The American characters of Apocalypse Now are Captain Willard’s subpersonalities as he reacts to the psychotic experience of Vietnam. The most interesting of these, barring Colonel Kurtz himself, is Colonel Kilgore. Kilgore is a monster (even moreso than Kurtz) who represents the ideal of military form without function. The highest form of parody is a character that represents your opponent’s ideals so well that they feel drawn to identify with it despite the criticisms it illustrates. For example, I often hear conservative military guys say they love the first 20 minutes of Fullmetal Jacket but they hate the rest. In this way, Colonel Kilgore is the most cutting criticism of the modern military I’ve ever seen in a movie. He’s a picture of the perfect American soldier: masterful, fearless, and excelling in every virtue except that of accomplishing anything effective or useful.
This represents the first stage of Willard’s experience with army life, recognizing the clash between his indoctrination in gung-ho military culture and the conspicuous disinterest in actually winning the war. Indeed, Kilgore is only interested in riding the wave for the thrill and glory of it (hence the surfing metaphor), conquering territory at random and then conceding it back to the enemy, all sound and fury and blood and death and destruction.
“Someday this war’s gonna end.” That would be just fine with the boys on the boat. They weren’t looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I’ve been back there, and I knew that it just didn’t exist anymore. If that’s how Kilgore fought the war, I began to wonder what they really had against Kurtz. It wasn’t just insanity and murder. There was enough of that to go around for everyone.
This will later contrast with Colonel Kurtz, a man of pure functional effectiveness without interest in form: “I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor, and surviving.”
The remaining characters are more easily summarized:
Clean: Willard’s youthful naivete
Chief: Willard’s military discipline
Chef: Willard’s civil decency
Lance: Willard’s childish innocence/conscience
As he gets deeper and deeper into the jungle, his youthful naivete dies in their first firefight, then his military dogmatism is killed in their encounter with pure, primitive savagery (though it tries to kill him first), and finally his civility is killed by Kurtz in the movie’s best scene.
I’ll explain why this is the best scene in part 3.
Other than Kilgore, Willard’s four companions and Kurtz, the only particular character worth mentioning is the grenadier who represents the moment Willard realizes there is no one running the war except the jungle itself, Conrad’s “heart of darkness”.
The jungle is the pure, unleashed libido as described by Jung, which accepts no guidance except from the monstrous Shadow.
This had not been brought about by a speculative, completely sophisticated philosophy, but by an elementary need in the mass of people vegetating in spiritual darkness. The profoundest necessities had evidently driven them towards that, since humanity did not thrive in a state of dissoluteness. 34 The meaning of those cults I speak of Christianity and Mithracism is clear; it is a moral restraint of animal impulses. 35 The dynamic appearance of both religions betrays something of that enormous feeling of redemption which animated the first disciples and which we today scarcely know how to appreciate, for these old truths are empty to us. Most certainly we should still understand it, had our customs even a breath of ancient brutality, for we can hardly realize in this day the whirlwinds of the unchained libido which roared through the ancient Rome of the Caesars. The civilized man of the present day seems very far removed from that.
Psychology of the Unconscious
As such, the only soldiers who can accomplish anything are those who become experts in listening to their own animal instincts, which unanimously call for blood and horror for its own sake, and by unleashing their own savagery gain an otherworldly precognition about the forces guiding their friends and enemies in wartime.
I’ll make a final note of the Playboy Playmates show, which represents Willard’s realization of what the war is, in general. It’s conceived as merely a rowdy party, meant to “let off a little steam” for a bunch of half-crazed young men contending with extreme emotions that, back in the civilization they were yanked from, they never truly had to control before. It turns into a complete shitshow as their unleashed ids become too strong to manage, and they storm the stage in a fit of libido.
The departure of the helicopter is a nice metaphor for the generals, elites, and other chickenhawk cheerleaders defecting from the shitshow they unleashed at the first sign of real trouble.