Hailing from Toledo, Ohio, Benjamin L. Willard is a captain in the army, and we know he's performed a bunch of covert ops and assassinations. They've obviously taken their toll on him.
He drinks. He has nightmares. He feels hollowed out.
Willard isn't what you'd call a model of emotional stability. When we first see him, he's getting his drink on in a Saigon hotel room, waiting for his next mission. In the very first close-up shot of him, his head's upside-down in the frame. That tells us just about everything we need to know about Willard's current state of mind. After a few tugs too many on the Malibu Coconut Rum (or whiskey), Willard loses it. Doing some drunken tai chi moves in front of a mirror, he smashes it, bleeds all over the place, and starts crying.
We also learn from a voiceover that Willard's family life has been ruined thanks to the war, and he doesn't feel like he has a home to return to:
WILLARD: I'd wake up and there'd be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said "yes" to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I'm here a week now...waiting for a mission...getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.
The war's become his life; he implies that it's kind of like his life force. Without it, he can't function. We never hear another word about his ex-wife or other family.
Willard definitely has some demons.
Willard's superiors in the army have called him up for a new mission: to assassinate an allegedly crazy U.S. colonel named Kurtz who has gone rogue and is leading his own private army in Cambodia, doing who knows what kind of stuff. Willard has his doubts about the assignment.
WILLARD: How many people had I already killed? There were those six that I knew about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time, it was an American and an officer. That wasn't supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. S***...charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?
Right off the bat, we see that Willard's skeptical about the way the war is being conducted. Still, he's compelled to go. There's an element of redemption and punishment in his motives:
WILLARD: Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.
It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz's memory any more than being back in Saigon was an accident. There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story really is a confession, then so is mine.
Sins, confessions—looks like we're into one of those dark nights of the soul.
Even though he accepts his mission, Willard's exhausted, jaded, disillusioned and fatalistic. He's in a boat with a bunch of "mostly just kids, rock and rollers with one foot in their graves." He seems almost beyond caring about anything, just robotically going about completing his mission. As he reads Kurtz's journals and thinks about his own experience, he feels even more alienated from the army.
WILLARD: At first, I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn't believe they wanted this man dead. Third generation West Point, top of his class. Korea, Airborne. About a thousand decorations.
Meeting the war-loving Lt. Col. Kilgore just makes him even more cynical:
WILLARD: If that's how Kilgore fought the war, 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
The more senseless chaos he sees, the more Willard feels alienated from the army and from the rationale for his mission. After the USO debacle, he says:
WILLARD: No wonder Kurtz put a weed up command's ass. The war was being run by a bunch of four-star clowns who were going to end up giving the whole circus away.
At this point, he starts to see the logic in what Kurtz is doing. Kurtz is committed to actually winning the war, as questionable (that's an understatement) as his methods might have become. After Willard shoots a wounded Vietnamese woman in cold blood, he realizes that he and Kurtz have more in common than he might want to admit:
WILLARD: It was the way we had over here of living with ourselves. We'd cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid. It was a lie, and the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies. Those boys were never going to look at me the same way again. But I felt I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren't in the dossier.
Willard's hooked. His initial world-weary attitude about the mission has turned into fascination. He can't wait to meet Kurtz and try to figure out what happened to this guy—what did he see over here that turned him into a monster?
Despite his whole "Ninja assassin" rep, Willard actually seems strangely passive throughout the movie. We get to know him less by what he does than through his thoughts on the voiceover. He spends a lot of time watching the world around him. We get the impression that he doesn't feel in control of his life at all—one of Kurtz's "hollow men" who waits to be filled up by what other people want of him.
The boat trip, just drifting upriver through different scenarios, adds to this sense of passivity. He's in other people's territory, other people's battles. He's not even piloting the boat. One scenario after another drifts by, each one more crazy than the next. Throughout it all, Willard remains pretty cool and contemplative. The only time he busts out is to kill a wounded Vietnamese woman because he can't waste time getting her to a hospital. Even that is done pretty calmly and matter-of-factly.
When he meets Kilgore, he watches as Kilgore hatches his crazy plan to attack a village so his men can surf the nearby beach. He doesn't challenge him—Kilgore outranks him, anyway—and just goes along until he can continue upriver. Unlike Kilgore, Willard thinks before he acts.
Willard, as an acute observer, functions as a stand-in for the audience—he's the person we experience the Vietnam War through. Even though he can seem disengaged, he's a guy we'd like to have on our side. He's watching very, very closely. In war, it's how you keep from getting killed.
