Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, U.S. Army Air Cavalry commander and surf fanatic
Vietnam, Summer 1969
Film: Apocalypse Now
Release Date: August 15, 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Costume Supervisor: Charles E. James
Costumers: Luster Bayless, Norman A. Burza, Dennis Fill, and George L. Little
Happy 90th birthday, Robert Duvall! Today’s post looks at one of the most recognizable roles from the actor’s prolific career, his Academy Award-nominated performance as the gung-ho surf enthusiast Colonel Kilgore in Coppola’s war epic Apocalypse Now.
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s you-probably-had-to-read-it-in-high-school novella Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now needs little introduction, nor does Kilgore’s famous monologue celebrating the aromas of incendiary devices after commanding his 9th Cavalry squadron to attack a VC-held village to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”.
An Army veteran himself, Duvall’s characterization of Kilgore was reportedly based on Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth, the “Stetson-and-spurs”-wearing Lieutenant Colonel John B. Stockton, and Major General George Patton IV, son of the famously flamboyant World War II commander.
What’d He Wear?
Stationed in the Vietnam jungle, it stands to reason that Colonel Kilgore would be attired in the U.S. Army battle dress colloquially known as “jungle fatigues.” Officially designated the Tropical Combat Uniform, these fatigues descended from the M-1942 parachutist uniform, evolved for warmer climates and made from the olive green (OG-107) cotton sateen material that had been the Army’s favorite fatigues from the Korean War onward (as seen on M*A*S*H and worn by the men under Kilgore’s and Willard’s respective commands.)
“Natick Labs designed the tropical combat jacket and trousers in 1962 following a request from Army Material Command for a specialized uniform for Special Forces personnel in Vietnam,” explains Vietnam Gear. “The tropical combat uniform was ideally suited to Vietnam because it was both lightweight and quick drying.”
Several distinct patterns of “jungle jackets” (specified MIL-C-43199) would be developed over the course of the Vietnam War, though newer-authorized patterns tended to support rather than supplant the older stocks. The first pattern Type I jacket, made from light but wind-resistant 5.5-oz. OG-107 cloth, introduced the general characteristics that would remain consistent through each design: two inward-slanting chest pockets (withe pen pockets) and two cargo pockets over the hips, all covered with two-button flaps, though the exposed buttons were prone to snagging in the jungle.
In early 1965, a revision was authorized to amend these concerns by concealing the pocket buttons and reducing the buttons under the front fly from five to four, in addition to the exposed button at the collar. The 2nd pattern Type II retained the shoulder straps (epaulettes) and “take-in tabs” on the waist, though a slightly heavier 6-oz. cloth was authorized to better withstand wear and tear in the field.
The following year, the 3rd pattern Type III tropical combat uniform was designed with a more minimalist approach, removing the gas flap, epaulettes, and side tabs while also having a yoke across the back. Introduced late in 1966, the 3rd pattern was also the first to be produced in four-shade ERDL camouflage, designated “Class 2” as opposed to the olive green “Class 1” fatigues. The ERDL was originally designated for special forces units including pathfinders and reconnaissance teams before it was more widely adopted by infantrymen before the end of the decade. By then, the cotton poplin was replaced by a rip-stop cotton while other minor cosmetic adjustments continued.
Colonel Kilgore’s OG-107 poplin tropical combat jacket appears to be a modified version of the Type II (2nd pattern), evident by the side adjuster tabs, inner gas flap button, concealed pocket-flap buttons, and lack of a yoke. Curiously, his jacket also lacks the shoulder straps (epaulettes) characteristic to 2nd pattern jackets, which has led some to believe he wears a 3rd pattern jacket or—as Moore Militaria suggests—”a very rare transitional coat that never had the epaulettes.”
Kilgore’s insignia and badging across his shoulders, collar, and chest tell the story of his military service. His collar devices include the blackened metal oak leaf of a lieutenant collar on the right and the blackened crossed sabers indicating his branch of service in the United States Cavalry on his left.
Moore Militaria and Soldier of Fortune have recreated Kilgore’s badging in sets available for purchase online, including the “KILGORE” and “U.S. ARMY” black-on-OD name tape that he wears over his right and left chest pockets, respectively.
