In a low angle shot, the Photojournalist climbs up the temple stairs through the overgrown jungle. He shoves dead bodies out of his way as he approaches the bamboo cage where Willard has been imprisoned. The Photojournalist gives the weak, bloodied Willard a sip of water and a drag of his cigarette. He asks Willard why a nice guy like him would want to kill a genius. He makes sure that Willard knows that Kurtz has something in mind for him. Willard looks him dead in the eyes, and the Photojournalist keeps ranting. In a close-up one-shot through the bamboo bars, the Photojournalist shares his belief that Kurtz is dying and "hates all of this."
Back on the boat, Chef tries to get some sleep under his poncho while the rain pours down - before he realizes that it's past 2200 hours. Cut to a wide shot of the PBR, with the sound of Chef calling Trang. Cut to a close-up of a man's feet walking along the muddy ground in the rain. In a point of view shot, Willard is draped weakly over the side of his bamboo cage like an animal, his face green and muddy. He looks up into the camera and opens his eyes wide, coming face to face with Kurtz, who is in full camouflage makeup. They lock eyes in alternating close-ups - Kurtz is shot from a low angle and Willard is shot from a high angle. Kurtz turns and walks away and a hand reaches out of the darkness to drop an object on Willard's lap. A close-up reveals that it is Chef's severed head. Willard screams in disgust and shakes it to the ground. He starts to weep.
Dissolve to the dawn, tilt down from the heavens to a bird's-eye-view of Kurtz's compound. Two men carry a weakened Willard through the temple corridor and lay him on a mat on the floor. A man holds his head up while a woman ladles water into his mouth. In a close-up, Willard struggles to move his head, but refuses to eat even a spoonful of rice. He turns his face towards camera and in his point-of-view shot, he sees Kurtz's shadow moving around nearby. Coppola creates the interaction between the men using a series of dissolves. An armed soldier stands guard. Kurtz waits. Willard smokes a cigarette. Kurtz catches a fly. Smoke swirls around the stone idols in the temple. Then, Kurtz's voice cuts through the silence and he starts reciting poetry. Willard now has the strength to sit up to look at him. Meanwhile, the Photojournalist leans on Willard's lap, rambling about physics and love. Kurtz looks up and hurls something at the Photojournalist, who becomes silent for a moment, and then gets up and leaves. Kurtz looks over at Willard before turning back to his book.
In his voiceover, Willard admits that he has no idea what to do. He is free to go but cannot seem to leave. He concludes that Kurtz knows more about what Willard will do than Willard himself. He surveys Kurtz's effects in point-of-view close-ups, the camera moving over his military uniform, his medals, and photographs of his wife and son. Willard wonders how Kurtz's family and former colleagues would react if they knew how far Kurtz had gone. Willard describes Kurtz as "broken", and his own face is obscured in darkness. Then, Kurtz's silhouette emerges into the room and he walks towards Willard. He tells Willard that they have seen the same horrors - and that Willard has the right to kill him but no right to judge him. Kurtz's words continue over the darkness and then he comes into a close-up, lit with extreme contrast where only half his face is visible. He speaks about horror and moral terror as either friends or enemies. In Willard's alternating close-up, Lance is visible in the background, spaced out and doing some kind of Tai-Chi.
Kurtz tells Willard a story of when he was with the Special Forces and they went into a camp to inoculate children and after they left, some of the adult men in the camp hacked off each inoculated child's arm. He describes weeping and breaking down, and Willard just listens. Kurtz says he never wants to forget that feeling - a mixture of shock and admiration that the Viet Cong had the strength to do that, simply in the name of the fight. Judgement, he says, is "not what defeats us." Then, as if he has already accepted his fate, Kurtz tells Willard that if he is to be killed, someone should go to his home and tell his son everything about his father. Willard examines his hand, stretching his fingers.
The final sequence of the film has few words - the catharsis of Willard's journey is almost entirely experiential for the audience. Kurtz stands in the doorway of the temple as a few men lead a water buffalo down the stairs towards a bonfire where the residents of the compound have gathered. They are preparing for a ceremonial sacrifice - there is dancing and music and rain. A man dances around the water buffalo with a ladle of water. Lance, surrounded by children, drinks rice wine out of a mug. The men dance with shields and spears, and women hold chickens upside down.
Cut to the PBR where Willard is lying on the floor, brandishing a long knife. A voice from Trang calls out from the radio, but he ignores it. In his voice-over, Willard reflects that he will likely be made a major for killing Kurtz - and yet, this is what Kurtz himself wants most of all. He wants Willard to take his pain away, to die like a soldier and not a renegade. Willard climbs out of the boat on his hands and knees and dives into the river.
Cut to a close-up of the murky river with a coating of mist swirling over it. Willard's painted head rises out of it, his paranoid eyes darting around. Meanwhile, on shore, it is raining, torches are lit, and people are dancing. Kurtz retreats into the temple for the last time. The song "This is The End" by The Doors starts to play as Willard creeps into the temple, crouched like an animal. Kurtz sits at the end of the hallway, waiting. Outside, the men start hacking at the water buffalo with machetes, and its reddish innards ooze onto the ground. Kurtz speaks into his recorder when he sees Willard coming towards him. As Willard's blade comes down onto Kurtz, the machetes continue to slice into the water buffalo until it crumples to the ground. In soft focus, Willard, bare-chested, completes his mission successfully. Cut to a close-up of Kurtz's bloodied profile as he lies on the ground. He whispers his dying words, "The horror...the horror."
