Laurie Calhoun

The Contextual Relativism of "Greatness"
as illustrated by Coppola's "Kurtz" and Lean's "Lawrence"

 

Neither T. E. Lawrence, of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) nor Walter Kurtz, of Frances Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) appears to have aspired to fame or leadership early on in his career. But both men undergo processes of radical self-transformation and eventually come to be lauded as "great" by numerous admirers. Lawrence of Arabia opens with a man retrospectively describing Lawrence as "a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior." The same man also describes Lawrence as "the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey," suggesting that a man's individuality or uniqueness can be viewed as positive or negative. What are vices in some contexts prove to be virtues in others. In these films Lawrence and Kurtz are displayed from a variety of vistas, which help to illuminate how they came to be thought of as "great".

      Kurtz begins as an ordinary military man, dutifully following the path paved for him by his superiors, but comes through his experiences in Vietnam to question the "truths" transmitted to enlisted men by the administration. Kurtz' self-critique and metamorphosis result ultimately in his control of a veritable kingdom in the jungle wherein he is hailed as a divinity of sorts by throngs of followers. Similarly, what ends by being Lawrence's heroic role in the Turkish-Arab conflict in Saudi Arabia begins most fortuitously. Lawrence is basically a dissatisfied clerk in the British army, delighted by the prospect of any assignment that will allow him to leave his stuffy office. He complains to his co-worker, Corporal Hartley: "This is a nasty dark little room.... We are not happy in it." When Lawrence accepts the mission to Arabia, he says to Mr. Dryden: "I'm the man for the job. What is the job, by the way?"

      Although neither Lawrence nor Kurtz appears initially to have had any conscious aspirations to "greatness", both are extraordinary individuals, in that they do not fit the mold of the typical occupant of their official role. These men are articulate and well-educated, but neither falls into the category of academic worker-bee. Rather, Kurtz and Lawrence are independent thinkers capable of rationally assessing the relevant features of a situation and acting unimpeded by the dissenting opinions of those around them. This attribute, which can be interpreted, depending upon the context and the values of the interpreter, as either integrity or impudence, is often subject to censure in institutions such as the military. When Lawrence meets up with his superior officer, Colonel Brighton, in Arabia, Brighton instructs him: "Wherever you are and whoever you're with, you're a British serving officer. And here's an order: When we get into that camp, you're to keep your mouth shut. Do you understand what I'm saying?" Lawrence guilefully replies, "Yes, sir. I understand what you're saying."

     At various times during the film, Lawrence is described by his peers as "balmy", "mad", and even "insane". There is no denying that Lawrence is saucy. He explains to a commanding officer whom he fails to salute, "It's my manner, sir.... It looks insubordinate, but it isn't really." The officer responds, "I can't make out whether you're bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted." Lawrence retorts, "I have the same problem, sir." And, although his impressive educational background is there documented, General Allenby finds reported in Lawrence's dossier that he is "Undisciplined, unpunctual, untidy." Ironically, before his trip to the desert, Lawrence's superiors actually view him as worthless. In fact, Mr. Dryden persuades General Murray to send Lawrence to Arabia on the grounds that, "He is of no use here in Cairo," and further assuages him, "There would be no question of Lawrence giving military advice." The General replies, "My God, I should hope not." In the end, General Murray capitulates, "All right, Dryden. You can have him for six weeks," and presages, "Who knows, might even make a man out of him."
     Throughout the early scenes of the film, Lawrence frequently exhibits his boy-like mischievousness. For example, upon accepting the mission to locate Prince Feisal, he muses that, "It's going to be fun." Dryden observes, "It is recognized that you have a funny sense of 'fun'." But it is precisely Lawrence's failure to fit into the typical or "normal" mold of a military man which allows for the subsequent development of what comes to be interpreted as "greatness". Lawrence's "worthlessness" with regard to the traditional role of an unreflective and obedient soldier becomes the very factor which allows him to devise and successfully carry out an ingenious military stratagem. What is interpreted by some to be "madness" is a type of eccentricity which distinguishes Lawrence from the run-of-the-mill, uncritical and subservient soldier.

      Lawrence is well aware of his uniqueness. When asked by Tafas, his guide in the desert, why he is not "fat" like the other English, Lawrence matter-of-factly replies, "I'm different." But he does not view his being different as particularly valuable, at least not before his adventure in Saudi Arabia begins. Through the course of his adventure, Lawrence metamorphoses from a child-like character to a man of courage and determination, and, after a time, he himself begins to believe what becomes the prevalent interpretation of those who admire and follow him. At one point Lawrence proclaims: "They can only kill me with a golden bullet." And he even comes to believe that his very "greatness" will suffice to draw soldiers to the Arab cause, asserting: "The best will come for me."

      Walter Kurtz decided to join the air borne forces at the age of thirty-eight, having up to that point had what was recognized by all to be a stunning career. His request to transfer was denied two times before he threatened to abandon the military altogether, at which point the administration acquiesced. But the peculiarity of the request, its seeming irrationality with respect to what ordinary military men would regard as the obviously desirable goal of one day becoming a general, was a manifestation of Kurtz' eccentricity, his self-determination and disdain of the opinions of "the herd". Rather than continuing to follow the path being paved for him by the administration, allowing his superiors to "groom" him for a top position, Kurtz in effect abandoned his career. Through the film, as Willard learns more about Kurtz, he begins to understand what he hoped to accomplish and why he is viewed as such a danger by the established military hierarchy:

      "Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right, unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin' program. How did that happen? What did he see here that first tour? Thirty-eight fucking years old... Kurtz knew what he was giving up. The more I read and began to understand, the more I admired him.... He could have gone for general, but he went for himself instead."