As Willard goes further upriver, the sense of madness and doom just won't let up.
WILLARD: Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him.
Still, he remains relatively cool until he finally arrives at Kurtz's Cambodian temple fortress of doom, decked with crucified bodies and severed heads. By this time, everyone on the boat is dead except for Willard and Chef. Willard knows he has to push ahead despite what he's just seen:
WILLARD: Everything I saw told me that Kurtz has gone insane. The place was full of bodies: North-Vietnamese, Vietcong, Cambodians.… If I was still alive, it was because he wanted me that way.
Kurtz's followers grab Willard and lead him inside a temple. After some initial chitchat about Toledo, Ohio, the large and imposing Kurtz rambles to Willard about how America should be fighting the war (think more severed heads). He tells Willard that Willard's just "an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill." Then he throws Willard in a cage and casually tosses Chef's severed head in his lap to make things really clear. This gets more emotion from Willard than we've seen in the whole previous two hours of the film.
Figuring he's tortured Willard enough, Kurtz lets him out of the cage for some more philosophical discussions about the nature of war. This just confuses Willard further:
WILLARD: 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. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did.
Willard's reached some serious conclusions: Kurtz is tired of living. He wants Willard to kill him. Before committing the deed, he realizes:
WILLARD: They were going to make me a major for this, and I wasn't even in their f***ing army anymore. 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. 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.
Those are the last words we hear Willard speak. At night, he grabs a machete and rises dramatically out of the water. He stealthily sneaks to the compound, where he pauses before entering the temple to kill Kurtz. He stops to do some tai chi; we see him breathe in and lift up his head. In the dark, he looks like a wild animal preparing for the kill. Behind him are bright fires and the chanting of the tribe while they perform a ritual slaughter of a water buffalo.
This scene reminds Shmoop of the first time we saw Willard: drunkenly writhing in front of the mirror in his hotel room, not sure of what his life's about or even who he is. This time, he comes back to his true self, the assassin: mud-drenched and primitive, as savage as anything he's seen in the jungle. Instead of being lost, he's totally in his element. He hacks Kurtz to death to the sound of "The End." The distinction between savagery and civilization has completely disappeared.
After killing Kurtz, there's a shot of a bloodied Willard standing tall in front of the temple, machete in his hand. He looks like the T. Rex at the end of Jurassic Park. Kurtz's private army doesn't seem to mind, and they greet Willard as if he'll be their new god. Willard stands there for a moment—maybe he's thinking about the long hours and personnel nightmares involved in a deity job. He grabs Lance out of the crowd and keeps on walking back to the boat.
After this murder scene, the audience isn't sure how Willard's responding to what's just gone down, except that his eyes are about the size of whoopie pies. He never says a word. Either he's seriously discombobulated or having some kind of wild epiphany. Voices come over the boat's radio; he's made it back to "civilization" and will head back down the river. But Willard abruptly turns off the radio, hearing only the echo of Kurtz's last words: "The horror...the horror." We're not sure where he's going now.
Shmoop thinks Coppola meant to leave it ambiguous. Maybe there's no redemption for Willard; maybe he's doomed to be hollowed out even more. Maybe he goes back to his wife, a new man. (We doubt it.) All we know is that this has been a wild trip through his own soul. What we don't know is what he's going to do with whatever it is he's discovered.
Remember what Huck Finn said at the end of his journey? "She's going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before." Maybe Willard can never go back.
Fictionally, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz is based on Kurtz (of "Mistah Kurtz—he dead" fame) in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a Belgian ivory trader in the Congo Free State who's accused of brutally suppressing the indigenous people whom he rules as a god, and who's the target of a manhunt. He's descended into a kind of pre-civilized condition. The screenwriter also knew about CIA operative Anthony Poshepny, who ran a private paramilitary group in Laos and dropped severed heads on enemy positions to terrify them. (Source)
He must have been a big hit at parties.
Walter Kurtz was headed toward a stellar career in the military. A West Point grad and distinguished Korean War vet, he was tasked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to evaluate American strategy in Vietnam. Evidently, Kurtz didn't like what he saw. At the advanced age of 38, he became a Green Beret and returned to 'Nam to organize a group of Montagnards—Vietnamese mountain tribal people—to fight the Viet Cong near the Cambodian border and protect Vietnamese villagers. According to General Corman,
CORMAN: Walt Kurtz was one of the most outstanding officers this country has ever produced. He was a brilliant and outstanding in every way, and he was a good man, too. Humanitarian man, man of wit, of humor.
