This final stop (for now) in our series examining Sybok and his quest to heal the pain of other fictional characters brings us to a true icon of suffering as a character, the antagonist of Apocalypse Now, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. A broken character consumed by trauma, the decorated Army special forces Colonel Kurtz retreats to the deepest jungles of Vietnam, living as a god and freed from human notions of morality.
Colonel Kurtz is a challenging character. Unlike previous characters burden by trauma and pain, Kurtz is a character who has been “freed” by it in a disturbing sense. No longer limited by the notions of “right and wrong,” he has established a fiefdom where he doles out judgment and punishment in whatever way works for him.
Kurtz is a warning about the horrors of war. He’s also a warning about the sorrowful fact of how post traumatic stress can change a person, in a film made before the term PTSD was accepted in psychiatric circles. To be clear, it existed and was called by different terms like “shell shock,” but Colonel Kurtz really seems to be the first expression of it through the lens of more modern understandings.
Kurtz’s specific arc is a challenge, in the context of this blog, specifically because of how he’s chosen to deal with his pain.
Would Kurtz Kill Sybok?
Kurtz is not a nice person. He is enigmatic, and capricious in his actions. The photojournalist, played by Dennis Hopper, lives with the delusion that Kurtz has achieved greatness and as such is spared. Kurtz is not so generous with Frederic Forrest’s Jay Hicks, who dies for the simple crime of bringing Captain Willard to Kurtz’ riverside kingdom.
This shows that Sybok’s advance to Kurtz would have been more difficult than the stunt he pulled with the Federation at Nimbus III. It’s conceivable that he would have started ‘converting’ Kurtz’s “hosts” before he went to the bald maverick (hey now), but volume of conversion alone would have been daunting.
If he were to approach with converts that could have been sacrificed for the cause, then attrition would have probably helped him as it did Willard. I’d also be willing to bet that Kurtz would have spared Sybok’s life because it amused him.
Setting aside the potentially lethal logistics of Sybok invading Kurtz’s domain, I think that Sybok attempting to “convert” Kurtz may have been too big a task.
This likely would have led to Sybok’s death as it did when he encountered the being-who-wasn’t-God at the center of the galaxy.
Let me explain.
The Pain Runs Too Deep
Like any self-help guru or halfwit consultant who peddles feel-good nonsense to the gullible and the discontented, Sybok’s trick only works for those who have discernible pain. Some pain is too deep for him to heal by simply standing at your side and telling you it’ll be okay after a good cry.
Like the being-who-wasn’t-God, Kurtz is fundamentally broken and can’t simply return to civilization after a quick bout of meditative therapy. This is true of nearly everyone, to be honest. Everything is about learning to deal with what we must carry, and how we might choose to help others carry what they also have.
Kirk, again, was right in Star Trek V. You can’t cure pain with “the wave of a magic wand.” How you deal with your pain is critically important; as Kirk also pointed out in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”
Death, pain, and sorrow come for all of us. For some, the burden is overwhelming. While Sybok is arguably doing some measure of good by helping carry with others that which they have trouble with on their own, he’s also limited by his own motivations (more on that later) and how deep the pain is for the person to whom he’s offering help.
And you must also remember that the person who enters the bond with Sybok must do so willingly. Kirk is able to refuse, and mystifyingly doesn’t just beat Sybok into submission in an effort to free his crew.
Kurtz, likewise, would refuse. And I could easily see him ending Sybok’s life.
Consider further the being-who-wasn’t-God, if it hadn’t been mad before it was imprisoned at the center of the galaxy, was certainly driven mad in his isolation. He even growls at one point, “An eternity I’ve been trapped in this place.”
Kurtz, while in a self-imposed exile, at least has other humans around him. But like the being-who-wasn’t-God, he’s been driven past the brink and is likely beyond Sybok’s understanding gaze.
Like his sacrificial moment to engage the being-who-wasn’t-God, Sybok would be overmatched by Kurtz. He would be driven past the limits of his own psyche, broken himself, and likely destroyed.
Oof. Didn’t mean to end the tour on such a downer. Tune in next time for a final review of Sybok’s character in the context of this series.
I really do feel bad about ending on a down note, so please enjoy the greatest movie parody of all time, Porklips Now, a sendup of Apocalypse Now.