On his left shoulder, Kilgore wears the distinctive combat service identification badge (CSIB) shoulder sleeve insignia of the 1st Cavalry Division, consisting of a black silhouetted horse’s head positioned to the left of a bold black right-down-to-left stripe, or couped in sinister chief (in heraldic terms). Just above it, Kilgore wears the black-printed “RANGER” tab of the famous U.S. Army Rangers.
The rest of his badges are all “subdued” olive drab cloth with black embroidery. Above “KILGORE” on the right chest, he wears the South Vietnamese parachute qualification badge. Stacked on the left side of his chest, he wears the Combat Infantryman, Senior Army Aviator, and Basic Parachutist badges, though only this latter “jump wings” badge can be prominently seen as the other two fall under his flat collar.
One of the most distinctive elements of Kilgore’s uniform is his yellow cavalry scarf, the history of which has been comprehensively explored by CavHooah. The cavalry neckerchief or ascot was maintained through tradition as a symbol of 19th century Cav soldiers including Indian Scouts and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. CavHooah traced the most widespread practice dating back to the establishment of the U.S. Constabulary during the post-World War II occupation when 545th MP Company (1st Cavalry) soldiers wore yellow scarves to identify their unit, though it would take another 20 years before the Air Cavalry was created.
By that time, in 1966, the U.S. Army Concept Team in Vietnam (ACTIV) had developed an olive-hued cotton neckerchief (or sweat cloth) to be issued with the tropical combat uniform, serving purposes of protection from the elements as well as practical makeshift uses ranging from tourniquets to binding prisoners. According to IWM, “custom variants inevitably appeared, such as those made from camouflage parachute nylon or branch-colored cloth with unit-specific embroidery,” so it’s likely that proud Cav soldiers and officers like Colonel Kilgore would have sported neckerchiefs in the classic cavalry yellow. Kilgore’s neckerchief appears to have been pre-made in the shape it would be worn with a velcro-closure band in the back.
Over his jungle jacket, Kilgore wears a hefty black leather gun belt, similar to U.S. Army officers’ belts from the mid-to-late 19th century, albeit without the ornate eagle-embossed buckle as Kilgore fastens his belt with a large plain brass rectangular buckle. The belt has twelve cartridge loops around the left side, each loaded with a .45-caliber round though these appear to be the longer .45 Long Colt revolver cartridge rather than the .45 ACP cartridge that would fit the M1911A1-style pistol holstered on his right hip.
Kilgore wears the OG-107 cargo pants issued as part of the Tropical Combat Uniform, detailed with slanted side pockets, two flapped back pockets, and a flapped cargo pocket on the side of each thigh. All four flapped pockets have concealed buttons like the jacket, suggesting 2nd pattern trousers to match the modified 2nd pattern jacket.
The tropical combat fatigue pants were fitted with side adjuster tabs along the waistband—button tabs for the first and second patterns, sliding tabs for the third pattern onward—though Kilgore’s tabs are covered by the dark olive drab webbed belt he wears through the trouser belt loops. The belt has a plain brass slider buckle. The plain-hemmed bottoms have drawstring ankle ties are secured under the wearer’s feet and meant to be worn bloused over the boot tops.
Kilgore correctly tucks and blouses the trousers into his black leather boots, which have multiple buckled straps across the instep suggesting a tanker-style boot rather than the classic lace-up “jump boots” or the cotton canvas-and-leather “jungle boots” that had been authorized with tropical combat dress.
“Bring me my Yater Spoon, the 8’6″,” demands Kilgore, in anticipation of the six-foot peak he wants to ride. Kilgore proudly advocates for Yater, wearing a khaki cotton crew-neck T-shirt emblazoned with the company’s iconic “Yater Santa Barbara Surf Shop” logo.
“Reynolds ‘Renny’ Yater was one of the first commercial surfboard builders of the 1950s,” proclaims the official company history, describing Yater’s introduction of the Yater Spoon in 1965-66, thus giving Kilgore plenty of time to get his hands—er, feet—on one before Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) encountered him in the Vietnam jungle during the summer of ’69. The company capitalized on Duvall wearing their shirt on screen, reproducing the design in “military green” and “coyote brown” as worn by Titus Welliver on Bosch. You can find this reproduced T-shirt available from Beach House.