Then something happened.
After listening to some tapes of Kurtz in Vietnam, General Corman and others come to the conclusion that Kurtz's methods over there with his Montagnards have become "unsound." Not "unsound" as in "not reasonable"; "unsound" as in "insane." Kurtz has developed some troubling ideas about how to conduct the war and he's gone rogue, refusing the army's efforts to bring him back.
KURTZ: We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. And they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie...they lie and we have to be merciful for those who lie. Those nabobs. I hate them. How I hate them...
At the moment, Kurtz is way beyond the army's control. He assassinated two South Vietnamese intelligence agents whom he suspected of being spies. He was probably right, because the number of unexplained American killings plummeted. But no matter. He's gone off the grid, and in the army, the chain of command is everything.
Lucas tells Willard that the Montagnards have come to worship Kurtz like some kind of god. Corman concludes his briefing to Willard:
CORMAN: Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.
Captain Willard's assignment: to terminate Kurtz's command "with extreme prejudice." They want him dead.
Willard doesn't know about the heads yet. He's intrigued about what pushed Kurtz over the edge. How could such a stellar officer become an assassination target by his own army? We learn a little more about Kurtz as Willard reads his journals on his way upriver toward the Cambodian border, where the army thinks Kurtz is holed up.
WILLARD: At first, I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn't believe they wanted this man dead. Third generation West Point, top of his class. Korea, Airborne. About a thousand decorations. Etc, etc.... I'd heard his voice on the tape and it really put a hook in me. But I couldn't connect up that voice with this man. Like they said he had an impressive career. Maybe too impressive...I mean perfect. He was being groomed for one of the top slots of the corporation. General, Chief of Staff, anything.... In 1964 he returned from a tour of advisory command in Vietnam and things started to slip. The report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Lyndon Johnson was restricted. Seems they didn't dig what he had to tell them. During the next few months he made three requests for transfer to airborne training in Fort Benning, Georgia. And he was finally accepted. Airborne? He was 38 years old. Why the f*** would he do that? 1966 he joined the Special Forces, returns to Vietnam...
In case you're wondering about what Kurtz said on the tape, here's what Willard heard:
KURTZ: I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream. That's my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor, and surviving. […] We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. And they call me an assassin.
Willard reads some more about Kurtz's successful operations in Vietnam (he's got plenty of free time on that slow boat upriver):
WILLARD: 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. And if he pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. But he kept going, and he kept winning it his way, and they called me in. They lost him. He was gone. Nothing but rumors and rambling intelligence, mostly from captured VC. The VC knew his name by now, and they were scared of him. He and his men were playing hit and run all the way into Cambodia.
"He kept winning it his way." That's what the army couldn't tolerate. After Kurtz was charged with murder for the killing of the South Vietnamese intelligence agents, he writes a letter to his son explaining what happened.
KURTZ (Willard reading): I'm afraid that both you and your mother would have been worried for not hearing from me these past weeks. But my situation here has become a difficult one. I've been officially accused of murder by the army. The alleged victims were four Vietnamese double agents. We spent months uncovering and accumulating evidence. When absolute proof was completed, we acted, we acted like soldiers. The charges are unjustified. They are in fact, under the circumstances of this conflict quite completely insane.
Then he lays out his philosophy of war:
KURTZ: In a war there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action, for what is often called ruthless, what may in many and many circumstances be the only clarity; seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it directly, quickly, aware...looking at it. I would trust you to tell your mother what you choose about this letter. As for the charges, I'm unconcerned. I'm beyond their timid, lying morality. And so I'm beyond caring.
After he shoots a wounded Vietnamese woman, Willard sees a lot of Kurtz in himself. He begins to think that maybe Kurtz isn't any worse than other officers conducting the war.
And then he sees the heads.
Holed up in an abandoned Cambodian temple, Kurtz goes in for the Poshepny school of interior decorating in a big way. The area around his compound is adorned with severed heads and crucified bodies hanging on trees.
WILLARD: Everything I saw told me that Kurtz has gone insane. The place was full of bodies: North Vietnamese, Vietcong, Cambodians.
