So you think you’re having a bad day? Captain Willard has been locked in a cage barely big enough to stand up in, his only sustenance a ladle of water and a few puffs of cigarette provided by the nameless photojournalist. A hot and humid tropical day has given way to monsoon-style rains, and after a quick cut back to Chef at the boat, we find Willard slumped over, covered in mud, appearing to have abandoned all hope.
But that’s not the worst of it. From out of the darkness Kurtz appears, like a figure from some absurd nightmare, his giant bald head decorated with camouflage war paint. He drops Chef’s severed head into Willard’s lap, and I don’t care who you are, that’s going to freak you out a little bit. No wonder Willard loses his cool demeanor for the first time since the opening scene, screaming and thrashing around until he can finally get the head off him.
Why, you might ask, does Kurtz feel compelled to put Willard through this ordeal when he wants Willard to tell his tale, presumably putting the most favorable spin on it? I don’t exactly know, and I’m not sure FFC does either. Maybe he would say that Kurtz wants to test Willard, push him to the very edge of what he can take. Or maybe that Kurtz is, after all, crazy and dangerous, and not a man to be trifled with.
In any case, that’s some messed-up shit to pull on a guy, and the relationship between Kurtz and Willard — off to such a promising start — may now require some damage control. How will Kurtz win him back — read him some poetry or something?
These three minutes are pivotal for a couple of reasons. First of all because they get us over the two-hour mark — alert the media! The end is in sight!
Also, though, this monologue by Dennis Hopper serves to frame the whole movie. Willard’s real mission, we learn — his mission in the larger sense — is not to kill Kurtz, but to tell his story.
When it dies, man, when it dies, he dies…what are they going to say about him? Are they going to say he was a kind man, he was a wise man, he had plans, he had wisdom? Bullshit, man! Am I going to be the one that’s going to set them straight? Look at me — wrong!
Some versions of the Apocalypse Now screenplay begin with a flash-forward to Willard talking with Kurtz’s wife, I believe in Marina Del Ray, California. In the end this rather literal framing device was abandoned in favor of a more ambiguous approach, where we are left to imagine that if Willard makes it back from Cambodia he may be able to explain a few things to Kurtz’s family, and perhaps to the world at large. (He could even write a book about it, and someone could option the book for a movie…Marlon Brando could play Kurtz….)
This scene also helps to illuminate why Francis Coppola was willing to put up with Dennis Hopper’s insanity to get him in the movie. Hopper is brilliant here, stalking the imprisoned Willard like a monkey taunting a caged lion, alternately scary, funny, angry, compassionate, incoherent, and eloquent. When he leans in to deliver that last line — “You!” — jabbing his finger and dropping his voice to a lower register, it’s hard not to get chills. A moment of silence, please, for the late Dennis Hopper, a one-of-a-kind, high-powered mutant whose like we shall not see again.
Almost two hours into Apocalypse Now, Willard is finally brought to meet Colonel Kurtz. After being herded into a dimly lit room that smells like “slow death…malaria…nightmares,” he hears a voice from out of the shadows.
“Where are you from, Willard?”
This is not just any voice. It is the voice of the Godfather, the voice that yelled for Stella, the voice that cried “I coulda been a contender.” It’s the voice of Marlon Brando: actor, Hollywood legend, force of nature.
At this historical remove, it seems impossible to imagine anyone other than Brando playing Colonel Kurtz. But right up to the last minute, there was a chance that he would bail; Coppola wanted more time to rewrite the ending, and Brando was threatening to take a powder and keep his million-dollar advance if the production was delayed. Contingency plans were made, and had things gone differently, Martin Sheen might have been playing these scenes opposite Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, or Robert DeNiro. (more…)
This section, which might be called the “Prelude to Kurtz,” is made up of three smaller scenes:
1. The Dennis Hopper character walks Willard into the compound, where he sees Colby, the original assassin. Hopper was initially cast to play Colby, but given his condition, Coppola quickly figured out that he would not be convincing as a soldier. The part of Colby went instead to Scott Glenn, who in the released version of Apocalypse Now doesn’t even have a line. Deleted scenes in The Complete Dossier reveal that at one stage his role was quite a bit larger, including a scene where Colby kills the photojournalist and is in turn killed by Willard. As it is, he is more of an apparition than a character, but he does linger in the mind quite effectively.
There’s some great Dennis Hopper here, where he tries to explain in his semi-coherent way why, despite the evidence to the contrary all around them, Kurtz is not crazy.
The heads. You’re looking at the heads. I, uh…sometimes he goes too far. You know, he’s the first one to admit it!