In Francis Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now, there are two clear descriptions of or projections about Martin Sheen‘s Cpt. Willard being the ultimate messenger — a guy who, when he returns to the U.S. of A., will set the world straight about what Marlon Brando‘s Colonel Kurtz was actually up to in his Cambodian Angkor Wat-like hideaway. Twice a hope is expressed that Willard will do this.
Kurtz to Willard: “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 will do this for me.”
Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist to Willard: “The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad. Oh, yeah. He’s dying, I think. He hates all this. He hates it! But the man’s a… He reads poetry out loud, all right? And a voice… He likes you because you’re still alive. He’s got plans for you. No, I’m not gonna help you. You’re gonna help him, man. You’re gonna help him. I mean, what are they gonna say when he’s gone? ‘Cause he dies when it dies, when it dies, he dies! What are they gonna say about him? He was a kind man? He was a wise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? Bullshit man! Am I gonna be the one that’s gonna set them straight? Look at me! Look at me! Wrong!”
Joseph Conrad‘s “Heart of Darkness,” the novel upon which Apocalypse Now is partly based, the narrator Marlow returns to England after Kurtz’s death. At the very end he visits Kurtz’s fiance, who is still in mourning more than a year after his passing. She beseeches Marlow for information, and asks him to repeat Kurtz’s final words. In actuality Kurtz’s final words were “the horror!” But Marlow can’t bring himself to say this. He decides to lie, telling her that Kurtz’s final word was her name.
I did a phoner with Coppola in late ’81 — I just cold-called him at the Sherry Netherland. We talked about everything, but I asked him at one point what happened to that Conradian finale, which he obviously had in mind or he wouldn’t have written the above. He said he couldn’t figure a way to transition the film from that psychedelic horrorscape of the Cambodian jungle to “some house in Great Neck, Long Island,” as he put it, where Col. Kurtz’s widow and her son reside, and to which Willard could have theoretically visited weeks after killing Kurtz with a machete.