Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, during the Vietnam War a special forces captain is ordered on a special mission to go on a Navy boat up a dangerous river to kill a Green Beret colonel who is no longer obeying orders.
Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) gets out of his bed in a hotel room in Saigon and looks out the window through the blinds. He is drinking and thinks he is going to wake up in the jungle. He thinks about how after his first tour it was worse. He did not say anything to his wife about it until he said yes to a divorce. While here he thinks of home; but when he got home, he thought about coming back to the jungle. He has been here a week waiting for a mission and has not shaved. He feels he is getting weaker while Charlie in the jungle is getting stronger. In his underwear he practices judo moves and smashes the mirror, bloodying his right hand. He pours liquor down his throat and sits on the floor naked.
Two soldiers knock and bring him his mission. A soldier asks if he is all right and goes in. Willard tells the other soldier to shut the door, and he comes in and does so. The soldier says they have orders to escort him to the airfield. Willard asks what the charges are. He says there are no charges. He has orders to report to COMSEC Intelligence in Nha Trang. He tells the captain he has a few hours to get cleaned up. He tells the other soldier they have a dead one and asks him to give him a hand. They carry Willard to the shower and turn on the water. Willard screams.
A helicopter lands at a jungle base, and Willard gets out with two soldiers. He goes to a mobile home and signs a clipboard for an MP and goes in. Col. Lucas (Harrison Ford) tells Willard to stand at ease and asks if he has ever seen this gentleman before. Willard says no. He says he has not met General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) personally. Lucas asks if he works a lot on his own, and he says he has but says he cannot discuss intelligence and counter-intelligence operations. Lucas asks if he did not work for the CIA and I Corps, and Willard says no. Lucas asks if he did not assassinate a government tax collector in Quang Tri province on June 18, 1968. Willard says he is unaware of any such action nor would he discuss it if it did exist.
Corman stands up and invites him to have lunch, and they sit down at a table. Corman asks about his bandaged hand, and Willard says he had a fishing accident while on R & R. He says he feels fit and is ready for duty. Corman passes the platter of roast beef to Jerry (Jerry Ziesmer) who is in civilian clothes. Willard declines to prove his courage by eating the shrimp. Lucas shows Willard a photo of Col. Walter E. Kurtz and asks if he has heard of him. Willard says he has heard the name. Lucas drops his file on the floor and picks up the photos and papers. Corman asks Lucas to play the tape of Kurtz, and they listen to it. Kurtz is talking about his nightmare on the edge of a razor surviving. He says they must kill them pig after pig, village after village, and army after army. They call him an assassin. He says the assassins are accusing the assassin and says they lie, but they must be merciful to the liars. He hates them. Lucas stops the tape, and Corman says that Kurtz was one of the best officers they ever produced. He says he was brilliant, outstanding in every way, and was a good man, a humanitarian with wit and humor. He joined the special forces, but his methods became unsound. Lucas says he crossed into Cambodia with his Montagnard army that worships him like a god and follow every order he gives no matter how ridiculous. Corman says he has more shocking news that Kurtz is about to be arrested for murder. Willard says he does not follow. Lucas says that Kurtz ordered the execution of Vietnamese intelligence agents whom he believed to be double agents. He took matters into his own hands. Corman says in this war things get confused out there—power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity. Out there with the natives it must be a temptation to be God because there is a conflict in every heart between the rational and irrational and between good and evil. Good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. He says every man has a breaking point including themselves. He says that Walter Kurtz has reached his and obviously has gone insane. Willard agrees that he is insane. Lucas says his mission is to go up the Nung River in a Navy patrol boat, find Kurtz’s path at Nu Mung Ba and learn what he can along the way. When he finds Kurtz, he is to infiltrate his team any way he can and terminate his command. Willard asks if he is to terminate the colonel, and Corman says he is operating there without any decent restraint beyond any acceptable human conduct. He is still commanding troops in the field. Jerry says he is to terminate him with extreme prejudice. Lucas tells the captain that this mission does not exist nor will it ever exist.
