Apocalypse Now Summary
Our story begins in a Saigon hotel room, where Captain Willard, a trained army assassin, is waiting for his mission. You're thinking, "Hotel room? Sweet. There'll be Kit Kats in the minibar." But Willard goes for the booze, freaks out, smashes a mirror, and then cries and bleeds all over the place.
He's in a troubled state of mind, traumatized by war.
Guess what the doctor ordered? More killing. The army assigns Willard to track down a rogue Colonel named Kurtz who's been running his own private army across the border in Cambodia, executing suspected traitors without a trial and generally doing whatever he wants with the help of some indigenous mountain tribes. They order Willard to terminate Kurtz "with extreme prejudice."
Willard journeys along the coast on a boat crewed by a ragtag bunch of Americans: a former chef from New Orleans (nicknamed, creatively, "Chef"), a surfer named Lance, a guy nicknamed Mr. Clean, and the pilot of the boat, "Chief." Not to be confused with "Chef." If we've done it in this Learning Guide, text us ASAP.
They meet up with the crazy, happily belligerent Lt. Colonel Kilgore, who takes them by helicopter further down the coast to the mouth of the Nung River. In the process, Kilgore attacks a Vietnamese outpost while blasting Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," just so his men can surf on the nearby beach.
As they journey up the river, Willard and crew have lots of weird encounters: a tiger leaps at Chef and Willard; soldiers get out of control at a USO show featuring Playboy Playmates; chaos reins at the river's last outpost, where leaderless U.S. soldiers are mired in combat. They also accidentally kill a group of Vietnamese civilians after they think a woman on the boat is running to grab a weapon out of a bin. Turns out she was just running to protect her puppy.
Yeah, not great.
Finally, entering Cambodia, they're attacked by Kurtz's private army. Mr. Clean and Chief are both killed. Willard takes a drugged-out Lance to go to the compound and try to see Kurtz, while Chef's left in the boat to call in an airstrike on Kurtz's compound if Willard doesn't return on time.
At the compound, Willard's imprisoned by Kurtz, who enjoys subjecting him to his rambling thoughts about war and morality. Willard also has to deal with an overly talkative photojournalist, who's gone mad from being in the war so long and has become Kurtz's #1 fan. (He's like a Belieber, if Justin Bieber liked to decapitate people just to make a point.)
Back on the boat, a strung-out Chef can't take it anymore. He decides to call in the airstrike. Next time we see Chef, Kurtz is casually tossing his decapitated head into Willard's lap.
Turns out that this beheading was pretty unnecessary: Kurtz wants to die.
He releases Willard and basically allows the man to sneak into his room at night and hack him to death. This goes down while Kurtz's followers are sacrificing a water buffalo, and it all syncs up with The Doors' "The End."
After Kurtz murmurs his famous last words—"The horror, the horror"—Kurtz's followers put down their weapons and kneel worshipfully in front of Willard, who grabs Lance and hightails it back to the boat, totally not interested in a new job as a jungle god. As the disembodied voice from the command center crackles over the radio, Willard shuts it off and everything goes black.
- A helicopter glides past some palm trees gently swaying in the jungle breeze as The Doors' song "The End" starts to play. Suddenly, the jungle explodes into flames.
- Interposed over the helicopter and burning jungle is the image of a young man staring up at a ceiling fan and smoking a cigarette. He's a mess.
- We see that the young guy has a bottle of booze and a pistol parked next to his bed—never a good combo.
- The rhythmic sound of the helicopter blades morphs into the sound of the ceiling fan in the hotel room.
- On voiceover, the young dude tells us that he's in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam.
- He says that he keeps thinking that he's going to wake up back in the jungle, in the fighting.
- He explains that he's divorced his wife and is back in Vietnam waiting for a special mission.
- The soldier strips down to his underwear and starts doing drunk Tai-Chi or another slow-motion martial art. He seems disturbed.
- Finally, he punches a mirror and smashes it, bloodying his hand. That's seven years of bad luck.
- Then he gulps more alcohol, crying and bleeding.
- Dude's got some issues.
- Two army guys come and wake the young man—now identified as Captain Willard.
- Willard's got a towel loosely wrapped around him and we can all see Martin Sheen's butt.
- Willard thinks that they're there to arrest him, when they're actually just there to present him with his mission.
- Realizing he's drunk and filthy, they force him into the shower to get him clean and relatively sober.