     This quality, what can be interpreted as a radical independence of mind and free-spiritedness, manifests itself to the benefit of the military at certain points in the careers of both Kurtz and Lawrence, when they single-handedly devise and successfully execute difficult plans without the approval of their superiors.

      Kurtz' operation "Archangel" was an ingenious plan and resounding success. Willard reads the official report with considerable interest and thinks to himself: "He received no official clearance. He just thought it up and did it. What balls." This was Kurtz's first taste of genuine freedom, acting unrestrained by his commanding officers, and he apparently liked it, since he went on to extricate himself fully from their control. This may also have been his first profound recognition of the ultimate hypocrisy of the people whom he served. Willard explains, "They were gonna nail his ass to the floorboards for that one, but after the press got a hold of it, they promoted him to full Colonel instead." But even when Kurtz "goes native", his re-interpretation is not merely a private fantasy, for it structures the lives of a community of people who admire and follow Kurtz as a prophet of the truth. He is described by one of his devotees (the photo-journalist) as "a poet-warrior in the classic sense." When Willard asks to talk to Kurtz, the journalist replies, "Hey man, you don't talk to the Colonel. Uh, well, you listen to him.... The man's enlarged my mind." The journalist further evinces his reverence toward him by contrasting his view of Kurtz to his view of himself: "I'm a little man. I'm a little man. He's...He's a great man..." Seeing Willard's alarm at the dead bodies all over Kurtz' commune, the journalist explains: "He can be terrible, and he can be mean. And he can be right. He's like war. He's a great man. I wish I had words."

      Lawrence's operation to infiltrate Aqaba from the desert side was likewise masterminded and executed completely independently of the leaders to whom he was officially obligated to answer. Yet, because of the success of the operation, Lawrence, too, was promoted rather than being upbraided or punished for disorderly conduct. When Colonel Brighton finds Lawrence and his Arab companion, robe-clad and sand-covered, standing in the officers' club in Cairo, he demands: "Well, explain yourself." Lawrence responds, "We've taken Aqaba." Brighton is incredulous: "It isn't possible." Lawrence replies, "Yes it is. I did it." When his failure to act in accordance with military orders is pointed out to him, Lawrence asks, "Shouldn't officers use their initiative at all times?" General Allenby replies, "Not really, that would be awfully dangerous." Lawrence concurs, "Yes, I know." The men to whom he presumably answers are amazed at his accomplishment: "Before he did it, sir, I'd have said that it couldn't be done." But, in the end, Lawrence's transgressions of military protocol are condoned. Even Colonel Brighton, whose authority was shamelessly flouted by Lawrence, ends by viewing Lawrence with admiration: "I think you should recommend a decoration, sir. I don't think it matters what his motives were. It was a brilliant piece of soldiering."

      Before devising his plan, Lawrence romantically observes of the Arabs to Prince Feisal: "You were great." But Feisal realistically counters, "Nine centuries ago. To be great again it seems that we need the English or what no man can provide, Mr. Lawrence. We need a miracle." It is after a long period of meditative reflection in the desert over the Arabs' predicament that Lawrence emerges with his ingenious but seemingly quixotic plan: "Aqaba from the land.... I'll cross it if you will.... From the landward side there are no guns in Aqaba." Sherif Ali points out, "With good reason: it cannot be approached from the landward side." But Lawrence persists, and Ali concludes, "You are mad." When Feisal learns that Lawrence is leaving with fifty of his men, he asks: "Where are you going?" Lawrence replies, "To work your miracle." Feisal observes, "Blasphemy is a bad beginning for such a journey," but he nonetheless agrees to sacrifice these men to a plan which he does not truly believe can succeed, as is evidenced by the fact that he intends to follow Colonel Brighton's advice and fall back on Yanbu with the bulk of his troops. As he departs, Lawrence asks Feisal, "Since you do know, we can claim to ride in the name of Feisal and mecca?" Feisal incisively responds, "Yes, Lieutenant. You may claim it. But in whose name do you ride?"

      Throughout the film, Ali seems to be a much more prudent and reasonable man than Lawrence. Ali is not willing to take the chances that perhaps only fortuitously succeed, but nonetheless lead to Lawrence's being viewed as "great." For example, when Lawrence turns around to go back to save one of his fellow soldiers who has fallen off of his camel and will die there alone within the day, Sherif Ali becomes incensed at what he takes to be Lawrence's self-indulgence, insisting that Lawrence's action will serve no end other than to ensure that he die with the man in the desert. According to Ali and the others, the fallen man was meant to die, for "It is written." But Lawrence defiantly exclaims: "Nothing is written." Ali decries his "blasphemous conceit," but Lawrence insists, "I shall be at Aqaba. That is written. In here [pointing to his head]." Ali interprets Lawrence's action as a selfish attempt to avoid responsibility for Gasim's death. Since the plan to cross this desert was Lawrence's own, any man who died as a result of having being enlisted to attempt to make this ridiculous dream come true would weigh upon Lawrence's conscience.