If the point is to terrorize, we'd have to say that it works. In case Willard is tempted to give Kurtz the benefit of the doubt, like maybe it's just temporary insanity, Chef has his own take on Kurtz:
CHEF: This colonel guy—he's wacko, man. He's worse than crazy. He's evil. I mean...it's f***ing pagan idolatry. Look around. S***, he's loco.
An American photojournalist who's been covering the war and become part of Kurtz's bizarre realm tells Willard that the man's a genius, a poet, someone who's beyond the understanding of the rest of us mortals. He says all the local tribespeople are Kurtz's spiritual "children." The journalist's sanity is a little, well, questionable, and he both fears and reveres Kurtz. In a brief moment that Shmoop finds hilarious, the journalist notices that Willard's a little skeptical, to put it mildly.
PHOTOJOURNALIST: The heads. You're looking at the heads. I, uh—sometimes he goes too far, you know—he's the first one to admit it!
Well, then, we guess it's okay.
When we finally meet him, Kurtz is in fact as enigmatic as Willard thought. Part of the reason is that he's shot almost completely in half-shadow because Brando showed up weighing about 200 pounds more than the role called for and Coppola needed to hide his girth. But the lighting confirms that there's something sinister and mystifying about the man.
Willard's led into Kurtz's compound, which he's set up in an abandoned temple in the jungle. After some small talk, Kurtz gets right to the point. He knows the army wants to kill him and they've sent Willard to do the deed. His demeanor is completely detached.
KURTZ: They say why...Willard, why they wanted to terminate my command?
WILLARD: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
KURTZ: It appears...that its no longer classified, is it? What did they tell you?
WILLARD: They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your methods were unsound.
KURTZ: Are my methods unsound?
WILLARD: I don't see any method at all, sir.
Kurtz is disgusted by the whole business. You can see that he's got nothing but contempt for the rest of the army. He demeans Willard as being no soldier, just an "errand boy, sent by grocery clerks" to collect a bill. He tosses Willard into a cage. Just to make a point, he tosses Chef's severed head into his lap.
Visiting Willard in his cage, the photojournalist then makes a surprisingly (for him) on-target remark about Kurtz. He says, "The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad." Here's what we think that means: we'll see later, from listening to Kurtz himself, that his actions haven't come from the ravings of a crazy person. He's very clear on why he's become so brutal; he's got absolute clarity about his motives and what it takes to win the war quickly. But it's that truth that has made him sick, made his soul "mad."
It makes us think of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. An estimated 150,000 people were incinerated or died from radiation poisoning in the attacks, but President Truman had a clear rationale: it would end the war and spare millions of Allied deaths from a drawn-out conflict in the Pacific. It wasn't an impulsive idea coming from an irrational person. It did end the war. But imagine if Truman had to do that every week—kill hundreds of thousands of people to protect Allied interests. That would do a serious number on his soul.
This is Kurtz's undoing, the journalist thinks, and it's why Kurtz hasn't killed Willard.
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Oh yeah. He's dying, I think. He hates all this, he hates it! But […] He's got plans for you. Nah, nah, I'm not going to help you, you're going to help him, man. You're going to help him. I mean, what are they going to say, man, when he's gone, huh? Because he dies, when it dies, man, when it dies, he dies. What are they going to say about him? What, are they going to say, he was a kind man, he was a wise man, he had plans, he had wisdom? Bulls***, man! Am I going to be the one, that's going to set them straight? Look at me: wrong! ...You!
Locked in the cage, sweaty and delirious, Willard's not feeling it.
Even though he knows Willard is probably going to kill him, Kurtz springs him from the cage. He reads some poetry to him: T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men, one of the all-time downer poems in literature and definitely worth a read. It'll help you understand Kurtz and also happens to be an awesome poem besides. It's about dead men, hopeless, morally paralyzed, who find themselves in an empty place devoid of meaning or human connection. Here's a brief digression into a few cheerful verses:
Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
[…] Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.
Kurtz feels compelled to explain himself to Willard. He wants to explain the heads and the crucifixions and the tribes. He knows this stuff can't look good. But the way he sees it, he's not doing anything the army didn't send him to Vietnam to do. He's just doing it more efficiently—the way those other officers would do it if they were really committed to winning the war. But like the poem says, "between the idea and the reality falls the shadow." The shadow might be the sickness Kurtz is feeling because of what he believes he's had to do.
Kurtz tells Willard that he learned an important lesson from observing the brutal methods of a group of Viet Cong who cut off the arms of children who'd just been inoculated for polio by American soldiers and put all the arms in a pile for the Americans to see.
