The blinding light of a helicopter cuts through the night sky, drowning out the soldiers' whooping cheers. The helicopter, which bears the Playboy Bunny symbol, lands on a landing pad decorated with stars and stripes in the center of the open-air amphitheater. The Promoter jumps out of the helicopter, grabs the mic, and congratulates the soldiers on "Operation Brute Force." Then, three scantily-clad Playboy bunnies pop out of the helicopter and start gyrating for the jubilant crowd. The Playmate of the Year does a provocative solo dance, while rubbing her nose as if she's been snorting cocaine. The camera pans across a group of Vietnamese onlookers (some of them children) watching the spectacle from behind a chain link fence.
At first, the Playboy Bunnies seem to be enjoying the attention, flirting and taunting the men. However, the crowd starts to get a little rowdy, and suddenly, a group of soldiers storms the stage. The Promoter rushes the frightened girls into the helicopter and drops smoke bombs to dissipate the crowd. Willard watches the scene, placidly amused. As the helicopter takes off, two soldiers hang onto its landing skids. The pilot is able to shake the men into the decorative pool before departing. In his voiceover, Willard comments that Charlie never gets USO.
Cut to daylight. A helicopter hovers over the messy remnants of the night's performance as the PBR returns to its route. Willard comments that the people running this war are "four star clowns." Their boat passes another PBR, and the passing sailors moon Willard's crew and throw a smoke grenade onto the roof of the boat, which promptly catches fire. Later, Lance and Chef repair the roof with palm fronds. Willard goes back to Kurtz's dossier in a medium shot with Clean drumming away in the foreground.
Willard leafs through photographs of Kurtz's camp in the highlands - which had become a frequent target of ambushes, leading him to order the assassination of the South Vietnamese Army Colonels. Indeed, after that, Willard observes, there were no more enemy strikes on Kurtz. Close-up on Willard's eyes to transition into a flashback of his meeting with General Corman back in Saigon. In an extreme close-up, the camera glides over Corman's hands, his voice dreamily dissonant over Willard's thoughts. Willard comments that the army tried to bring Kurtz back to the fold, but "they lost him - he was gone." Willard comments that the VC is scared of Kurtz and will not touch him.
Clean keeps drumming, which is clearly annoying Willard, who complains to Phillips. Phillips says that Clean has been on the boat for 7 months and alludes to the fact that the young man does not particularly like Capt. Willard, either. Then, Phillips comments that he is doing his job by taking Willard up the river to a classified location, and he won't ask where they are going - but he knows that their location is going to be "hot." In alternating close-ups, Willard tells Phillips that their destination is "about 75 clicks above the Do Lung Bridge." Phillips is silent, digesting the information before stating that Willard is asking him to go to Cambodia - where Americans are not supposed to be. Willard promises that if Phillips can get him close to the destination, he'll cut the crew loose and go on by himself.
Cut to a wide shot of the boat taking a bend in the river, accompanied by menacing score. Dissolve to an extreme close-up of Willard's eye. He starts reading a letter that Kurtz wrote to his son. Cut to a close-up of the neatly typed letter in Willard's hands in which Kurtz tells his son that he has been accused of murder. Dissolve to a bird's eye view of the boat, dwarfed by the dense, leafy jungle on both sides of the river. In his letter, Kurtz claims that the Vietnamese men and woman he executed were actually proven double agents and calls the charges against him "insane." He claims that his ruthlessness is only a symptom of his clarity and he is a victim of the American Army's timid morality. The PBR passes by the burning carcass of a helicopter in a tree, lighting up the sky. Meanwhile, Chef and Clean get into a shouting match and Lance paints his face with camouflage makeup. Willard examines the most recent photo of Kurtz - which is a shot of him from behind, broad shoulders and bald head.
The PBR crosses paths with a Vietnamese sampan. Phillips insists on stopping the boat and searching it to make sure that it is not trafficking supplies for the VC. Willard tries to talk Phillips out of doing this, but the Chief is a stickler for following orders. He commands Chef to search every corner of the sampan, and notices that a woman is sitting on a woven basket rather protectively. Suddenly, Mr. Clean opens fire and kills everyone on the boat. Chef, rattled, opens the basket and finds that the woman was trying to protect a tiny yellow puppy. Lance takes the puppy and keeps it. Then, the crew realizes that the Vietnamese woman is still alive and Phillips commands Chef to bring her on board so that they can find her some medical help. Willard strongly disagrees and nonchalantly shoots her. The sun hangs low in the sky and the crew silently prepares to move on. Fade to black.
The PBR cuts through the silent water in the evening light. In his voiceover, Willard says that the whole Vietnam war is based on lies. He also muses that his crew will never look at him the same way again. Cut to a close-up on Willard's face in the darkness, as he says he now knows things about Kurtz that are not in the dossier. The boat approaches the Do Lung Bridge, the last army outpost on the Nung River. Flares shatter all around it, and Lance calls it beautiful. He reveals to Chef that he is tripping on acid. As the PBR gets closer to the bridge, American soldiers dive into the water, suitcases in hand, begging to be taken home. Remnants of charred helicopters litter the shore. Then, a voice calls out from the darkness, asking for Captain Willard.
Lieutenant Carlson has been waiting for the PBR for three days. He has been sent from the Trang with a delivery for Willard and mail for the boat. He describes the Do Lung Bridge as "the asshole of the world." Willard quickly disembarks and says he is going to look for some information. Lance follows him into the darkness and Chief pulls the boat away, saying he will meet up with them on the other side of the bridge. Light bounces off the guns and helmets, creating distorted shadows. Lance and Willard creep along the coast in silhouette, taking in the desperation around them - agonizing screams, artillery fire, explosions in the water. They jump into a trench, where the soldiers are screaming and pushing each other like lunatics. No one is making any sense, and there is clearly nobody in charge here. The soldiers in the trench just stare at Willard and Lance like they are bats hanging from the wall.