- Willard and the two other guys get out of a helicopter at a Landing Zone. Willard reports to a general with another officer who happens to be Han Solo. Well, he's some officer played by Harrison Ford.
- They quiz Willard about his former black-ops intelligence missions, working for the CIA, and assassinating people. Willard denies all this, but then says he's not authorized to talk about it if it is true. (It is.)
- The general invites him to sit down and eat.
- The guy who looks like Han Solo gives Willard a picture of Colonel Kurtz, the subject of his mission. He plays him a radio recording of Colonel Kurtz talking about a nightmare he had of a snail crawling along a straight razor. That's something you can't un-hear.
- Sounds like Kurtz is losing it.
- Kurtz's voice starts rambling about killing villages and armies and animals.
- The general says that Kurtz used to be a great soldier and a humanitarian. But after he joined the Special Forces, he started doing crazy things.
- Kurtz has recruited a local army from the mountain tribes who worship him like a god.
- He's started executing people without permission, so now he's wanted for murder.
- The general says that in the conflict between good and evil in the human heart, sometimes the dark side starts to win. Kurtz has definitely been lost to the dark side.
- Willard agrees—it definitely sounds like he's nuts.
- Finally, they give him his mission: locate Kurtz up the river in Cambodia, learn about him, and "terminate Kurtz's command…with extreme prejudice."
- That means kill him.
- They give Willard a cigarette. He smokes it and looks at them.
- He accepts the mission.
Nice Résumé, but…
- A helicopter flies over rice paddies as ominous music plays. Willard talks about the people he's killed so far—but this time, he has to kill an American officer, which makes a difference to him.
- Willard says he doesn't know what he'll do when he finds Kurtz.
- Willard gets off the helicopter and journeys on a Navy patrol boat down a river.
- The crew are all young soldiers. Willard tells us about them as we see them: there's "Chef," a guy from New Orleans, a surfer dude named Lance, "Mr. Clean" from the South Bronx, and "Chief" who drives the boat.
- Chief tells Willard about a soldier who committed suicide.
- As they head down the river, they listen to the Rolling Stones on the army radio and Lance water-skis behind the boat. It's all mellow.
- As they drive by, they splash some Vietnamese people who are knocked off their raft.
- Willard talks about Kurtz's dossier—a really impressive resume. He's surprised they want him dead, he's got such a sterling record…well, before the whole going nuts thing happened.
- Willard continues narrating, talking about how Kurtz wrote a report that displeased his superiors before joining the Special Forces.
The Cavalry Arrive
- The boat approaches a point where the American Air Cavalry—helicopters—are attacking Vietnamese positions on land. These copters are supposed to escort the boat to the mouth of the river they'll journey up to find Kurtz.
- As Willard lands on shore, a director who's filming the fighting tells him not to look at the camera, just keep fighting. (The director is actually the real director Francis Ford Coppola in a brief cameo.)
- Huts are burning, Vietnamese civilians are fleeing, soldiers are hopping off the helicopters.
- Willard finds his contact with the Air Cavalry, Col. Kilgore, who hasn't heard about Willard's mission. But he says he'll see what he can do.
- Kilgore places playing cards on the bodies of dead Vietnamese to let the Viet Cong know that he and his American soldiers killed them.
- Kilgore goes over to a wounded Viet Cong and gives him a drink of water, despite the protestations of an angry South Vietnamese soldier. He respects the guy because he kept fighting even when mortally wounded. That's the kind of can-do attitude Kilgore can appreciate.
- Suddenly, he abandons the dying guy (who's still crying out for water) because he hears that Willard's boat has a famous surfer on board.
- He runs over to Lance and compliments him on his surfing style. Kilgore's a huge fan.
- Willard looks around, observing a burned-out church, a U.S. chaplain performing a service for some soldiers kneeling on the beach, and a helicopter airlifting a cow held in a net.
- That's some weird imagery.
- Late that night, the soldiers have a party on the beach. Kilgore strums a guitar as they drink beer. Willard says that Kilgore seems like the kind of soldier who somehow knows he won't be killed or injured in the war.
- Willard explains his plans to Kilgore. Kilgore says the village near where Willard wants to get dropped off is pretty hairy—but Lance says that it has great surfing, despite how dangerous it is.
- Kilgore agrees to take him there. He likes to surf.
What's that Smell?
- Next day, they board the helicopters. They take off to the sound of the bugler's call.
- The helicopters fly across the dawning, orange sky.