KURTZ: I've seen horrors...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. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face.... 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. They are truly enemies. I remember. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it...I never want to forget. And then I realized...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! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men...trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love...but they had the strength...the strength...to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly.
This episode gives Kurtz a sick kind of moral clarity:
KURTZ: You have to have men who are moral...and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling...without passion...without judgment...without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us.
If only the army had let him do what needed to be done, the war would be over. He'd be a hero instead of an object of disgust, a savior instead of a murderer.
In other words, you can do terrible things and still be a person of high moral character as long as you're clear about why you're doing it. Destructive actions, done with intent and clarity, don't reflect on who you really are.
Try telling that to your parents next time your significant other gets caught shoplifting at Target.
Willard comes to see Kurtz as a man completely shattered by his experiences in the war.
WILLARD: 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. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did. If the generals back in the Trang could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? More than ever probably. And what would his people back home want if they ever learned just how far from them he'd really gone? He broke from them and then he broke from himself. I'd never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart...
Willard concludes that Kurtz let him out of the cage because he wanted Willard to put him out of his misery. Things had gone so far off the rails for Kurtz that there was nowhere to go—not back to his family, definitely not back to the army—and keeping on with what he was doing was getting unbearable. But there's one last thing: Kurtz asks Willard to explain to his son what he was trying to accomplish in 'Nam. He can even tell him about the gruesome stuff:
KURTZ: I worry that my son might not understand what I've tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything. Everything I did, everything you saw.... Because there is nothing I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you'll do this for me.
The photojournalist was right.
Willard has a Kurtz-like moral clarity himself as he's about to kill the man:
WILLARD: 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. 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.
Fun fact: you know that poem Kurtz read to Willard, The Hollow Men? The epigraph to the poem is that famous quote from Heart of Darkness: "Mistah Kurtz—he dead." Kurtz was reading about his own death. How meta can you get?
And now, back to our story: when Willard sneaks into the temple to dispatch Kurtz, Kurtz doesn't resist; after the first blow, he stands up, like the soldier he is, as if to make it easier for Willard to kill him. As he dies, by some unexplainable coincidence, he utters the exact same dying words as Conrad's Kurtz: "The horror…the horror…"
What is the horror Kurtz is talking about?
In Heart of Darkness, we're meant to believe that it's not so much the "jungle" depravity and brutality that Mister Kurtz has sunk to, but the whole "progressive" European system of colonization and industrial greed that sent him to exploit the Congo in the first place.
Same with our guy.
He's not only talking about the decapitated heads and arms. Maybe he's thinking about what ultimately led to all this, which was U.S. involvement in what was really a civil war in Vietnam. His last words, superimposed on Willard's face as he turns off the army's voice on the boat's radio, suggest that Willard might be thinking the same thing. Kurtz's dying words are really the film's strongest anti-war message of all.
The free-wheelin' Lt. Col. William "Bill" Kilgore likes to surf and he likes to make war—and he does both with the same upbeat, pumped-up attitude. But instead of listening to Rage Against the Machine or Metallica when he leads his helicopters into battle, Kilgore gets amped to the strains of 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner. This makes sense when you listen to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." It's a battle cry of the goddesses and it sure makes a point when it's blaring from speakers on board a helicopter armed with some serious artillery. "It scares the hell out of the 'slopes'—my boys love it!" says Kilgore, with obvious delight.
Kilgore loves the thrill of the fight.
The cinematographer shoots him in bright light—he's got nothing to hide, he's up-front and cool with what he's doing. He's the only major character who's totally un-conflicted. As Willard describes him:
WILLARD: Well, he wasn't a bad officer, I guess. He loved his boys, and he felt safe with 'em. He was just one of those guys with that weird light around him. He just knew he wasn't gonna get so much as a scratch here.
Kilgore takes Willard and crew to the mouth of the river when Lance Johnson (a member Willard's crew) asks about the surfing there. Even though there's a major Viet Cong fighting force nearby, the surfing entices Kilgore. (Plus, he loves war regardless.) Kilgore wants to see Lance—who's a famous surfer—in action. So, to the sound of Wagner, they fly into battle discussing the relative merit of heavy vs. light boards, as rockets explode and machine guns pound the village below. Although they're attacking Viet Cong soldiers, it's hard to distinguish the civilians in the village from the soldiers.
