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Capt. Benjamin L. Willard
Played By: Martin SheenA veteran U.S. Army special operations officer who has been serving in Vietnam for three years.
- Elites Are More Glamorous: A veteran special operations officer serving in the Army's elite 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.
- Klingon Promotion: He predicts he'll be fast-tracked to Major for offing the renegade Kurtz. For a brief moment, he sits at Kurtz' desk, contemplating the opportunity to take the Colonel's place as a new god-king. The throng of natives lay down their weapons and bow as he leaves the compound.
- My God, What Have I Done?: He almost has a breakdown after sneaking in and murdering Kurtz.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Delivers one to Kurtz in the final scene.
- Professional Killer: He functions more as an assassin than a conventional soldier. He was assigned to kill Kurtz precisely because of his skills and experience in wetwork.
- Rage Against the Reflection: Yes, Martin Sheen really just punched a mirror, and it's not the kind made from Soft Glass. It wasn't staged as he was drunk at the time. Martin Sheen actually noted in later interviews about his involvement with the movie that he was struggling with personal demons at the time, so you could say that Willard's insanity/despair is actually Sheen's being imposed on the character. An unplanned Anger Montage is used for continuity issues because Sheen injured himself.
- Sanity Slippage
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: While still in the war he certainly qualifies and it just gets worse.
- Shirtless Scene: Frequently, but perhaps the greatest example is when he goes to kill Kurtz.
- Sociopathic Soldier: A soft Type 3 example.
- Thousand-Yard Stare: He sports one right at the end, after he completes his mission.
Col. Walter E. Kurtz
Played By: Marlon BrandoA highly decorated U.S. Army Special Forces with the 5th Special Forces Group who goes rogue. He runs his own operations out of Cambodia and is feared by the US military as much as the North Vietnamese and Vietcong.
"Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor...and surviving."
- Above Good and Evil: In a deleted scene Kurtz visits Willard while he is in captivity, bringing up the subject of how he thinks the Vietnam War could be won. A lecture ensues about how Americans care too much about their public image and how the rest of the world views them, it is a mistake to let public opinion prevent victory in a war. If war wasn't a popularity contest then America could do whatever was necessary to win. Willard calls Kurtz cruel and that his methods destroy all moral standards of right and wrong in appropriate conduct of warfare. Kurtz responds simply, "It is 'right' to win. And it is 'wrong' to lose."
- Adipose Rex: This was absolutely not the original plan. Kurtz was supposed to be a robust and fit middle aged man, but Brando showed up for the role at least a hundred pounds overweight. Coppola compromised by keeping him in the shadows as much as possible, but it's often obvious how obese the man is.
- Bald of Evil: Back when Kurtz was still with the Army he had a full head of hair. He's shown as a handsome, professional looking officer in his dossier photos. To contrast the professional look he had during his military service the Kurtz who has transformed himself into a jungle king is bald. The shaved head evokes a vibe of regression, that Kurtz has reverted to a more primal state of mind.
- Big Bad: Arguable example. While Kurtz's actions are clearly extreme, and in violation of neutral territory surrounding Vietnam, nothing Kurtz does is any more evil than what his enemies or the US military is doing. The only thing that makes him even even close to serving this role is the fact that he sets the plot of the movie in motion.
- Break Them by Talking: When Willard is captured by Kurtz the Colonel asks a simple question, "Are you an assassin?" Willard's response is that he is a soldier. Kurtz mocks Willard by saying the following, "You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks."
- Broken Ace: Self-inflicted; Kurtz was being groomed for senior command, but he chose to go into Special Forces after his tour in Vietnam. Willard notes that doing so would ensure that he never rose above the rank of Colonel, and what Kurtz saw in Vietnam eventually twisted him into the rogue warlord shown in the film.
- Colonel Badass: Not as overstated as Kilgore, but it should be noted his rate of success in battle with the enemy was high and the enemy feared him.
- Deadpan Snarker: In his last words before Willard hacks him to death:Kurtz: They train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes...because it's obscene.
- Emerging from the Shadows: It goes a great deal into establishing an aura of mystery and subtle evil about his character.
- General Ripper: A Deconstructed Character Archetype. He's a highly decorated officer (one scene has Captain Willard going over his dossier and marveling at Kurtz's accomplishments) who one day just snapped and went native, becoming as much a cult leader as a soldier, taking his orders from only the jungle as Willard says. However, Kurtz is a unique example, being quite aware that he is in fact a General Ripper. He thinks that if America wants to win the Vietnam War, it cannot afford to "play fair" - it needs "Rippers" to do the dirty work and is acting hypocritically by pretending that the war can be won "cleanly" with nothing but a technological advantage over the enemy (and history tells us he was right, too). He basically gives his superiors two choices: either get the hell out of 'Nam, or to embrace their savagery like he has. His final actions indicate that he prefers they choose the first option, or at least doesn't believe they can afford to choose the second.Willard: "Never get out of the boat." Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were goin' all the way.
