Capt. Benjamin L. Willard
A veteran U.S. Army special operations officer who has been serving in Vietnam for three years.
- Adaptational Badass: His counterpart in the novel was a simple sailor and not an elite special forces operative.
- Adaptation Name Change: Named Charles Marlow in Heart of Darkness.
- Anti-Hero: He's a rather amoral assassin who is implied to have done some pretty heinous things for the government in the past.
- Blood Knight: He's been in the field so long that he needs combat to keep himself sane.
- Broken Ace: Despite being an elite special forces operative, he's a complete psychological wreck.
- 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.
- Mercy Kill: How he ultimately seems to regard his assassination of Kurtz. His shooting of the wounded Vietnamese woman arguably qualifies as well.
- 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.
- No Place for a Warrior: He's completely incapable of functioning in civilian life.
- Not So Stoic: He freaks out when Kurtz drops Chef's severed head in his lap. If he had any doubts about killing Kurtz before that scene, he certainly doesn't after it.
- Private Eye Monologue: Though he's a soldier rather than a detective, his narration of the story is heavily indebted to this trope.
- 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: Years of combat experience have nearly driven him insane at the beginning of the film, and his journey up the Mekong drives him closer to the edge the further they go.
- 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.
- Shoot the Dog: Or rather Shoot the Wounded Civilian. It earns him a What the Hell, Hero? from Chief, but rings hollow since the boat massacre wouldn't have happened to begin with if Chief hadn't gone out of his way to interrogate a bunch of random civilians.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: Manages a subtle one in his first scene with Kurtz.Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?Willard: I don't see any method at all, sir.
- Sociopathic Soldier: A soft Type 3 example.
- Thousand-Yard Stare: He sports one right at the end, after he completes his mission.
- Warrior Poet: His Private Eye Monologue shows him to be intelligent and eloquent.
- What You Are in the Dark: Chooses not to take Kurtz's place as god-king at the end despite having every opportunity to do so.
- Worthy Opponent: Kurtz views him as one, which is why he wants Willard, whom he respects as a fellow soldier, to kill him.
Col. Walter E. Kurtz
A 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.
- 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 in order to mask his obesity as being Large and in Charge, but it's often obvious how fat the man is. It actually works well as it highlights Kurtz has completely let himself go and his pretensions to being a proud soldier are so much wind — akin to the original novel's Kurtz, but physically inverted, as that Kurtz was visibly unhealthy because of how gaunt he'd become.
- Alas, Poor Villain: There is a strong sense of tragedy regarding his death.
- 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: Downplayed. 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 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.
- Death Seeker: It becomes pretty clear that he wants Willard to kill him, but not before telling him to tell his family the truth after his death.
- Emerging from the Shadows: It goes a great deal into establishing an aura of mystery and subtle evil about his character.
- Fallen Hero: From a legendary Special Forces commander to a ragged, tired, death seeking renegade warlord lost in the Cambodian jungle.
- General Ripper: A Deconstructed Character Archetype. He's a highly decorated officer (one scene has Captain Willard going over his dossier and marvelling 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. 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.
- Hypocrite: Kurtz's methods aren't accomplishing anything because he's just killing people in Cambodia, probably not in any way associated with the Vietcong. He's fighting the war to fight the war. While his superiors were wrong about how to fight the war, his "solution" to double down on savagery and bloodshed doesn't actually promise any solution either.
- Kill 'Em All: He believes the North Vietnamese and the VC will never surrender, and if the US wants to win the war, they'll have to kill every last one of them:Kurtz: We must incinerate them. Pig after pig... cow after cow... village after village... army after army.
- 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.
- Military Maverick: He planned and launched a major counter-insurgency operation codenamed Archangel, which ended up being a major success. Willard notes that he never told his superiors his plan or asked for clearance, he simply thought it up and did it. As his career continued, he became more vocal and outspoken to his superiors about their flawed conduct of the Vietnam War, culminating in his unauthorized execution of four North Vietnamese spies in his command.
- 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 poring 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 Southeast 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.
- Worthy Opponent: He held his North Vietnamese foes in high regard, for their bloodlust and effectiveness as guerrillas, and their dedication to victory. In his famous Motive Rant, he tells Willard "If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly."
Lt. Col. William "Bill" Kilgore
1st 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.
