to the expectations created by the Dossier during the journey upriver.

The second challenge was how to resolve the plot. What is Willard going to do when he meets Kurtz? What is Kurtz going to do? How is all this going to end?

I want to answer these two questions by first making a few general observations about the narrative technique and then move into a detailed analysis of the major scenes from Willard's first encounter with Kurtz to his leaving to go back down river.

I again see the influence of Heart of Darkness. Kurtz's defining characteristic is his voice. He is above all portrayed as a man of words--a man who has the power to mesmerize even Marlow by the force of his eloquence. Marlow looks forward not to seeing Kurtz, but to hearing him. Conrad carefully builds this portrait of Kurtz so that the suspense for Marlow as he draws close to Kurtz is not to see him but to hear him. I think Coppola decided to use the same strategy in creating Colonel Kurtz. All Colonel Kurtz's major scenes are essentially monologue scenes in which he does the talking and Willard listens.

Coppola relies on three techniques to make these scenes work.

The second challenge for Coppola was how to resolve the plot. He had Conrad's story before him in which Kurtz dies of sickness on the boat going back down the river. And the complex ending of Marlow lying to Kurtz's beloved about what happened together with the framestory of the guys listening to Marlow on a boat on the Thames. In his 1975 script Coppola tried to work that kind of an ending. However, in the film itself, he left Conrad far behind. He completely reworked Kurtz's death scene and Willard's trip back. He did it by the technique of reversing expectations. Willard has come all this way to complete his mission from the General to assassinate Colonel Kurtz. He does not assassinate the Colonel, but helps him to commit suicide. He not only doesn't complete his mission, but he takes on a new mission given to him by Kurtz himself--to go back and tell the truth about Kurtz and the war. Quite a dramatic reversal.

What makes these shocking actions make sense is the interplay between Kurtz's monologues and the three very important Willard scenes in which his first-person narration explains his actions.

Let's explore the major scenes to see how they work.

Willard's first encounter with Colonel Kurtz

The opening shot of the scene is crucial in establishing the nature of the encounter. Willard has been brought to the entrance to Kurtz's room. His voice-over sets up the suspense of the encounter: "This was the end of the river all right."

The construction of the scene is simple. It consists of a conventional shot/counter-shot dialogue scene. The first shot is a long take in which the camera, which had been tracking Willard's walk to Kurtz's room, stops for a moment while Willard is made to kneel. Then the camera moves in on Willard and slowly turns to the right to reveal a figure lying in a bed mostly covered in darkness. While the camera is moving in, Kurtz begins to speak before the camera shows him. This shot is effective because it does two things. First, the camera movement creates the suspense. What will we see as the camera slowly turns the corner and moves in on Kurtz? Second, the shot helps focus on that distinctive quality of Kurtz: his voice. We hear him before we see him, a voice speaking out of the darkness. A perfect dramatic introduction to Colonel Kurtz.

The success of this scene depends on four elements. Brando's physical appearance, his acting, the dramatic low-key lighting and the content of the speech. Willard's role is primarily to react to Kurtz's speech. Willard is almost completely static in the whole scene, in which his same MCU reaction-shot is repeated eight times.

Coppola, again, is influenced by Conrad's conception of Kurtz. Marlow's first sight of Kurtz reveals him to be a sick man, with a focus on his bald head as a dramatic sign of his illness. Notice the way Coppola shoots this scene. He keeps Kurtz in the darkness throughout the scene. The low-key lighting illuminates parts of his body, primarily parts of his head and face. The first image of Kurtz that emerges out of the shadows is his bald head. Notice, too, how the lighting serves the dramatic build-up of the scene to its climax. Kurtz's face remains hidden in darkness and shadow, with parts illuminated as he talks. But at the climax of the scene when he raises up to accuse Willard of being an errand boy, his face moves into full-lighting. The beautiful integration of the composition of the shot with the content of the speech.

Brando is constantly using his body gestures to create his character. The cupping of the water in his hands, the patting the water on his head, the clenching of his fist, all are bodily gestures that are perfectly in sync with the dramatic lighting which isolates attention on each key gesture. All of this creates the sense of Kurtz as a sick man.

Finally, the most important aspect of the scene is the content of Kurtz's speech. It is a key speech in establishing the character of Kurtz. Again, it is a reversal of expectations. The first thing Kurtz begins talking to Willard about is gardenias along a river in Ohio: "All wild and overgrown now, but about five miles you'd think that heaven just fell on the earth in the form of gardenias." What? This kind of statement is the last thing one would expect from the so-called insane killing-machine who the General wants assassinated. And that's the point. This speech indicates that Colonel is a sensitive, perceptive man with a poet's command of language. Remember that the Photojournalist called him the "poet-warrior" who enlarged his mind.