The U.S. Air Cavalry wins the day, and they land on the beach. Kilgore insists that it's okay to surf, despite the fact that the battle's still raging. He orders his men into their surfing gear. When they protest that Charlie is still out there shooting, Kilgore just shouts, "Charlie don't surf"—one of the movie's more famous lines.
Kilgore gets another famous line in the film, one that lands on almost everyone's list of best movie quotes of all time. After a U.S. airstrike drops napalm on the remnants of the Viet Cong encampment, Kilgore tells a group of soldiers:
KILGORE: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like...victory. Someday this war's gonna end.
As Robert Duvall says that last line—"Someday this war's gonna end"—his expression shifts subtly from determined to almost wistful. War is his element. It's just the thing he does.
Kilgore's a mixed bag. He's got a real jones for war, but he also has some kind of personal code of honor. Check out this scene where his men are guarding a prisoner who's begging for water:
SOLDIER: This man is hurt pretty bad, sir. About the only thing that is holding his guts in, sir, is that pot lid.
KILGORE: What you gotta say?
SOUTH-VIETNAMESE SOLDIER: This man is dirty VC. He wants water? He can drink paddy water.
KILGORE: Get out of here! Gimme that canteen. Get outta here or I kick your f***ing ass! Any man brave enough to fight with his guts strapped in can drink from my canteen any day.
A second later, Kilgore drops everything and walks away when he hears that Lance the surfer is one of Willard's crew. It would almost be funny if it weren't for that dying soldier still begging for water.
After Willard continues up the river, we leave Kilgore to his fate. Our guess is that he'll be career army, and come home from 'Nam untroubled by what he's seen and done.
This is your brain on the Vietnam War [picture a scrambled egg].
This nameless, scruffy photojournalist has had more than one mega-dose of war, and he's losing it. He's like a burnt-out drug case, a hippie coming down from one too many bad acid trips. In fact, it seems he's doing plenty of acid to cope with this whole gnarly business. Willard's shocked to find an American here.
The journalist's been in Vietnam since nearly the beginning of the war. At some point, he joined up with Kurtz and started following his army around. Like the mad Russian in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he's come to idolize Kurtz, viewing him as a great man, a poet. He's a classic sycophant. When Willard looks around at the severed heads and dangling bodies decorating the compound, the journalist jumps to Kurtz's defense.
PHOTOJOURNALIST: The heads. You're looking at the heads. I, uh—sometimes he goes too far, you know—he's the first one to admit it!
The journalist's role in the film, in addition to hinting at Kurtz's hypnotic effect on people, is exposition. He gives Willard the lay of the land in his own disjointed way and tries to clue him in to what Kurtz is doing because, admittedly, it doesn't look good at first sight.
Because, the heads.
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Yeah, well.... They think you have come to take him away. I hope that isn't true.
WILLARD: Take who away?
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Him. Colonel Kurtz. These are all his children, as far as you can see.
WILLARD: Could we, uh, talk to Colonel Kurtz?
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Hey, man, you don't talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet-warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he'll, uh, well, you'll say hello to him, right? And he'll just walk right by you, and he won't even notice you. And suddenly he'll grab you, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say do you know that if is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you—I mean I'm no, I can't—I'm a little man, I'm a little man, he's, he's a great man. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas—I mean—
The guy's clearly in thrall to Kurtz. Sometimes his manic ramblings seem purely crazy—they don't seem to mean much of anything. He tells Willard:
PHOTOJOURNALIST: Do you know what the man is saying? Do you? This is dialectics. It's very simple dialectics. One through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions...you can't travel in space, you can't go out into space, you know, without, like, you know, with fractions...what are you going to land on, one quarter, three-eighths...what are you going to do when you go from here to Venus or something...that's dialectic physics, OK? Dialectic logic is there's only love and hate, you either love somebody or you hate them.
Well, that's perfectly clear.
At other times, though, the journalist has a tendency to put his finger on the heart of the matter. He sums up Kurtz accurately when he says, "He's clear in his mind, but his soul is mad."
"Chief" George Phillips has his hands full. He's the man responsible for piloting the boat carrying Willard into Cambodia. He didn't realize he had to transport Willard beyond the legal borders of the war, but he agrees to it. He's not happy about it. You can see him seething throughout the trip upriver. His character is the jaded, tough soldier who just follows orders but isn't afraid to talk smack to his superiors if he thinks they deserve it.
