This is Part 2 of an ongoing analysis of Apocalypse Now. I’ll periodically discuss characters and scenes from this masterpiece. If you have not seen Apocalypse Now, do yourself a favor and watch it ASAP.
Captain Benjamin Willard needed a mission. He believes that his sins granted the US Army the immanent right to give him one. His sins, however, predicate the extremely specific and grave assassination assigned to him, a mission formalized to him with a single line: “Terminate With Extreme Prejudice”.
This is the sole line of dialogue delivered by an otherwise silent man in business attire. When Willard meets with an Army Colonel and an Intelligence officer (played by a young Harrison Ford) for his brief on Kurtz’s disappearance, the man sits creepily at a table. His yellow eyes rarely blink, his sole movements are subtle and snakeish. But despite his limited screen time and physical impression, he is a far more important character to the story than one may initially believe.
When the Colonel invites Willard to eat prior to being briefed, he offers him a plate of whole shrimp, stating “I don’t know how you feel about this shrimp but if you eat it you’ll never have to prove your courage in any other way.” A seemingly throwaway line, but the nameless man’s reaction is what gives it meaning. The Intelligence officer plays a cryptic recording of what seems to be a disturbing audio-diary by Kurtz himself. He first discusses a nightmare of a snail crawling on a strait razor. It is shocking enough to disturb the Soldiers in the room but the man is un-phased. On the contrary, he’s the only one at the table digging into the shrimp that so clearly disgusted the Colonel, eyes scattering around the room as if to gauge their reactions, then suddenly resuming his dining. Although it may seem like a stretch, this clever use of imagery practically gives us his full pertinent backstory. Although it’s obvious he’s CIA, his reactions indicate that he’s not just some distant Washington representative with no scope of the war. He’s been in country, he’s adjusted to the local customs, and has integrated into the culture. But most importantly, hes familiar with and accustomed to the horrors that surprised the Army brass.
The second recording however, gives us a deeper idea of the man’s motives. Kurtz continues in his monologue by rambling about destroying the country, stating “What do you call it, when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie. They lie and we have to be merciful for those who lie…” During this line of dialogue, the man pauses, apparently listening more intently. Its clear that what Kurtz is saying here is far more resonant to the mysterious agent. The camera hones in on his motionless hands when Kurtz says “they lie”. Despite Kurtz’s seeming willingness to spare the Americans from his wrath, the soldiers in this room are still determined to have him killed. Whether or not they are indeed lying to Willard, or they want to dispel this false ideology that Kurtz is spreading, this man’s fixation illustrates his disdain for Kurtz’s resolve, and his rationale to have him killed. In his mind, the US policy in Vietnam is superior to that of Kurtz. His extensive experience, which was hinted just moments before, may very well be his justification. Outside of his infamous line assigning Willard his mission, this is the only moment of serious pause that the man takes in the film.
I think it’s extremely important for fully grasping Apocalypse Now to see this point. Willard’s dialogue through the film makes it clear that the US claims how they do war and their aims and goals are true and good, while Kurtz’s and all other dissenting opinions are corrupt. We’ll see this view challenged though the film, but its these subtle visual clues given by the mysterious agent that help illustrate how deeply ingrained and critical moral dominance is in the mind of the US military.