In a low angle shot, Willard emerges into Kurtz's sleeping chambers. He finds a typewriter and a stack of typed pages - Kurtz's writings. A close-up draws attention to the red scrawl on one of the pages, which reads, "Drop the Bomb, Exterminate them all!" For a moment, Willard sits at the typewriter. Then, he looks outside and sees that all the people have gathered at the doorway. He takes the manuscript and comes outside, revealing the crowd in a point-of-view shot. Everyone kneels before Willard. In a close-up, Willard turns his head towards the darkness.
He slowly descends the temple stairs and drops his bloody knife. In a high angle wide shot, the people part and allow Willard to walk through the crowd. Everything is silent and still. Willard takes Lance's hand and leads him towards the shore. Dissolve to Willard and Lance back on the boat and the people collected on the stairs, watching them go. The radio starts buzzing with voices, and Willard turns it off. In the final shot of the film, Willard's face is layered on top of images from Kurtz's compound and the helicopters. The words, "the horror... the horror" repeat, and the rain comes down harder. Fade to black.
When Willard is finally granted audience with Kurtz, the film quickly changes in pace and the structure loosens, which was not as much of an intentional choice but rather Coppola's creative way to resurrect the story after a problematic shoot. Coppola shot these final scenes in the second phase of production, post-hurricane, while still struggling to figure out how to conclude his massive epic. To further complicate matters, when Marlon Brando arrived in the Philippines, he was extremely overweight and acutely self-conscious about it. The legendary actor was demanding, but also completely unprepared. For this reason, the character of Kurtz evolved during the shoot, slowing things down considerably.
The first major decision came out of necessity: Vittorio Storaro developed a lighting concept to conceal Brando's girth, "creating a black shadow so that bits of [Kurtz] can emerge, like truth emerging from matter" (Cowie 80). The effect is ultimately transcendent and creepy, setting the ethereal tone for the conclusion of Willard's journey. However, Coppola could not stage his intended ending with his oversized Kurtz, so he was forced to re-tool his plan. It just so happened that Eleanor Coppola was filming her documentary footage on a day off and stumbled upon the Ifugao extras performing a ritual water buffalo slaughter. She ran to get her husband, and decided to incorporate it into the final scene, intercut with Willard's slaughter of Kurtz.
The confrontation between Willard and Kurtz is emotionally stripped-down, taking away any pretenses. The famous shot of Willard's head rising out of the murky water is symbolic of his reversion to his animalistic impulses. Additionally, Willard's wet hair and painted face make him look more and more like Kurtz. Willard and Kurtz have shared many of the same experiences. In Willard's initial briefing, we learn that he has taken on these kinds of highly classified missions for the C.I.A. before - murder in the name of patriotism. We witness his "complicity in the madness of war" become sealed when he murders the wounded Vietnamese woman on the sampan (Cowie 159). However, Willard cannot succumb to the darkness in his heart and chooses to refuse Kurtz's throne.
Likewise, Kurtz had performed risky missions as part of the Army before he went rogue. Even before the full-scale military mobilization in Vietnam, it was common for Green Berets to "operate covertly on the fringes of battle. They often ignore[d] the normal rules of war in their day to day battles in isolated areas" (Cowie 141). Kurtz had "gotten off the boat" before, when he undertook Operation Arcangel without clearance. Instead of being disciplined, though, the media forced the Army's hand, and he was promoted. This time, though, Kurtz had gone too far; furthermore, his actions do not help the American cause. The duties he carried out as a respected member of the American mission have, in turn, transformed Kurtz into a major threat against American colonial power.
Kurtz's operation in Cambodia places him squarely out of the American grasp, both literally and figuratively. Cambodia was officially off-limits to American intervention, which is why Willard's crew is so apprehensive about going there. However, during the Vietnam War, there were reports of B-52 attacks over the border in Cambodia, especially after the Tet Offensive. In this way, Coppola draws attention to the American tactic of pushing the envelope further and further in a desperate attempt to win an impossible war instead of taking a moment to reflect on the emotional and physical toll of the conflict. Derek Malcolm wrote in The Guardian, "Kurtz's career must be terminated with extreme prejudice, as if the military-industrial complex responsible for the hostilities were some sort of Godfather-like Mafia sending a hitman to deal with a disloyal capo."
Willard's time at Kurtz's compound proves that the man is, indeed, fighting his own war. His followers are the Montagnards, ethnic Cambodians living in Vietnam. (In the film, the Montagnards are played by Ifugao extras from the North Philippines). During the Vietnam War, the US Special Forces (and the CIA) would recruit Montagnards as covert troops to help monitor VC infiltration across the border between South Vietnam and Cambodia. Green Berets encouraged their Montagnard fighters to commit atrocities, and many of the Montagnards found this newfound position to be demoralizing. According to Coppola, the Montagnards "were not savage peoples, but they were primitive peoples..." He saw Kurtz as "a kind of Margaret Mead who hasn't really gone native but respects the native customs" (Cowie 27). It is a contradiction, though, to see Kurtz preaching about morality and psychology while his front steps are strewn with human heads. He has convinced himself that his actions are necessary in order to halt the spread of American evil, which parallels American Cold War philosophy: Stop the spread of communism at any cost.
Through the character of Captain Colby, Coppola shows his audience that the dark desire to cross into the jungle is not just isolated within Kurtz, but that it threatens every person. This darkness is inside Willard, too, but in order to reject it, he must stare it right in the eye and choose to vanquish it. In this way, Coppola crafts Willard as a subjective character, a symbol for America in Vietnam. Kurtz, like the war, gets out of control, and in order to control the fallout, Willard, like the Americans, must accept the corrosion of morality that motivated the conflict in the first place. Unlike Kurtz, though, Willard chooses to walk away and fulfill his new mission: to share Kurtz's story with his son back home, and maybe one day, Kurtz's horrible legacy can be used to prevent another Vietnam.