“The heads. You’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far. He’s the first one to admit it.”
A while ago, I chanced upon this footage, an outtake from Apocalypse Now, of Marlon Brando, as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, reciting T.S. Eliot‘s poem The Hollow Men. The film, as you’ll no doubt already know, has much to recommend it; the iconography of mechanised Valkyries, indestructible surfing generals, vast swathes of jungle being napalmed to the Oedipal strains of The Doors. As the documented legend goes, the performances went beyond Method into somewhere much darker (resulting in Martin Sheen’s simultaneous heart attack and nervous breakdown). The imagery and pacing become gradually, as the central characters get further into the dark Cambodian interior, more surreal, sinister and sedate giving the film a mesmerising quality (particularly the Do Long Bridge sequence), a rare instance of such an atmosphere permeating a Hollywood movie (Werner Herzog’s extraordinary Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a major influence). What made it all the more fascinating, for a bookish aspiring-misanthrope, was it’s literary dimension, primarily it’s adherence to Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness, a journey into the squalid truth of Empire and the human psyche which remains prescient and haunting to this day and the often-overlooked brutality of Homer‘s Odyssey (parallels with both have been covered extensively elsewhere). Even more fascinating was the tantalising glimpse we’re given of the book collection Kurtz has taken with him into his Angkor-Wat-esque jungle temple/compound, having extra-judicially assasinated four South Vietnamese intelligence (double) agents. Surrounded by severed heads and worshipped as a demi-god by a Montagnard army, the only question was what would such a man read?
Initially, The Bible seems both the most puzzling and the most mundane inclusion. We think we know this book and familiarity breeds contempt. But we don’t really know it at all. It’s the most printed book and most unread, or at least misread, of all time. In fact, it isn’t even a book at all but a collection of texts, as the title indicates, a library of prophecies, threats, laws, spells, plagues, ramblings, dreams and nightmares. What we recognise as the Bible, usually in its King James or Revised form, reaches us through not just the distortions of time and translation but also selection. These texts were put together through committee and papal authority, they were altered and edited, chapters which did not fit the political agendas and orthodoxies of each period were declared apocryphal or heretical. Some exited and re-entered the canon. Some were airbrushed out completely. To adopt a Borgesian view, the Bible is infinitely more amorphous and protean than official doctrine could accept or even imagine. Who’s to say where it ends or begins or if books destined for it are still to be written?
Why, though, did Kurtz bring it? In the Gospel of St Mark, Jesus approaches a man who is possessed by demons (in all likelihood, he was suffering from undiagnosed mental illness). He asks the afflicted man, “What is thy name?” To which he replies, “My name is Legion: for we are many.” The aspects of the Bible which might appeal to the megalomaniac are similarly dark, similarly legion. This is a collection of books which has inspired not just St Francis of Assisi or Joan of Arc but the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, the Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, the Cathar-butcher Simon de Montfort and Klaus Kinski.
The film never explicitly states which sections of the Bible Kurtz is drawn to. He could be studying the Gospels to define himself by what he is not or to summon the Messianic will to power that Nietzsche recognised in Christ and the saints (before the cuckoo of the Church took it’s place in the nest). Perhaps he is channelling the caustic egomania of St Paul’s Epistles, the futility bordering on nihilism of Ecclesiastes, the kamikaze certitude of the Prophets? The hallucinatory Bosch-like moralism of Revelations has taken root in many a sick, and brilliant, mind and seems the most likely candidate alongside vast swathes of the Old Testament with it’s vengeful Bronze Age God and it’s incitements and justifications of genocide and scorched earth. Yet no man however manifestly evil in action or intention regards himself as such. Even the most debased Nazis regarded themselves as reasonable cultured family men, Himmler‘s chilling Posen Speeches make this clear, “To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person – with exceptions due to human weaknesses – had made us tough. This is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.” Bar the occasional “exceptions due to human weaknesses,” they regarded the Final Solution, the Night and Fog Decree, Action 14f13 and so on as means to an end, unsavoury necessary evils in establishing the Thousand Year Reich.
There is thus an ambiguity towards which book of the Bible Kurtz focuses on. It may not be the more sinister or lunatic sections. Kurtz may well have believed he was Messianic and what he was doing was ultimately benevolent and patriotic. He commits his excesses for the war effort, his only crime in the context of the official nihilism of carpet bombing and mass murder is his lack of PR nous. He breaks protocol not by killing but by doing so with “unsound methods,” without giving the appearance of adhering to illusory humanitarian laws, for exchanging the civilised veneer of brutality for one of utopian shamanism (“fuckin’ pagan idolatory”) or expressing insufficient (fake) regret for his actions. He lacks restraint, a ludicrous pretension in a war of obliteration. Call him a maniac, a butcher but Kurtz isn’t a liar. In Vietnam the widespread dropping of napalm and Agent Orange on civilian populations was deemed acceptable, the massacre by gun and bayonet in say My Lai was excessive. “We train young men to drop fire on people,” Kurtz notes, “but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene!” These divisions, by most moral standards, are arbitrary and hypocritical to the point of being ludicrous. Kurtz is thus a sociopath in an age where psychopaths are in ascendancy.
