Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
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.
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It…
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?
The Watcher in Camo
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.
The Descent of Man
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.
God of Carnage
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.