The camera tracks slowly along the darkened beach, where the soldiers have congregated around makeshift fires, drinking beer and eating steak. Willard, in voice-over, calls it a "beach party," and the camera stops to show Col. Kilgore holding court with an acoustic guitar, surrounded by soldiers. Willard comments that Kilgore has a "weird light around him" because he knew nothing was going to happen to him in Vietnam. Sure enough, Kilgore seems entirely confident to the point that he believes himself to be invincible. Willard tries to get Kilgore's attention, pointing out on the map the two entry points into the Nung River. At first, Kilgore pokes fun at Willard's seriousness and comments that it's a Viet Cong stronghold, but then, Mike comments that the entry point is a great spot for surfing. Suddenly unconcerned that this particular area is "hairy," Kilgore stands at attention, ready for the mission. To the detractor who claims that their destination is controlled by the Viet Cong, Kilgore exclaims, "Charlie don't surf!"
The next morning, Kilgore strides confidently out of the jungle, leading the rest of Air Cavalry 9's soldiers towards their helicopters. The trumpet sounds out as the helicopters take off into the dusty dawn light. Willard's PBR, meanwhile, is being airlifted to its next destination. Dissolve to a sequence of the helicopters flying over what looks like a serene tropical paradise, with Willard's contemplative profile layered over the frame. Meanwhile, Kilgore keeps discussing the topic he is most interested in - surfing. He asks Lance what kind of surfboard he uses (note that there is a surfboard attached to the underside of Kilgore's helicopter). Then, Kilgore commands one of his men to put on the music - he claims that when he plays Wagner during an attack, it scares his intended victims. Ride of the Valkyries comes on - very loud. Willard looks mildly amused.
Cut to a placid courtyard where a young Vietnamese girl prepares greens to sell at market. The sound of children singing emerges from a small schoolhouse on the other side of the courtyard a group of uniformed children come outside. The serenity is interrupted by the sound of helicopters and Wagner from overhead. The teachers hurry the children to safety and residents of the village begin to panic. The helicopters fly in a V-shaped attack formation and start firing. Viet Cong jump out of the bushes and prepare to return fire. Kilgore's crew blows up several homes. The village erupts in gunfire and black smoke. A vehicle loaded with Viet Cong tries to cross over a rickety bridge, but the Air Cav fires and blows the bridge - and the car - to smithereens. Meanwhile, a few of the helicopters land and the American soldiers storm the village on foot. One soldier is shot in the leg, and others attend to him. He lies in the courtyard, screaming for mercy. Kilgore orders the wounded to be taken to the hospital, and his men to get out of the village.
Orange smoke starts to rise into the sky - napalm. A village woman throws a live grenade into the grounded helicopter, so Kilgore follows her in his helicopter and shoots her down. Simultaneously, Kilgore points out the waves to Lance. He lands his helicopter - which has "Death From Above" emblazoned on the front. Willard stumbles through the orange smoke as explosions echo around him. The PBR appears, having been airlifted by one of the Air Cav helicopters. Kilgore sends two of his men to surf the waves while gunfire is still strafing the water. Willard tries to tell Kilgore that it is too dangerous to surf but Kilgore is determined. He stands up out of the trench and rips his shirt off. He calls a squad of fighter jets and orders a napalm attack, promising Lance that they will "clean this place up." The jets appear in the sky and suddenly, the village explodes in a neat row of fiery orange clouds. Kilgore watches triumphantly and proclaims, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning!" Behind him, Vietnamese villagers file out of what used to be their home, heads hung low.
In the evening, Willard and his crew are back on the PBR, and the village is still burning around them as they set off on their way. They get high and Willard comments in his voice-over that the boys just want to get through this and go home. Willard says, though, that he has been back and "home doesn't exist anymore." Taking a swig of booze, Willard wonders that if Kilgore is considered to be playing by the rules, why is the US Army after Kurtz? How was Kurtz's infraction so much worse than Kilgore's senseless brutality? Dissolve to the stoned Chef rambling on about mangoes, before deciding to disembark and go look for some. Willard, concerned, accompanies him. They walk together through the dense jungle, the leafy ferns often obscuring them in the frame. Willard asks Chef about his nickname, and Chef responds that he is actually a real chef. He was about to go to school in Paris to become a saucier when he got drafted.
In a wide shot, the two men creep through the vast jungle. Suddenly, Willard becomes quiet and his ears perk up. The Chef stops rambling, knowing something is wrong. They tread carefully into the trees, guns locked and loaded. All of a sudden - a tiger jumps out of the trees. Chef runs away, screaming psychotically. Willard fires a few shots at the tiger and follows closely behind. The crew, alarmed, pulls the boat away, thinking that Charlie had been hiding in the bushes. Chef, however, is in a panicked state, screaming about the tiger and sobbing. He cries, "All I want to do is fucking cook, man!" He keeps repeating the mantra, "never get out of the boat!" Willard watches the younger man fall apart, his face stony as always. In his voice-over, he comments, "Never get out of the boat, unless you're going all the way." Kurtz got off the boat, Willard continues, "he split from the whole fucking program". Willard wonders what Kurtz saw during his first tour that sent him in such a radical direction.
