Colonel Kurtz

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Walter E. Kurtz
Created by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
Portrayed by Marlon Brando
Information
Gender Male
Spouse(s) Janet Kurtz
Children 1 son
Nationality American

Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (c. 1927 – 1969)[1] portrayed by Marlon Brando, is a fictional character and the main antagonist of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now. Colonel Kurtz is based on the character of a nineteenth-century ivory trader, also called Kurtz, from the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Biography[edit]

Walter Kurtz was an officer in the United States Army; he was a third-generation West Point graduate and had risen through the ranks and was seen to be destined for a top post within the Pentagon. A dossier read by the narrator, Captain Willard, implies that Kurtz saw action in the Korea War and later graduated from the US Army Airborne School.[2]

In 1964, Kurtz was sent to Vietnam by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to compile a report on the failings of the current military policies. His overtly critical report was not what was expected and was immediately restricted for the joint chiefs and President Lyndon B. Johnson only.

Not long after, Kurtz applied for the 5th Special Forces Group, which was denied to him out of hand because of his advanced age of 38 for the basic training. Kurtz continued with his ambition and even threatened to quit the armed forces, when finally his wish was granted and he was allowed to take the airborne course. Kurtz graduated in a class where he was nearly twice the age of the other trainees and was accepted into the 5th Special Forces Group.

Kurtz returned to Vietnam in 1966 with the Green Berets and was part of the hearts and minds campaign which also included fortifying hamlets. On his next tour, Kurtz was assigned to the Gamma Project, in which he was to raise an army of Montagnards in and around the Vietnamese–Cambodian border to strike at the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Kurtz located his army, including their wives and children, at a remote abandoned Cambodian temple which they fortified. From their base, Kurtz led attacks on the local VC and the regular NVA in the region.

Kurtz employed barbaric methods not only to defeat his enemy but also to send fear. At first Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) didn't object to Kurtz's tactics, especially as they proved successful. This soon changed when Kurtz allowed photographs of his atrocities to be released to the world. In late 1968, after Kurtz failed to respond to MACV's repeated orders to return to Da Nang and resign his command after he ordered the summary execution of four South Vietnamese intelligence agents whom he suspected of being double agents for the Viet Cong, the MACV sent a Green Beret Captain named Richard Colby to bring Kurtz back from Cambodia. Either because he was brainwashed or because he felt a sympathy towards Kurtz's cause, Colby joined up with Kurtz instead of bringing him back to Da Nang.

With Colby's failure, MACV then selected Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a paratrooper and Army intelligence officer, to journey up the Nung river and kill Kurtz. Willard succeeded in his mission only because Kurtz, himself broken mentally by the savage war he had waged, wanted Willard to kill him and release him from his own suffering. Kurtz also murdered Jay "Chef" Hicks by severing his head. Before Willard killed him, Kurtz asked Willard to find his (Kurtz's) wife and son and explain truthfully what he'd done in the war.

Inspiration[edit]

Colonel Kurtz is based on the character of a nineteenth-century ivory trader, also called Kurtz, from the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. However, the movie's Kurtz is widely believed to have been modeled after Tony Poe, a highly decorated and highly unorthodox Vietnam War-era paramilitary officer from the CIA's Special Activities Division.[3] Poe was known to drop severed heads into enemy-controlled villages as a form of psychological warfare and to use human ears to record the number of enemies his indigenous troops had killed. He would send these ears back to his superiors as proof of his efforts deep inside Laos.[4][5]

Coppola denies that Poe was a primary influence and instead says the character was loosely based on Special Forces Colonel Robert B. Rheault, whose 1969 arrest over the murder of a suspected double agent generated substantial news coverage.[6]

Portrayal[edit]

When Brando arrived for filming in the Philippines in September 1976, he claimed he was dissatisfied with the script; Brando didn't understand why Kurtz was meant to be very thin and bald, or why the character's name was Kurtz and not something like Leighley. He claimed, "American generals don't have those kinds of names. They have flowery names, from the South. I want to be 'Colonel Leighley'." And so, for a time the name was changed under his demand.

When Brando showed up for filming he had put on about 40 lbs and forced Coppola to shoot him from the waist up, making it appear that Kurtz was a 6-foot 6-inch giant.[citation needed] Many of Brando's speeches were ad-libbed and performed off the cuff, with Coppola filming hours of footage of these monologues and then cutting them down to the most interesting parts.

Filming was put on a week-long filming hiatus so that Brando and Coppola could resolve their creative disputes. It is claimed that someone left Conrad's source text, which Coppola had repeatedly referred to him but which he had never read, in the houseboat where Brando was staying in at the time. He returned to filming with his head shaved, wanting to be 'Kurtz' once again; claiming it was all clear to him now that he had read Conrad's novella.[7]

Still photographs of Brando in character as Major Penderton, in the 1967 film Reflections in a Golden Eye, were used later by the producers of Apocalypse Now, who needed photos of a younger Brando to appear in the service record of the younger Colonel Walter Kurtz.

Trivia[edit]

  • Brando was paid a fee of $3 million for his work on the film, plus $70,000 for an extra day's filming.[citation needed]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The file on Kurtz, read by Willard in the course of Apocalypse Now, states that he first went to Vietnam in 1964, and applied for 5th SFG not after that, at the age of 38. The main action of Apocalypse Now, including Kurtz's death is set in 1969.
  2. ^ Willard: "At first I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn't believe they wanted this man dead. Third Generation West Point, top of his class, Airborne, Korea, about a thousand decorations, etc, etc... " IMDB, 2014, Quotes for Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Character) from Apocalypse Now (1979) (30 September 2014).
  3. ^ Leary, William L. "Death of a Legend". Air America Archive. Retrieved on 2007-06-10.
  4. ^ Warner, Roger (1996). Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America' Clandestine War in Laos. South Royalton: Steerforth Press. ISBN 1-883642-36-1. 
  5. ^ Ehrlich, Richard S. (2003-07-08). "CIA operative stood out in 'secret war' in Laos". Bangkok Post. http://web.archive.org/web/20090806040904/http://geocities.com/asia_correspondent/laos0307ciaposhepnybp.html. Retrieved on 10 June 2007.
  6. ^ Isaacs, Matt (1999-11-17). "Agent Provocative". SF Weekly. Retrieved 2009-05-02. 
  7. ^ Ondaatje, Michael (2002). The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 68–69. ISBN 978-1-4088-0011-9.