For Kurtz, the decadent need for restraint, or at least the appearance of restraint, is what holds the U.S. back and ultimately dooms them in the face of an utterly determined enemy with nothing to lose. He advocates a pure and terrible honesty. He recites an anecdote (supposedly true according to the film’s co-writer John Milius but unverified) where American soldiers having vaccinated the children of a village for Polio return to find a pile of severed inoculated arms. Kurtz is filled with admiration for what an act like this takes (heavily evoking Posen), “My God, the genius of that, the genius, the will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they could stand that – these were not monsters, these were men, trained cadres, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love – that they had this strength, the strength to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time were able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment–without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.” As history has proved the so-called Übermensch or Overman, supposedly transcending humanity (“I am beyond their timid, lying morality and so I am beyond caring” Kurtz writes to his son) is all too often beneath humanity. The totality of freedom becomes, as De Sade demonstrated in his age, the freedom to enslave and destroy. The ghost of Nietzsche haunts the film as much as Conrad, Kurtz’s ramblings echoing the German philosopher’s sentiments with Zarathustran touches, “I had immense plans. I was on the threshold of great things… To look into the abyss without drawing away is everything…” To which Nietzsche’s warning can be added in response, “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
The very idea that unlawful killing could exist in a situation of total war appears an absurd duplicitous one as Willard, the chosen assassin, freely acknowledges, “Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500.” Kurtz’s attempts to explain his actions to his son and for Willard to be custodian of his memory suggest he really believed he was doing this all for a higher good, again echoing the Posen Speeches, “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’s nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you… you will do this for me.” The American administrations from Kennedy onwards in a sense agreed with him, with added dishonesty and the illusion of restraint, seeing it necessary to sacrifice 3 million of their young men and the populations of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to retain American influence in South-East Asia. The road to hell is pathed with good intentions or at least commercial considerations. History remembers these leaders as heroes. This is a lunacy that makes Kurtz’s a drop in the ocean. The white man did not locate ‘the heart of darkness’ in these exotic lands, rather he brought it with him. And continues to do so.
From Ritual to Romance – Jessie L. Weston
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion – Sir James George Frazer
All the books in Kurtz’s collection are interconnected primarily by the myths of The Wasteland and the Fisher (or Wounded) King. These emerge from the cultural hinterland between medieval Christianity, Celtic fertility myth and Arthurian legend that produced Passion, Mystery and Miracle Plays. At it’s simplest, the tradition involves a land in decay ruled by an ailing King (paraplalegic and impotent). The King is charged with guarding the Holy Grail (the life-sustaining vessel in which Joseph of Arimathea caught drops of Christ’s blood) but spends his days in lamentation, wasting away in his castle or fishing in surrounding streams. He, and his kingdom, are eventually revitalised by the appearance of a mysterious knight with magical powers.
From Ritual to Romance is an extensive academic analysis of the various strands of this ritual (which appears in a vast array of cultures in different guises) featuring severed heads which speak, dying gods, ancient floods, tarot, spectral armies, quack doctors, sword-dancing and virtually any oddities that could spring from the human imagination. The Golden Bough delves even further into anthropology and folklore, controversially including Christianity in comparative study with so-called pagan cultures, placing it on a par with ‘savages’ (even going so far as to refer to some of its practises as ‘delusional’ and the ‘exorbitant pretension of a single ill-balanced mind’). It’s a remarkable wide-ranging even poetic work referring to magicians’ control of the weather, the worship of trees, the migration of souls, the taboo of touching shadows. Again and again, the book returns to this idea of (regal) sacrifice leading to renewal and a successful harvest; victims incinerated in giant wickermen, Rain Kings who are disembowelled during droughts as their bellies are believed to contain storms, regents who were made to publicly cut their own throat after 12 years, men were covered in chalk and decapitated or have their beating hearts ripped from their chests or are covered in live birds and thrown from clifftops. A prominent death, symbolic as effigy or actual, was believed to drive out pestilence, famine or evil (the sineater or scapegoat phenomena) and bring back the sun to a starved land.
In Apocalypse Now, Kurtz is clearly the Fisher King, Marlowe the Knight with the Oedipal twist of sacrificial murder rather than resurrection. The presence of From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough in his collection indicates Kurtz knew what was coming, regarding it with resignation but irritation (“You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill”). It also reinforces the sense that they are somehow going back in time the further they proceed upriver that is notable in both Conrad’s book (“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings”) and the film (the deleted French Plantation scene that recalls the earlier failed French conquest of Indochina).