- On board, Kilgore and Lance keep talking about surfing and what kind of board is best. Lance prefers a heavy board. Kilgore agrees; what's up with all these young guys using those light boards?
- Kilgore orders them to assume attack formation. He tells Lance that he blasts music by Wagner—a German composer also favored by none other than Adolf Hitler—from his helicopter whenever he attacks. He says it terrifies the enemy and the villagers.
- They crank up the classic Wagner opera tune "Ride of the Valkyries" as they approach the beach.
- Cut to the placid Vietnamese village, where school kids are stepping out of the classroom. They hear the helicopters approaching and run to hide.
- Throughout a Viet Cong encampment, VC soldiers are scrambling. The helicopters start blasting the beaches with rockets and machine guns.
- The VC shoot back with their own machine guns, and one copter gets hit. More rockets and machine guns fire and more Vietnamese die.
- They blow a car full of VC right off a bridge, knocking it into the water.
- On Kilgore's copter, a flare blows up, but everyone's okay.
- The copters start to land, and soldiers storm the beach.
- In the little village's square, the U.S. soldiers are helping a wounded comrade.
- A Vietnamese woman tosses a bomb into a copter landing in the square and blows it up. A burning soldier jumps out.
- One of the helicopters guns down the woman and her two accomplices as they try to run away.
- From his copter, Kilgore effuses about how good the surfing seems to be.
- Kilgore's copter lands, and Kilgore talks about surfing as rockets explode around him. He insists that it's fine to surf despite all the fighting going on. He calls in planes to drop napalm on the village.
- They do.
- Then, Kilgore gives his famous speech about napalm: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning…It smelled like victory." He says, somewhat regretfully, "Someday this war's gonna end."
Eye of the Tiger
- Back on the boat, Willard says that the crew wants the war to end. But he's been to America and says that the home they used to have there doesn't exist anymore.
- Willard, via voiceover, ruminates about Kilgore and Kurtz—if Kilgore conducts the war with such total brutality, what do they have against Kurtz?
- The crew sits around, camped on the riverbank at twilight. Chef and Willard walk into the jungle together, looking to gather some mangoes.
- Chef explains he's called "Chef" because he used to be a real chef and tells Willard about his career.
- Suddenly, they realize something's up. Birds and animals sound scared.
- A tiger leaps out of the bush, and they yell and run, firing at it. We don't know if they hit it or not.
- Chef freaks out, having a little break down and raving about how he just wants to cook and doesn't want to see tigers and all this vicious stuff.
- At night, Willard talks more about Kurtz's career on voiceover, explaining that he applied three times for a special assignment before they let him have it.
- Without any clearance from his commanding officers, Kurtz once made a major strategic decision that turned out OK in the end.
- They had to promote him to Colonel.
Riding the Invisible Pony
- Heading upriver, they wander into the middle of preparations for a big U.S.O. show at a place called Hau Phat.
- Chef tries to buy pot from a soldier, who says he'll help him out. When the soldier tries to charge the crew money for accommodating them, Willard grabs him and threatens him. The huckster relents and then gives Willard a free bottle of booze.
- As soldiers go back to the newly assembled amphitheater for the show, a helicopter arrives. It turns out it's full of Playboy Playmates, there to entertain the soldiers.
- The playmates dance around as the soldiers cheer. A band plays. One of the Playmates pretends to ride an invisible pony, and the others dance suggestively with guns.
- Hey, you take a bunch of sex-starved guys hopped up on drugs and out of their minds from the war—what could possibly go wrong?
- The soldiers start rushing the stage and groping the women. The Playmates freak out and run back to the helicopter.
- Willard quietly observes all this from off to the side.
- As the Playmates' helicopter is taking off, two soldiers grab onto the skids of the helicopter but fall into the water as it ascends.
- Heading up the river, the crew passes another patrol boat, which splashes them. Then, a second boat passes and throws a flare at them, which temporarily sets the boat's roof on fire.
- We get more voiceover from Willard. He's a chatty guy.
- He talks about how Kurtz ordered the illegal assassination of four South Vietnamese who he thought were working for the enemy. They apparently were, since it reduced enemy activity in his area.
- But Kurtz refused to get back in line with the good graces of his commanding officers. He disappeared, leading his private army off into the jungle into Cambodia.
- On the boat, Chief and Willard chat. Even though Chief's not supposed to know where he's going, Willard tells him where they're going: all the way to Cambodia, even though no U.S. soldiers are supposed to be there.
