In this scene Willard begins his trip upriver and we meet the crew of the boat, who will be his companions (and ours) for the rest of the journey. As with Sheen/Willard, the overlap between the actors and the characters is significant. This can be attributed to careful casting, but also, I think, to the fact that these actors spent much, much longer in a single role than is customary for a movie. A few thoughts on each:
Mr. Clean (Larry Fishburne)
Fishburne, often credited as Laurence, went on to have a long and distinguished career including the Matrix movies and the chronically underrated Deep Cover. But when he began his role as Mr. Clean, he was a youth of 14 (by the time filming was completed, he was 17, Clean’s stated age in the movie). In Hearts of Darkness, Fishburne says:
I think what it was that was me that was Clean was just that I was a kid. And that’s I think what my role is about, I mean, it’s about the kids who were over there…who didn’t know anything about anything.
To wit, there is also a clip in HoD of young Larry, circa 1976, sharing his thoughts about the war:
The whole thing is really fun. I mean the war is fun, shit. You can do anything you want to, that’s why Vietnam must have been so much fun for the guys that were out there.
Although he is a gifted thespian, I don’t know if Fishburne is acting in Apocalypse Now so much as honestly reacting to what’s going on around him. Making this surreal, endless movie in the Philippines with a cast and crew of adults can’t have been much less bizarre for him than fighting in Vietnam would have been… though it was at least somewhat less dangerous.
Lance (Sam Bottoms)
Lance is a surfer, and like the surfers I have known, that colors his approach to everything. He just goes with the flow, and as a result fits right in wherever he is, whatever happens. He is stuck in a patrol boat in Vietnam, so in this scene we see him (a) working on his tan and (b) water-skiing behind the boat. As the movie goes on, his surroundings become darker and weirder, and Lance adapts, following a strict drug regimen and perhaps going slightly nuts, but quietly. This may be camouflage more than anything; while sanity would stand out against this background, insanity blends right in.
Actor Sam Bottoms, blond and perfectly burnished, seems ideally suited to this part. Interviewed in Hearts of Darkness, he seems just like a slightly older version of Lance, totally at ease with himself and casually honest about his experience:
Sam Bottoms: Most of my character was done under the influence of pot. We smoked a lot of that…you know, the film crew just became our guests upriver with us.
Interviewer: Did you drop any acid?
Interviewer: Did you drop any acid during filming?
Interviewer: At Do Lung Bridge?
Bottoms: Uh, no, I did something else at Do Lung Bridge. I didn’t take any acid there. I did something else.
Interviewer: What did you do?
Bottoms: I was doing speed then. We were working lots of nights and I wanted a speedy sort of edge…and marijuana…and alcohol. We were bad. We were just bad boys.
It is his surfer’s ability to adapt that enables Lance (spoiler alert!) to survive the journey to Cambodia, the only member of the boat’s crew to make it out alive. In a sad twist, as of this writing, Bottoms is the only one of the four actors to have died, of a brain tumor in 2008.
Chef (Frederic Forrest)
Although Chef is from New Orleans, he is described in the voiceover as “wrapped too tight for Vietnam” — a curious description, if you ask me. Chef is a little nervous sometimes, but he’s in the middle of the fucking Vietnam war, headed upriver to an undisclosed location for reasons unknown to him — why shouldn’t he be nervous? Lance’s Zen reactions to everything may be healthier, but Chef’s freakouts are more reasonable.
His most famous scene, of course, is the one with the tiger. More about that when we get to it.
Chief (Albert Hall)
Chief is the grown-up in this crowd, serving as a father figure to these “rock’n’rollers with one foot in the grave.” From his accent you would peg him as West Indian, an immigrant or the son of immigrants, a hardworking type who for reasons beyond his control finds himself in command of a plastic boat, responsible for the lives of three younger men. He is under a lot of stress. The only time we see him smile is in this scene, where the danger is still to come and the boat crew is at ease; Clean dancing around to “Satisfaction,” Chef reading, Lance skiing.
It is a rare moment of repose, and Willard uses it to start going over the dossier he has been given on Kurtz. There is mention of a report Kurtz wrote after visiting Vietnam in 1964, which was suppressed. I always wonder what he had to say; I imagine something to the effect of, “We shouldn’t be in this war in the first place, but if we want to fight it and win it, we’re going about it all wrong.”
The opportunity for recreation and reflection doesn’t last long. A B-52 strike is heard, then helicopters, and pretty soon we’re right in the middle of, what do you know, a war.