Call Me Kurtz
January 16, 2010
It is Saturday morning here in Boston. The sun is shining. From my desk, I can see a blue sky as early morning light is breaking over the tops of the trees. My new Iphone 3Gs tells me it will be 43 degrees today, downright sweltering for a Boston winter day. Today will be a lazy day, a day of completing some undone chores, a day of laundry, a day of playoff football, and a day of writing.
Over the past week, I have been drawn to watch Apocalypse Now Redux. I started to watch the movie last week, but only got through one hour before a phone call grabbed my attention. Then yesterday afternoon, after completing a successful work week, and feeling fairly done with any and all commitments, I turned off my phone, sat on my sofa and began to channel flip. There on HBO was Apocalypse Now Redux, about 45 minutes into the movie. I fixed myself some leftover Cambodian sweet and sour pork ribs (the connection between my meal and the movie only now coming clear to me) and sat down to watch this 3 hour and 22 minute epic film.
In case you are not familiar with Apocalypse Now, the original film came out in August of 1979. It was an instant Francis Ford Coppola classic. In 2001, the film was augmented with 45 minutes of additional footage and titled Apocalypse Now Redux . I had watched the original film at least 5 times. It was a part of my DVD collection, although I believe it was sold during my “get rid of my possessions” period in June of last year. I had not grasped the significance nor the essence of the film at the time. However, after seeing the film again, with the additional 45 minutes, I must report that my experience of Apocalypse Now Redux was truly divine.
To give you a brief synopsis, Captain Willard, played my Martin Sheen, is sent on a mission to travel down the Nung River, into a dangerous region of Cambodia, to find and kill Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. Willard is told by his superiors that Kurtz has gone insane, and his command is to be terminated.
Colonel Lucas: “Your mission is to proceed up the Nung River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Kurtz’s path at Nu Mung Ba, follow it and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.
Willard: Terminate the Colonel.
General Corman: He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.
Civilian: Terminate with extreme prejudice.
Colonel Lucas: You understand Captain that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist.”
The movie takes place among the backdrop of the Vietnam War. During his journey down the river, Willard and his fellow travelers meet many unique characters while living through what most would call very strange, bizarre and frightening experiences. As I was watching, the movie took a very interesting turn when I heard Willard utter these words:
“Never get out of the boat.” Absolutely goddamn right!
Unless you were goin’ all the way…
Kurtz got off the boat.
He split from the whole fuckin’ program.”
At this point in the movie, I started paying close attention to the details. Why would this line ignite me the way it did? Because, I have split from the “whole fuckin’ program!” Suddenly I felt a kindred spirit with Colonel Kurtz. Are we talking about the same program? Could this movie be perceived as a man’s search for truth? Could this film be a metaphor for a man’s achievement of enlightenment? Is Kurtz insane, as everyone in the film suggests, or could this be the perception of the ignorant? How can the unenlightened know how to judge the enlightened? What was Kurtz’s game? How far had he gotten along the path? This film now presented itself as a drama of the highest order.
Throughout the film, Captain Willard is trying to make sense out of his mission. He spends time each day reviewing Kurtz’s documents. Kurtz was a decorated soldier. He did everything right. Kurtz was destined to be a General. And then something happened. Clearly, something really big happened to Colonel Kurtz that bolted him out of the tribe. More than a search for Kurtz, it seems Willard is looking for an answer, an answer to the question: What happened to Colonel Kurtz that caused him to leave the military, establish an unauthorized compound, and live amongst and lead a tribe of Cambodian people? By examining Kurtz’s life, Willard was looking at himself a bit further down the path, and regardless of the incredible dangers, he was drawn down the river to find his answers.
Willard: “Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. “
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 was hooked. Somewhere deep inside, he knew that by confronting Kurtz, Willard would be confronting himself and his own humanity. If you look at life as a path towards truth realization, as I do, then you begin to see this movie in a whole different light. It is my observation that there are several common distractions along the path, activities that we undertake for days, months, years, and lifetimes in lieu of waking up, and this movie presents all of them as Willard pushes forward down the river.