- Affably Evil: 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.
- Blood Knight: He loves the smell of napalm in the morning.
- 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: A fearless aircav commander who leads from the front.
- Colonel Kilgore: The Trope Namer.
- Cool Shades: Wears a pair of these throughout the iconic valkyries/helicopter sequence.
- Death from Above: Leads aerial assaults from his command chopper, which has the trope written on it's nose.
- A Father to His Men: Kilgore is a genial commander who does care for his soldiers, despite his bloodlust.
- Frontline General: Except he's a colonel, but the same principle applies. 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.
- Hero Worship: He's a surfing fanatic, and treats Lance like a visiting movie star, going out of his way to try to impress him.
- Large Ham: He's not exactly low-key.Kilgore: CHARLIE DON'T SURF!
- Music to Invade Poland To: Loves playing "Ride of Valkyries" by Wagner as his helicopters swoop in to attack the VC.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Kill-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.
- 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.
- Later, he's prepared to send out helicopters in order to find his stolen surfboard, complete with amplified complaints over how hard it is to find a decent board and reassurances that he won't hurt the thief.
Engineman 3rd Class Jay "Chef" Hicks
A former chef from New Orleans who is horrified by his surroundings.
- Badass Mustache: Subverted; Chef might sport a magnificent set of handlebars, but he's hopelessly out of his depth.
- Boisterous Bruiser: Subverted, as even though he's a loud, energetic, and boastful man, he's really out of his depth in the jungle.
- Break the Cutie: Becomes considerably less upbeat (but not any quieter) after almost getting mauled by a tiger.
- Chekhov's Skill: Having grown up in New Orleans, he knows enough French to negotiate with the soldiers guarding the plantation.
- Decapitation Presentation: Kurtz drops his severed head into Willard's cage.
- Heroic BSoD: Suffers a temporary freakout after the tiger incident; highlights include tearing his shirt off, screaming that "I didn't get out of the 8th grade for this" and "I just wanted to learn to fucking cook", and a long string of "Never get out of the boat."
- And again following the impulsive massacre of the inspected boat's crew, not helped by the fact that he almost got mowed down by Clean and Lance. Admittedly, everyone was shocked when Willard killed the one survivor, but Chef is visibly sobbing.
- The Immodest Orgasm: "I CAN FLY! I CAN FLY LIKE AN EAGLE!"
- Let's Get Dangerous!: Upon witnessing the full extent of Kurtz's insanity, Chef abandons all reservations and declares himself in agreement with Willard's mission to assassinate Kurtz, even giving up his fear of dying "in an evil place." As such, he's given the job of calling in an airstrike if Willard doesn't return. It's what ends up getting him killed, sadly.
- Laughing Mad: Can be heard laughing hysterically and utterly without mirth in the wake of his run-in with the tiger.
- Madness Mantra: Briefly lapses into a chain of "Never get out of the boat" 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.
- Only Sane Man: Between the jaded world-weariness of veterans Willard and Chief, Clean's naivete, and Lance's generally spaced-out attitude, he's often the only one to react to the horrors around him with anything like normal human emotion.
- Please Wake Up: After Mr Clean is killed during the surprise attack on the boat, Chef frantically shakes his body as if trying to wake him up, and quickly descends into hysterical tears as the full extent of his injuries become apparent.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: With Mr Clean; given the state of the mission, the two don't always have the most harmonious relationship, and occasionally get into fights. In particular, Chef is absolutely merciless when he discovers that Clean's a virgin, and spends most of the following scene gleefully chanting "Cherry Boy!" However, when Clean is killed, Chef can only sob over his body.
Chief Quartermaster George Phillips
The commander of the Navy PBR that Willard is riding. The 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.
- By-the-Book Cop: Deconstructed. He's a stickler for regulations, such as searching every sampan they come across for contraband, even though he's on a top secret mission into enemy territory. This ultimately leads to a pointless massacre of civilians when he goes out of his way to stop a civilian boat and Clean ends up massacring them with an M60 due to his twitchy trigger finger.
- Composite Character: He's an amalgamation of the director (he's technically in charge and clashes with the protagonist) and the pilot (he's black and dies impaled by a spear) from Heart of Darkness.