      When Lawrence and Gasim (the man whose life he saved) rejoin the group later that day, Ali, in effusive admiration, admits: "Truly for some men nothing is written, unless they write it." Lawrence's action is re-interpreted by Ali and the other men as an act of courageousness, rather than impudent rashness, precisely and only because it succeeds. But later in the film, when Lawrence executes a man (Gasim himself) in order to circumvent an inter-tribal bloodbath, which would effectively destroy any hopes of taking Aqaba, it becomes clear that Lawrence's earlier decision to return to the desert was not motivated by the type of vain self-indulgence to which Ali believed him to have succumbed. Lawrence seems intuitively to know where to draw the line between courageousness and rashness. When, en route to Cairo, one of his servants is being sucked into a vortex of sand during a wind storm, Lawrence prevents the other servant from attempting futilely to save him. Lawrence recognizes that, in this case, such a benevolent action would lead only to the actor's certain and gratuitous death.

      Prince Feisal observes that Lawrence possesses the virtues of the young, "the virtues of war: courage and hope for the future." Despite the fact that his outlandish proposal, that the Arabs cross the Nafud desert in order to catch the Turks off-guard by penetrating Aqaba from the backside, is initially rejected by Ali, Lawrence nonetheless persuades some men to go forward with the plan, and when he succeeds, he is decorated as a hero by the Arabs and the British alike. Thus the interpretation of certain character traits depends in large part upon the outcomes of the actions which serve to express those qualities. At one point, when his men are looting a train which they have de-railed as a part of their campaign to impede Turkish transport, Lawrence stands immobile, allowing a man to shoot at him time after time. Such impassivity would seem to be foolhardy, an act not of courage, but of imprudence or even rashness. Yet Lawrence survives, just as he survived his journey back into the desert to retrieve the dying man. Lawrence's single-mindedness, what in this case looks to be simple brashness, is not, in and of itself, a virtue. Rather, it becomes a virtue through his followers' and the viewer's retrospective interpretation of his character in particular, notably victorious, contexts.

      The centrality of interpretation to our moral dealings is emphasized throughout Lawrence of Arabia. For example, Prince Feisal remarks, "With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me it is good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable." The suggestion here is that there is a phenomenon, what we typically characterize as "mercy", which can in fact be interpreted in a variety of manners. Of course, our ordinary or commonsense interpretation of many phenomena is itself moral; the idea of "mercy" already connotes a moral outlook. In re-interpreting this phenomenon as a matter of etiquette, Prince Feisal evinces skepticism about the allegedly intrinsic morality of "mercy".



Re-Re-interpretation


    
Through his experience in the Vietnam war, Kurtz' views about morality have irrevocably metamorphosed. His rather eccentric idea of personal challenge and duty is expressed as follows:
"I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream. It's my nightmare: crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor and surviving.... We must incinerate them... village after village, army after army.... They lie, and we have to be merciful."

      In describing Captain Willard's mission, to terminate Colonel Kurtz' command "with extreme prejudice", his superiors explain to him:
"He joined the special forces, and after that his ideas, methods, became unsound. Unsound."

"Now he's crossed into Cambodia with his...army that worship him and follow every order, no matter how ridiculous."

     "In this war things get confused out there: power, ideals, morality and 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 the good and the evil. And good does not always triumph.... Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have ours.... Walter Kurtz has reached his, and very obviously he has gone insane.... He's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct."

     But this is the story told by the military officials, who apparently fear something about Kurtz, beyond his capacity for brutal murder, which, as Willard witnesses, was rampant at every level in Vietnam. As he learns more about Kurtz, Willard confesses, "I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn't just insanity and murder. There was enough of that to go around for everyone." Indeed, Willard himself heartlessly eliminates a wounded Vietnamese woman in front of all of his boat-mates, rather than permitting her needed transport to a hospital to sidetrack his mission. But it is hardly plausible that those few hours would have hindered the accomplishment of his duty, given its extraordinary nature. Willard's mission is to de-throne a despot, not to defuse an activated bomb.

     According to Kurtz, it is the military that is duplicitous and even "insane". Kurtz claims that he has been unjustly accused of murder in a letter to his son:
"I have been officially accused of murder by the army. The alleged victims were four Vietnamese double agents. We spent months uncovering them and accumulating evidence. When absolute proof was completed, we acted. We acted like soldiers. The charges are unjustified. They are in fact, and in the circumstances of this conflict, quite completely insane. In a war, there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action, what is often called "ruthless", but may in many circumstances be only clarity: seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it. Directly, quickly, awake. Looking at it. I will trust you to tell your mother what you choose about this letter. As for the charges against me, I am unconcerned. I am beyond their timid lying morality, and so I am beyond caring."

     Willard seemingly concurred, from the very beginning, with Kurtz' view of the ludicrousness of being charged with murder in Vietnam: "Shit, charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500." The issue, he recognizes, is not one of murder at all.

After Kurtz ordered the assassination of the four Vietnamese, characterized by command as victims of murder, the army offered him one last chance to re-assimilate into their structure. Willard observes, "If he'd pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. But he kept going, and he kept winning it his way. Then they called me in. They lost him. He was gone." Now everything for Kurtz has become a power struggle, and he rules his kingdom by force, both physical and psychological. Those who pose any sort of threat to him are destroyed, and those who remain worship and serve him. His self-proclaimed guiding principles are "terror and moral horror". But Kurtz seems genuinely to understand moral sentiment. He seems to appreciate the horror of "moral horror". In order to overcome his vulnerability to moral sentiment, he has appropriated terror and moral horror as his very own tools.