Late at night, Willard uses a flashlight to keep studying Kurtz's file. He ponders what Kurtz's family and friends thought when he decided that instead of continuing on a path towards becoming a General, he'd rather join the Green Berets. Willard remembers his own time at boot camp, saying that at 19 the course nearly killed him. He labels Kurtz "a tough motherfucker." Dissolve to Chef, who dictates the letter he is writing to "Eva" about his encounter with the tiger. He writes that he does not know where they are going on his mission. Meanwhile, Willard reads about Kurtz's decision to carry out Operation Arcangel in October 1967, which was a major success. He never had official clearance to carry out the mission, and almost got sacked for his rebellion - but then the press got a hold of it and instead, Kurtz was promoted to Colonel. Willard comments, "what balls." At that point, the boat goes around a bend in the river and bright lights are shining from the land. Loud music is playing, and American soldiers are setting up a large, camouflage-patterned stage surrounded by bleachers. Mr. Clean comments on how bizarre the scene is. They go to shore, and find themselves at Hau Phat, where there is a well-stocked American Army supply warehouse.
Coppola's signature tracking shot follows Willard and his crew towards the busy warehouse. The sergeant in charge asks Mr. Clean and Chef to state their destination, but they obviously can't because they don't know what it is. Willard steps in and tells the sergeant to hand over the supplies anyway, because the mission is classified. The Sergeant sneers and asks the crew to move along. Willard, not willing to take "no" for an answer, slams the man down onto the desk. He quickly changes his tune, directing Chef and Mr. Clean towards the supply storage. He offers Willard and his crew press box seats for the show - apparently, some Playboy Bunnies will be performing for the troops.
One of the most famous sequences in Apocalypse Now (and one of the most difficult to execute) is Col. Kilgore leading the Air Cavalry 9 to attack a village at Vin Din Drop, so that Willard and his crew can safely reach the mouth of the Nung River. Kilgore celebrates the grandiosity of war by providing a soundtrack for systematic killing. Peter Cowie writes, "by presenting Kilgore's exploits in operatic terms, Coppola suggests the self-conceit and the fascination with pyrotechnics that kept the Americans from challenging the Viet Cong successfully at a guerilla level" (Cowie 138). In fact, throughout Apocalypse Now, the audience rarely sees more than a fleeting close-up of "the enemy," which is an accurate representation of the way many American troops felt about Charlie's guerilla tactics. This is part of the film's subjective nature, which draws the viewer into the experience of the soldiers - who don't seem to know whom they are fighting against and what they are fighting for.
Kilgore, for all his bravado, does not know the answers to these questions either, but he does not care enough to ask. He balks at the prospect of escorting Willard and his crew into Vin Din Drop until he hears that it's a great place for surfing. This is enough to fire Kilgore up. Unlike Willard and Kurtz, Kilgore does not ask philosophical questions, but chooses to remain focused on constantly asserting his power. He, too, appears to have gone insane - but his madness is sanctioned, forcing Willard to ponder if there is any real difference between Kilgore - his ally - and Kurtz, his enemy. No matter what Willard may have done while behind the mask of war, he can identify the tragedy unfolding before him, when he comments, "we'd cut 'em in half with a machine gun and offer 'em a band-aid."
Meanwhile, Willard's crew members each embody a different perspective, making the PBR a microcosm of the war itself. Chief follows orders and obeys the army's hierarchy, just as he has been taught. Even though he knows there is something suspicious about Willard's mission, he does as he is told. Lance represents the psychedelic drug culture that pervaded the war (and the Apocalypse Now set). Mr. Clean, (played by a 14-year old Laurence Fishburne), is essentially a child, just as many of the soldiers who were drafted to go to Vietnam were barely out of high school. It would be just as easy to imagine him dancing to the Rolling Stones at a school dance rather than on a Navy Patrol Boat. Chef, however, is the conscience of the crew, a distinction that clouds him in an aura of doom. He talks about his girlfriend and his dreams of being a saucier. He innocently goes out for mangoes and ends up being nearly attacked by a tiger.
The hypocrisy of Kilgore serves to deepen Willard's understanding of Kurtz. He describes Kurtz's unauthorized mission, "Operation Arcangel," which nearly cost him his job - until the press deemed it a success, and Kurtz was promoted instead. Willard admires Kurtz's "balls" for taking matters into his own hands, commenting that he, too, is tired of the lies. Kurtz was promoted simply so that the army could save face and trumpet a successful mission, meaning that Kurtz had "gotten off the boat" once before, and was rewarded for it. The root of the problem is now that Kurtz has escaped from the American grasp, both literally and metaphorically. His dossier proves to unearth many of the lies surrounding the American presence in Vietnam - and once all the politics have been stripped away, all that remains is darkness and death.
When the PBR arrives at Hau Phat, Coppola demonstrates the excesses of war and the physical size of the American effort. The supply warehouse is fully stocked, and the soldiers can get whatever they want, even "Panama Red" (a type of marijuana). Mr. Clean is shocked at the outrageous setup, commenting how bizarre it is to see the USO stage erected in the middle of a war zone. The soldiers stationed at Hau Phat, meanwhile, seem far less concerned about life or death, but rather, they are stressed out about the upcoming performance. This display - the supplies, the drugs, the Playboy Bunnies - these are the band-aids that America gave its soldiers, hoping to keep their patriotism alive while they risked their lives to fight an invisible enemy.