It's daytime. The camera tilts up from the murky water to the PBR as it makes its lonely way upriver. Chef distributes the mail to the different sailors, who all sit and happily read missives from home. Willard, meanwhile, opens the letter that Carlson delivered to him at Do Lung Bridge. It is an official memo from the Army and says that Captain Richard Colby, the last man who had been sent to find Kurtz, was not MIA as previously reported - he has actually defected and is now Kurtz's follower. Included in the package is proof - the letter that Colby sent to his wife after arriving at Kurtz's compound. It reads (in a hasty pencil scrawl), "Sell the house - Sell the car - Sell the kids- Find someone else - Forget it - I'm never coming back!"
Meanwhile, Chef opens his package from Eva, which includes a newspaper clipping about the Manson Family murders. Lance, who now appears to be permanently tripped out, lights a purple flare and dances around the boat, calling the colorful smoke a "Purple Haze." Clean listens to a taped message from his mother on a portable cassette player. Suddenly, shots come firing out of the jungle towards the boat. The crew starts firing into the woods at their hidden enemy. Clean is hit. After the gunfire ceases, Clean's contorted body remains sprawled across the back of the boat. Lance grumbles that his dog has gone missing. Chief, in a rare show of emotion, weeps over Clean's body. The dead man's mother continues to speak on the cassette player, saying that she wants grandchildren to love and spoil before saying her farewell, reminding her son to "stay out of the way of bullets." Chief breaks down.
Later, the boat continues up the river quietly - bathed in the misty evening light. The pall of death lies over the crew as they pass under the fuselage of a wrecked airplane. The mist becomes thick and milky, enveloping the boat. Voices are audible from the shore and Chief wants to stop the boat because he cannot see, but Willard insists that he continue. Chef is wild with paranoia, and Lance howls madly into the fog. Willard's gaze is intense and in voiceover, he says, "he was close. He was real close." Suddenly, the air clears and a flurry of arrows comes flying out of the woods, hailing down onto the boat. Chief tries to steer away from the shore. Willard tries to stop Chef and Lance from opening fire, saying that the arrows are harmless little sticks, but they don't listen. Lance breaks an arrow in half and puts it on his head.
Chief screams at Willard for leading them into this mess, grabs his gun, and starts shooting at their hidden assailants. Suddenly, Chief stops, stunned, and stumbles backwards. The camera tilts down to show an arrowhead piercing Chief's heart as he starts bleeding from the mouth. He whispers, "a spear," and then falls, but Willard catches him and tries to hold his head up. Chief summons every ounce of strength he has left and wraps his hands tightly around Willard's throat. Willard presses his palm into the dying man's face in an act of self-defense - until Chief bleeds out. After the attack is over, Willard finally reveals the true nature of the mission to Chef, who explodes with anger. Lance cradles Chief's body in the river while Chef screams at Willard about the absurdity of a mission into Cambodia to kill an American colonel. Finally, Chef tells Willard that he and Lance will accompany him to Kurtz's compound, but only if they stay on the boat. Cut to a close-up on Lance's dreamy face as he emerges from the water, while Chief's body slips below the surface.
The boat moves on through the night, guided by flaming torches burning along the shore. Dissolve to daylight, and in a dreamy, menacing sequence, the boat passes a ceremonial arrangement of human skulls arranged on a small inlet. In his voiceover, Willard admits that he was afraid about what he was going to find at the end of his journey. He rips up Kurtz's dossier and leaves the shredded documents floating in the water. Cut to a high angle shot of Willard looking at something through his binoculars. He tells Chef to keep moving and instructs Lance to keep his hands away from his gun. Cut to the angle from behind Willard, who is facing dozens of painted-white people floating on flat canoes in the water. They stand perfectly still and silent - and the only score is a bass playing a single note over and over. Chef inches the PBR forward and the smaller boats separate to let it pass through.
Even Willard looks nervous as the PBR pulls up the shore. Hundreds of Kurtz's Montagnard followers, all armed, stand silently on the temple steps and hilly landscape, waiting. Suddenly, an American male voice breaks the spell. "It's all right! It's all right! It's all been approved!", he shouts, flailing wildly from within the stationary crowd. Chef hesitates because those "bastards" have attacked the boat once already. The American tells him to sound his siren, and Chef does. Everyone scatters except for the Photojournalist, who meets the PBR as it docks. There is a naked corpse dangling from a tree above the water as the Photojournalist shakes the crew's hands and asks Chef for a cigarette. The Photojournalist says that all of Kurtz's "children" have gathered because they are afraid that Willard has come to take Kurtz away. Willard says that he just wants to talk to Kurtz. The Photojournalist leads Willard and Chef inland, sputtering a stream of consciousness about Kurtz's grand vision. The temple grounds are littered with corpses.
Willard spots Captain Colby with blood on his hands, surrounded by children. In a close-up, Willard searches Colby's eyes for recognition but is met by his blank, empty stare. The Photojournalist leads Willard through the crowd to the base of a flight of stone stairs leading into the temple where Kurtz resides. It is covered in human heads. The Photojournalist apologetically admits that sometimes Kurtz "goes too far." He says that Kurtz has gone out into the jungle with his people. Chef tells Willard that they should return to the boat and Willard agrees. Cut back to Lance, who is perched on the side of the boat, folded into a squat. He shoots down the body hanging from the tree. Inside the boat, their faces obscured in shadows, Chef calls Kurtz "wacko" and "evil" and describes what they have seen as "pagan idolatry." Chef agrees to assist Willard on his mission to kill Kurtz - anything to get out of here. Willard instructs Chef to wait on the boat while he and Lance go to land to find the Colonel. If they do not return by 2200 hours, Willard tells Chef to radio in an airstrike on the compound.