       Willard sympathizes with Kurtz in direct proportion to his witness of the absurd realities of Vietnam: "No wonder Kurtz put a weed up command's ass. The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were gonna end up giving the whole circus away." He also comes to share Kurtz' revulsion to duplicity and the hypocrisy of the army's involvement and comportment: "It was a way we had over here of living with ourselves. We'd cut 'em in half with a machine gun and give 'em a bandaid. It was a lie, and the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies." After killing the wounded Vietnamese woman, he recognizes, "Those boys were never gonna look at me the same way again. But I felt like I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren't in the dossier." Kurtz himself later reveals to Willard that, "There is nothing I detest more than the stench of lies."

      Kurtz explains to Willard some of his principles, which he discovered through his own painful witness of war atrocities, as follows: "It is impossible to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror as a faith. And you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared." His change in view occurred in a sort of epiphany:
"and then I realized: it was like I was shot. Like I was shot with a diamond. A diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: 'My God, the genius of that. The genius, the will to do that [He is referring to the act of hacking off the arms (which had been inoculated) of the native children and leaving them in a pile]... perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure.'"

     When Willard finally arrives at his destination in Cambodia, he finds a commune of Kurtz' "children", natives and soldiers who have been brought completely under his control and treat him as a God, obeying his every command. Kurtz has amassed his kingdom and gained his followers by dint of his own cunning, using only the soldiers whom he has persuaded to serve him. Even Captain Richard Colby, who had been sent on what is now Willard's classified mission, was converted to Kurtz' veritable cult. Willard read, en route, a note which Colby had tried to send to his wife: "Sell the house. Sell the car. Sell the kids. Find someone else. Forget it! I'm never coming back. Forget it!" Upon reaching the commune, Willard finds his predecessor armed and standing guard over the grounds. In spite of the fact that Kurtz' followers know with certainty that he brutally slaughters human beings (they themselves have witnessed him doing so), they nonetheless remain in the commune. There is no fence or wall holding these people in; they are devoted to Kurtz, their "great" leader.

     Lawrence's formidable powers of persuasion are illustrated in situations where he manages to transform into allies men initially disposed to oppose him. Lawrence wins Feisal's respect and support, in spite of the fact that Feisal claims not to believe that the campaign to take Aqaba will succeed. Lawrence persuades Ali to join him, even though he explicitly and repeatedly insists that Lawrence is "mad". Lawrence manages to secure a dinner invitation for all of his men from Auda, who initially confronts with belligerence Lawrence and the others, whom Auda finds drinking illegally from his wells. And Lawrence gains a legion of followers through his victory in Aqaba. Prince Feisal explains to the American journalist, Mr. Bentley, the grounds for the Arabs' adulation of Lawrence: "In this country, Mr. Bentley, the man who gives victory in battle is prized beyond every other man."

     Lawrence, like Kurtz, is fashioned a hero by his followers, but Lawrence is also transformed into a hero more permanently by the media. At one point, Mr. Bentley frankly confesses his reason for coming to Arabia: "I'm looking for a hero." Prince Feisal responds, "Indeed? You do not seem a romantic man." Bentley explains, "Oh, no. But certain influential men back home believe that the time has come for America to lend her weight to the patriotic struggle against Germany, er...., and Turkey. Now I've been sent to find material which will show our people that this war is..." Feisal interjects, "Enjoyable?" And Bentley clarifies: "Hardly that, sir. But, to show, well, its more adventurous aspects." Feisal concludes: "You are looking for a figure who will draw your country to war?... Lawrence is your man."

      Once again, this interaction illustrates the clear role of interpretation in the writing of history. The "national hero" is a creation of the media, and often that construction serves the purely pragmatic aims of reigning institutions. The British recognize the power Lawrence has over the Arabs, as Colonel Brighton explains, "They think he's a kind of prophet." But the British condone this image, so long as it serves, albeit coincidentally, their own aims. It is undeniable that images, generated through the persuasive interpretations of individual's actions as "heroic" or "noble", galvanize others to follow them. Correlatively, it is only so long as these interpretations are viewed as veridical pictures that "great" men exert control over others. When Auda, who has been lured into joining the other Arabs in the attack upon Aqaba, finds that there is there no gold, the prospect of which had impelled him to join "the cause", he expresses surprise at Lawrence's fallibility: "He lied. He is not perfect." This suggests that Auda himself, his own mercenary aims notwithstanding, had been seduced by the interpretation of Lawrence according to which he was some sort of divine prophet or messiah.


"Self"-Overcoming


    
Both Lawrence and Kurtz take risks and succeed, and thus they ultimately secure followings. However, both men subsequently decide to transcend the powerful position they have attained by in effect relinquishing it. Each seems to have grown somewhat weary of his role. Kurtz asks Willard, "Have you ever considered any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinions of others. Freedoms from the opinion of yourself?" During the time of the exercise of their power and their control over others, Lawrence and Kurtz are in some sense obsessed with obtaining their goals. It is only so long as they are enchanted by an idée fixe that these men effect the changes which lead others to regard them as "great". When men decide at last to forsake their "cause", then they lose their hold over their followers.