A helicopter flies over rice fields, and Willard thinks about how he has already killed at least six men at close range. This time he was to kill an American and an officer. He feels that makes a difference to him. As the boat begins going from a river toward the sea, Willard thinks that charging a man with murder here was like giving out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. He took the mission because he could do not anything else. He does not know what he will do when he finds him.
Willard is trying to sleep with a band over his eyes while a Navy boat is taking him down the coast. He says he could move without drawing attention, but he was not alone. He wakes up and says the crew was mostly kids. One says he is seventeen. Willard believes the machinist Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederic Forest) is wrapped too tight for Vietnam. Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms) was a surfer in southern California, and he looked innocent. Tyrone “Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne) was from the South Bronx, and Willard thinks that Vietnam really zapped his head. Chief Phillips (Albert Hall) is in charge of this boat and says there are two points where they can enter the Nung River, but they are both hot and belong to Charlie. Phillips says he has pulled some special ops in this river. Six months ago he took a regular army guy to Do Luong; he heard that he shot himself in the head. They listen to radio from Saigon as they go. Miller sings along with “Satisfaction” while Lance water skis behind the boat. Willard reads the dossier on Kurtz and is impressed with his record. He was second in his class at West Point, got a masters degree at Harvard with a thesis on the Philippines insurrection. He fought in Korea and has countless decorations. He cannot connect the voice he heard on the tape with this man. He says his career was maybe too impressive. He was being groomed for a top spot in the corporation. In 1964 he returned with an advisory command in Vietnam, and things began to slip. He wrote a report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to Lyndon Johnson that was restricted, which means they did not like what he wrote. In the next few months he made several requests for airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia and was finally accepted. Willard wonders why he would do that at the age of 38. He returned to Vietnam in 1966. They hear something and say it is arc light. Willard says it is a B-52 strike. The Chief sees lots of helicopters, and Willard asks for the binoculars. He sees that it is the air cavalry, their escorts to the mouth of the Nung River; but they were supposed to wait for them 30 kilometers ahead. Airmobile boys could not stay put.
The boat stops at a shore, and Willard jumps out first followed by others. He sees that in less than an hour the air cavalry is already mopping up. A television director tells Willard and others not to look at their cameras but just go through like they were fighting. They see helicopters, tanks, and some fires. Willard reports to Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and tries to brief him on his mission. He says his unit is supposed to escort them into the Nung River. Kilgore tells him to stand by and stay out of their way until this is done. He opens a deck of cards and drops a card on each dead body. Willard explains to the others that they are death cards to tell Charlie who did this. Kilgore herds women and children into an armored troop carrier and tells it to move out. Kilgore sees a wounded Vietnamese man and asks what it is. A soldier explains a pot lid is holding his guts in. A Vietnamese soldier says he is VC, and he should have only paddy water. Kilgore pushes him away and tells him to get out of there. He asks for a canteen for the wounded man. The Vietnamese soldier says he killed several of their men, but Kilgore says he can drink from his canteen. A soldier tells him that the surfer Lance Johnson is there, and Kilgore goes to meet him and says he has admired his nose riding and cutback for years. They shake hands, and Kilgore introduces him to other surfers. A chaplain is leading soldiers in prayer.
At night Willard notices that Kilgore has had a good day and is trying to turn the camp into a beach party; but by making it like home he makes everybody miss it. Willard says he is not a bad officer and seems to have a light around him that will keep him from being hit. Kilgore asks Willard what happened to his mission and says he has been trying to forget about him. Willard is drinking beers, but he shows Kilgore the two places they can get into the river on the delta. Kilgore says that one of the villages is hairy and that they lost some recon ships there. He asks Mike about the spot, and he says it is a great surfing place. Mike says it is hairy, and they lost MacDonald in there. Willard says they could go in there at dawn with an offshore breeze, but Chief says it may be too shallow for the boat. Kilgore says they will pick up their boat and put it down like a baby where they want it. He says they are the first of the ninth, the Air Cav Mobile. He says he can take any point and hold it as long as he likes so that he can get upstream. Mike says it is Charlie’s point, but Kilgore says Charlie doesn’t surf.