These are the people who look for the next high, the next opportunity to feel an adrenaline rush. Robert Duvall plays a character in the film name Kilgore who is exactly this. He is obsessed with finding good waves along the river. He loves the smell of napalm in the morning. He leads an air cavalry squadron that plays Wagner while raining bullets and bombs on benign Vietnamese villages.
Kilgore: “You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for twelve hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like – victory.
Someday this war is gonna end.”
And when the war ends, what will Kilgore do? If he is like most, he will find another war to fight, another thrill to seek, another distraction to eat up his life.
A group of soldiers are entertained by Playboy bunnies flown into the center of the war. Man’s obsession with sex as a way to feel good, to feel valuable, and as a way to avoid feeling the void is a huge distraction along the path, often preventing men from truly experiencing the final quest.
Another way to tune out, ease the pain, and “search for god”. Certain drugs can be used very fruitfully along the path, but most often they are are used to escape the harsh reality of our situation here on earth. There is a scene in which the boat stops, and all the soldiers on the shore are strung out, impotent, uninterested, numb and non responsive. While Willard and Kurtz kept on marching, and “Charlie” (slang for the Vietnamese, and perhaps slang for Maya) crouches in the jungle, these soldiers took a time out.
Doing The Right Thing:
Men get caught up in tasks and duties. We are raised to build families, provide for the family, work hard, rise up in the corporation, make money, etc. You all know the story. However, for some men, something happens that throws us off the train. We find ourselves covered in dust and dirt, asking ourselves “What’s really going on here?” Still, for most, their entire life is one of meeting society’s expectations, an opportunity lost. In the film, this is most poignantly addressed when Willard, toward the end of the movie, receives an updated mission statement up river. He is informed that another soldier had also been sent to terminate Kurtz’s command, and had now become a part of Kurtz’s compound. Willard reads a letter the soldier wrote to his wife:
“SELL THE HOUSE
SELL THE CAR
SELL THE KIDS
FIND SOMEONE ELSE
I’M NEVER COMING BACK
Captain Richard Colby – he was with Kurtz.”
I have shared with you that I had to have time alone, away from my wife and family, in order to deal with my own process. I was crazy (crazier, at least), delving into my own darkness, and experiencing my own insanity. I was barely tolerable to myself, let alone somebody else. I don’t know if this has to happen, but it does seem that when one gets a feel for the greatest game on the planet, and gets a sense of where one is truly going, all else pales in comparison. An enthusiasm, an obsession, an exhilaration takes over. It grabs you and throttles you by the neck. Nothing else matters.
Willard: “I hardly said a word to my wife until I said yes to a divorce.”
Why do we do what we are told, just because we are told? Are we really just a bunch of sheep, eating our grass, waiting to be lead to the slaughterhouse? At what point do we begin thinking for ourselves.
Kurtz: “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! “
Willard: “Hey soldier, do you know whose in command here?
Soldier: Ain’t you?”
The Government, The Church, The Television, Advertising, The Press, The Banks, The Multinational Corporations, The Pharmaceutical Industry. Like puppets on a string, we follow orders, some subtle and some not so subtle. The grand plan as I see it is to keep us docile, meek and impotent. It is all about control. And the master’s trick is that most people have the perception of control, but in reality, there is none. It is all pre-programmed. It couldn’t be any more apparent, yet so few stand up and yell “Fuck It All!”
“Fuck It All!”
As Willard keep plodding on down the river, past all the distractions, he begins to feel a keen sense of awareness about the plight of men. As he gets closer to Kurtz, he begins to feel Kurtz. It is my observation that as one gets around someone with a high energy, perceptions begin to shift. A clarity descends. A simplicity emerges. Indeed, Kurtz was a guru, as so many were naturally attracted to him. Here is one of Willard’s observations:
Willard:“Charley didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.”
Death or Victory. This is the reality, the only reality. Either you wake up or you die. Both are inevitable. One will come before the other. If Charlie is the enemy, another way of referring to Maya or the Ego, and he is dug in deep and moving fast, as is my experience, then it is time to get your game on. But is this something you can create, this sense of urgency, or is it rather destiny? Of this, I do not know. It is a chicken and egg question. And it is irrelevant. Willard seems to think the answer lies in what we want.