     After what was no doubt a thoroughly humiliating experience of torture (and, apparently, rape) by a Turkish bey and his soldiers, Lawrence acknowledges his human nature once again. He tells Ali, "I'm going. I've come to the end of myself. I'm not the Arab revolt." Ali replies, "A man can be whatever he wants, you said." But Lawrence humbly counters, "I'm sorry. I thought it was true." Lawrence's experiences at the hands of the Turks force him to call into question the pleasing interpretation of his character, according to which he is truly "great," which he had up to that point been seduced into believing himself. But, despite the fact that Lawrence has been persuaded by his hordes of followers that he is a truly "great" man, he is not so deluded as to insist upon holding onto this interpretation in the face of conflicting evidence:
"Any man is what I am. You may as well know: I would have told them [the Turks who had captured him] anything. I tried to.... I think I see a way of being just ordinarily happy.... Trust your people, and let me go back to mine."

     Yet there is still something appealing about Lawrence's unflinching honesty in his evaluation of his own shortcomings. Despite the fact that we learn that he is not perfect, we admire Lawrence as a person nonetheless. Being a "great" man in no way implies infallibility. There is something genuinely praiseworthy about being able to admit defeat, to face up to one's own shortcomings and mistakes. This virtue is identified in Kurtz by the photojournalist who notices Willard's shock at what he sees in Kurtz' kingdom. The heads strewn all over his grounds and bodies hanging from the trees are the first vivid indication of Kurtz' rather extreme modus operandi, which might have been (before this point) open to skepticism, given the military's possibly ulterior motives in terminating Kurtz' command. But the photojournalist appreciates Willard's astonishment: "The heads. You're looking at the heads. I, uh... Sometimes he goes too far.... He's the first to admit it."

     Individuals who refuse to acknowledge their own faults, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that they have failed in some way, seem to us to be self-deluded egomaniacs or lunatics. At times in the film Lawrence does begin to manifest qualities such as those possessed by egomaniacs, for example, when he says, "They can only kill me with a golden bullet," and "The best will come for me." But Lawrence's own remarkable accomplishments actually justify to some extent his belief in his own "greatness". He has achieved what no man dreamed was possible. Nonetheless, Lawrence's subsequent recognition of his fallibility mandates that he re-evaluate what he had come to regard with his followers as his "greatness", and this re-evaluation involves his coming to terms with what he now sees to have been his real motivations for involving himself in the conflict.

     Early on, Lawrence asks his superiors whether or not England has interests in Arabia:
"Arabia is for the Arabs now. That's what I've told them anyway. That's what they think. That's why they're fighting.... They've only one suspicion: we'll let them drive the Turks out and then move in ourselves. I've told them that that's false, that we've no ambitions in Arabia. Have we?"

      General Allenby responds, "I'm not a politician, thank God. Have we any ambitions in Arabia, Dryden?" Dryden, Allenby's political advisor, replies, "Difficult question, sir." Then Lawrence re-phrases the question to Allenby as follows: "I want to know sir, whether I can tell them in your name that we've no ambitions in Arabia." General Allenby replies, without hesitation, "Certainly." Lawrence's very manner of phrasing the question indicates that he is not so much interested in the truth as in what he can officially say to the Arabs in order to galvanize the disparate tribes into a unified force, what he fashions as the "Arab North Army". The Arabs regard themselves as members of their own tribes, as is repeatedly illustrated by their notorious tendency toward internecine conflict. The coalition of which Lawrence dreams and which he claims (in an official report to his commanding officers) to exist is in fact a chimera, a creation of his own mind. Lawrence's vision is of a unified race of people who existed and triumphed, who were "great", nine centuries ago.

     When Lawrence later evinces anger at the existence of a treaty indicating that England and France will share the Turkish Empire after the war, Mr. Dryden insists:
"Let's have no displays of indignation. You may not have known, but you certainly had suspicions. If we've told lies, you've told half-lies. A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it."

     Through this repeated emphasis upon the disparity between Lawrence's view of what he is doing, the Arab tribes' views of what they are doing, and the British military's view of what they are doing, a skepticism is expressed toward the idea that Lawrence (or anyone else) is "great" in some sort of absolute sense. Throughout his adventure, Lawrence has been involved in an evolutionary process, through which he is given the opportunity to express his own power, to transform the world. The process culminates with Lawrence's recognition of his delusory interpretation of the nature of the conflict. When Lawrence is made explicitly aware of the British interest in Arabia, he confesses:
"The truth is: I'm an ordinary man, and I want an ordinary job.... I don't want to be a part of your big push. I just want my ration of common humanity."

     Having at last seen that he has been swept up into a battle which in reality has nothing to do with him, Lawrence decides to renounce his role as "hero." But Lawrence's relinquishment of that role, his decision to return to a normal life of cricket and clerical work, does not disappoint. Indeed, Lawrence's decision in the light of what he has learned about himself renders him even more admirable as a person. Part of what we continue to view as his "greatness" is his extreme candor and willingness to face up to the truth, even when it leads to unsavory conclusions about himself, in this instance, that throughout the period of his involvement in the conflict Lawrence was self-deceived.

     Willard comes to appreciate the power of Kurtz' mind, its labyrinthine though somehow intriguing logic, and his capacity for bringing others under his control: "He knew more about what I was going to do than I did." Of course, Willard does not reveal this to Kurtz. In response to Kurtz' question, "Are my methods unsound?" Willard replies, "I don't see any method at all." And, in fact, the viewer learns that Willard's attitude toward Kurtz is ambivalent: "He broke from them, and then he broke from himself. I've never seen a man so broken up, ripped apart."