At dawn Kilgore leads some men into a helicopter. He tells the bugler to let it rip, and he sounds charge. The helicopters take off.
At least eleven helicopters fly down the coast as the sun is rising. Willard is in the chopper with Kilgore who orders an attack formation. He orders them to play Wagner about a mile out. Soldiers say they sit on their helmets to keep their balls from getting blown off. The tape player begins “The Ride of the Valkyries.”
In a village in a plaza schoolchildren begin to react. Villagers run for cover. The helicopter gunships attack houses with rockets, machine guns, and rifles. A few Vietnamese are shooting back. The helicopter blows up a car on a bridge they believe is carrying more ammunition. The lights go out in Kilgore’s helicopter, and he says it is all right. Helicopters land, and soldiers with rifles get out. One soldier says he is not going, but another pulls him off the chopper. Soldiers are running through the village. Three men treat a wounded soldier. Kilgore says he wants his wounded men out of there and in a hospital in fifteen minutes. He wants his men out. A woman throws her hat in a helicopter, and it explodes. Kilgore is still in the air and calls them savages. He orders them to shoot women who are running. Helicopters destroy the bridge. Kilgore admires the surf, and his helicopter lands. He walks on the beach and orders a soldier to surf or fight. Kilgore talks to Lance who says they should wait for the tide to come up. Kilgore says it does not come in for six hours and asks if he wants to wait that long. One guy says it is too risky for R & R; but Kilgore says he will surf there and takes off his shirt. He takes a phone and tells an airplane that he wanted the tree-line bombed. The plane orders several jets to come in, and they drop bombs that set the tree-line on fire. Kilgore asks a soldier if he can smell the napalm. He says he loves the smell of napalm in the morning. He says one time he walked up a hill, and they did not find one dink body. The entire hill smelled like burning gasoline and victory. He says someday this war is going to end.
In the boat they pass around a joint, and Willard says these boys wanted the war to end so they could go home. Willard pulls down a tarp and thinks how he went home and found it did not exist anymore. Willard empties the water out of his canteen and fills it with liquor. After seeing Kilgore he realizes there is enough insanity to go around.
That evening the boat is going up the river, and they stop for the night. Chef goes out looking for mangos with Willard and says he is a saucier who specializes in sauces. He says he was going to Paris to learn cooking, but he got his notice for his physical. So he joined the Navy because he heard they had better food. He got in a cooking school; but after he saw them cooking beef until it turned grey, he decided to apply for radio school. They walk quietly in the jungle with rifles ready. Chef sees a tiger, and they start shooting. They run back to the boat, and Chief gets it going. Chef says they should never get out of the boat. Miller is shooting the machine gun, and Chief asks how many there are. Chef says it is a tiger and rants on until Lance calms him down. Willard thinks that not getting out of the boat is good advice unless you want to go all the way. He thinks how Kurtz got off the boat and split from the whole program. He wonders how that happened and what he saw on his first tour. He knew that in joining the Green Berets he would never get above colonel. Willard is beginning to admire him and notes that his friends couldn’t talk him out of it. When he threatened to resign, they let him take the airborne training; but the next youngest man was half his age. He could have been a general. Chef is writing a letter about the tiger and where they are going. Willard reads a Newsweek article about how in October 1967 Kurtz staged Operation Archangel with combined local forces that was considered successful. He got no clearance but did it on his own. They were going to discipline him; but the press publicized it, and they promoted him to full colonel. He thinks how fast the bullshit piles up in Vietnam.
They see a well lit area and hear drums. They walk on the dock and see motorcycles. Chief asks for three drums of diesel fuel, and Chef asks for some Panama Red. The sergeant asks Chief for his destination, and he says he does not have one. Willard explains that he is with him and that the destination is classified. The sergeant says it is a big night, and the fuel is eight bucks. Willard grabs his shirt and roughs him up, and he agrees to give it to them. He gives them an order to take to the supply desk. He asks if they want some press box seats for the show. He gives the captain a bottle and says no hard feelings.