Mainly, we just see Chief shouting orders at the other guys on the ship. He doesn't get any monologues or famous lines. But we get the sense that he has a compassionate side to his personality. When the other guys on the boat accidentally shoot a Vietnamese woman who they thought was trying to attack them, even though she was just attempting to protect a puppy, Chief wants to take the wounded girl to get medical attention. She's probably mortally wounded, though, so Willard just shoots her. Otherwise, it would've disrupted his mission. Very inconvenient.
Later, Kurtz's army attacks the members of the crew. Even though Kurtz's soldiers are just shooting toy arrows to warn them away, Chief doesn't tell his crew to stop firing real bullets back. This is a fatal miscalculation, as Kurtz's soldiers start throwing real spears.
Chief screams at Willard:
CHIEF: You got us into this mess and you can't get us out 'cos you don't know where the hell you're going, do you? Do you, you son of a b****, you f***!
Just then, Chief gets a spear straight through the chest.
When Willard goes to help him, Chief grabs him and tries to impale him on the spear point—he's outraged that Willard's mission has led to his own death. But Willard chokes Chief to death before Chief can kill him. Chief's death marks the passage into a more chaotic part of the film; he's been steering the boat, and you know what Willard says when you get out of the boat: you're on your own.
Jay "Chef" Hicks is probably the most talkative crewmember on the boat escorting Willard to Cambodia—you can't shut the dude up. He also loves to curse.
Hailing originally from New Orleans, Chef's a simple guy, really. He wants to be a cook and didn't bargain for all these crazy Vietnam War escapades. He must've been a great cook because he was headed to Paris to train at the Escoffier school when he got drafted. He can use the word "saucier" correctly in a sentence. He joined the navy because he heard they had better food. Big mistake, he finds out. Navy cook school turned him into a radio specialist instead.
When Chef and Willard are confronted by a tiger in the jungle, Chef has a breakdown of sorts. He raves:
CHEF: A f***ing tiger, f***ing tiger...I don't wanna take this goddamn s*** man...I didn't come here for this, I don't f***ing need this. I didn't get outta the eighth grade for this, man…. All I wanted to do is f***ing cook, I just wanted to learn to f***ing cook. All right, it's all right, it's gonna be all right...never get outta boat...bye tiger, bye tiger...
Willard thinks Chef's too tightly wound for Vietnam, probably even for New Orleans. Yet Chef is willing to go with Willard all the way to the end, willingly piloting the boat to Kurtz's temple complex after Chief is skewered. That's a courageous move for a young kid who just wants to go home and cook.
When they get there, Chef's not a huge fan of Kurtz. Whereas the photojournalist worships Kurtz and Captain Colby joined his ranks, Chef sees right through Kurtz. He finds him completely evil, saying to Willard:
CHEF: This Colonel guy? He's wacko, man! He's worse than crazy. He's evil. It's f***in' pagan idolatry. Look around you. S***! He's loco...I ain't afraid of all them f***in' skulls and altars and s***. I used to think if I died in an evil place, then my soul wouldn't be able to make it to Heaven. But now? F***! I mean, I don't care where it goes, as long as it ain't here. So whaddya wanna do? I'll kill the f***.
Unfortunately, after Kurtz throws Willard into a cage, Chef tries to follow Willard's orders and call in an airstrike. But before he can successfully complete the call, Kurtz—or one of his followers (it's not clear who)—kills Chef and beheads him. Kurtz, in war paint, throws the severed head into Willard's lap as Willard sits helplessly with his hands tied behind his back.
It's a shocking moment and a sad one, since we've gotten to know the guy through his convo in the jungle with Willard.
And Kurtz just used the poor kid to make a point.
Lance is an archetypal carefree California druggie surfer dude, trapped in the hellhole of the Vietnam War. His surfing prowess is part of the reason Kilgore agrees to escort Willard and company to the mouth of the river.
He's not really a major character—more just a colorful sideshow. We see Lance surf, drop acid, and feel right at home with the mountain tribe's animal sacrifice ceremony. He also playfully throws out a smoke grenade, which swathes the river in smoke and contributes to Mr. Clean's death. Along with Willard, he's the only crewmember who actually manages to survive the mission, maybe because he's too high all the time to be afraid. Actor Sam Bottoms admitted to being high or tripping during much of the shooting for real. ("We were bad boys," he remarked (source).)
The trip upriver is its own hallucinogenic nightmare, so Lance's altered states of consciousness hardly even register as all that different from real life.