- 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.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: His insistence on following Navy protocols and regulations causes the pointless deaths of a bunch of unarmed civilians.
- Jurisdiction Friction: A military variant with Capt. Willard. Willard is an officer and in charge of the mission (technically, the boat's mission is just to transport Willard upriver; what he does when he gets there is his own affair for which they dont Need To Know). Phillips is an enlisted sailor, but he commands the boat, something the US Navy's written and unwritten rules hold sacrosanct. Willard, an Army officer, is both ignorant and apathetic about how the Navy does things, and has orders from on high anyway. They dont like each other to say the least.
- Only Sane Man: The most straight-laced and stable of the boat crew.
- 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
A 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.
- FaceHeel 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.
- Lethally Stupid: His 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.
- Pretty Boy: A blonde California surfer whom Willard describes as "Looking like he never held a gun in his life".
- Sanity Slippage: Begins developing weirder and weirder habits as time goes on, from randomly making smoke-signals to decorating his head with broken arrows. By the time they find Kurtz's hideout, he's so far gone he ultimately goes native with the cult followers, forgetting about Willard and Chef.
- Skewed Priorities: Immediately after the boat has been riddled with bullets and Clean has been fatally shot, all Lance can think about is the puppy he left behind.
- Sole Survivor: He's the only one of the boat crew to survive the mission.
Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Tyrone "Mr. Clean" Miller
A 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.
- Dawson Casting: Subverted: Fishburne was fourteen when he began productionnote , but it works to underscore how horrifying it was a seventeen year old was in the middle of a war zone.
- Due to the Dead: His passing is honored in a funeral held by the soldiers at the French plantation, complete with a bugler, and he's buried with his cassette player.
- Fatal Family Photo: A recording from his mother, but it has the same effect.
- In-Universe Nickname: On top of "Mr Clean," he's also playfully nicknamed "Bubba" by Chef, and can often be heard using it in his attempts to get on Clean's nerve. He can also be heard sobbing it over his body.
- 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).
- More Dakka: His response to a sudden move during the sampan inspection, riddling the boat and everyone on it with so many bullets it's a wonder the whole thing didn't sink. For good measure, Clean continues shooting even once it becomes apparent that he'd just opened fire on unarmed civilians, and has to be told to stop by the Chief. For good measure, Chef is left in hysterics by this approach, as he almost ended up becoming collateral damage in the process.
- Shoot Him! He Has a... Wallet: Ends up impulsively massacring the crew of a sampan when it looks like one of them was making a dash for a weapon; in reality, she was only moving to protect a pet puppy.
- Virgin-Shaming: Chef gives Mr Clean no end of grief when it's discovered that he's still a virgin; he spends most of the following scene mocking Clean's failed attempt to get a turn with one of the Playboy Bunnies, cheekily offering to take him on a tour of New Orleans' brothels, or just signing "cherry boy!" just so he can watch his audience completely losing it.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: With Chef. They might give each other a lot of shit, but they're still close friends in spite of it.
A manic disciple of Kurtz who greets Willard.
- Adaptational Nationality: He fills the role of the Russian harlequin from Heart of Darkness, being another loony worshipper of Kurtz and having some of his lines, but he's American.
- 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
An authoritarian officer who fears Kurtz and wants him removed.
- Black-and-White Morality: It's unclear (although unlikely) whether he really 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 needs to 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
A mysterious man in civilian attire who sits in on Willard's initial briefing, heavily implied to be a CIA agent.
- The Quiet One: He only has one line of dialogue, but it's memorable and chilling."Terminate with extreme prejudice."
Colonel G. Lucas
An aide to Corman and a general information specialist who gives Willard his orders.
- 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
Previously 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).
- Evil Counterpart: To Willard. He was sent on the exact same assignment, but he succumbed to the insanity of the jungle and joined Kurtz's cult.
- Going Native: He was sent to kill Kurtz, but fell in with him instead.
- The Quiet One: He appears in only one scene and says nothing. The only dialogue from him is in a letter he writes to his wife telling her he's never coming back.
- Sanity Slippage: Just like Kurtz, the jungle drove him insane.
- Thousand-Yard Stare: Mixed with Kubrick Stare. When Willard sees him among Kurtz's other followers, Colby says nothing but stares intensely at Willard while holding his shotgun at the ready.