At night a helicopter lands by a stage with hundreds of troops in the stands. A singer gets out and introduces some beautiful women who dance around in bikini costumes to “Suzie Q.” Soldiers shout to the women, and they shout back. Some soldiers try to get on the stage, and the MPs have trouble keeping them off. The singer motions to the helicopter, and the women get to it. He lays down some tear gas so they can get in and take off. Two men hang on to the chopper but let go and fall in the water. Willard notes that the troops in Vietnam did not get much USO because they were in too deep and moving too fast. Charlie’s idea of R & R is cold rice and a little rat meat; he had only two ways home: death or victory.
In the morning Willard understands Kurtz because he believes the war is being run by four-star clowns who are going to give the whole circus away. They pass some Navy boats going the other way. The roof catches on fire, and Chef puts it out. Lance and Chef put branches on the roof for camouflage. Willard reads how in the summer of 1968 Kurtz’s camp was ambushed and began to fall apart. In November he ordered three Vietnamese men and one woman assassinated. Two were colonels in the South Vietnamese Army, and his sector became calm. Willard figures he hit the right people. The Army tried to bring him back into the fold, but he kept going and winning in his way. They had lost him, and so they called in Willard. The Viet Cong knew his name and were afraid of him. He and his men were attacking with hit-and-run in Cambodia. Those on the boat are getting on each other’s nerves. Willard asks Chief what he thinks, and he says he does not think because he does not know where they are going. Willard tells him that they are going up river 75 clicks above the Do Luong bridge. Chief says that is Cambodia, and Willard says it is classified. He says they are not supposed to be in Cambodia, but that is where he is going. He asks Chief to get him close to his destination, and he will cut them loose.
Willard is reading over a letter Kurtz wrote to his son explaining his difficult situation in the past few weeks. He wrote that he was officially accused of murder by the Army. The alleged four victims were Vietnamese double agents, and he had spent months accumulating evidence. When they had absolute proof, they acted like soldiers. The charges were unjustified, and the circumstances of the conflict were insane. In war there are moments for tenderness and compassion and moments for ruthless actions. One needs to see clearly what needs to be done. He wrote that they could tell their mother what they choose about this letter. He is not concerned about the charges against him. He is beyond their lying morality and beyond caring. He signed the letter their “loving father.” Chief tells Miller and Chef to stop quarrelling. He tells Chef to stop smoking dope. Chief asks Lance why he is painting his face green, and he says it is camouflage. Lance is on the bow, and Chief tells him to stay awake and do his job.
Chief alerts them to a sampan on the port bow, and he tells Willard he is going to check them out even though Willard tells him to let them go. Chief says they may be running supplies. Willard says his mission has priority and that he would not be there if it were not for him. Chief says until he reaches his destination, he is only along for the ride. The two boats stop next to each other, and the Vietnamese show them their papers. Chef says they are okay, but Chief orders him to board it and search it. Chef says it is vegetables, bananas, rice, and fish. Chief shouts for him to search it, and he gives in. He goes on board and looks in the baskets and boxes. Chef makes a woman move to an end of the boat. Chief tells him where to look, and Chef says there is nothing on it. The woman moves, and Miller shoots her with the machine gun. He, Lance, and Chef keep shooting until all the Vietnamese are dead. Chief tells them to hold it. Chef finds a puppy and says that is what she was running for. Chief says she is moving and tells Chef to take her out. He tells them to bring her own board. Willard asks what he is talking about and shoots her dead. He tells Chief that he told him not to stop.
Willard thinks how their way of life over here is to cut them in half and give them a band-aid. He says it is a lie, and he hates lies. He realizes the boys would never look at him the same way again, but he felt he knew more about Kurtz now. At night they come to the Do Luong bridge, the last Army outpost on the Nung River. Beyond that is only Kurtz. Lance sees the lights and says it is beautiful. Lance tells Chef he dropped his last tab of acid. Soldiers wade into the water and shout for them to take them home, but they keep going. They hear someone calling if there is a Captain Willard on board. Lt. Carlsen (Glenn Walkin) comes on board and says he was sent there from Nha Trang three days ago. He gives Willard a package and mail for the boat. He is happy because now he can get out of there. He tells him he is in the asshole of the world, and he runs off. Willard is off the boat and tells the Chief to pick him up on the other side of the bridge because he has to find someone to get information. Lance volunteers to go with him.