It's all groovy.
Not to be confused with the bald dude who cleans bathtubs, Tyrone "Mr. Clean" Miller is an African-American sailor from the South Bronx, another crewmember on the boat carrying Willard up the river. At one point, he guns down a Vietnamese woman who he thinks is trying to attack them, but it turns out she was just trying to protect a puppy. Clean's the prototypical young, jumpy soldier.
Young is the operative word here. He's just a kid. As the boat voyages through smoke from a smoke grenade thrown by Lance, Clean gets shot and killed while listening to a tape from home with his mother telling him not to get shot.
MR. CLEAN'S MOM: ...do the right thing. Stay out of the way of the bullets. And bring your heiny home all in one piece. Because we love you. Love, Mama.
As young as Clean is, Laurence Fishburne (yep, a.k.a. Morpheus) was actually playing up. He never told Coppola that he was only 14 when he was cast in the film.
This guy doesn't just have a license to kill: he gives them out. Lieutenant General Corman's the general who orders Willard to kill Kurtz. While we're not entirely sure whether Corman wants to kill Kurtz because Kurtz is too brutal, or just because Kurtz has broken the chain of command (which is what Kurtz thinks), Corman provides some perceptive insights into Kurtz's psyche. He gives Willard this somewhat melodramatic speech:
CORMAN: Well, you see, Willard, in this war, things get confused out there. Power, ideals, the old 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 irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
This guy must have been talking to Yoda: "If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you, it will."
No, your TV didn't just switch to Star Wars.
That's Harrison Ford (a.k.a. Han Solo) on the screen. He's playing Col. Lucas, the officer under General Corman who helps assign Willard his mission to kill Kurtz. He's not really an important player in the story (this is just a bit part), but you should note that his name is "G. Lucas"—like George Lucas, who directed Harrison Ford in Star Wars, and initially intended to to direct Apocalypse Now (source).
Coincidence? Shmoop thinks not.
This mysterious guy has one menacing line in the whole movie. As Corman and Lucas assign Willard his mission to kill Kurtz, the civilian makes the nature of that mission totally clear, telling Willard:
CIVILIAN: Terminate with extreme prejudice.
We don't actually know who he is, but he's apparently some important government person, concerned about what Kurtz is doing and how it will reflect on the higher-ups. Actually, we do know who he is. In addition to his bit acting part, Jerry Ziesmer was the assistant director on the film.
Pick a team, dude: Captain Richard M. Colby was originally sent to kill Kurtz, but when he reached Kurtz's camp, he switched sides. Whatever Kurtz was doing, it really struck a chord with him. Willard replaced him as the army's choice assassin.
When Willard finally arrives at Kurtz's complex, he recognizes a dazed Colby, but Colby doesn't say anything. He's been weirded out for good, and embraced the jungle's madness just like his master.
The role of "Agent" defines "bit part." This guy introduces the soldiers to the Playboy Playmates who've arrived to entertain them at a USO show.
And that's about it. That's really all he does.
But there is one interesting factoid about him: he's played by Bill Graham, a real-life big-time concert promoter who gave some of their first concerts to The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin at his legendary Fillmore in San Francisco. The psychedelic posters from those '60s shows now sell for big bucks. Ask your grandparents if they have any.
In one of those you-can't-make-this-up occurrences, Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991.
The Playboy Playmates are the only female characters in the movie (aside from the occasional Vietnamese civilian woman we see running away from gunfire, or the woman who gets shot in the boat). They also have no lines.
Anyone notice that this movie is pretty heavily focused on masculine aggression?
Willard and the crew stop at a USO show held at a large army amphitheater cleared out of the jungle. Playboy Playmates start performing seductive dances after they get off a helicopter. The soldiers start yelling things at them, like "You f***ing b****!" and "Take it off!" The soldiers rush the stage. The Playboy Playmates dash back to the helicopter for an emergency escape and get out of there pronto.
In the expanded Redux version of Apocalypse Now, there's a more extensive scene featuring these playmates as Willard and company pursue some…amorous interactions with them.
The director plays a director in this movie—very meta.
Francis Ford Coppola has a brief cameo as the director on the beach. When Willard and his crew land in search of Col. Kilgore, the director tells them not to look at the camera and to keep fighting. The moment calls out the fact that this is actually a movie and not a real war, and also highlights the fact that the Vietnam War was a war seen on TV, like no other war before it.