     Kurtz "went for himself", and obtained what he had sought, but then decided to transcend even that. Kurtz could quite easily have killed Willard, in the manner in which he killed Willard's boat-mate, Chef, whose head Kurtz delivers to Willard's lap while he is bound and fully under Kurtz' control. After he has been released, Willard acknowledges this fact:
"On the river I thought that the minute I looked at him I'd know what to do. But it didn't happen. I was in there with him for days. Not under guard. I was free. But he knew I wasn't going anywhere.... If the generals...could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? More than ever, probably."

     But eventually Willard decides to kill Kurtz: "Everybody wanted me to do it. Him most of all. I felt like he was up there waiting for me to take the pain away." Willard thus suggests that Kurtz surrendered rather than having been defeated. His defeat is also his victory, insofar as he himself chooses it, by providing Willard with the liberty to assassinate him. In one sense, Kurtz' death is more like a suicide than a military defeat. But Willard recognizes that Kurtz prefers to interpret his death as a military defeat: "He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up. Not like some poor wasted rag-assed renegade.... Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's who he really took his orders from anyway."

     In the end, Willard views himself as acting independently from the military as well: "They were gonna make me a major for this [terminating Kurtz' command "with extreme prejudice"], and I wasn't even a part of their fucking army anymore." There are multiple grounds for believing that, through his process of learning about Vietnam and Kurtz, Willard has been struck by the implausibility of the interpretation of Kurtz' transgressions advanced by the military. Certainly, if Kurtz were in fact a war criminal, then it would seem that he should be made to stand trial in a court of law, rather than being summarily and illegally eliminated. The flagrant hypocrisy of the military's conduct is thus underscored, since what they are in the process of doing is effecting Kurtz' execution outside the bounds of the established conventions by which this might be lawfully done. On the one hand, they claim that Kurtz is "totally insane", but, on the other hand, they are enlisting the aid of what is equivalent to a hitman to execute Kurtz. But people who are "totally insane" are judged by society to require containment in psychiatric institutions, not incarceration or execution, no matter how atrocious their crimes may have been. Willard is explicitly told, when offered the mission, that: "You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist." Despite his reservations, Willard accepts the mission: "I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do? But I really didn't know what I'd do when I found him." Willard thus seems to grasp that what he is being asked to do is none other than to commit another instance of Kurtz' very own "crime." Kurtz executed the four Vietnamese without first gaining official clearance to do so, viz., by having them stand trial. But Willard's execution of Kurtz will never even be reported as a part of military history at all. A skepticism about some sort of allegedly absolute "greatness" emerges yet again, as Willard clearly views himself as operating along the lines of Kurtz. These men are engaged in power struggles with one another and, more than anything else, with themselves.


The Truth in "Might makes Right"


   
Although any number of stories might lie on top, when all is said and done, the story that is finally etched in the annals of history is an interpretation of what have been distinguished as independent events by the people who are powerful enough to turn them into "facts" for the broader community. Looking at Kurtz', Willard's or Lawrence's modus operandi at selected points in the films, it would seem that they might be most aptly described as simple murderers. At other points, they seem to be engaged in acts of self-defense, and at others they seem to be courageous warriors. It is only in specific, highly detailed contexts that any of these interpretations makes any sense.

     Consider Kurtz' beheading of Chef. Kurtz finds this man waiting for Willard in a boat with a radio, in the process of calling for military assistance. But Willard has been sent to terminate Kurtz' command, a mission which, as Kurtz observes, is "no longer classified". In other words, although Kurtz' means of protecting himself is rather offensive, this killing is quite plausibly interpretable as an act of self-defense. It is only because decapitation smacks of pagan ritualism that one is left with the feeling that there is something psychologically aberrant or immoral about Kurtz' action. Ordinarily, acts of self-defense involve the minimal action needed to secure the aim of protecting one's self, and this is why calling some killings acts of "self-defense" strikes us as rather implausible. Still, if one is so disposed, one can interpret "self-defense" so broadly as to cover any conceivable action, and perhaps this is how those who have committed what to many seem to be horrifically iniquitous crimes manage to sleep at night.

       Early on Lawrence describes Ali's people as "a little people, a silly people: greedy, barbarous and cruel," and he haughtily exclaims: "None of my friends is a murderer!", alluding to Ali's shooting of Tafas. But Ali forces Lawrence to confront what can be interpreted as his hypocrisy by throwing those words back in his face when Lawrence later initiates a needless blood bath with the Turks and murders (in Ali's view) numerous men. What Lawrence decried was not the act of killing, but his interpretation of Ali's killing, which could quite plausibly have been viewed as an act of self-defense. Neither Lawrence nor Ali chooses to view Ali's shooting of Tafas in the head as an act of self-defense, despite the fact that it was Tafas who raised his gun first, with the clear intention of shooting Ali. When Lawrence asks Ali why he shot Tafas, he responds: "This is my well." He chooses to view his action as one of principle, not of simple self-defense: "He was nothing. The well is everything. The Hasami may not drink at our wells. He knew that." Or consider, again, the example from Apocalypse Now, described above, involving Willard. It is implausible to interpret Willard's killing of the wounded Vietnamese woman as an act of self-defense, but since he is conducting himself in the capacity as a soldier on a classified mission, he nevertheless can report the act as permissible, in the name of military exigency.

      What distinguishes Willard's killing of the Vietnamese woman, or Ali's killing of Tafas in the desert, or Kurtz' killing of the four Vietnamese believed by him to be double agents, from simple murder, is determined by what the story teller has deemed to be a pleasing or plausible interpretation. But what we might interpret as a "garden-variety" murder can always be, and is no doubt often, by the murderer himself, interpreted as an act of self-defense or a battle in what he takes to be a "just war". Through devising a sufficiently persuasive interpretation of what one has done, any action, no matter how abominable it may appear to the victim or other members of one's community, can be viewed by the perpetrator himself as permissible.