Willard and Lance walk on the shore by the bridge. Willard gets in a trench and tells Lance to get down there. He asks for the commanding officer, and he is told it is Beverly Hills up ahead. They walk in the trench protected by sandbags. Willard asks a soldier who is shooting at with a machine gun, and he says a gook by the wire; but he thinks he got him. Willard asks who is the commanding officer. They can hear a Vietnamese soldier yelling at them. A black soldier turns off the radio. A soldier says he is close and fires a grenade that explodes. Willard asks if he knows who is in command, and he just says “Yeah.” Willard says he picked up some ammo, and he tells Lance there is no CO there.
Willard finds Chief and tells him to go on. Chief asks if he is sure he wants to go on. He says they have to defend that bridge every night. Willard tells him to get them up river, and they proceed.
The next day Chef passes out the letters, and they read them. Willard gets a letter updating his mission. A month ago a man was sent with an identical mission to his, and they have reason to believe that he is now operating with Col. Kurtz. Saigon was reporting him MIA for his family’s sake. They had assumed he was dead, but they intercepted a letter he was trying to send to his wife. Willard sees the note which says, “Sell the house. Sell the car. Sell the kids. Find someone else. Forget it! I’m never coming back. Forget it!!!” Willard looks at the photo of Captain Richard Colby who is with Kurtz. Chef reads a news story about Charles Manson. Lance sprays a purple haze around. Chef says Eva is not sure she can have a relationship with him. Chef says he is 13,000 miles away trying to keep a relationship with his ass. Miller is listening to a tape from his mother. Suddenly they are being attacked, and they start shooting back. Miller is shot. The boat keeps moving, and the battle ends. Lance is looking for the dog. Chef tells Miller he can’t die, but he can’t revive him. The tape of his mother is still playing. Chief sees that Miller is dead, and he cries.
The boat keeps moving as it gets darker and then foggy. Chief says he can’t see anything and that he is stopping. Willard says he is in command and tells him to keep going. The fog gets thinner, and Willard feels that Kurtz is close. They are attacked by arrows, and Chief tells Lance to fire. Chef tells them to stop firing because they are just toy arrows; they are only trying to scare them. Chief gets angry at Willard and says he got them in this mess and does not even know where he is going. Chief tells them to fire, and they are shooting machine guns. Chief is facing Willard when a spear comes through his back and a few inches out of his chest. He collapses on his back, and Willard leans over him. His chest is bleeding, but he grabs Willard’s neck and tries to choke him. Willard cannot remove his arms and puts one hand on his face. Then Chief dies. Lance paints on Chief’s face and kisses him. Willard tells Chef that his mission is to go into Cambodia because a Green Beret colonel up there has gone insane, and he has to kill him. Chef is upset that they are going after one of their own guys. Willard starts to walk away; but Chef says to wait because they will go with him on the boat. Lance buries the Chief’s body in the water.