Faust – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Faustian Bargain is one of the most abiding Jungian myths of culture in the West. Man, driven by lust, pride or greed, summons the devil and in a moment of hubris makes a deal, forfeiting his soul into eternal damnation for fleeting temporal rewards. In almost every case, it ends badly. Robert Johnson having met the devil at the crossroads and exchanged his soul for extraordinary guitar-playing prowess keels over in convulsions, poisoned with strychnine-laced whiskey whilst playing at a juke-joint. The violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini was denied a Christian burial for similarly consorting with satanic forces while Giuseppe Tartini was rumoured to have been taught his Devil’s Trill Sonata in a dream in which Lucifer had sat at the foot of his bed and taught him the composition. There are entire networks of bridges across Europe that were attributed to demonic construction. In most cases, the myths were superstitious hearsay made by those who could not comprehend innovations in art and technology coupled with the hard-living excesses of these bohemian-types which often ended in untimely deaths.
Whatever the motives for the myth, it has produced great art; Thomas Mann projected it onto German society during the Nazi era whilst Christopher Marlowe‘s version remains perhaps the most haunting not just in the final desperate scenes of Faustus awaiting the coming of the demons to drag him to hell but in foretelling Marlowe’s own shadowy premature end stabbed through the eye in a (possibly spy-related) tavern brawl. It is Goethe‘s adaptation though that Kurtz has in his collection. It contains a plethora of gothic touches; dogs mutate into demons, contracts are signed in blood, there’s infanticide and matricide and, as is always the case, humans accessing forbidden knowledge that is restricted to the gods. There is one crucial difference with other versions of Faust in that the anti-hero at its heart is, in the play’s conclusion, not cast into perdition but instead is raised into heaven by means of God’s all-powerful forgiveness. The play thus mirrors Kurtz’s murderous qualities, his attempts to become a demi-god but also his delusions, contradicting perhaps his Fisher King prophecy. Following Goethe, he may partially believe or hope he will be elevated to heaven. Or rather than heaven (a hopelessly passée concept for such a Nietzschean character), official rehabilitation as a patriot, after all worse sinners have.
It’s tempting to say that all the strands of myth and history through the film and Kurtz’s books coalesce in Eliot‘s The Wasteland but it’s not that simple. Fittingly, for one of the great Modernist texts, it is simply a station in a network that has no beginning or end but endless circular and intersecting routes. Eliot wrote it in a seaside retreat having suffered a nervous breakdown. Famously it was knocked into shape by Ezra Pound ending up as both a mesmerising cacophony of different fragments of speech (He do the Police in Different Voices was the original title) and an evocation of the desolation into which civilisation had declined, made up of the cultural and linguistic flotsam and jetsam of what had come before, high art and street-talk. Rather than embrace the chaos and atomisation of the modern world and put structures to it as Joyce did with Ulysses, Eliot could only brilliantly survey it’s ruin (and his own) – “A heap of broken images” – before retreating into the safe dry harbour of Anglicanism. Faith robbed us of one of the century’s finest poets when he swapped questions for answers, a dead-end for an artist.
All the aforementioned books and themes in Kurtz’s collection appear in The Wasteland and The Hollow Men, alongside many other interlocking references as linked as the Thames, the Congo, the Nung and the Styx. One central facet is Eliot’s observation of the modern populace as a procession of shades. He gazes upon commuters on a fogbound London Bridge as Baudelaire had in Paris in the previous century, apparitions in an “Unreal City.” He compares them to the damned of Dante‘s Inferno, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” The boat on which Willard and crew travel in Apocalypse Now is named Erebus, not just the name of the ship which took Franklin’s expedition into cannibalism, madness and death in the Northwest Passage but the tunnel through which the dead passed to Hades in Ancient Greek mythology, suggesting a Dante-style descent into Hell. For Kurtz, at the centre of these concentric circles, at point where the river ends, humanity are shades, shadows of what they could be, which is why he recites The Hollow Men, “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw”. There is the implication that he has risen above mankind to demagogue status, evidenced when Dennis Hopper’s Photojournalist quotes Eliot’s The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “I’m a little man, he’s a great man… I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
You could discern, as maybe Kurtz did, predecessors in the sacrificial figures of Guy Fawkes and Julius Caesar in the poem (reiterated in the ritualistic butchering of the cow in the film). Death stalks each of these works. There exists an intertextual paradox in which Kurtz is reading a poem the epigraph of which (taken from Heart of Darkness) explicitly refers to his death, ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’ goes the first two lines which he excludes from the reading. Whether it’s representative of the impossibility of man to comprehend his own demise or the film sidestepping tying itself in improbable knots is debatable. We all presume, knowing absolutely to the contrary, that we will somehow never die, even whilst awaiting death’s arrival.
As recounted in Karl French’s study of the film, John Milius pinpointed his initial attraction to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The scene in it where they actually shoot at the continent of Africa. The boat is there firing into the jungle trying to punish the continent of Africa, and that reminded me very much of Vietnam. The novel is full of that kind of image of what little effect Victorian culture has on the growth of trees, of how quickly the jungle overcomes everything…” It foretells the world after man, when we obliterate ourselves and nature retakes the planet. Before he vanishes like Lear’s Fool, Dennis Hopper‘s manic Photojournalist, again quoting Eliot, offers what might be an adage for us all, “This is the way the fucking world ends. Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. And with a whimper I’m fucking splitting, jack.”