Willard: “Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.”
Before addressing Willard’s meeting with Kurtz, I need to point out that out of 4 men that accompanied Willard on the boat, only one survived – Lance. Lance is the surfer dude who had a very easy going personality. I share this to point out that unless you are willing to go with the flow, you are going against it. This is where surrender plays a huge part in this life’s path.
CHEF: “Lance, hey Lance. What do you think ?”
LANCE: “It’s beautiful.”
CHEF: “What’s the matter with you ? You’re acting kinda weird.”
LANCE: “Hey you know that last tab of acid I was saving. I dropped it.”
CHEF: “You dropped acid ?”
LANCE: “Far out.”
I see Lance’s dropping of LSD as his way of surrendering to the bizarre and terrifying world in which he found himself. Dropping the acid allowed Lance to experience the Vietnam world through a different lens. It allowed him to survive, here expressing aloud that he preferred the Vietnam War over Disneyland.
“Lance, I’m fine. I was on a trip to Disneyland. There can never be a place like Disneyland, or could there ? Let me know –
LANCE (speaking) Jim, it’s here… really is here.”
All the others on the boat were strung pretty tight. They resisted their situation. It is the resistance of these soldiers, rather than the acceptance and surrender, that caused their pain and ultimate death. Imagine, if your Ego, your little voice, ie, the enemy, didn’t speak up and judge everything. Then there would be no problems. There would be no conflict. The internal dialogue would be muted. Everything would be perfectly as it should be. In fact, everything is as it is, and that’s OK with me. Even a war is part of the flow. Even the horrors of war are perfect. Death and mutilation are part of the flow. There is nothing else but the flow.
Willard: ” The machinist, the one they called Chef, was from New Orleans. He was rapped too tight for Vietnam, probably rapped too tight for New Orleans. Lance on the forward 50’s was a famous surfer from the beaches south of LA. You look at him and you wouldn’t believe he ever fired a weapon in his whole life. Clean, Mr. Clean, was from some South Bronx shithole. Light and space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head. Then there was Phillips, the Chief. It might have been my mission, but it sure as shit was Chief’s boat.”
When Willard finally meets Kurtz, I was struck by how sane Kurtz seemed in the acceptance of his fate. As the movie builds Kurtz up as a murdering despot, my expectations were as such. But Kurtz is not insane. He is the most sane individual in the movie. It is only the judgments of the ignorant that paint the picture of insanity. This is the lesson. If the insane determine who is insane, where does that leave the sane? History is littered with examples of this, none the least of which is Jesus crucifixion at the hands of the authorities. They didn’t understand. How could they? They feared the unknown, and so destroyed it to create something known.
Kurtz: “Have you ever considered any real freedoms ? Freedoms – from the opinions of others… Even the opinions of yourself.
“They say why…, Willard, why they wanted to terminate my command ?”
WILLARD: “I was sent on a classified mission, sir.”
KURTZ: “Ain’t no longer classified, is it? What did they tell you ?”
WILLARD: ” They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your methods were unsound.”
KURTZ: ” Are my methods unsound?”
WILLARD: ” I don’t see any method at all, sir.”
KURTZ: ” I expected someone like you. What did you expect?”
Willard only shakes his head :
KURTZ: ” Are you an assassin?”
WILLARD: ” I’m a soldier.”
KURTZ: ” You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”
There were several very fascinating things that happened while Willard and Kurtz were together. The first thing I noticed was that Willard seemed to take a liking to Kurtz. Kurtz was relaxed, aware, and spoke the truth about the war. Willard was starting to understand Kurtz and appreciate the audacity and accuracy of what Kurtz said. Here he assesses Kurtz from his own point of view:
Willard: “On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him, I’d know what to do, but it didn’t happen. I was in there with him for days, not under guard – I was free – but he knew I wasn’t going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did. If the generals back in the Trang could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? More than ever probably. And what would his people back home want if they ever learned just how far from them he’d really gone? He broke from them and then he broke from himself. I’d never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart…”
Kind of sounds like the end of an initiation ritual.
