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The horror... The horror...
~ Kurtz's most famous line and his last words before his death
I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream; that's my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor... and surviving...
~ Kurtz's poem in the military radio
I went down that river once when I was a kid. There's a place in that river - I can't remember - must have been a gardenia plantation at one time. It's all wild and overgrown now, but about five miles, you'd think that heaven just fell on the earth in the form of gardenias. Have you considered any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinions of others. Even the opinions of yourself..
~ Kurtz's poetic speech to Willard when first meeting him about his methods

Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, simply known as Walter E. Kurtz, is the main antagonist of the 1979 epic psychological war film Apocalypse Now. He is based on the character of a 19th century ivory trader, also called Kurtz, from the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. He is a renegade high-ranking US Army colonel who, following the Vietnam War, had gone insane and chose to go rogue following his dismissal. Hoping to gain revenge against the military he used to serve due to his dismissal, Kurtz would go to lead the people of the Montagnards in an abandoned temple kingdom across the Ra Nung river.

Eventually, he abandoned his revenge, and, instead wanted to help his nation winning the Vietnam War by using violent and extreme methods, those which led Capt. Benjamin Willard to come and meet him, only to kill him. After serving as a poetic leader for his "people", Kurtz accepted his insanity to be wrong and allowed Willard killing him.

He was portrayed by the late Marlon Brando, who also played Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Antony in Julius Caesar and Vito Corleone in The Godfather.


Early life

Walter Kurtz's early life is unknown, except the fact he has a son and he was once a regular officer in the United States Army; he had risen through the ranks and was seen to be destined for a top post within the Pentagon.

In his first tour of Vietnam in 1964, he was sent by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to compile a report on the failings of the current military policies. His report was not what was expected and was immediately restricted for the joint chiefs and President Lyndon B. Johnson only.

Becoming a Traitor

Not long after, Kurtz applied for the 5th Special Forces Group, which was denied to him out of hand because of his advanced age of 38 for the basic training. Kurtz continued with his ambition and even threatened to quit the armed forces, when finally his wish was granted and he was allowed to take the airborne course. Kurtz graduated in a class where he was nearly twice the age of the other trainees, and was accepted into the 5th Special Forces Group.

Kurtz returned to Vietnam in 1966 with the "Green Berets" and was part of the hearts and minds campaign which also included fortifying hamlets. On his next tour, Kurtz was assigned to the Gamma Project, in which he was to raise an army of Montagnards in and around the Vietnamese–Cambodian border to strike at the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. Kurtz relocated his army, including their wives and children, to a remote abandoned Cambodian temple which they fortified. From their base, Kurtz led attacks on the local V.C. and the regular N.V.A. in the region. Kurtz employed barbaric methods to not only defeat his enemy but to also send fear. At first MACV didn't object to Kurtz's tactics, especially as they proved successful, but this soon changed when Kurtz allowed photographs of his atrocities to be released to the world.

Meeting Willard and Death

In late 1968, when Kurtz failed to respond to MACV's repeated orders to return to Da Nang and resign his command after he ordered the summary execution of four South Vietnamese intelligence agents whom he rightfully suspected of being double agents for the Viet Cong, the MACV sent a "Green Beret" Captain named Richard Colby to bring Kurtz back from Cambodia.

Kurtz's death.

Colby joined up with Kurtz instead of bringing him back to Da Nang, either because he was brainwashed or because he felt a sympathy to Kurtz's cause. With Colby's failure, MACV then selected Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a former paratrooper and now a CIA assassin, to journey up the Nung river and kill Kurtz. Willard succeeds with his mission only because Kurtz, himself broken mentally by the savage war he wages, wants Willard to kill him and release him from his own suffering. As Willard approaches him, Kurtz asks Willard to find Kurtz's wife and son and explain truthfully what he'd done in the war. Willard then proceeds to hack Kurtz to death with a machete.


Well, you see Willard, in this war, things get confused out there: power, ideals, the old morality, practical military necessity. But out there with these natives, it must be a temptation to be god, because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil, and good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his, and very obviously, he has gone insane...
~ Leut. Gen. Corman describing Kurtz to Willard

Ever since he was in the US Army, Kurtz was always a patriotic soldier for his nation, thinking on how to achieve victory in the Vietnam War in any kinds of means. Seemingly a kindhearted man, Kurtz eventually reached his "breaking point" according to Gen. Corman's words.

This point led him to betray the US Army following his dismissal, yet, he was a career-full soldier, fully serving his nation in any means. However, his breaking point led him to become a completely deluded, psychopathic, maniacal and above all manipulative individual devoid of reality, aiming to use his "unsound" methods to make sure his nation would win the war, even though he was using those methods to brutally torture Vietnamese people, nearly to death, yet, he was not a sadist but a bold individual ,using his boldness to ensure USA's triumph. General Corman describes Kurtz to have originally been a good man, the kind of person who is filled with kindness including the capability of seeing the difference between good and evil.

Kurtz has an extremely complex personality, that of which is nearly inexplainable. When he rose to power as the "The God-King" of the Montagandays, Kurtz was treated truly like a godlike king, using his extensive military training to form an army of followers and soldiers around him, eventually becoming a philosopher of war, reading poetry and quotes from the Holy Bible, leading him to be seen as truly insane. 

The photojournalist "Jack" is the first American to meet Kurtz after his transformation into a crazed megalomaniac, yet he describes him as a great man, and, as a man who reads poetry "out loud". His ruthless nature can be seen in photos presented to Willard, in which Kurtz had used his own men to kill or torture Vietnamese people, however, his truly ruthless nature comes to light when he tortures Willard physically by capturing him at a bamboo-like prison booth, as well as mentally by showing him the decapitated head of his friend Chef, whom he had killed.


Kurtz was a gifted military man, using his advanced leadership and his torture skills to carry out his actions.


Marlon Brando's portrayal of Kurtz has been universally acclaimed by many critics and audience worldwide, with many calling his performance one of his greatest. He is often ranked as one of the greatest cinematic villains, even though he is not an outright villain.

According to a review by Donald Clarke in "the Irish Times" of July 7, 2017, he is describing Kurtz as "the greatest villain of Hollywood".  Brando's performance was incredibly acclaimed over the years following the film's release in 1979, even the film's director Francis Ford Coppola stated that during his audition to the role, he appeared to be overweight and somewhat drunk, which increased Coppola's desire to cast him for the role.

The more the years passed, the more Kurtz's portrayal was widely praised, yet Brando was not nominated for an Academy Award, a thing which disappointed Coppola. This nomination eventually went to Robert Duvall due to his portrayal as Kilgore. 


  • Marlon Brando's portrayal was the basic primary inspiration for Josh Brolin's portrayal as Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • Kurtz and Brando's portrayal were the primary inspirations for the Call of Duty villain General Barkov and The Colonel from War for the Planet of the Apes.