Willard and the Photojournalist

I have discussed the significance of this scene in The Role of the Photojournalist. The point I want to make here is about its plot function. This is the key moment which sets up the following action scenes. By means of the Photojournalist, Coppola introduces the idea that there will be a complete reversal of expected meanings. Willard's Mission will be redefined.

Kurtz, Willard and Chef

This brief scene without any dialogue has several functions. It does indicate that Kurtz is insane. But it also indicates that he is ruthlessly consistent in his clarity about what he needs to do. Chef would have soon called in the bombers, so he needed to be eliminated. Finally, Coppola couldn't resist a dramatic homage to The Godfather.

"The Hollow Men"

What is the point of this scene of Kurtz reciting T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men?" It serves the same function as the Gardenia speech: reversal of expectations. Kurtz is reading poetry in the midst of this savage war. And the kind of poetry he reads is extremely important because it reveals his character.

Coppola adds another level of complexity in relationship to Heart of Darkness. Kurtz also reads poetry to the Russian who was mesmerized by Kurtz' eloquence. But the poetry Kurtz reads is very different from the poetry Colonel Kurtz reads. The distinction is crucial in understanding how fundamentally different the two Kurtzs turn out to be.

Conrad's Kurtz reads love poetry and his own poetry. We never hear any of it but we can imagine the kind that is consistent with his character: romantic poety full of high sounding but empty phrases. Remember Marlow points out that Kurtz is blind to the emptiness of his beautiful rhetoric about bringing enlightenment and civilization to the savage Africans. Kurtz is "hollow at the core." So imagine the kind of poetry he reads.

Colonel Kurtz reads a different kind of poetry. We know that he read T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J.F. Prufrock" and Rudyard Kipling's "If" to the Photojournalist. And in this scene he reads the first stanza of "The Hollow Men." As the title and the first stanza indicate, the poem is a withering indictment of the moral emptiness of the modern world: the empty heads and the empty speech. So what kind of a man reads these kinds of poems? A man who has self-awareness and an acute sense of the ironies and contradictions of the world. Certainly not the Kurtz of Heart of Darkness.

The final bit of cleverness that Coppola adds to the scene is a nice in-joke for anyone who has read the Eliot poem. The poem is Eliot's meditation on Heart of Darkness. The epigraph to the poem is a line from the novella: "Mistah Kurtz he dead." The fundamental image of the poem--hollow men--is taken from Marlow's words: Kurtz was "hollow at the core." Coppola has his Kurtz reading the poem about Conrad's Kurtz.

Willard's Reflection Scene

This brief scene is a key scene for setting up the subsequent action. Coppola uses reaction-shots and pov shots combined with the voice-over to create a sense of Willard struggling to decide what to do.

The three pov shots are very important because they show important details about Colonel Kurtz that establish his character.

Kurtz' Monologue on Morality

In terms of film technique, this scene adds nothing new. Coppola relies on the techniques he employed in the first encounter between Willard and Kurtz: Brando's acting and the dramatic low-key lighting which switches Brando in and out of the darkness in perfect sync with the rhythms of his monologue. The little unexpected detail of Brando chewing on a nut is another of his many facial and bodily gestures that convey the impression of a powerful mind on the edge of sanity.

It is a daring scene because it is slow and long as Brando struggles to articulate complex and rather obscure ideas about morality and war. Once he gets on to telling the story of the children with the hacked-off arms the speech reaches clarity and power.

The point of Kurtz's story is central to understanding both his moral vision and just what has driven him insane. The North Vietnamese had the moral clarity to sacrifice even their children's arms to serve the values they believed in. What they did confirms his own moral clarity about what he was doing and what needed to be done by the Americans to win the war: "If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly." The fact that the Generals who are running the war do not share this vision of what must be done, is what ultimately has driven Kurtz mad.

The dramatic arc of Kurtz's speech reaches its crescendo as the light comes up on Brando's face, just as it did to end the first encounter scene.

Willard's Mission

Coppola segues into a new dramatic moment by shifting to Willard's reaction-shot as Kurtz's voice begins addressing Willard directly with his new mission. As Kurtz is speaking over Willard image, the camera slowly pulls back from Willard, dissolves quickly to a long shot of Kurtz standing in a doorway, with a carabao in front of him, then cuts to the tribe dancing as Kurtz finishes his comission to Willard: "And if you understand me, Willard, you'll do this for me."