- As they continue on the river, we hear Willard reading a letter Kurtz wrote to his son, explaining that the army has charged him with murder, but he's beyond the army's "timid, lying morality."
- Chief spots a Vietnamese boat on the river, and decides to check if they're running supplies for the enemy. Willard tells him not to waste their time, but Chief pulls the boat over anyway.
- They yell at the two Vietnamese men and a Vietnamese woman who are on the boat as they check it out.
- When Chef goes to open a barrel the woman makes a sudden move. Mr. Clean and the others frantically gun all three of them down.
- It turns out that there was just a puppy in the barrel.
- The Vietnamese woman is severely injured (and maybe already almost dead) but, when Chief insists on taking her and turning her over for medical aid, Willard shoots her and says to keep going upriver.
- Lance takes the puppy on the boat.
- Definitely not an easy scene to watch.
Lance Just Says "Yes" to Drugs
- They reach the last U.S. outpost on the river, where fighting's going down. Lance takes LSD.
- Born too early to hear the "Just say 'No' to drugs" campaign, apparently.
- Soldiers wade into the river and try to get on the boat, but they won't let them.
- Willard disembarks with Lance (who has the puppy with him) to try to get information.
- Evil and vaguely carnival-like music plays on the soundtrack as they venture past strings of bright lights and explosions.
- They talk to the soldiers, who all seem pretty shell-shocked and messed up.
- Willard can't find the commanding officer. There doesn't seem to be one.
- A Vietnamese soldier taunts them from his position. One of the soldiers fires off a round and seems to shut him up.
- Two Americans get blown off a bridge crossing the river.
- Willard can't find the commanding officer, re-boards the boat, and tells them to just keep going on into Cambodia.
- Rockets and flares blaze behind them as they leave.
Toy Arrows, Real Spears
- Apparently, they managed to pick up some mail at the last outpost. Chef hands it around, and they read their mail. One of them gets a newspaper piece about Charles Manson.
- Willard gets a classified message, telling him that the army earlier had sent another man, Colby, to kill Kurtz. But this dude switched sides, it seems, joining up with Kurtz.
- Suddenly, from both sides of the river, enemy fire starts blazing.
- Mr. Clean gets killed, and Lance can't find the dog. A tape Mr. Clean received from home is still playing—his mother's voice, telling him to come home safe and dodge the bullets.
- Further down, journeying through smoke from a smoke grenade thrown by Lance, Chief wants to stop the boat because they can't see anything. They can't figure out why no one's attacked, since there are apparently enemies around.
- Just then, a hail of arrows falls on them. But they're just toy arrows, trying to scare them off. They're from Kurtz's people, the tribal warriors who fight for him.
- The Americans fire back with machine guns, and then the tribes get serious. A spear goes straight through Chief.
- As Chief lies dying, he tries to strangle Willard but gets too weak and collapses, dead.
- After getting away from the arrows, Willard finally admits his mission to Chef and Lance. He's journeying all the way to Cambodia to kill Kurtz, who's crazy.
- Chef finds that typical—what a psycho mission. But he and Lance agree to go along.
Welcome to the Nuthouse
- Further along, they see crucified dead people and severed heads on the shoreline; they know it's Kurtz's doing.
- Finally, they reach Kurtz's camp, where Kurtz's native soldiers are waiting in canoes and on the shore, silently staring.
- A wacked-out American photojournalist greets them. He tells them to put on their sirens and they do. The warriors scramble away from the shore.
- The journalist doesn't give his name. He just talks about how he's been covering the war since 1964.
- The journalist says that he and the warriors are "all [Kurtz's] children." He starts praising Kurtz, saying that Kurtz is a wise man, a poet, who will suddenly grab you and recite Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" at you.
- We can see the words "Apocalypse Now" now scrawled on the wall of the temple-fortress complex where Kurtz is holding court. The journalist keeps rambling to Willard, explaining how Kurtz threatened to kill him for taking his picture one day, but that Kurtz can't be judged as an ordinary man.
- We see the soldier who originally went to kill Kurtz—a guy named Colby—who's now joined Kurtz's army. Willard recognizes him and says "Colby," but Colby says nothing.
- The journalist explains to Willard about the severed heads lying around, admitting that Kurtz goes too far sometimes.
- Willard says Kurtz has gone crazy, but the journalist objects.
- He tells Willard that Kurtz went off into the jungle with his people and he doesn't know when he'll be back.