Likewise, Kurtz took a liking to Willard. He could see Willard in himself. Kurtz trusted the soldier in Willard. Here is Kurtz entrusting Willard with his final communication with the world.
Kurtz: “I worry that my son might not understand what I’ve tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything. Everything I did, everything you saw… Because there is nothing I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you’ll do this for me.”
In fact, Willard had shared the same sentiments about lies earlier in the film:
Willard: ” It was the way we had over here of living with ourselves. We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a bandaid. It was a lie, and the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies. “
Kurtz took his orders from the jungle. I see this as another way of saying that Kurtz had exposed the superstition of God. He took his orders from the Jungle. He had learned to get into alignment with the way things work. The only reason Kurtz accepted his own death was the jungle wanted him dead. It was his time to go. I assert that if the jungle had not wanted Kurtz dead, there was no way Willard would have completed his mission. Kurtz had learned and accepted the final vow, the Vow of Holy Obedience.
Willard: “They were going to make me a major for this and I wasn’t even in their fucking army any more. 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. “
This movie, and the book from which the movie was adapted, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, are both famous for Kurtz’s final words:
Kurtz: “The Horror. The Horror.“
I have searched the Internet to see what most writers feel this line meant in the context of the film. Most seem to believe Kurtz is looking back over his life, or life in general, and expressing his assessment. In short, life is horror. However, I believe everyone is missing the real meaning. Before I share my views, you must read this dialogue as it puts Kurtz’s horror comments, his dying words, in a completely different perspective.
Kurtz: ” I’ve seen horrors…horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that…But you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face…And you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces…Seems a thousand centuries ago…We went into a camp to innoculate the children. We left the camp after we had innoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every innoculated arm. There they were in a pile…A pile of little arms. And I remember…I…I…I cried… I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized…like I was shot…Like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead…And I thought: My God…the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters…These were men…trained cadres…these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love…but they had the strength…the strength…to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral…and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordal instincts to kill without feeling…without passion… without judgement…without judgement. Because it’s judgement that defeats us. “
Kurtz: “In a war there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action, for what is often called ruthless. But many and many circumstances, the only clarity; seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it directly, quickly, awake… , looking at it. I would trust you to tell your mother what you choose about this letter. As for the charges, I’m unconcerned. I’m beyond their lying morality. And so I’m beyond caring.
When I read this, and when I heard it in the movie, I was reminded of the sacred Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita. There is a famous part of the Gita in which Arjuna must start a war. In light of his task, and the impending death of so many, Arjuna falters. Then Lord Krishna enters and speaks to Arjuna. See if you see the similarity between Lord Krishna and Kurtz. It is no mistake that they are both saying the same thing: An Indian diety and an insane Vietnam colonel.
Krishna takes the roll of Arjun’s teacher, and starts speaking.
Lord Krishna: “Those who are wise, lament neither for living nor for dead. Everything is existing eternally. Although there is always some pain in loosing loved ones, the wise undergo that pain with patience and tolerance. They push on without letting grief overwhelm and ruin their responsibilities.” Krishna explains the fundamental distinction between temporary material body and eternal spiritual soul. Soul is indestructible, immeasurable, unborn and eternal.
While material body is just opposite. Soul simply accepts different material bodies for a temporary period. Every living entity begins without material body and ends without material body. Only in middle duration it accepts material bodies. Death is simply a change of body for soul, like a change of clothes. We, the eternal spiritual soul, have no reason for having grief over death of the temporary body. The elements that form the body and life return to nature after death and again form another body, another life. As such, there is no cause for grief.
