Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Masks are used at key points throughout the film to symbolize the anti-self—the new identity each character assumes in order to deal with the war, an act that requires a symbolic killing of the old self. Willard’s smashing of his reflection in the first scene suggests such an act of self-destruction. By the end of the movie, numerous characters have donned masks or painted their faces with camouflage, signs that they are no longer themselves. When Lance seems finally to reach his breaking point, he drops acid and hides his face in camouflage paint. Kurtz’s face is often obscured by shadow or darkness, and when Kurtz throws Chef’s severed head into Willard’s bamboo cage, he does so wearing face paint. Finally, when Willard prepares to kill Kurtz, he covers his face in mud. These masks underscore the dramatic transformation of the human self during wartime.
The fictional Nung River is the setting of a literal and metaphorical journey. As the river takes the boat up to Cambodia and Kurtz, the crew moves beyond civilization to the heart of darkness within themselves. After Chef and Willard venture into the jungle, Chef screams that he should not have left the boat. “Never get off the boat,” Willard muses in narration, for the river is a sanctuary from the primal darkness that lies in the jungle. The river also symbolizes transformation, as when Willard, hidden in the water, rises up from it as the new Kurtz before the assassination scene. While the river leads Willard to a place of death and despair, in the final scene it is also Willard’s escape route.
Fog suggests confusion and alienation for Willard and the rest of the crew, as they journey upriver into the unknown. By cloaking scenes in fog and mist, Coppola emphasizes the fear of the unknown, the perils of venturing too far into the subconscious, and the supremacy of the wilderness. The PBR is an easy target for anyone or anything hiding in the depths of the jungle, and fog makes this vulnerability and dislocation even more evident.