At night they pass a village, and they continue the next day. Willard thinks he knew the risks, but what was stronger than fear is the desire to confront him. He is tearing up the Kurtz dossier and throwing the papers in the river. Willard looks with binoculars and tells Chef to keep going, but he tells Lance to keep his hands away from the guns. Willard climbs up on top of the boat, and ahead are natives standing up in many canoes, and their bodies appear to be white. They pass through them and see people on the bank in an ancient village. Among them on the steps is a photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) who shouts that it is all right for them to come through. Chef shouts that he is not coming in there because they attacked them. The photojournalist tells them to zap them with their siren. Chef turns on the siren, and the natives run away. The photojournalist tells them to watch out for the mines and the monkeys that bite. He says he is an American civilian and shakes hands with Willard. Chef gives him a cigarette, and he asks who Willard is. He says he is a photojournalist, and he has covered the war since 1964. He has been in Laos, Cambodia, and Nam. He says their boat is a mess. Willard asks who all these people are. The photojournalist says they think he came to take him away. Willard asks who, and he says Col. Kurtz. He says these are all his children as far as the eye can see. Willard asks if they can talk to Col. Kurtz, but he says they do not talk to the colonel. He says you listen to him. He has enlarged his mind because he is a poet warrior in the classic sense. He says you speak to him, and he may walk by you. Then other times he will grab you and say things like, “Did you know that ‘if” is the middle word in life.” If you can keep your head when all those around are losing theirs and blaming you, if you can trust yourself and never doubt. The photojournalist says he is a little man, and he quotes T. S. Eliot. He asks Willard not to go without him because he wants to take a picture.
As they go up the steps, the photojournalist says he can be terrible and mean, and he can be right. He says he is a great man, and he takes Willard’s picture. He wishes he had words to describe him. He says Kurtz almost killed him the other day because he said if he took his picture again, he would kill him. He tells Willard to play it cool because he gets friendly again. He advises him not to judge him like an ordinary man. Chef is following them with a rifle. The photojournalist tells the people that these are Americans. Willard recognizes Richard Colby (Scott Glenn) who has a rifle and says his name to him, but he does not reply. The photojournalist says he is noticing the decapitated heads and says sometimes he goes too far, and he is the first one to admit it. He wishes they could have heard him two days ago. He asks if they are going to call him crazy, and Chef says he does. Willard says he just wants to talk to him. The photojournalist says he has gone away to the jungle with his people. Willard says he will wait for him. Chef suggests they wait in the boat, and Willard agrees.
On the boat Chef says the man is wacko and evil. He says he has set up pagan idolatry there, and he tells him to look around. Willard asks Chef if he will help him, and he says he will do anything to get away from there. Chef says he used to think if he died in an evil place, his soul would not go to heaven; but now he does not care as long as it is not there. Willard tells him to wait there while he goes up with Lance to check the place out and see if he can find the colonel. Chef asks what he wants him to do. Willard gives him the radio and tells him if he does not get back by 2200 hours, he is to call in the air strike. He tells him the code and gives him the coordinates.
Willard and Lance walk around and see various kinds of bodies. He thinks he is still alive because Kurtz wanted him that way. People surround Willard and turn him upside down. With hands tied behind his back he is escorted inside. He kneels down, and Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) asks where he is from. Willard says he is from Toledo, Ohio. Kurtz asks how far he was from the Ohio River, and Willard says 200 miles. Kurtz says he remembers that river and gardenias that were like heaven. Kurtz asks if he has thought about real freedoms, freedom from the opinions of others. A man is holding a gun on Willard, and Kurtz is using a bowl to wash his hands and bald head. He asks Willard if they said why they want to terminate his command. Willard says he was sent on a classified mission. Kurtz says it is no longer classified. He asks what they told him, and Willard says they said he was totally insane and that his methods were unsound. He asks if that is true, and Willard says he does not see any method at all. Kurtz says he expected someone like him. He asks Willard if he is an assassin, and he replies that he is a soldier. Kurtz says he is neither because he is an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.
The photojournalist climbs up the temple and finds Willard in a bamboo cage and pours water in his mouth to drink, asking why a nice guy like him would want to kill a genius. He says the man likes him and that he has something in mind for him. He asks if he is curious about that. He is very curious, but Willard does not say anything. The photojournalist says he knows that the man has a clear mind, but his soul is mad. He is dying, and he hates all this. He says he reads poetry out loud and has a voice. He likes Willard because he is still alive. He has plans for him, and he tells Willard to help Kurtz. He asks what they will say about him when he dies. He asks if they will say he was kind or wise, or he had plans. He says that is bullshit. He realizes he is not the one who is going to set him straight. He points at Willard.
On the boat Chef is trying to sleep under a tarp in the rain. He wakes up and realizes it has been eight hours. He gets someone on the radio.