- Go Mad from the Revelation: He refers to it as "a diamond bullet right through [his] forehead", his epiphany that rules and morality had no place in war, and indeed, the fewer the better. Once he realized his special forces were no match for the VC killer instinct, he abandoned his principles and cobbled together his own, unique "unit" out of the worst of the worst.
- Knight Templar: Is extremely zealous about the idea of achieving victory at any cost.
- Large and in Charge: He's chieftain of the Montagnards, looks like a juggernaut. Angled camera shots and some body doubles reinforce this appearance. Brando weighed more than 210 pounds at the moment of filming.
- Motive Rant: His monologue suggests he suffered a breakdown after Vietcong guerrillas came into a native village and hacked off the left arms of South Vietnamese children who had been inoculated against polio by Kurtz's special forces. This epitomized everything that was going wrong (in Kurtz's point of view) with the American war effort: over-reliance on science; cultural ignorance; blundering efforts at "humanitarianism" to win over the Vietnamese, which has the exact opposite effect. Nothing short of total destruction will work.
- Old Soldier: He was able to hack it at airborne training. At 38 years old, he was twice the age of the next graduate. An impressive feat.
- Only Sane Man: He believes himself to be this, and is a subversion.
- The Paragon Always Rebels: Remarked with awe by Willard, who keeps pouring through Kurtz's file in search of some sign of madness. Willard says that before he went off the reservation, Kurtz's record was flawless — a little too flawless, for his money.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: He was earmarked for a big promotion, possibly even to the Pentagon, but hit a wall when he slammed the U.S. Military's inefficient and counter-productive tactics in Asia. In protest, he transferred to the Green Berets and, later, launched a wildly successful counter-insurgency op without letting his superiors in on his plans. They were forced to make him a full Colonel out of embarrassment, but the White House was beginning to tire of him even then.
- Secretly Dying: The photojournalist hints that this may be Kurtz's case. A nod to the the original source left ambiguous in the film and discussed by Coppola during interviews.
- Warrior Poet: Or so his followers think he is (the Photojournalist calls him "a poet warrior in the classic sense"). The reality is that while he does have some poetic flair to his words and he is a good soldier, he has gone insane and has lost all decent sense of restraint.
- We Have Become Complacent: He can be viewed as a rational, if brutal, character; he realizes how the war can be won but his commanders refuse to see things the way he does. His job as a soldier is winning the war, not being nice. Naturally the film leaves plenty of room for other interpretations such as The Unfettered and Knight Templar.Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?Willard: I don't see any "method" at all, Sir.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Views winning a war as the highest priority of a soldier, and the greatest possible good they can achieve. Doesn't matter what it takes to win, even if you have to be cruel, because winning is right and losing is wrong.
Lt. Col. William "Bill" Kilgore
Played By: Robert Duvall1st Squadron, 9th Air Cavalry Regiment commander and surfing fanatic. Kilgore is a strong leader who loves his men but has methods that appear out-of-tune with the setting of the war.
"I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
- Blood Knight
- Calling Card: He throws "Death cards" with the emblem of his Air Cavalry Regiment around corpses to let Charlie know who killed them.
- Colonel Badass
- Colonel Kilgore: The Trope Namer.
- A Father to His Men: Kilgore is a genial commander who does care for his soldiers, despite his bloodlust.
- Front Line Colonel: He not only personally flies the lead helicopter into the attack, it's shown he's a pretty darn good pilot and an excellent shot.
- Large Ham: He's not exactly low-key.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Kil-gore.
- Nice Hat: His iconic Cavalry Stetson, which he is never seen without. They're unofficial in the Air Cavalry, but of course Kilgore would wear this rather than a boring old beret or helmet.
- Pet the Dog: When he's not killing people or distracted by the surfing, he cares for his men and for civilians; he is concerned about them receiving medical treatment as soon as possible.
- Shirtless Scene: Kilgore is so ludicrously Badass that, even when shrapnel is raining down around him, he'll take off his shirt.
- Skewed Priorities: He's annoyed with Charlie (who don't surf) because the VC are occupying a terrific beach that should be used for surfing. His Death from Above air-strikes are meant to clear the zone so he can exercise his hobby, the military importance is not the issue. In fact Kilgore never would have escorted Willard and his crew there if he hadn't gotten word of a nice beach being there alongside Willard's destination.
Engineman 3rd Class Jay "Chef" Hicks
Played By: Frederic ForrestA former chef from New Orleans who is horrified by his surroundings.
- Decapitation Presentation: Kurtz drops his severed head into Willard's cage.
- Heroic B.S.O.D.: He has one after the tiger incident.
- Motor Mouth: Chef talks more than the rest of the PBR crew put together.
- Nervous Wreck: Downplayed. He's not a wreck, but as Willard notes, "he was wrapped too tight for Vietnam, probably wrapped too tight for New Orleans."
- Off with His Head!: Thankfully offscreen.
