There is a scene in the 1979 film classic Apocalypse Now where Willard and the Chef stop their river patrol boat to collect some mangoes in the jungle. They come face to face with a tiger, and this causes the tightly-wound Chef to become unglued.
“Never get out of the boat…never get out of the boat…I got to remember: never get out of the boat,” he repeats over and over.
And then Willard’s voice-over puts a philosophic dimension to this little incident:
Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you’re going all the way.
That is, if you cross certain lines, you cannot go back.
Which is completely true, of course. I was reminded of this point after seeing the movie Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas, a somber 2013 film starring Mads Mikkelsen. This was a joint French-German production, and tells a tale of revenge, retribution, and the logic of power.
The film was directed by Arnaud des Pallières, and the story comes from a novella by Heinrich von Kleist. The story takes place in 16th century Europe. A merchant (Kohlhaas) traveling through a baron’s lands is shaken down by him. The baron takes some of Kohlhaas’s property, abuses one of his men, and even causes his wife to be injured. Kohlhaas attempts to seek legal redress, but the baron’s political connections frustrate his efforts. Finally, in desperation, he leads a group of armed men to attack the baron’s residence. This succeeds. It appears that Kohlhaas might become something of a populist rebel, as more and more peasants join him, remembering their own sufferings at the hands of the rich and powerful.
A priest tries to induce Kohlhaas to abandon his uprising, calling it “immoral.” After much soul-searching, and assuming that he will be granted safe-conduct or an amnesty, Kohlhaas lays down his weapons. He is even visited by a local princess, evidently fascinated by this brave and reckless man. Laying down his weapons, apparently, turns out to be a mistake. He is taken into custody. He does get his “justice,” in that his property is restored to him, along with fair compensation. But the nobility has him executed five minutes later, since he has committed the unpardonable sin of challenging the power structure.
Disobedience cannot be tolerated. Those who go down this road of unfettered independence should have no illusions what they are getting themselves into. And when you strike, strike hard. Make sure you take care of your enemy, or he will be sure to take care of you. There is no other way.
Kohlhaas was a fool who trusted the limp-wristed advice of the priest, and put his faith in the false promises of the aristocracy. In the original novella by Heinrich von Kleist (published in 1810) the story is much the same, with the action taking place in German lands, rather than in France.
Poor, deluded Kohlhaas! Power has its own logic, you see, and its own sense of justice.
The lesson to the sad, deluded Kohlhaas was this: unsuccessful rebellion is the most unforgivable of all sins. Raise your hand against the nobility, and you will pay the ultimate price. Once you cross them, there is no turning back. You can’t get back on the boat once you’ve left it. Kohlhaas would have been better of pressing his uprising to its ultimate conclusion. Because once you “get off the boat” (i.e., burn your bridges behind you), there are only two options: forward, or death.
Hernando Cortes knew very well what he was getting himself into when he ignored his superiors back in Cuba and pressed forward to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec kingdom. There was some irresistible force drawing him forward, forward, ever forward. Like some weird force of gravitation, some kind of elemental impulse. It could neither be resisted nor explained. But it was there. This is the kind of blind conviction that it takes to achieve great things. One must feel not only that he can do something, but also that he must do something.
That is all. There are no other options. You don’t lay down your weapons. You don’t trust to the good graces of those you have made to look like fools. They will never forgive you for it, no matter what they say.
Never get out of the boat, unless you’re ready to see things through to the bitter end.
Read more about struggle and sacrifice in Thirty-Seven: