The Disquieted American

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    • #1641

      Who was Kurtz’s/Brando’s character based on?

      This question recently cropped up on the BFC, and as I’d always wondered the same thing myself I did a search on the web. Maybe I’m just hopeless at using search engines, but this is all I came up with….

      Was Brando’s character “really” based on Tony Roe, as The Guardian claims- or on Colonel Robert B. Rheault- or all or none of the above?

      Heart of darkness

      Colonel Kurtz – the insane renegade in Apocalypse Now – is one of film’s legendary creations. So when David Herman heard rumours of a soldier who really had gone mad in the jungle, he embarked on a mission to track him down… By Danny Leigh

      Friday September 1, 2000
      The Guardian

      Somewhere up the Mekong river, long past the last vestiges of urban civilisation, a fat man has gone mad. There’s been strange stories coming out of the jungle, stories of adulation and decadence, barbarism and insanity.
      You’re probably thinking of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s addled Vietnam epic. Martin Sheen smashing mirrors, Dennis Hopper ranting about physics, and there, at the bloody, hallucinatory end of it all, a monstrously bloated Marlon Brando as Kurtz, the inhuman logic of war made flesh.

      Which is understandable; that, after all, was what went through David Herman’s mind when he heard about Tony Poe. The result, four years and three continents later, is The Search For Kurtz, an absorbing portrait of America’s greatest military folly, and the psychotic who took its execution as his raison d’etre.

      Back in 1996, the idea seemed preposterous: intriguing, but preposterous. Apocalypse Now was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. End of story. Except a pair of British journalists working in Asia, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clarke, had heard of a covert US operation in Laos spanning the Vietnam war, and a guy named Tony Poe – a decorated Marine gone psychically AWOL in charge of a tribal battalion and later, allegedly, the inspiration for Colonel Kurtz. Returning to England, they contacted producer Herman.

      “They had no details,” he recalls, “just a deeply shady ex-CIA operative called Jack Shirley.” It was enough to convince Herman a film should be made, if not to persuade anyone to finance it. His proposal did the rounds, belatedly being co-financed by Channel 4. “And I’ll tell you,” Herman says, “we were blagging like lunatics. Because we had absolutely no idea whether he was even alive, far less where he was.”

      Ascertaining he was alive was one thing. Jack Shirley, whose tales of serving with Poe checked out, was certain of it. Where he was proved trickier. With Shirley in tow, Her man, Levy, Scott-Clarke and director Derek Jones travelled from Bangkok to the dirt roads of Laos, once a paradisical retreat, now the poorest country in South East Asia. With monsoon season underway, the one overland route into Nam Yu – Pope’s last base – was waterlogged, leaving a helicopter as their sole option: only, with elections in neighbouring Cambodia imminent, all three of Laos’ choppers had been seconded.

      The story Herman tells of the solution – involving the Laotian Minister of Defence, a $5000 gratuity (“which I have a receipt for”), a provincial governor up to his neck in the opium trade and, ultimately, the gift of a Russian helicopter complete with armed guard – is as ludicrously Boys’ Own as it is alarmingly plausible.

      And there, beside the Mekong, was Poe’s headquarters. Or, rather, it wasn’t. With Nam Yu razed to the ground, all that remained were rusted machine-gun clips and the communist commander who took Nam Yu for the Vietcong. It seemed, at the time, like a brick wall. Just as the group despaired, however, a call came from San Francisco, from a former CIA nabob called Bill Lair, who was prepared to talk. Herman and company headed for California, where Lair told them about Tony Poe and his leadership of the illicit Operation Momentum, launched in 1962 to band the Hmmong people of the Laotian hillsides into anti-communist guerillas.

      “I wouldn’t say we lost control of him,” sniggered Lair, as if referring to some over-enthusiastic rogue. “I don’t think we ever had it.” Which, stripped of romanticism, meant Poe arriving laden with M-16s for a decade of ungoverned mayhem. Paying the Hmmong per communist fatality, he asked for ears as proof; later, he demanded heads. And, when he eventually fled with his Hmmong wife and his drink problem as the Cong took over (to be napalmed by American troops), he left a bitter legacy: landmines still disabling Laotian children today.

