The sound of an approaching helicopter plays over a still frame showing a strip of palm trees in Vietnam. As the helicopter flies by, the first ominous notes of The Doors' "This is the End" begin. Then, the jungle landscape ignites in a series of explosions, filling the frame with dusty smoke and helicopters. Dissolve to an upside-down close-up of Captain Benjamin L. Willard, lying in bed, smoking a cigarette. The burning jungle fades in and out, layering fiery orange and red over Willard's paranoid eyes. As the sounds of the helicopter fade into the flutter of the ceiling fan, the camera pans over Willard's effects: booze, pills, and a handgun under his pillow. He jumps out of bed and peeks through the closed Venetian blinds onto the populated street. His gravelly voice-over states, "Saigon. Shit."
Willard's voice-over continues, as he describes always waking up and thinking he is back in the jungle. This is his second tour of duty, but after returning from Vietnam the first time, all he could think about was coming back. His wife divorced him and now he's in a Saigon hotel, waiting for his next assignment. The following moments play like a fever dream: Willard squats on the floor in his underwear, his face is painted, he punches his mirror and flips over his bed, bloodying his sheets. This man is at war with something - but it isn't Charlie.
Cut to two soldiers in silhouette, walking up the stairs to Willard's room. They have come to bring him to ComSec (Communications Security) intelligence in Nha Trang. Willard is so drunk that the soldiers have to physically throw him in the shower first. Cut to a helicopter landing in Nha Trang where a basic camp has been set up. In voice-over, Willard shares that this is the mission he has been waiting for, but also that it was his last. He continues to say that his story is intertwined with that of Col. Walter E. Kurtz.
Willard enters the trailer, where three soldiers are waiting for him, one of whom is General Corman. In close-up, Willard states for the record that he has never met any of the men before. Col. Lucas asks him questions about his history with the C.I.A. and ComSec I Corps, all of which he denies. Corman invites Willard to sit down for lunch. Lucas passes Willard a photograph, asking him if he has ever heard of Col. Walter E. Kurtz, an Operations Officer with the 5th Special Forces. Willard has, and the General asks Lucas to play "the tape." In a point-of-view shot, Willard looks down at the black-and-white photograph of a handsome, uniformed man with a furrowed brow. Kurtz's voice on the recording, though, sounds distant and wild. He talks of dreams and nightmares in a cold, haunting baritone. Willard's hands freeze as he listens to Kurtz describe assassinating pigs and cows - it sounds like the ramblings of a madman.
The General tells Willard that Kurtz was a brilliant Colonel and a good man, but soon after he joined the Special Forces, his actions and ideas became "unsound." Now, Kurtz is in Cambodia with a band of local followers who worship him like a god. Kurtz has also recently ordered the execution of Vietnamese intelligence agents he suspected of double-crossing him, so he is now wanted for murder. In intercut close-ups, the General ponders Kurtz's transformation - believing that Kurtz reached a breaking point and has gone insane. Lucas then tells Willard that his new - and highly classified - mission is to travel up the Nung River on a Navy Patrol Boat (or PBR, which means Patrol Boat, River), find the Colonel, and "Terminate his command." The other man at the table, a civilian who has been silent until now, elaborates, "Terminate. With extreme prejudice." Willard sits back in his chair, smoking a cigarette, and stares straight at the General.
Cut to an extreme wide shot of a helicopter flying over the rolling green hills. The music is psychedelic and menacing at the same time. From Willard's point of view, the camera skims over people working in rice fields. In voice-over, Willard contemplates how many people he has killed... "but this time, it [is] an American. And an officer." Cut to the Navy Patrol boat pulling away from the dock at sunset, as Willard wonders what he will do when he finds Kurtz. On the Patrol Boat, Willard is joined by a crew, which he describes as "rock-n-rollers with one foot in their graves": The Chef, Lance, Mr. Clean, and Phillips,"The Chief," who captains the boat. The Chief informs Willard that he brought one Captain Colby, Special Ops, up the Nung River, and he never returned. The Rolling Stones' "I Can't Get No... Satisfaction" plays on AVFM Radio while Willard looks through Kurtz's file. Lance waterskis behind the boat, and Mr. Clean dances.
A close-up of Kurtz's dossier reveals his exceptional achievements, and Willard cannot believe that this man is his target. Willard has trouble accepting that the voice he heard belonged to this man, who was on track to become a major military leader. Why would Kurtz, at 38 years old, leave that behind and pursue a transfer to Airborne Training? The sounds of a large explosion interrupt Willard's thoughts. The camera tracks along the side of the boat to show each crew member's reaction to the sound of the B-52 Strike. Smoke billows out of a destroyed village and Willard narrates that this is the Air Cavalry Division - 1st of the 9th, who are supposed to escort Willard and his crew to the mouth of the Nung River but apparently could not help themselves and had to bomb a village first. As the boat pulls into the shore, the camera tracks over a soldier tending to a Vietnamese mother holding a wounded baby in the chaos.
