One purpose that the French Plantation scene, had it not been cut, would have served would have been to put some space between the deaths of Clean and Chief. As it is they come one right after the other, fulfilling the Hollywood cliche that nonwhites must die first.
I hate to dwell on the subject, which I already discussed in Chapter 12, but the racial subtext here is not buried very deep. No one who is familiar with common American racial slurs can miss the irony in the fact that Chief is killed by a spear, and even he seems aware of it. From the way he croaks out “A spear!” just before he keels over, it’s almost as if the irony is killing him more than the weapon.
And of course Chief’s last action before succumbing is to try to strangle Willard, and you could argue that this is less personal than symbolic. In this schema Chief represents every person of color who’s ever been sold up or down the river, and Willard is every white man who’s ever sacrificed others for reasons that are unclear at best and nefarious at worst. Viewing it through this lens, it’s hard not to root a little for Chief to finish the job — and he probably would have, were he not losing blood so fast.
Interestingly enough, it’s just after this that Willard finally sees fit to share the purpose of his mission with the remaining members of the crew — both of whom, it just so happens, are caucasians. I can’t help but remember the old SNL sketch where Eddie Murphy gets made up in whiteface and discovers all the special secret things white people do when they’re alone. But it’s more likely that Willard figures that Chef and Lance, having lost the father and the baby brother of their little family, deserve to know why.
Chef, predictably, has a hissy fit:
That’s fucking typical, shit. Fucking Vietnam mission. I’m short, and we got to go up there so you can kill one of our own guys. That’s fucking great, that’s just fucking great! That’s fucking crazy. I thought you were going in there to blow up a bridge, or some fucking railroad tracks or something.
I’ve always thought it was strange that he just says “I’m short.” No reference to the fact that he’s just lost two comrades that he spent months on a boat with, or the attendant trauma; just, we’re two guys short of a crew. I don’t necessarily read a whole lot into that, but it’s worth noting.
Lance, meanwhile, is seeing Chief’s body off into the river, in a quiet and touching moment that serves as a counterpoint to all the tension and hostility. With his face paint and arrow-through-the-head, Lance has begun to mutate from a soldier into some kind of shaman — which will serve him in good stead during the weirdness to come.