      He set up home in Bangkok, fighting with the locals, but an icon among what Herman calls the “pathetic old men,” who followed his lead and never went home. Until the early 90s, that is, when the Thai police finally deported him back to the US. And there, living in San Francisco on a CIA pension, is where Herman and company found him. At last, the heart of darkness himself, his resemblance to Brando at his most grotesque extraordinary.

      The subsequent interview is TV at its most compelling: “War is hell,” Poe shrugs. “And, if you’re going to do it, let’s do it with gusto.” Unshaven and hungover, he speaks of sending disembodied ears to nervous US ambassadors as if it was a schoolyard prank, and explains that his mission failed because “we didn’t kill enough people” – a nightmarish echo of Kurtz’s dictum that “we must kill them. Pig after pig. Cow after cow. Village after village.”

      “And I was so glad,” says Herman, “because I realised he wasn’t coming across as Indiana Jones, but the sick, evil bastard he is.” Except, of course, some people will always see Poe not as an alcoholic war criminal, but as a role model. Back in Bangkok, among the ageing US émigrés who sit around in bars, impotent, their livers shot, they still love Tony Poe. David Herman shakes his head at the thought.

      “They fete him as a great man. But these are the guys who saw Apocalypse Now and thought Kurtz was the hero. They thought he was the main man. The man who did things right.”


      Milius originally based Kurtz on Colonel Robert B. Rheault, the Green Beret in charge of Special Forces in Southeast Asia in the late 1960s who had been forced out of the Army for executing a double agent. The Army thought Rheault was working for the CIA. Milius believed that Rheault was framed.
      According to Discovery channel’s CIA documentary Kurtz’ character was partly based on legendary CIA officer Anthony “Tony Poe” Poshepny. He worked in Laos in the early sixties training local tribes to fight against communists. He was known for his unconvential methods. One time he sent a couple of dozen ears in an envelope to his superiors to proof how good job he was doing.

      The trigger that set in motion the biggest leak of classified documents in American history, a constitutional crisis over the First Amendment’s protection of press freedom and Nixon’s resignation, was an article by Ted Sell on the front page of the »Los Angeles Times« of 30 September 1969 entitled ‘Murder Charges against Green Berets Dropped by Army’. From it Ellsberg learned that the Secretary of the Army, Stanley Resor, had ordered the military commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, to suspend the courts martial of Colonel Robert Rheault, commander of all Special Forces in Vietnam, and five other intelligence officers. They had been charged with killing a Vietnamese who had worked for them for the previous six years and then dropping his body in a weighted bag into the South China Sea. Their defence was that they thought he was a double agent. Interestingly enough, though this is not mentioned by Ellsberg, the author of the original screenplay of “Apocalypse Now”, John Milius, has said that the character of Kurtz, the maniacal American officer played by Marlon Brando, was inspired by Rheault.

    • #4086

      The question is quite extensively discussed in Adam Sandler’s book “King Leopold’s ghost” (try pp. 142-46). Sandler traces Joseph Conred’s own journey through the Congo and quotes the impressions from his diaries. Then he considers the people Conrad might have met and their relative reputations and concludes that Colonel Kurtz prototypes might have been: Georges Antoine Klein, Edmund Barttelot, Arthur Hodister & especially Captain Leon Rom.

    • #4087

      Kurtz’s character was based on the character “Kurtz” from the classic novel, “Heart of Darkness”. As was the film, for that matter. Main difference is that the novel takes place in Africa.

    • #4088

      I didn’t make myself very clear. Obviously I’m familiar with Conrads novel and hence that Apocalypse Now was more or less a modern interpretation of Heart of Darkness’ plot. Just wondered if the folks at PB had heard/read any other rumours etc… on whom (or if) the “modern” Kurtz- (ie. Brando’s renegade Vietnam Colonel )- was inspired by?

