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.
But in the end, the schedule was arranged to suit Brando, and he arrived in the Philippines to begin filming on September 2, 1976. Immediately he presented a new obstacle to add to the many Apocalypse Now had already faced. In Hearts of Darkness, Coppola says:
He was already heavy when I had hired him, and he promised that he was going to get in shape…. And I imagined that if he were heavy I could use that. But he was so fat, he was very, very shy about it…. When I saw him, I said, well, I’ll write this as a man who really had indulged every aspect of himself, so he was fat, and had two or three tribal girls with him, and was eating mangoes…and he was very adamant [that] he didn’t want to portray himself that way.
So production was halted while Coppola and Brando sat down and talked about the character of Kurtz (at one point, Brando even insisted that the name “Kurtz” was too harsh and wanted the character’s name changed to “Leighley” — can you imagine?). This went on for several days, with the crew sitting around being paid to do nothing, and the clock ticking on Brando’s million-dollar-a-week contract. Coppola wanted to hew closely to the way Kurtz was portrayed in Heart of Darkness; Brando disagreed. Then, a few days in, it finally came out that Brando, despite his assurances to the contrary, had never actually read Heart of Darkness. He was persuaded to do so, and showed up the next day having shaved his head to match the way Kurtz is described in the book (“impressively bald” — though he is also described as “gaunt,” and there was nothing Brando could do about that). From that point, things were able to go forward — perhaps not smoothly, or quickly — but forward, at least.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro devised the visual approach we see in the film, where Kurtz is revealed slowly, piece by piece — a hand here, an arm there, and finally his enormous, gleaming dome. This is mostly a practical necessity, a way to hide Brando’s girth, but it also has the effect of making Kurtz seem mysterious and larger than life.
After a bit of poetic small talk about gardenias and a brief philosophical aside, Kurtz gets right down to business:
Did they say why… Willard… why they wanted…to terminate my command?
And, wow, this must be an awkward moment for Willard. You’re sent to kill a guy, and he knows that you’re there to kill him; what do you say then? Willard sticks with one of the standard lines from the spook playbook:
I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
But Kurtz is having none of that.
It’s no longer classified, is it? What did they tell you?
From this point on Willard starts to talk very slowly, but you can tell that his mind is racing. What can he say to Kurtz that will not get his head lopped off immediately? The truth is not going to sound attractive. On the other hand, Kurtz detests dishonesty above all else, so lying to him is not a good idea either. Parsing his words carefully, Willard sticks close to the truth:
They told me… that you had gone…totally insane. And uh…that your methods were…unsound.
This peculiar word, “unsound,” is repeated quite a few times in the movie, both here and in the briefing scene. It’s a polite, bureaucratic way of saying “crazy,” but it rings strangely through the head, making you think of sound that is not sound, music that is not music.
Kurtz uses the same word in his response, asking
Are my methods unsound?
And Willard answers with one of my favorite lines in the whole movie:
I don’t see…any method…at all, sir.
I love the way Sheen delivers this line: three words, pause, two words, pause, three words. Willard’s mind is working in the silences, tiptoeing carefully around the minefield of the truth; he doesn’t want to just come right out and say it, but in the absence of method, madness is implied.
Kurtz seems to accept this answer, and changes tack. During the exchange that follows, which culminates with the famous “You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill” zinger, Brando finally turns fully toward the camera. The effect of his gaze is unsettling, but also riveting.
For my money Marlon Brando is one of the half-dozen most charismatic human beings ever to appear on film. Above and beyond what he does and says, or even the way he looks (and before going to seed he was considered the epitome of masculine beauty), there’s just something about him that fascinates. In Hollywood you’re either an actor (who turns himself into every character) or a movie star (who turns every character into himself). Brando is one of the very, very few who have managed to be both. It’s a kind of magic, and this is why Francis Coppola was willing to pay huge amounts of money and put up with huge amounts of hassle to get Brando in his films.
People toss around the word genius, and among people I’ve met Kurosawa certainly was, but I always felt that Marlon was a genius, not just as an actor, but as an innovative thinker. A brilliant man. But I once told him he uses friendship like bath soap.
This is the problem with geniuses; they do not necessarily share the regular human concerns and constraints. And by this point of his career Brando seems to have lost interest in acting. It came so easily to him that he had developed contempt for it, for his own talent, and for the movie industry as a whole. Which is not, it must be said, entirely unreasonable; like every part of the entertainment industrial complex, the movies are at heart a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.
Brando’s attitude coming into Apocalypse Now seems to have been, well, let me run a little experiment here to see just how much money I can get for how little work:
I was good at bullshitting Francis and getting him to think my way, and he bought it, but what I’d really wanted from the beginning was to find a way to make my part smaller so that I wouldn’t have to work so hard.
Or as Coppola put it:
I’ve got Marlon Brando as an incredible joker to play. And he’s like a force of his own, cause he don’t give a shit.
Which dovetails nicely with Kurtz’s line from this scene:
“Have you ever considered any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinions of others… Even the opinions of yourself ?”
This is why Brando was absolutely the ideal person to play Kurtz. Kurtz is a completely free man, having left behind the army, his career, his family, everything. Brando, likewise, didn’t care what anybody thought. He had no problem shutting down a multimillion-dollar production that employed hundreds of people because he just didn’t feel like it that day.
What is doubly funny is that by all accounts, once Brando got into the part, he worked incredibly hard, improvising “all day, going one way, going another, never quitting.” And despite being a difficult and prickly personality, he also could be funny, mischievous, generous, and charming, especially to women and children. He was truly a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a thick layer of blubber. As with Kurtz, it’s a riddle we can explore endlessly, but will never entirely solve.