Krishna here reminds Arjun that happiness comes from right action: duty. Arjun’s duty as a kshatriya (warrior), was to protect the virtuous. No unhappiness could arise from performing his duty, even if it involved fighting. Even if Arjun were to die in the war, he would attain heaven the reward of dutiful action . The results of wise action are imperishable , the wise therefore strive for wise action with unbroken determination . This ultimate goal, enlightenment, is best achieved by Wise Action (karma-yoga), in which one acts out of duty only, without personal attachment. “
Is it possible that Kurtz was giving Willard a final bit of wisdom, like a finger pointing to the place where most fall, the proverbial heart. The heart is one of the biggest superstition of all. We are so attached to it. When one is confronted with horrors, one’s heart aches. We think we are our hearts, even more so than we think we are our thoughts. Can you even imagine being heartless? Can you still feel like a human being without being attached to your heart. As I have written before, this heart business is Maya’s final and most intricate trap. Kurtz understood that truth. In speaking his last words, ” The Horror. The Horror” , Kurtz may have been delivering a summation on the final step of the journey.
This begs the question: “Why are those who are “heartless” the ones people are so attracted to?” Without an attachment to the heart, the heart is free to be felt by all. There is no holding back. It is the attachment to the heart that creates the constriction, the clinging, the unwillingness to expose itself. Rather than being closed and protected, the heart becomes open and vulnerable, qualities that we as humans feel on a gut level, and admire, and cherish, and long to have.
One of the additions to the new film is an extended scene during which Willard meets with some French expatriates living in Vietnam. During Willard’s time with the French, he had a sensual encounter with a beautiful woman named Roxanne. She had lost her husband to the war, and seemed very attracted to the soldier that was Willard. During their brief conversation before sharing an opium pipe, Willard intimated that he didn’t want to spend time with Roxanne. She said:
Roxanne: “The war will still be here tomorrow. ”
I think that is all any man needs to hear in the presence of a gorgeous woman, a rarity in the war torn jungle of Vietnam. But the very perceptive thing that she also said was this:
Roxanne: “There are two two of you. One that kills and one that loves. “
I see so many men who have a difficult time with this, the integration of the light and the dark energies. This line hit me like a piece of See’s candy in a land of cold rice and rat meat. And in many ways, this seems to be the role of woman in a man’s life. A bit of guidance, a bit of wisdom, a bit of pointing us in the right direction, and a bit of warmth and comfort, usually when we least expect it. It is my observation that men resist experiencing their dark energies, their natural ability to kill. It creates fear, a fear of the unknown. As Kurtz has said, if you don’t know horror, if you don’t make it your friend, you will be a prisoner of horror and you will never move forward. The idea that life is all rainbows and light is complete and utter bullshit. They say “Be Happy!” I say “Fuck You and Snap Out Of It!” This is exactly why, during our Bridge events, we do a burial ritual. By getting closer to death, we can begin to feel a bit more comfortable with our greatest fears. The burial ritual put a man face to face with his greatest enemy, himself. There can be no running, no hiding, and no distractions when you are stuck in ground for ten plus hours. It is just you and you, light and dark, to stew and become known.
Willard: “Someday this war’s gonna end. That would be just fine with the boys on the boat. They weren’t looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I’ve been back there, and I knew that it just didn’t exist anymore.”
Kansas is going bye bye. And you can’t go back.
Now I have no idea just what Joseph Conrad meant when he wrote his book. I don’t know what point Francis Ford Coppola was trying to make. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is how you and I can take these words, this movie experience, and mold and bend it to mean something of importance. Otherwsie, you have just another war movie with a crazy man speaking bullshit who gets killed in the end. We have all seen that before. Other than entertainment, it isn’t useful.
The last thing I’d like to share is this totally inocuos line from the film, uttered at some point in the middle of the movie, by of all people, a Frenchman living in Vietnam:
Hubert: You are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.”
This line is so brilliant. Although it was not intended to mean anything other than the Vietnam War was a huge and costly waste of time and lives. But taken another way, it is a statement about enlightenment, because what we are all after is “nothing.” Our lives are overflowing with somethings, lies actually, falsities, and our mission (should you chose to accept it) is to peel them all away until there is nothing left. Superstitions be gone! And only then will you say Done.
I invite you to watch and experience Apocalypse Now Redux. It is very entertaining. It is beautiful to look at. It’s a classic. And just maybe, this insane man who is suggesting that the insane man in the movie isn’t insane, may have given you something to think about and map against your own life experiences. Good stuff. Thanks for reading.