The rain pours down on Lance and Willard as they walk onto the land. In Willard's voiceover, he says that Kurtz had clearly gone insane. He describes the dead bodies around the compound as "North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and Cambodian," proof of the fact that Kurtz was waging his own war. Willard is aware of the fact that he is only alive because Kurtz has allowed it. Then, a crowd of Kurtz's "children" is upon him. They shove him to the ground, dragging him around in the mud, and the camera makes a full circle to capture his desperate expression as he succumbs to them. Lance just looks on stupidly.
Willard is led inside the darkened temple in handcuffs, with sharp streaks of light defining his silhouette. In his voiceover, he describes the smell inside as "slow death, malaria, and nightmares." He is taken into a small room and forced at gunpoint to kneel down. From the shadows of a small canopy, an American voice asks him where he is from. This, at last, is Col. Kurtz. The camera tracks in close, but only Kurtz's hands and bald head are visible. He sounds perfectly sane as he describes his travels on the Ohio River. Willard gives him a sidelong glance, unsure how to respond. Kurtz takes a bowl of water into his lap and splashes it onto his face and his shiny scalp.
Then, Kurtz's eyes finally shine out from the darkness like a wild tiger waiting to pounce. Willard says that he has been sent on a classified mission. Kurtz asks Willard if he thinks he (Kurtz) is insane and if his methods unsound. Willard boldly replies that he sees no method at all. Kurtz asks Willard, point blank, if he is an assassin. His full face catches the light, and Willard proclaims that he is a soldier. Kurtz focuses his glassy eyes on Willard and decrees that he is neither soldier nor assassin. He is "an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill."
Coppola invokes the American cultural context of the era by peppering Apocalypse Now with timely musical choices. The opening section and the ending of Apocalypse Now play out against This is the End by The Doors. The Doors rose to fame in the late 1960s, and were a major part of the soundtrack for the psychedelic drug culture, enhanced by lead singer Jim Morrison's onstage antics and well-publicized substance abuse. Originally, Coppola had wanted to use The Doors' music for the score of the entire film, but it just didn't feel right. Sound editor Walter Murch says, "There was no connection other than a very deep bond between the psyche of Jim Morrison and the psyche of this film" (Cowie 101). The Doors' music embodied the rebellion, alienation, drugs, and hedonism that came to define the popular youth culture of the 1960s and 70s.
Later, Lance mentions "Purple Haze," which is a Jimi Hendrix song from 1967. The term "Purple Haze" refers to LSD. The Rolling Stones' "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," which Mr. Clean dances to at the beginning of the PBR's journey, was released in 1965 and refers to sexual frustration. Figures like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger were heroes to young men like the crew of Willard's PBR - they were representatives of the counter-culture, which is in direct ideological conflict with the American presence in Vietnam. However, in the context of the jungle, their music and the ideologies it connotes can only comfort these men - it can't save them.
These pop culture references also allow the audience to understand the world these young soldiers have left behind. They have come to Vietnam with the promise of becoming heroes, but many of them, like Clean and Chef, lack any kind of emotional connection to their mission. They just want to get home and do the things that 18-20 year old American men liked to do: chase girls, listen to music, maybe do some drugs, and surf. Willard even describes them as "...just kids, rock and rollers with one foot in their graves." By contrast, Willard is jaded. He knows from experience that Vietnam won't go away even when these kids get back home. He is on this journey to find Kurtz, yes, but he is also on this journey in order to face the darkest parts of himself. He is the commander of this mission because he has something to prove, while his crew are just passengers. Once Chief realizes this, he tries to retaliate - but it's too late.
In his early notes, Coppola wrote, Apocalypse Now "is made of four basic units or elements: FIRE (night bombing), WATER (the beach and the river), AIR (wind of helicopter and monsoon), and EARTH (mud, holes, bomb crater, green foliage" (Cowie 34). As the film reaches its climax, the scenery is more reminiscent of the "Earth" category, especially at Kurtz's compound, which appears to be growing up naturally out of the ground. The boat passes under the shells of helicopters and planes, indicating that these war machines are no match for what lies deep in the jungle. The evil is much more deep-seated, as Coppola wrote in his version of a synopsis for the film:
As our protagonist travels through the insanities and absurdities of the American involvement in the war, he is more and more drawn to the jungle itself, its primeval mystique and immense power. It becomes clear that the American war 'to bring civilization to the ignorant millions' is merely the extension of mercantile colonialism and that the horror and savagery lie not in the jungle, but in the American culture itself, with its powerless [sic] technology and pop culture (Cowie 35).
As the PBR gets closer and closer to Kurtz, casualties befall the small crew. All of these characters fit into common war film tropes: Mr. Clean is the young upstart who requires protection from his stronger comrades, Chief is the hardened soldier with a heart of gold who plays by the rules, Chef is the sensitive soul always on the verge of a breakdown, and Lance exists in his own world. In their metaphorical journey into the Heart of Darkness, only Willard and Lance survive. The other three would never have been able to emerge from Kurtz's compound alive, simply because they never would have been able to understand Kurtz well enough to conquer him. Willard, meanwhile, sees himself in Kurtz and makes a conscious decision to travel the opposite path. Lance, on the other hand, becomes so pliable that he loses the ability to differentiate between good and evil. He is a follower, not a leader, and only leaves Kurtz's compound because Willard drags him back to the PBR.