Lance, meanwhile, has brought his puppy with him, cuddled in his jacket. He climbs up out of the trench and observes the destruction until Willard commands him to come down. One soldier is firing his machine gun into the darkness, trying to kill "the gooks on the wire." He can hear a Viet Cong soldier screaming, "Fuck you, G.I.!" from under a pile of bodies, and keeps firing in the direction of that sound. He fetches another soldier named Roach who manages to locate the sound and eliminate it. When Willard asks Roach if he knows who is in command, Roach simply replies, "yeah" and walks away, disappearing into the darkness. Back on the boat, Clean tells Phillips that two men have just been blown off the bridge. Willard and Lance return to the boat with ammunition - having given up on finding a commanding officer, Willard decides that it is time to keep going and find Kurtz. Phillips questions Willard's decision but Willard has his mind set on continuing up the river. The American flag on the top of the PBR waves forlornly in the wind as the boat pulls away form the shore. The Do Lung bridge starts to collapse - Charlie has been successful for now - but the Americans will rebuild it the next day and the cycle will continue. Fade to black.
The Playboy Bunny sequence is one of the few instances where female characters appear in Apocalypse Now. It is an appropriate representation of the war, though. For these soldiers, "women... exist only in photographs," writes Peter Cowie (139). The Playboy Bunnies, however, are simply those photographs come to life, hence the frenzy that erupts midway through the show. To these men, the Bunnies are not as much real people as they are symbols of America and the comforts of home. They are reminders of the fact that most of these soldiers, like the men on Willard's PBR, are very young and not quite sure what they are fighting for. And yet, all they keep hearing is that their mission in Vietnam is important. Coppola wanted this scene to be bizarre and detached from reality, which adds to his cynical perspective on the war itself. To that end, the set is completely over-the-top, and the bleachers are flanked with phallic symbols.
The Promoter congratulates the soldiers on "Operation Brute Force," also known as "Operation Speedy Express," which took place from Dec. 1968 - May 1969. The mission was supposedly intended to sever the VC's supply lines to Cambodia. It later became the subject of intense public scrutiny when the media alleged that less than half of the reported 10,000 Vietnamese victims were actually Viet Cong. Meanwhile, 40 American soldiers died in the process. The obsession with "body count" and "kill ratio" continued to plague the military, as American citizens became more and more skeptical as to whether or not their loved ones (and tax dollars) were actually accomplishing anything in Vietnam. "While the US Government managed to conceal some of its operations from the public at home, most of the horror appeared nightly on American television" (Cowie 142).
Coppola continues to portray the practice of unchecked violence with the massacre on the Sampan, which was the director's response to the real-life My Lai Massacre, one of the most maniacal displays of American military brutality in history. On March 16, 1968, 105 members of Charlie Company, a unit of the American Division's 11th Light Infantry Brigade, stormed into the South Vietnamese village of My Lai and systematically murdered over 500 innocent men, women, and children over the course of 4 hours. In addition, the soldiers raped, sodomized and mutilated many of their victims. It turned out that there was not a single VC among them. Vietnam, and My Lai in particular, suddenly changed the image of soldiers in America. Were they heroes...or criminals? Was My Lai the exception, or was it the norm? Soldiers who participated in the attack describe feeling like they were losing their minds.
Similarly, Mr. Clean opens fire on the Sampan for no real reason. Afterwards, he looks more confused than anything. Meanwhile, the lines of morality have become blurry, even for the steadfast Chief. Although he is the one responsible for pulling over the sampan in the first place, he wants to take the injured woman to get help, but Willard, who is more focused on getting to Kurtz at this point, kills her in cold blood. This dichotomy is similar to the divide between Kurtz and Kilgore. One man, (Mr. Clean) kills innocents because he thinks it is his purpose, and another (Willard) kills an innocent woman because he doesn't want to deal with her. And yet - both actions, despite the motivation behind them, result in the death of innocents. This scene is a microcosm of the My Lai massacre.
The sense of confusion reaches its peak once the PBR arrives at the Do Lung Bridge, where no one has any clue who is in charge, and morale is nonexistent. The place reeks of desperation. Vittorio Storaro says that the dim, shadowy lighting was a result of the fact that they never had enough artificial light to illuminate the jungle, leading his crew to rely on the intermittent explosions as light sources. However, the dark, murky atmosphere makes the Do Lung Bridge feel like a place that everyone else has forgotten about. Night after night, Charlie blows up the bridge, and day after day, the Americans build it back up. This futile, Sisyphean cycle is representative of the fact that the American Army seemed to lose control of the war, while publicly scrambling to keep selling it to citizens back home.
While Willard is scrambling around the trenches looking for a C.O, Lance is tripping on acid, clutching a puppy to his chest. Both Coppola and Milius believed that the American Army's dependence on drugs in Vietnam was part of the reason for the eventual capitulation, and so the drug culture is abundant in Apocalypse Now. Peter Cowie shares the results of a Pentagon study, which estimated that "nearly 30% of American soldiers in Vietnam had taken either opium or heroin" (147). These psychedelic extracurricular activities ended up extending beyond the screenplay and onto Coppola's set. Most of his cast and crew were indulging in some form of mind-altering substances, including, apparently, some of the Filipino helicopter pilots. The chaotic atmosphere of the film reflects both the circumstances of the war, and of the shoot itself.