Green Beret Colonel Walter E. Kurtz is the archetypal evil genius. Whereas Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness was gaunt, his flesh consumed by the jungle, Marlon Brando’s weight gain before the shooting of Apocalypse Now prevented a similar portrayal in Coppola’s film. Rather than portray Kurtz as indulgent, Brando played him as a larger-than-life character with ominous omniscience. He understands war on the deepest of levels—he sees clearly its horror and has implicated himself with helpless resignation. Indeed, he has turned his back on morality and chosen horror as his lifestyle. Whether Kurtz is insane is up to the viewer. The hanging corpses and severed heads flung around his compound attest to madness, but one could argue that Kurtz’s methods are perfectly sound in the context of a war that is itself insane. Indoctrinated into the methods of the U.S. armed forces, Kurtz did everything right until he got in trouble for killing some Vietnamese intelligence agents. His career was ruined. Bitter at what he considered hypocrisy within the military, Kurtz chose the path of subversion and created his own colony and army, where he now plays God and makes decisions outside the subjective stain of morality.
As Kurtz is Willard’s endpoint, so Willard is Kurtz’s. Kurtz sees Willard as a receptacle for the philosophy that he has lived out in Cambodia. Kurtz wants to die but must first impart his knowledge to Willard so that the assassin will be able to denounce the war after he completes his mission. Kurtz sees no hope in the world, only the darkness that he himself has fostered. He speaks in lofty, grandiose statements about “the horror” of war, yet he is fully, willingly complicit in these horrors. He has given himself full reign, freeing himself from all moral judgments—after all, what place does morality have in war? Thus, Kurtz has become a dark, godlike figure. No one holds him accountable for his actions, not even himself. Brando’s baldness gives his character a monklike, spiritual physicality that emphasizes his godly posturing. While Kurtz accepts and indulges the darkness within the soul, this darkness is what eventually breaks him down. His last words, “The horror, the horror,” suggest that he is seeing clearly for the first time and that he has greeted death so willingly because only death can liberate him from his hopelessness.
Coppola cloaks Kurtz in shadows for all of his scenes. His face is shown in full light only twice, and fleetingly both times: as he calls Willard an “errand boy,” and as he throws Chef’s head into Willard’s lap. (Brando’s face is camouflaged in the second scene.) This shadowy portrayal adds to the surreal quality of the film and the character. The poetry of T. S. Eliot, specifically “The Hollow Men” and “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” figures in Kurtz’s dialogue, as well as in the photojournalist’s blathering. All of this combines to create a character that is out-of-bounds mentally, spiritually, and physically. Despite his grandiose physicality and manner of speaking, Colonel Kurtz’s humanity has withered away. He has faced, and egged on, his demons, and they have won. He can go now, and Willard is his way out.