Willard is tied up and miserable and sees Kurtz with his face painted for camouflage. Someone drops the head of Chef on his lap, and Willard screams.
Natives carry Willard into the temple and lay him on the floor. A woman wipes off his sweat. An armed man stands by. Kurtz is sitting, and he reads aloud poetry by T. S. Eliot about the hollow men. The photojournalist is sitting next to Willard and tells him about the dialectic of one through nine. He says you can’t travel in space with fractions. He says there is only love or hate; you either love someone, or you hate him. Kurtz throws something at him, and the photojournalist says this is the way the world ends with a whimper. He says he is splitting and leaves.
Willard had thought he would know what to do, but it didn’t happen. He was in there with him for days. He was free, but Kurtz knew he was not going anywhere. He believes that Kurtz knows more about what he would do than he does. He opens a case and sees medals. He asks himself if the generals saw what he saw, would they still want him to kill him. He thinks they probably would. He wonders what his people back home would want if they knew how far gone he is. He says he broke from them, and then he broke from himself. He never saw a man so broken and ripped apart. Kurtz says he has seen the horrors; but he has no right to call him a murderer, though he has a right to kill him. He has a right to do that, but he has no right to judge him. Kurtz says it is impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. He says that horror has a face, and you must make friends with horror and mortal terror. If they are not your friends, then they are enemies to be feared. Kurtz says he remembers when he was with special forces, but it seems centuries ago. They went into a camp to inoculate some children for polio. After doing it they left the camp, and an old man came running after them crying. They went back there, and they had hacked off all the inoculated arms. There was a pile of little arms, and he cried. He wanted to tear his teeth out. He wants to remember it and never forget it. Then he realized, as if he had been shot by a diamond bullet through his forehead, the genius of the will to do that. Then he realized that they were stronger because they could stand it. They were not monsters; they were trained cadres. They fought with their hearts and had families and children who are filled with love. They had the strength to do that. He believes if he had ten divisions of those men, then their troubles would be over very quickly. He says you have to have men who are moral and who are able to use their primordial instinct to kill without feeling and judgment because judgment defeats us. He worries that his son might not understand what he tried to be. If were to be killed, he tells Willard that he would want someone to go to his home and tell his son everything he did. There is nothing he detests more than the stench of lies. If Willard understands him, he will do this for him.
Natives are dancing, and Lance is there and dances with them.
Willard has a blackened face and hears the radio giving the code word. He says they are going to make him a major for this. He says everybody wants him to do it, him most of all. He thinks Kurtz is up there waiting for him to take the pain away; he just wants to go out like a soldier, not ending up like some poor rag-ass renegade. Willard believes even the jungle wants him dead. He has a machete and dives into the water. Thunder announces the rain. Willard sneaks up on the armed guard and eliminates him and then goes on. Kurtz is saying that authorities will not allow them to write “fuck” on their airplane because it is obscene. Kurtz turns and sees Willard coming.
The natives use machetes to kill a bull by slashing at his neck.
Willard swings the machete at Kurtz again and again.
The natives kill the bull.
Willard is bloody, and Kurtz whispers of the horror and dies. A woman kneels and prays. Willard looks at a typed book, and on one page written over the typing in red is “Drop the Bomb. Exterminate them all!” Willard sits in his place, and the natives look in on him. Willard comes out of the temple, and the people kneel down. Willard drops the machete and carries the book as he walks through the crowd. They stand up, and he takes Lance’s hand and leads him away with him.
Willard and Lance leave in the boat. Willard is the pilot, and he turns off the radio. The boat goes downstream. Willard remembers Kurtz whispering of the horror.
This drama depicts the insanity and horror of the Vietnam War when the richest nation sent soldiers half way around the world to kill millions of Asians who were fighting for their independence. Like Conrad’s story of the British imperialists in Africa, this film reveals the folly and misery and the great guilt of an unnecessary and brutal war by showing how one outstanding individual took the methods of this insane war to their logical conclusion and could only be stopped by the forces that created those methods of mass murder.