Chief Quartermaster George Phillips
Played By: Albert HallThe chief runs a tight ship and frequently clashes with Willard over authority. Has a father-son relationship with Clean.
- A Father to His Men: In particular to Clean, whose youth stirs parental feelings in the Chief.
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Gets impaled by a native spear as they near Kurtz's lair. He tries to kill Willard with it, but expires before he can do so.
- The Stoic: Shows little emotion beyond standard professionalism. That all goes away after Clean is killed.
- Taking You with Me: After being impaled with a spear, he tries to pull Willard onto the end of it.
- Team Mom: He runs the boat and keeps the crazy kids in his crew from killing each other half the time.
Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Lance B. Johnson
Played By: Sam BottomsA former professional surfer from California. He is known to drop acid.
- Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Subverted. He smears lots of dark camouflage makeup on his face and leaves it on for the entire film.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Becomes more and more unhinged the further upriver they go, eventually falling in with Kurtz's men when they finally find him.
- Face–Heel Turn: Briefly joins Kurtz's operation once they find his hideout, participating in all the bizarre rituals they carry out and doing nothing when Willard is captured and locked up as a prisoner.
- Pretty Boy: A blonde California surfer whom Willard describes as "Looking like he never held a gun in his life".
- Sanity Slippage: He wasn't stable before but once he is in Kurtz's hideout he slowly go native with the cult followers, forgetting about Willard and Chef.
- Sole Survivor: He's the only one of the boat crew to survive the mission.
- Too Dumb to Live: He foolishly and pointlessly making smoke signals in a hostile zone immediately costs the life of Clean. Ironically Lance is the only grunt to survive the movie.
Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Tyrone "Mr. Clean" Miller
Played By: Laurence FishburneA seventeen-year-old cocky South Bronx-born crewmember.
- Black Dude Dies First: The first of the crew to die, gunned down by a VC ambush as they cross the border into Cambodia.
- Fatal Family Photo: A recording concerning his family, but it has the same effect.
- Meaningful Name: He's the most innocent of the crew, and the first to die (right after killing the people on the sampan, no less).
Played By: Dennis HopperA manic disciple of Kurtz who greets Willard.
"This is the way the fucking world ends. Look at this fucking shit we're in man. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. And with a whimper, I'm fucking splitting, Jack."
- Cloudcuckoolander: He knows it too.
- Erudite Stoner: The Trope Codifier, although he's not quite as erudite as he thinks he is. (He can quote Rudyard Kipling and T. S. Eliot, but his riff on dialectics is pure gibberish.)
- Motor Mouth: He talks rabidly about a variety of subjects in a short amount of time.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Coppola based the character on Errol Flynn's son, Sean, who disappeared in Cambodia during Vietnam.
- No Name Given: He's only known as 'the Photojournalist'.
- Only Sane Man: He's hardly sane, but he understands Kurtz better than anyone else does, even (at first) Willard.
- Psycho Supporter: To Kurtz, who he considers an idol.
- Sycophantic Servant: He comes and goes with no rhyme or reason; apparently he was chronicling the Colonel's work for posterity. But even he knows the world won't listen to a burnout like him, and demands that Willard return and tell everyone the truth.
- Talkative Loon: Rants about almost everything and never shuts up, even when Kurtz starts throwing things at him.
Lieutenant General Corman
Played By: G. D. SpradlinAn authoritarian officer who fears Kurtz and wants him removed.
- Black and White Morality: It's unclear (although unlikely) that he believes what he's saying, but Corman tries to espouse this idea to morally justify giving Willard the mission to kill Kurtz. For his part, Willard doesn't exactly buy it.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Yes Kurtz really gotta go. It's not a matter of who is more of an asshole it's a matter of one lost his mind.
- Shout-Out: To notable B-Movie producer Roger Corman, who gave Coppola his start in Hollywood.
The Mysterious Man
Played By: Jerry ZiesmerA mysterious man in civilian attire who sits in on Willard's initial briefing, heavily implied to be a CIA agent.
Colonel G. Lucas
Played By: Harrison FordAn aide to Corman and a general information specialist who gives Willard his orders.
- Colonel Badass: Averted. He's just a meek desk jockey.
- Desk Jockey: With his fresh-faced look and stoical exposition, he certainly gives off this impression. It's unlikely he's ever been in the field.
- Mr. Exposition: He outlines the basic plot of the film; to travel up the river and kill Kurtz."Your mission is to proceed up the Nung River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Kurtz's path at Nu Mung Ba, follow it and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel's command."
- Shout-Out: To Coppola's friend and frequent collaborator George Lucas, who was at one time tapped to direct the film.
Capt. Richard M. Colby
Played By: Scott GlennPreviously assigned Willard's current mission before he defected to Kurtz's private army and sent a message to his wife telling her to sell everything they owned (but he goes on to tell her to sell their children, as well).
- Going Native: He was sent to kill Kurtz, but fell in with him instead.