Played by Martin Sheen
A U.S. special forces assassin and the protagonist of the film. Willard acts as our eyes and ears, passively observing the surrounding action and rarely participating. He is receptive, not reactive, and identifies increasingly with his target, Kurtz. Willard perceives the futility and insanity of war and its effects on the human soul. He clings to a notion of morality that becomes fainter as the film progresses. As a character, he is not particularly sympathetic and can even be ruthless and alienating, but we relate to his narrated perceptions about the story unfolding onscreen.
Played by Marlon Brando
The evil genius who is Willard’s target and the destination of the film’s journey. Kurtz is a brilliant military man whose wartime experiences have unhinged him. Internalizing the primitive values of the Montagnard army he commands, Kurtz has made himself a godlike figure who is judged by no one, not even himself. He speaks in grandiose statements about life and death and represents the unconscious, sinister side of humankind.
Played by Robert Duvall
A lunatic, swashbuckling commanding officer of the Ninth Air Cavalry. Kilgore’s methods are senseless and absurd: he plays recordings of Wagner to announce an air strike and orders his men to surf on a Vietcong-controlled beach. In the face of danger, Kilgore is dominating and unflinching. He is a sort of western cowboy, arrogant and heroic and seemingly invulnerable.
Played by Albert Hall
The commanding officer and navigator of the patrol boat that takes Willard upriver. The somber and disciplined Chief follows military procedure to a T, acts as a father figure to Clean, and feels personally responsible for the fate of his crew. Chief blames Willard for his crew’s predicament and makes his view on the matter very clear: he is a military man, and although he does not necessarily agree with Willard’s mission, he follows his orders—at least, as long as they follow protocol.
Played by Laurence Fishburne (credited as Larry Fishburne)
A seventeen-year-old mechanic from the streets of the South Bronx. Clean represents the young men who fought in Vietnam—those who were still kids and didn’t know anything about war. He is basically cannon fodder, like many of the troops drafted into the war. Clean whiles away the time on the boat dancing to music and annoying Willard. He becomes momentarily unhinged during the sampan scene.
Played by Frederic Forrest
A saucier from New Orleans who just wants to go home. Chef seems doomed from the start and escapes mentally by smoking dope. He is prone to emotional breakdowns and has a hot temper, fueled by resentment for the war. An eccentric, Chef appears to be more educated than the rest of the crew. He is also the crewmember with the most anger: he emphatically does not want to be in this strange land.
Played by Sam Bottoms
A cocky young GI and surfer from California. Lance’s descent into the primitive nature of the jungle is the most pronounced of the crew. He transforms from an alert young soldier to a spaced-out druggie who masks his face in camouflage and assimilates to the primitive Montagnard lifestyle at Kurtz’s compound. Lance has a gentleness in his nature that leads him to withdraw, with the help of drugs, from the war around him.
Played by Dennis Hopper
A hyperactive American freelance photographer and Kurtz worshiper. In the photojournalist’s eyes, Kurtz can do no wrong. The photojournalist has been indoctrinated into Kurtz’s philosophy and acts as a connecting character to bring Willard and Kurtz together. He is the fool to Kurtz’s king and provides comic relief during the film’s dark final scenes.
Played by Cynthia Wood, Colleen Camp, and Linda Carpenter
The Sirens of the film. Costumed as a cavalry officer, a cowgirl, and a Native American, the three Playmates play out a farcical history of America in their performance for the troops. They taunt the sex-starved soldiers by being exactly what they can’t have. In the process, they ignite a frenzy that cuts their appearance short. The Playmates also represent empty American values and the absurdity of war.
Played by Scott Glenn
Willard’s predecessor. The U.S. military sent Colby to assassinate Kurtz before Willard was given the assignment, but Colby ended up getting indoctrinated into Kurtz’s lifestyle and stayed at the compound. The seemingly mute and shell-shocked Colby appears only briefly, surrounded by Montagnard natives and stroking a rifle.
Played by G. D. Spradlin
The military superior who outlines Willard’s mission. The grim, no-nonsense Corman is threatened and perhaps even frightened by Kurtz’s independent operation in Cambodia. He is convinced of Kurtz’s insanity and unpredictable violence and is determined to have him killed.
Played by Harrison Ford
Corman’s junior officer. Lucas acts as Corman’s sidekick and briefs Willard with gravity.
Played by Jerry Ziesner
A mysterious civilian, possibly an undercover CIA agent. Jerry is secretive and ruthless, and he is the only one calm enough to actually eat during Willard’s lunchtime briefing. He has only one line in the film, which is spoken about Kurtz: “Terminate with extreme prejudice.”