General Corman: “In this war, things get confused out there—power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity . . . because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph.”
Over lunch in the intelligence compound at Nha Trang, General Corman explains Kurtz’s descent into insanity as he briefs Willard on his mission to terminate Kurtz. The quotation delineates the basic premise of the film by aligning war with madness. Willard’s journey thus becomes both an actual journey upriver and a metaphorical journey through philosophical terrain. Corman relates the confusion inherent in war to the adoption of an irrational and ultimately evil path. According to Corman, participation in war requires a certain readjustment of morality, and sometimes that readjustment swells until morality is completely skewed. The human heart deals with moral conflicts every day, but war, with its haunting atrocities, exaggerates such conflicts until they easily overwhelm the heart to the point of intense confusion—and sometimes madness. Kurtz, Corman says, has allowed himself to go the way of madness.
The quotation foreshadows the rest of the film, forecasting the dark and difficult choice that Willard will have to make when he reaches Kurtz. Corman’s words resonate throughout the film, as Willard sees the conflicts described played out before him, within himself, and within the other soldiers. Willard struggles with his own internal conflict between good and evil, rationality and irrationality. In Kurtz, his double of sorts, Willard can understand what happens when evil triumphs over goodness and morality. While he relates to Kurtz and even goes so far as to admire and respect him, he must decide his own path. In the end, he chooses the path of rationality, and in doing so he implies that the outcome is indeed a choice—a difficult one but one that every soldier must make. Perhaps good doesn’t always triumph, but evil can win only if one lets it.