Apocalypse Now: the meaning of the movie and Kurtz’s death

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The Horror

The Horror

These are the words spoken gasping by Colonel Kurtz on his deathbed. Butchered in the temple by Captain Willard, he is actually the victim of a higher will. His death has the solemnity, the sacredness of a pagan sacrifice. The images of the slaughter of an ox alternate with those of Kurtz’s “slaughter”; the “damned” subjects drop the machete on the beast, Willard drops the machete on the Colonel. We know that the latter has read Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a text which highlights the importance of the ritual sacrifice of the King-Priest, a figure halfway between a man and a god, in the economy of the pagan world. Kurtz, like a pagan king, tyrannizes hie people, idolized by the savages. His reign is the theater of atrocious misdeeds, his land a sort of Dante’s circle. Everywhere corpses are piled up: amputees, ripped, hanged. Any sort of practice is available.

Kurtz’s mission and death coincide: his soul imploded but, as in a lucid delirium, reason still works according to logical laws. In this existential contradiction, in the dissolution of the moral law in favor of an individual and omnipotent ego, Colonel Kurtz abandons the earthly order and reaches out towards the divine, sure to be beyond good and evil.

His death is the confirmation: Kurtz wants to be killed. Not simply dying (he is seriously ill), but being killed. His soul, however, is split and seems to ​move in two different directions, like that wave that splits into two different directions in a scene on the movie. Kurtz is impervious to morality and this brings him closer to a God. The madness of the Colonel comes from his being beyond morality and represents its consequence. It’s not madness that makes him lose the moral, but overcoming the latter to make him insane: Kurtz is the son of the horror of war and his response to it is the lucid madness he manifests. The final monologue is clear about this: Kurtz is a victim of the horror he has assimilated. In him, the moral duty is released from the human imperative, it’s integrated into the animal instinct. The moral duty of man is to realize his own primitive nature. It’s a thought, a “feeling” that has more than one point of contact with the national-socialist instance of moral duty as a duty of obedience to a superior power (think about Eichmann) and, ultimately, to the most beastly laws of nature.

Apocalypse Now (1979): Captain Willard kills Colonel Kurtz

Kurtz knows he is the Frazerian King-Priest. He believes he cannot die, but he wants to die. His soul claims death, yet his mind cannot accept the idea of ​​void. The vague expression of stupid terror in front of the machete confirms it: Kurtz’s exhausted heart not only accepts death, but invokes it. Yet, on the edge of the void, his soul shows for a few moments the signs of a typically human terror that, even if immediately repressed by self-control, wants to show us Kurtz the man, at least for a moment.

Kurtz wants to die but at the same time he doesn’t, he’s man and God, the Horror tears him apart from the inside and he perceives it, but the only way to escape from Horror is Horror itself. He must allow Horror to survive after him, he must die in Horror because Horror has now become his Law, his Mission. The proverbial Nietzschean abyss that stares at you is now Kurtz’s only mirror. He knows he has lost his way, he can feel it, his soul is powerless and dominated by Horror, yet his mind would like to move forward, proceeding in the mission he received. Kurtz leaves the Horror of the world without a filter and, like a cursed demiurge, paints the terrifying picture for himself. He won’t resist to death, his soul wins and offers a new King to his people, the only one able to take his place by force: the violent succession is last sacrifice that Kurtz offers to Horror and his Law.

Moral duty has nothing to do with the death of the Colonel. He doesn’t die in order to save us, like Christ who accepts the Cross to redeem all humanity; instead, he dies because he accepts and signs, once again, the law of Horror. He is a mad Socrates who drinks the hemlock in the name of the universal Law of Horror. His mission is to perish in Horror and to confirm it, just as Socrates dies in order to respect Athens’ laws, effectively confirming his innocence.

And after all, even Kurtz is innocent. At least in relation to his Law.

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