Kurtz has now made explicit what the Photojournalist had suggested to Willard. Coppola incorporates a line from Marlow to make it clear that Kurtz wants Willard to tell the truth: "Because there is nothing I detest more than the stench of lies (HD #61).

The long shot of Kurtz and the carabao with the cut to the dancing now prepare us for the grand operatic finish of Kurtz's sacrificial death.

The Death of Kurtz: "The Horror. The Horror."

After the slow and intensely reflective monologue scenes, Coppola changes pace with a fast and furious denouement.

The complex scene has six sections.

  1. First is the set-up of the natives dancing to prepare the sacrifice of the carabao.

  2. Then he cuts to Willard on the boat preparing to perform the sacrifice with his voice-over explaining what he's doing. The music from The Doors begins softly playing in the background.

  3. Willard begins moving toward Kurtz, with a series of quick cuts between the animal, Kurtz in the doorway, and Willard poised with his machete. Precisely in sync with his gesture, the singing begins.

  4. As Willard moves in for the kill, we hear Kurtz's voice. From a Willard pov shot, we see Kurtz dictating into a micophone.

  5. Then begins the rapid cross-cutting between Willard attacking Kurtz with the machete and the natives with machetes attacking the sacrificial animal. The crosscutting is in sync as the killing actions are matched. The music is also in perfect sync, rising into a furious wild sound as Kurtz and the animal are hacked to death. The music ends as the animal and Kurtz fall to the ground.

  6. The drama ends with a cut to an extreme close-up of Kurtz's profile. In the silence, he whispers: "The horror! The horror!" Then a reaction-shot of Willard's grief. The final shot: a close-up of Kurtz's dead hand.

My first observation about this scene is that Coppola resorts to operatic grand gestures with very overt symbolic meaning. He uses his famous cross-cutting technique from the Godfather to endow Kurtz's death with dramatic intensity and symbolic importance. How are we to understand this scene?

We must begin with examining Willard's voice-over on the boat as he prepares to kill Kurtz: "They were going to make me a major for this and I wasn't even in their fucking army anymore." This statement tells us that Willard, like Colby before him, has converted. He has come to believe Kurtz's version of the war, and, like Kurtz, he has gotten off the boat. Willard is going to kill Kurtz, but it will not be an assassination. He is going to kill Kurtz because Kurtz wants him to: "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." In other words, Willard will act as the instrument of Kurtz's will, he will assist Kurtz in committing suicide. Willard's voice-over thus provides a very clear interpretation of the subsequent killing scene.

There is a strange moment, just as Willard is moving in for the kill, which reveals Kurtz's mental state just before his death. He is visible upset in his voice and gestures as he dictates: "They train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write 'fuck' on their airplanes because it's obscene!" Kurtz has gone over the edge because he sees and cannot accept such moral blindness and hypocrisy in the fighting of the war. He is ready to die as the only escape from his painful condition.

Now begins the dramatic crosscutting. But why the extravagant animal sacrifice? Why not just have Willard shoot him? Of course the cross-cutting is visually engaging and adds a powerful dramatic dimension, but it also has an even more important role in giving Kurtz's death a larger symbolic significance. The crosscutting creates a visual simile: this is like that. The killing of Kurtz is like the ritual killing of the sacrificial animal. The comparison of Kurtz to the sacrificial animal suggests that Kurtz is a tragic victim of the war. A great and good man of courage and moral clarity who was destroyed by the moral contradictions of an insane war. And yet the Generals and those back home will only see him as a crazy killer who has succumbed to primitive bloodlust. And that is why Willard must return home.

After the frenzy of violent action and music comes silence and a close-up of the dying Kurtz. Coppola brings us back to Conrad as Kurtz whispers the famous words: "The horror! The horror!

Dramatically, a perfectly constructed ending to the scene. But what, exactly, do these words mean? Surely not what they do in Heart of Darkness. Marlow makes clear that he thinks that Kurtz at the moment of his death looked inside himself and pronounced a wither self-judgement. Kurtz was a remarkable man because he at last came to some self-knowledge. He passed judgement on his evil actions.

Colonel Kurtz's words mean something different. He is not looking inward, but outward. His judgment is not about himself but about the moral contradictions and absurdities of the Vietnam war.

Willard now begins his new mission. He gathers Kurtz's journal, finds Lance and returns to the boat with the memories of the war and Kurtz's words echoing in his head.

(See Willard's Mind: The Beginnng and the End for a detailed analysis of the last scene.)