Robert Duvall Took A Simple Approach To His Apocalypse Now Performance

In one of the most memorable "Apocalypse Now" scenes, helicopters engages in a thrilling battle while Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" plays us through the carnage. Colonel Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall watches this all unfold with a cool, easy expression. His cold detachment from the chaos around him in Vietnam sets the surrealist fever dream tone in "Apocalypse Now." It tells the story of a real war through an almost absurdist lens, contrasting the war's violence with the attitudes of those fighting it.

Duvall doesn't get a ton of screen time as Kilgore, but he makes a lasting impression nonetheless. Colonel Kilgore is remembered for his legendary line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." It's the perfect encapsulation of the character — a man who not only is apathetic towards warfare, but seems to enjoy it. 

And it turns out, Duvall had a refreshingly simple approach to creating this character: imitating real-life military officers.

Lived experiences

Robert Duvall grew up a military brat, with a Navy rear admiral father. He knew the culture well, and eventually joined the service himself when he enlisted in the Army in 1953. He served for only two years before pursuing a career in acting, but his time in the military would have a great impact on his performance in "Apocalypse Now."

In an Esquire interview, Duvall explained how the people he met in the military inspired how he portrayed Colonel Kilgore: as a tough, unflinching, officer.

"I played a guy that didn't flinch, so I didn't flinch. You know what I mean? I played that kind of guy. 

... I'd been in the service and I remember watching those special service officers, the way they stood and the way they related to other guys in the service." 

According to an interview with WTOP, Duvall said he found the original version of the character (subtly named Colonel Carnage) too over-the-top, and got permission from director Francis Ford Coppola to work to ensure his character's accuracy. This involved changing the outfit Kilgore wore as well as working with a real Vietnam veteran to help him ground the character in reality.

The dedicated performance of Duvall was one of the things that made "Apocalypse Now" great, even despite the constant obstacles to its production. Duvall used his most valuable resource, his lived experiences, to cement Colonel Kilgore in film history.