This is where Apocalypse Now really turns into a war movie. The action and insanity come hard and fast; the boat hits the beach and is instantly surrounded by copters, boats, soldiers, and bedraggled civilians. An amphibious vehicle crawls up out of the water and topples a building. Then we hear a voice saying “Don’t look at the camera”; the shot pans and there is Francis Coppola himself, along with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis, playing a TV crew.
Out of all this chaos emerges a larger-than-life figure: Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore, commanding officer of the Air Cavalry unit that is supposed to escort Willard and his crew to the Nung River. IMDB says that Duvall is only 5′ 8½”, but in this context, he seems to be about 8 feet tall; that’s acting, I guess, and Duvall is certainly a Master Thespian. (Synchronicity alert: After writing that last sentence, I took a lunch break, during which I read the following in an Esquire profile of Danny DeVito: “This man is a giant. He wasn’t born that way. That’s why they call it acting.”)
Kilgore seems to be everywhere, doing everything: throwing down death cards, herding civilians into a carrier, giving a wounded Vietcong water from his own canteen. But he has no interest in Willard or the mission until he finds out that Lance is there. Then suddenly it’s all, “You can cut out the ‘sir’ crap, Lance, I’m Bill Kilgore, I’m a goofyfoot. This guy with you?”
In Hearts of Darkness, John Milius (who wrote the original screenplay) says:
It was a combination of not just Heart of Darkness but…The Odyssey. Kilgore was like the cyclops…he was something that had to be overcome, you know, had to be tricked.
And as luck would have it, one of the few places where they can get access to the river just happens to offer the best surfing anywhere around. “Tube City,” as Johnny from Malibu describes it. And so surfing saves the day again. Kilgore is now willing to commit his entire unit to a risky attack on a North Vietnamese strongpoint, not because it is strategically necessary or even advisable, but because there are killer waves there.
Johnny: I don’t know, sir…. It’s pretty hairy in there. It’s Charlie’s point.”
Kilgore: Charlie don’t surf!