Kurtz 'n' Company
- On the boat, Chef tells Willard that Kurtz is crazy—evil, even. He says he'll help Willard kill Kurtz, anything to get out of there.
- Willard says he's going to go ashore, and that if he doesn't come back after a certain time, Chef should call in an airstrike on their coordinates.
- On voiceover, Willard says that the bodies of the dead around Kurtz's camp are Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, and Cambodian.
- As Willard goes ashore, Kurtz's soldiers grab him and then lead him into the inner room of the great stone complex.
- Lying on a cot, Kurtz asks Willard where he's from. Willard says Toledo, Ohio.
- Kurtz tells him he went down the Ohio River once when he was a kid. He remembers a really beautiful spot with all these gardenias.
- Kurtz asks Willard why the higher-ups want to terminate his command. Willard says his mission is classified. But Kurtz says it's not really classified anymore, is it?
- Willard says they told him that he had gone totally insane and that his methods were unsound.
- Kurtz asks if his methods are unsound, and Willard replies honestly that he doesn't see any method.
- Kurtz tells Willard that he (Willard) is just "an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill."
- Kurtz imprisons Willard in a bamboo cage, where the journalist comes to give him water and babble some more. He tells Willard that Kurtz actually likes him, and wonders what Kurtz has in mind for him.
- The journalist says that Kurtz has a clear mind but a mad soul. He insists again that Kurtz is a poet and starts ranting about how great Kurtz is.
- On the boat, Chef worries about the airstrike he might have to call in and can't get to sleep.
- When he decides eight hours is up, he looks like he's calling it in.
- But Kurtz, dressed in war paint, comes to Willard. Casually, he tosses Chef's head in Willard's lap.
A Judgment-Free Zone
- Kurtz's people take Willard out of his cage and try to feed him. Kurtz walks over and watches.
- Kurtz recites lines from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men," while the journalist rants at Willard about "dialectics" and space travel. Irritated, Kurtz throws the book at the journalist.
- In the voiceover, Willard wonders if the generals would still want him to kill Kurtz. (Yeah, probably, he concludes.) He also wonders what Kurtz's family would think of Kurtz if they could see him.
- Kurtz talks to Willard about how the horrible things he's doing are "necessary" and that "horror" and "moral terror" should be your friends, tools to help you get things done.
- He recollects going into a camp with the Special Forces to inoculate children for polio. A villager dragged them back, and they discovered that the enemy had hacked off all the inoculated arms and piled them up.
- Kurtz says that after he cried about this, he realized it was genius—it was the kind of brutality you need to use to wage war, in his opinion. It was superior strength.
- He says you need to have men who are moral and yet can use their "primordial instincts to kill" without judgment. "It's judgment that defeats us," he concludes.
- Then he wishes that someone would go back to his home, after he's dead, and explain to his son the truth about what happened. He asks Willard to do this for him (which implies that Kurtz knows Willard will kill him).
- At night, outside, Kurtz's Cambodian followers prepare to sacrifice a water buffalo. At the same time, Willard prepares to kill Kurtz. He says that "the jungle" wants Kurtz dead, since "that's who Kurtz took his orders from anyway."
- In a stunning visual, Willard's head slowly emerges from the river, face painted in camo colors, looking like the silent assassin he is.
- He grabs a guard who's protecting Kurtz, dragging him into the darkness. (Maybe Willard kills him?)
- He sneaks up behind Kurtz, who's in the process of making a radio transmission.
- He hacks Kurtz with a farm implement at the same time that Kurtz's followers are killing the water buffalo in the same way.
- As Kurtz lies dying, he utters his final words, "The horror…the horror."
- Outside, the people continue cutting up the meat from the sacrifice.
- Willard steps out of Kurtz's room and looks at a manuscript Kurtz has been writing. He sees that Kurtz has scribbled the words on one page, "Drop the bomb. Exterminate them all."
- The Cambodians look at him, but don't make a move to hurt him as he walks out, holding the manuscript and the weapon he used to kill Kurtz.
- They stare at one another for a while before Willard walks down the steps. They move out of his way as he walks through the crowd, putting down their weapons.
- Willard pulls Lance out of the group and they both board the boat and leave.
- The rain washes them as the radio babbles with the voices of the soldiers whom Chef tried to radio. Willard switches off the radio.
- As the rain falls, they set out through the dark and fog, heading downriver.
- We hear the echo of Kurtz's final words once more—"The horror…the horror"—superimposed on a close-up of Willard's camo-painted face.