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.
The Best Part of Waking Up is Napalm in Your Cup
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.