As a tank tears up rice paddies, a television crew captures the action and when Willard passes by, the director (played by Francis Ford Coppola) instructs him not to look into the camera. Willard trudges through the burning village looking for the Commanding Officer, shouting over the explosions and helicopters. He finds Captain Kilgore, a strapping man in a cowboy hat and aviator shades, who asks Willard and his crew to stand aside until the current activities are finished. With that, Kilgore opens a pack of playing cards and starts walking through the village, throwing individual cards on the (supposedly VC) corpses that litter the ground so that "Charlie" will know who committed the massacre. The soldiers help surviving women and children to safety, while a war photographer gathers visual evidence.
Kilgore comes across some of his soldiers standing over a wounded man who is using a pot lid to hold his intestines in. A Vietnamese-speaking soldier tells Kilgore that the man is just asking for water, and Kilgore shouts at the solider violently. He grabs his canteen and kneels low to the man, about to give him water, but then another soldier tells Kilgore that Lance Johnson, the famous surfer, happens to be on the PBR that just arrived. Kilgore stands, without giving any water to the wounded man, and walks towards Lance. Kilgore is a fan of Lance's surfing and introduces him to other surfers in the Cavalry. Willard smokes a cigarette and watches as a priest holds Holy Communion on the battlefield. A helicopter airlifts a cow out of the burning landscape.
It is impossible to study Apocalypse Now without also learning about the turmoil that plagued the production. The film, a physical and metaphorical journey from sanity to madness, was similarly transformative for many of the creative forces involved, most notably Francis Ford Coppola, but also his leading man, Martin Sheen, who plays Capt. Willard. The dreamlike sequence that opens the film was shot on Sheen's 36th birthday, and Sheen, like his character, was completely drunk.
In his grizzled baritone, Willard (in voiceover) invites the audience into his mind, introducing the confessional nature of his narration. He reveals that he is battling some demons that have prevented him from returning to his pre-war life, though he never directly describes the atrocities he has seen. Instead, his paranoia and obsession are evidence enough. Sheen, who was fighting his own internal struggles at the time, went deep into Willard's soul while filming this scene. Willard's karate chop into the mirror and the resulting blood are real. When Sheen started bleeding, Coppola asked the actor if he wanted to stop rolling and Sheen insisted that they continue. The scotch is real, too, as is the shower that sobers him up. The emotions caught on film are real, which heightens the immediacy of the performances and the film.
The General's quarters at Nha Trang, where Willard receives his orders to kill Col. Kurtz, looks like an archetypal American living room rather than a trailer in the middle of the jungle. Col. Lucas questions Willard about missions he has undertaken in the past, missions that he is not supposed to discuss - but we learn that he worked for the CIA and has likely been involved in a sanctioned assassination before (besides what he may have seen and done in his first tour of Vietnam). Kurtz and Willard are both killers, except they are on opposite sides of the law - and this was the contradiction at the heart of the Vietnam War. American troops killed millions of Vietnamese civilians in an effort to contain the spread of communism in the Cold War era. In the process, they turned thousands of American soldiers into killers, and more than 50,000 of them into victims. In the thick of it, soldiers had a hard time figuring out who they were supposed to be killing, and why.
Willard narrates that this assignment took him deep into hell. Similarly, the Vietnam War brought out the worst in the previously infallible American psyche, the kind of jingoistic patriotism that Kurtz himself once embraced. "It was no accident," Willard says about his being assigned to find Kurtz, "there was no way to tell his [Kurtz's] story without telling my own. If his story is a confession, than so is mine." We know from this moment that through his association with Kurtz, Willard will come to terms with his own internal darkness over the course of the film. During the trip upriver, Willard starts reading Kurtz's dossier and learns more and more about the man he is being sent to kill, and as a result, starts to understand what made him snap.
Simultaneously, as the PBR travels along the river, Willard's crew (and the audience) witnesses increasingly shocking atrocities, some of which would drive any person to the brink. Coppola never intended to structure Apocalypse Now as a political statement - his motivations were to create something far more visceral. He said, "What I hoped for was to take the audience through an unprecedented experience of war and have them react as much as those who had gone through the war" (Cowie 121).
Arguably, the most memorable character Willard encounters is Col. Kilgore. John Milius often compared Apocalypse Now to another epic tale: The Odyssey. In that context, Kilgore is Cyclops, a destructive monster. In many ways, Kilgore is modeled after a real-life American hero: John Wayne, down to his cowboy hat and scarf. He is an archetype of American masculinity, and although his unflinching confidence makes him a great soldier, it was men like Kilgore who powered the "remorseless machine" through Vietnam (Cowie 137). He engages in battle with such gusto that he never stops to question the larger moral implication of his actions. Coppola also manages a tongue-in-cheek cameo in this section of the film, as the newsreel director instructing Willard to "go on through...just like in the war." In this moment, Willard looks back at Coppola with shock on his face - his expression embodies the question that many Americans asked themselves during the Vietnam War: "What exactly are we doing here?"