     The bodies hanging from trees all throughout his commune notwithstanding, there are grounds for interpreting Kurtz' character along the lines of a genuine warrior, in precisely the sense in which Lawrence is, and this explains how he managed to bring so many people under his control. Certainly, both of these men courageously face their enemies. They do not send their lackeys out to do their fighting for them, refusing to sully their own hands. Furthermore, Lawrence and Kurtz both seem to feel deeply. It is not without reason that Coppola includes scenes of Kurtz in his shrine reading poetry out loud. For Kurtz, no less than for Lawrence, violence has become a necessity. We may be repulsed by the extremity of Kurtz' methods, but Lawrence is no less a killer in his battles, and Kurtz' moral turpitude can be interpreted as an expression of his drive to overcome his own weakness, as an expression of his own power. In a like manner, we could interpret Willard as a warrior or an assassin or, as Kurtz initially characterizes him, "an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill."

     When Lawrence initiates the purposeless blood bath with the Turks, by raising his sword high and shouting, "No prisoners!", he willingly steps outside the bounds of acceptable military conduct, in precisely the manner in which Kurtz was reported to have done, by ordering the execution of the four Vietnamese without first securing official military approval. But the story of Lawrence which is believed by those who continue to characterize him as "great" depicts that event in a manner consistent with the story that they have already come to believe. And, of course, the same can be said for the "causes" of people who come to be regarded as "heroes". These are always multiply interpretable.
      As Lawrence's change in view illustrates, we sometimes modify our interpretations in our ascriptions of virtues and vices, including "greatness", in the light of new evidence. Just as "courage" viewed retrospectively remains "courage" only when it does not lead to the agent's needless and avoidable destruction, "greatness" remains "greatness" diachronically only when an agent's ultimate motivations happen to coincide with the interests of a greater cause or group with which we can identify. Thus both Apocalypse Now and Lawrence of Arabia, suggest that interpretation makes "just wars" into just wars and "murders" into murders. When men come to re-interpret their own causes in ways that render them unworthy, then and only then can and do they abandon them.

    As Lawrence prepares to depart, Ali begs Lawrence not to abandon his Arab troops, citing Lawrence's own earlier inspirational words: "A man can be whatever he wants to be. A man can do whatever he wants." But Lawrence now objects: "He cannot want what he does not want." During his adventure in the desert, Lawrence is seduced by those around him to believe that he is actually a great leader, unique, prophetic. And when General Allenby tries to persuade Lawrence to return to the desert, he says, "Very few men have a destiny.... It would be a terrible thing to waste," he in effect challenges Lawrence to turn his chimerical "cause" into a reality. But, in the end, Lawrence recognizes the nature of his own commitment to the "cause" of the Arabs. He sees that his entire journey was one of personal transformation. Lawrence starts out as an individual with no attachment to any group, through his experiences comes to believe others' interpretations of what he is doing, and finally finishes as an uncommitted individual, having recognized the delusory nature of his alleged "cause". He comes full circle, ultimately realizing that his own adventure was more a process of gaining self-knowledge than anything else. Lawrence, like Kurtz, has come to appreciate the hypocrisy of the military establishment whom he has been representing. The interests of the British are not the interests of the Arabs. Lawrence recognizes that he has been the tool of the British. He has become a killer, and even, in his own eyes, a murderer, while acting in his capacity as a British officer feigning Arab allegiance. Lawrence wakes up one day and realizes that he is not an Arab, he is a member of no tribe, he doesn't belong in Arabia, and he refuses to pretend that the British care about the Arabs.

     In a similar moment of acute self-consciousness, Kurtz insists to Willard: "I've seen the horror, horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that. But you have no right to judge me." Although, with respect to conventional morality, Kurtz' idea might seem "insane", in fact, it is none other than a perfectly coherent thesis of metaethical relativism, according to which moral judgement cannot, with linguistic propriety, be rendered upon individuals lying outside of the sphere of morality in question. By insisting that he not be judged by principles which he himself does not embrace, Kurtz exhibits what could be interpreted as intellectual integrity. But in cases such as that of Kurtz, where a man places himself "totally beyond the pale of acceptable human conduct," that is, what has been conventionally established to be such, we re-interpret as a vice what in other contexts might have been a virtue. Kurtz' executions were interpreted by the military establishment to be murders since he carried them out without their official authorization, and they did not coincidentally satisfy the military's own aims. It is only because Willard's action happens coincidentally to fulfill the mission which he has been given by his superiors that it will never be interpreted as a murder. But under Willard's own interpretation, the action is entirely independent from what is supposed to be his official mission.


The End of Interpretation


     
When we look closely at their ultimate motivations for acting in the ways in which they do, it becomes clear that both Kurtz and Lawrence can be viewed as purely egocentric. These are powerful and charismatic men who derive satisfaction through the deployment of their power and the attendant control of their followers. They are intelligent, sensitive, courageous men of action who gain followings of considerable numbers of people precisely due to their possession of these properties. Lawrence's egoistic motivations happen to coincide with the collective interests of a greater group. His quest for power happens to manifest itself in ways advantageous to the Arab tribes, Prince Feisal, and the British. In contrast, Kurtz' struggle to liberate himself from the constraints and hypocrisy of the American military corporation is not tied to any larger group's cause. Yet Kurtz nonetheless persuades his followers to believe that he is a truly "great" man. He provides them with a structured community in which to live and even a purpose: to serve him, who, precisely because he is "great", merits their obeisance, or so they come to believe.

       The qualities, viewed synchronically as "virtues", which lead their supporters to characterize some men as "great" and to follow uncritically their orders, "no matter how ridiculous," are the same for people whom we continue to regard as "great" diachronically, and those, such as Hitler, whom we later come to regard as profoundly iniquitous or even insane. If psychological egoism is true, then all agents are motivated ultimately by selfish interests, but we nonetheless distinguish diachronic "greatness" as involving the coincidence of a "great" man's selfish interests with those of a larger group. In cases where the evaluation of an agent's character changes retrospectively, this is due to a recognition of his essentially egoistic motivations, which do not accommodate the interests of a larger group. During their period of control, such men have persuaded their followers to believe that their interests are accommodated by their leader's, even if this is only insofar as they have been provided with a sort of support system or a structured community in which to live and work. Our diachronic criterion of "greatness" is thought synchronically to be satisfied by the immediate followers of men such as Walter Kurtz, Charles Manson, and Adolf Hitler. During the period of their control, these men persuade their followers that it is to their benefit to obey their orders and to be a part of their community. The followers have been convinced that it is genuinely in their best interests to act in accordance with their leader's dictates. Their unwavering commitment to this belief is often secured through providing them with material comfort or security, but it probably often also involves an intricate nexus of psychological and emotional benefits. For example, every one of the Manson "family" members was a homeless transient before being taken in by the group's leader.

      It is indisputable that people derive satisfaction through associating with "winning teams" and causes, and this may help explain otherwise inexplicable phenomena such as the horrific success of the Third Reich. No sane person would have agreed to gas the Jews without first having been persuaded that they were subhuman and that it was in some sense moral or even noble to do so. Similarly, Charles Manson amazingly convinced his followers to brutally murder entirely innocent victims by interpreting these as acts of just war and, amazingly enough, even love. His followers had been persuaded to believe an interpretation according to which the world would become a better place through the elimination of people such as their victims. As outsiders and in retrospect, we view these "great" men's interpretations as specious and sophistic. Although our diachronic criterion was thought to have been satisfied by the followers of such men, in fact that appearance was illusory. Rather, there was no transcendent or greater cause for which such men could be said to be fighting. Their "cause" was simple egoism, a desire to have an effect, no matter how nocent, upon the world. It is through the manipulation, the re-interpretation of facts that moral monsters persuade their formerly ordinary followers to commit moral atrocities.

     While in control, "great" men are not characterized as megalomaniacs, because they are truly powerful. It is only once they have been defeated that this term comes to be applied to some of those who finally proved to be vanquishable. The "greatness" which we ascribe synchronically to men who manage to bring large numbers of people under their control is very simply a type of power which they have in virtue of their possession of certain qualities viewed as virtuous by those who have been persuaded to follow their orders. Yet we do not retract our characterization of men such as Lawrence when they are rendered completely impotent by being killed, even when their deaths are far from heroic. After all of his courageous trials in the desert, Lawrence finally dies in a simple motorcycle accident. After their deaths, people are obviously no longer powerful, but, in some cases, we continue to claim that they were "great" because, during the period of the execution of their power, their interests coincided with those of groups or with causes that transcend simple concerns with emotional security or material comfort. Kurtz' death in contrast, represents a divestiture of not only his potency, but also his "greatness". The "greatness" of simple megalomaniacs disintegrates upon our retrospective interpretation, what we take to be a recognition, of their ultimately egocentric concerns which served no other purpose than to satisfy their selfish and deadly desires.

     In any given conflict, each side regards itself as "threatened" or "harmed" by the other, but what we find in our retrospective ascription of "greatness" to some people but not others, for example to the Arab, but not the Turkish leaders, and to Willard but not Kurtz, is that, in the long run, "great" men do not conduct themselves in ways which lead to the wanton and/or gratuitous destruction of other human beings or civilization. While engaged in battles, they may indeed kill some people, but the outcome of a favorable victory of what many would claim to be a "just war" is to the benefit of humanity. While the Turks were usurped, and therefore in some sense harmed by the Arab revolt, their own former position of power was predicated upon the subordination, the oppression of the Arabs. But the Turks were not oppressed in being removed from a position of being able to oppress others, since that position was never rightfully theirs.

      Coppola and Lean suggest that diachronic "greatness", unlike synchronic "greatness", is a relational property. Such a thesis is perhaps to some more palatable when fictional rather than real people are considered, but the lesson derived from Apocalypse Now and Lawrence of Arabia applies straight forwardedly to the world in which we live. We may believe a man to be "great" at a given moment in time, in virtue of what we take to be his "virtues". But when we continue to apply this accolade to him, long after he has been usurped by his own mortality, this is due to our interpretation of his interests as coinciding with a noble or worthy cause, one which we can see transcends the simple satisfaction of his idiosyncratic and egocentric desires. The possession of what we often interpret to be virtues, such as cunning, daring, and initiative, may be necessary to our application of the term 'great' diachronically as well, but these are clearly not sufficient, as our judgment of Kurtz reveals. It is indisputable that many leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson, have possessed these qualities, but, in the end, such people are relegated to the class of megalomaniacal madmen.