Colonel Kurtz is based on the character of a nineteenth-century ivory trader, also called Kurtz, from the novella Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad.
When Brando arrived for filming in the Philippines in September 1976, he claimed he was dissatisfied with the script; Brando didn’t understand why Kurtz was meant to be very thin and bald, or why the character’s name was Kurtz and not something like Leighley. He claimed, American generals don’t have those kinds of names. They have flowery names, from the South. I want to be ‘Colonel Leighley’. And so, for a time the name was changed under his demand.
The movie’s Kurtz is widely believed to have been modeled after Tony Poe, a highly decorated and highly unorthodox Vietnam War-era paramilitary officer from the CIA’s Special Activities Division. Poe was known to drop severed heads into enemy-controlled villages as a form of psychological warfare and to use human ears to record the number of enemies his indigenous troops had killed. He would send these ears back to his superiors as proof of his efforts deep inside Laos.
Apocalypse Now With Marlon Brando as Kurtz