      BTW, was Dennis Hopper’s character based on anyone… laughs…..

    • #4089

      Heres an interesting thought, Although I know the movie is based upon a the book mentioned heart of darkness and set in africa….I can’t help wondering why the BFC beloved Col KKW has the intials of the main characters of the movie Apolcalypse now, theres mad Col Kurtz, Air Cav honcho Col Kilgore and the ubiqitious Capt Willard.

      My favorite line….”Are you an assassin?
      No sir, I’m a soldier”

      Reply “Your an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill”

      Somehow I can image Col KKW sitting in some jungle temple surrounded by his personal army while tapping out an official decrial.

      Spamhog :twisted:

    • #4090

      Good call spamhog – I don’t have Heart of Darkness right here at the moment but I’ll try and figure out Kurtz’s full name.

      Maybe we really should organise a little “treasure hunt” in Burma…

    • #4091

      Col KKW after the Apoc. now character? I always hoped that Col KKW was Col Ken that contributed so liberally to Stuart LLoyd’s book “Hardship Posting: True Tales of expat misadventure in Asia”. I was really hoping to have rubbed elbows (metaphorically speaking) with a man of such literary acheivement! What a disappointing morning. But, you guys sound much closer to hitting nail on the head.

    • #4092

      So your a fan of Col Ken, and hardship posting, GREAT! when I picked that book up in a Bangkok airport store I laughed like a fool for about three days. The real Col Ken lives in Koh Samui (I think) Southern Thailand and usually can be found in a bar with a dolly or two on this knee watching a soccer match. Nope the real Col Kurtz is a darker soul, my vote stays with Col KKW in a temple in Burma. Corse since Apocalypse now was shot in the PI (look at the dances the hill tribe does, the shield they hold (moro) their tattoo’s and the old church in the “Air Cav” scene.

      If they ever do a remake (NOT redux) I may apply for the part, just gain about fifty pounds (already have a shaved head) and show up with a finger bone necklace. :twisted:

    • #4093

      Im impressed. Your knowledge of Col Kurtz and the esteemed Col Ken are uncanny. If the manhunt to Burma ever took of, I’d vote for the staging area to be out of Col Ken’s drinking hole. The man seems to know how to enjoy himself. (Hardship Posting: the helicopter pilot story was hands down the best).

      Good luck with the acting career. I’d go for a job as an extra if they let me bring my surf board. Start the whirly birds up. Hey, who doesn’t love the smell of napalm in the morning?

    • #4094

      Brandos character’s full name is Walter.E.Kurtz. So maybe that’s where Col KKW’ initials come from- not sure about the extra ‘K’ though. Kevin?

      I always thought ColKKW was proberbly an alter-ego of RYP. Which gives rise to the question whether they ever appear at PB ?

      Reading a related book at the mo. Jeffery Taylers “Facing the Congo- a modern-day journey into the heart of darkness”.
      The author attempts to retrace the journey of Henry Morton Stanley, down the river Congo from Kisangani to Kinshasa by piroque.
      ” Tayler arrives, however, not in Stanley’s 19th-century Congo, but in Mobutu’s corrupt and strife-ridden Zaire in the aftermath of the infamous pillaging that tore the country asunder in the early 1990s. Throughout his journey downriver, the author ruminates on the significance of his own life and the history of the Congo and its terrible legacy of colonialism and enslavement, asking what “right” he or any Westerner has to venture, pockets full of cash, into a foreign land stricken with poverty and misery. “

      Back to Apocalypse Now quotes…. my favorites…..

      “Never get out of the boat unless your going all the way. Kurtz got out of the boat…”

      “The war was being run by a bunch of clowns who were going to give the whole circus away”

      more quotes…>

    • #4095

      I can see a new movie starring COL KKW but can’t figure out a good title:

      Apackofshiite Now?

      Apackofdecrials Now?

      Spamhog meeting COL KKW in the PI jungles….I had to burst out laughing at the image!

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