Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
When we first meet Captain Willard, he's stuck in a Saigon hotel room waiting to hear about his next mission. Sounds cool, right—minibars and TV? Not really. Survivor wouldn't even debut for another twenty years.
We learn pretty quickly that Willard has all this psychological pain from his previous tours of duty in Vietnam. Also, he's a man of action who wants to be out there in the fight. Captain Willard clearly isn't made for this kind of stasis. He's a trained assassin, all about the adventure of the hunt. His ordinary world is a nightmare.
Call to Adventure
Two soldiers arrive and drag the sorry, drunken Willard into the shower. Then, they escort him via helicopter to see the men who will give him his mission, Lieutenant General Corman and Han Solo—er, Colonel G. Lucas.
They tell him they want him to kill a crazy American officer, Colonel Kurtz, who's been going beyond the limits of his mission and killing people without the government's consent. (Gotta fill out that paperwork.) Kurtz is living with his private army of indigenous followers in Cambodia, beyond the official limits of the war. They instruct Willard to "terminate" Kurtz "with extreme prejudice."
Refusal of the Call
Willard accepts the mission, but feels weird about it. Even though he's assassinated other people, he now has to kill a fellow American, and that just doesn't feel right. He's not entirely sure if he'll go through with it. And he later learns the disturbing detail that another soldier, Captain Colby, was sent to kill Kurtz but ended up joining him instead. Will Willard go rogue, too, running around in the forest wearing body paint with Kurtz?
Meeting the Mentor
Willard gets to know the different crew members of the boat sent to escort him up the river to Kurtz, but the man who teaches him the most about how the Vietnam War is being conducted is Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore. Kilgore's a total lunatic who seems to be loving the war. At one point he says, regretfully, "Someday this war's gonna end." To everyone else, that would sound like good news.
Kilgore conducts war with minimal interest in saving civilian lives. He's also unhinged enough to attack a Viet Cong-controlled village mainly because it's next to a beach with great surfing. Helping Willard get to the mouth of the river is just a secondary concern.
Kilgore's crazy, and lets Willard soak up his madness. But he doesn't represent evil like Kurtz does. Hanging out with Kilgore is just putting on training wheels for encountering the big man.
Crossing the Threshold
When Kilgore escorts Willard and the other crew members to the mouth of the river, he attacks a Vietnamese village and Viet Cong base in the process. Even though Willard's already been doing covert stuff and assassinating people in Vietnam, this is his symbolic initiation back into combat—and the audience's.
As villagers run away screaming, the helicopters blast the Viet Cong with machine guns and rockets. After storming the beach, Kilgore leaves playing cards on dead bodies so the enemy knows they were killed by Americans. After calling in an airstrike and unloading napalm on the village, Kilgore says, wistfully, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
Willard's definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Willard and the boat crew—Chief, Mr. Clean, Chef, and Lance—head down the river and run into a bunch of challenges. After a tiger leaps out at Willard and Chef, Chef has a nervous breakdown.
In a disastrous and tragic miscalculation, the crew also kills three Vietnamese civilians on a boat. The crew go aboard to see if they're working for the Viet Cong, and when a woman makes a sudden movement, Mr. Clean and the others machine gun the trio to death. It turns out the lady was just trying to protect a puppy.
If that was a test at resisting the brutality of war and retaining some humanity, it was an epic fail.
They meet other Americans, like soldiers fighting at the last U.S. outpost before Cambodia. However, these would-be allies are no help at all. They don't seem to have a commanding officer. There's also a slightly earlier encounter with a group of soldiers watching a bunch of Playboy Playmates putting on a USO show. But things get out of hand when the soldiers rush the stage and the Playmates have to scramble back to their helicopter.
As they get closer to Kurtz, Lance pops open a smoke grenade just to watch it billow (he's high), and the enemy notices from the riverbank and starts firing. Mr. Clean gets killed.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
Finally, they enter Cambodia. Kurtz isn't exactly building Disneyland out in the Cambodian jungle: he's lined the riverbank with skulls and crucified bodies. A "Beware of Tiger" sign wouldn't have been enough?
When they finally arrive at Kurtz's compound, his private army escorts the soldiers ashore, where a wacked-out American photojournalist babbles at them about how great Kurtz is.
When Kurtz himself makes an appearance, he regards Willard with humor. Willard's here to kill him—but he's totally outnumbered by Kurtz's warriors. Kurtz tells him he's just "an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks." Given all he's been through to get there, that's gotta sting.
After Willard leaves Chef on the boat with instructions to call in an airstrike if he doesn't return after a certain number of hours, he sets off to kill Kurtz. Kurtz rambles on for a while, and has Willard thrown into a cage.
Fortunately for Willard and all the people in Kurtz's army, Chef doesn't get a chance to call in that airstrike (which would've probably killed Willard too). One of Kurtz's warriors hacks Chef's head off and Kurtz casually throws it in Willard's lap. Willard screams. He's thinking, can we please get this ordeal phase over with right now?
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Kurtz lets Willard out of the cage, knowing full well that Willard's going to kill him. He's almost inviting it—he's had enough.
After some more rambling with Kurtz, Willard summons up the courage to grab a farm tool and then emerge dramatically from the water, silently sneaking ashore. As the Cambodians nearby ritually slaughter a water buffalo, Willard silently enters Kurtz's inner sanctum and hacks him to death. Kurtz dies, speaking his chilling last words (totally ripped from Heart of Darkness): "The horror…the horror."
Willard: 1. Kurtz: 0.
The Road Back
Willard still has to deal with Kurtz's army, though. Fortunately, they seem filled with respect, as if Willard has replaced Kurtz by killing him. They're not going to pick a fight with a man capable of murdering their god.
The Cambodians drop their weapons and make way for Willard, who grabs Lance (who's apparently been mixing it up with the Cambodians at the sacrifice) and gets on the boat. They head back downriver into Vietnam.
Willard has been reborn, newly made. By replacing Kurtz, the Cambodians view him as filling the same god-like role as Kurtz. He's encountered evil, met it face to face, and dispatched it. He's recognized that he and Kurtz are similar on one level, but he's rejected the celebration of mindless violence that Kurtz represents. He's struck down the person who most exemplified the chaos of and bloodshed of Vietnam. Will Willard feel newly redeemed? Resurrected as a person cleansed of his sins? Ready to go back to the real world?
Return With the Elixir
Willard's first act upon getting back on his boat is to turn off the radio when it broadcasts the army's attempt to locate his position. It's not clear why he's doing it, but the implication is that he's also rejected the army's version of the war and, like Kurtz, is disconnecting himself from it.
The elixir is self-knowledge and knowledge about the folly of this war, but the director leaves it ambiguous exactly what Willard's thinking or what he's learned.