Monday, December 15, 2008

The Real Life Colonel Kurtz

The film Apocalypse Nowis based on the Joseph Conrad 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. Director, Francis Ford Coppola updated the Kurtz character to be a Special Forces Colonel during the Vietnam War. I've been reading about the Vietnam conflict recently, and I stumbled upon this nugget (From the Historical Dictionary of the 60's - James Stuart Olson):

RHEAULT CONTROVERSY. Colonel Robert Rheault was commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group in South Vietnam in 1969 when he was arrested for ordering the killing of a South Vietnamese Special Forces employee, whom Rheault learned was a secret agent of the Vietcong. Eventually, the case had to be dismissed because the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) refused to release sensitive, classified documents to the prosecution. Rheault resigned from the Special Forces in 1969. REFERENCE: Charles M. Simpson III, Inside the Green Berets: The First Thirty Years, 1983.

The case received some coverage when it came out Time Magazine, 1969:
Ripples of Disbelief. The Army did nothing to lessen the mystery. The killing was said to have occurred June 20 near the Special Forces headquarters at Nha Trang, 200 miles northeast of Saigon. Rheault was relieved of his command on July 21. Who the victim was, what his connections with the war might have been, who brought the charges — all these facts remained secret. Regular military investigating units professed to have no knowledge of the incident, leading to conjecture that the case involved a secret agency, possibly the CIA. This speculation was supported by the fact that at least three of the Green Berets were intelligence specialists. According to one story, the victim was a Vietnamese spy for the Americans, who had disappeared when he was discovered to be a double agent. No body has been found, and rumor has it that the victim was disposed of at sea. Such a killing would not be unique in Viet Nam, not difficult to disguise. Why the Army chose to publicize the case is another mystery.

Mrs. Rheault said she had sensed that something was wrong from her husband's most recent letters, but relatives of the others said that they had not been aware of any difficulties until news reports of the arrests appeared.

The assasination was of apparant double-agent Thai Khac Chuyen. It was considered excessive, and the army tried to court marshall Rheault. Nixon and Kissinger put on pressure from above and the charges were dropped.

From Apocalypse Now screen play:

WILLARD (v.o.)"October 1967 on special assignment, Con Tum province. Kurtz staged operation Arch Angel with combined local forces. Raid a major success. He received no official clearence. He just thought it up and did it. What balls. They were gonna nail his ass to the floorboards for that but after the press got hold of it they promoted him to full colonel instead. Oh man, the bullshit piled up so fast inVietnam, you needed wings to stay above it."

WILLARD (v.o) "Kurtz's patrols in the highlands coming under frequent ambush. The camp started falling apart...November: Kurtz orders the assassination of three Vietnamese men and one woman. Two of the men were Colonels in the South Vietnamese army. Enemy activity in his old sector dropped off to nothing. Guess he must have hit the right four people. The army tried one last time to bring him back into the fold."


  1. Is the take-away message to trust your hunches and take initiative?

  2. Hahaha! I'll leave that to your interpretation.

  3. Fydor, in all seriousness, the public saw it that way back then. The Viet-Cong were fighting a dirty war and not playing by any rules. The mission was seen as unsavory, yet pragmatic. The army didn't agree and certainly didn't want mavericks making up their own rules.

  4. I thought Kurtz was supposed to be Tony Poe who ran the war in Laos by putting together a 10,000 person army all by himself. Married a local Princess and had a just deserved reputation for getting a tough job done no matter what. They don't make CIA guys like that any more. Never met Tony only knew about him. Bob McD, was with Company D 1st Special Forces Group (ABN) Thailand 1966-67 P.S I believe Tony won the CIA's version of the CMH twice

  5. Kurtz has features of several green berets including the ones mentioned above. One additional one that fills out some of the character's back story is John Toomey, stationed in Vietnam 1970-1971. He had a shaved head, was 38 years old when he entered the green berets (an unheard of age to pass the physical tests and training, and an exact match to the movie) and looked remarkably like Marlon Brando's Kurtz.

  6. A way back I saw a documentary on history/discovery, or somewhere where they did an interview of an individual who was supposed to have been the model for apocaplypse now..It was shot with face shaded and talked about sending ears back to the agency?..etc..This person looked like and acted like a homeless person..Anyone remember something like this or what channel it was??? Mandingo8112

  7. I saw the program but don't remember the title.

    That person was "Tony Poe" = Anthony Poshepny
    the wiki is slightly inaccurate but close enough.

    As for him acting like a homeless person, his demons were coming home.

  8. Bob Rehault was the man depicted.I ran an offshoot a side program, as it were, of project/operation Phoenix called ECHO FORCE. I knew Bob Rehault he could have been king of Vietnam.I was called The GENERAL. Ask around in a few looney bins and see if anybody remember's me.I got out through Cambodia with Hawkins,Taggert and Bauer. With a group of Huckappino merc's.and spent the next 25 years in Olongopo City,we bought a club on Magsassagy drive called The Oceans 11 Club. REMEMBER ??? JOE ?

  9. Brando called up Rheault just before the film Apocalypse Now came out and tried to convince him that the film was made based on Rheault's life. So at least the film makers felt they were glorifying him. Watching the film with him a few months later, neither of us thought it was an accurate portrayal of either Rheault of SF. There were some factual references (Rheault did water ski behind a PT boat) but much of the film was fantasy. His work with the tribesmen and his troops were what drove him. His leadership skills were extraordinary.

  10. Colonel Robert Rheault
    Dormez dans la grandeur de votre sacrifice,
    Dormez, que nul regret ne vienne vous hanter ;
    Dormez dans cette paix large et libératrice
    Où ma pensée en deuil ira vous visiter