Kilgore’s signature Cavalry Stetson is another part of his kit decreed more by tradition than regulation, dating back to the typical Cav headgear from the late 18th century through the Civil War. John B. Stetson had not started making hats until his “Boss of the Plains” design quickly became a Cavalry standard around 1865, though the cavalrymen in the decades predating this had worn broad-brimmed cattleman’s hats with tall crowns.
As 20th century Cav soldiers looked to earlier tradition, black Stetson cattleman’s hats became unofficially adopted as preferred headgear to be regulated on a case-by-case basis by the unit commander… in Kilgore’s case, one imagines he had little hesitation about allowing use of the Cavalry Stetson given that he’s never seen without his, even when dressed down to his surf T-shirt or without any shirt at all!
Everett Kolto wrote in his essay “Armed Storytelling: The Weaponry of Apocalypse” (via ApocalypseNow101.com) that “despite every single one of his fellow soldiers hopping out of the aircraft with a weapon in hand, the Lt. Colonel emerges weaponless, unfazed by the chaotic warzone around him. Instead of taking a weapon, he chooses to put more of an importance on his own black hat, determined to not let it fly away in the artificial rotor wind. Kilgore’s hat is important: it resembles that of a late 19th century American Cavalryman straight out of the American Indian Wars.”
Kilgore adorns his black Cavalry Stetson with the gold plastic crossed sabers signifying his command in the 9th Cavalry Regiment, though I’ve read that this insignia curiously suggests an enlisted rank rather than that of a commissioned officer. On the first day of his acquaintanceship with Willard, he has the silver oak leaf denoting his rank of lieutenant colonel pinned above the crossed sabers, though he wears only the crossed sabers (and a larger set, at that) during the following day’s air assault. In addition to the black grosgrain band, Kilgore wears a black-and-gold acorn band with his earned “combat spurs”, the band representative of the cord that would have previously secured a cavalry scout’s horse.
Duvall’s screen-worn hat in black 4X fur felt was auctioned in October 2004, the listing still live on the BidAMI Auctions site, where more details are included:
Fashioned to a throw-back to the Civil War, it is a black felt Stetson calvary hat, size 7 1/2. A gold and black braid encircles the chapeau and is finished by gold bead tassels. Gold plastic crossed swords adorn the front of the head piece. The brim is 4 inches. A leather chin strap is attached on the inside. The leather sweatband is marked with the Stetson logo and “XXXX Stetson Authentic X’s.” The initials “R.D.” are handwritten on the inside of the hat, as well as “CC” and “7 1/2” in white marker.
Kilgore shields his eyes during the day with a pair of gold square-framed aviator sunglasses, likely the American Optical Flight Goggle 58, which had been developed in 1958 to meet the U.S. Air Force’s Type HGU-4/P specifications. These sunglasses were designed with a notably lighter frame than their predecessors with a semi-rectangular lens shape and straight, flex-friendly “bayonet” temples that could be comfortably worn with a flight helmet or other headgear while covering the wearer’s full field of vision. Though the AO-58 remains the “Original Pilot Sunglass”, Randolph Engineering had emerged as the U.S. Department of Defense’s prime contractor for Type HGU-4/P flight sunglasses by the early 1980s.
Kilgore maintains his tradition-influenced gear to the many accessories that complete his outfit.
The U.S. Army had been requiring double identification tags worn around the neck ever since introducing its circular aluminum discs in the years before World War I, and Kilgore correctly wears his metal “dog tags” on the appropriate ball-chain necklace. However, he also wears a sterling silver ID bracelet with wavy edges, secured to his right wrist via a chunky round-link chain, similar to the ID bracelets that U.S. service members had worn during World War II to supplement their dog tags.
Kilgore also wears a gold class ring with a ruby red stone that shines from the third finger of his left hand, almost certainly signifying graduation from a prominent military institution like West Point. A steel wristwatch with a round, light-colored dial fastens to his left wrist via a black strap.
As much a part of his image as the Cav Stetson and scarf, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore carries an M1911A1 semi-automatic pistol with flashy pearl grips prominently holstered—but never drawn—on his right hip. The 1911 series of pistols had been designed by John Browning and originally produced by Colt at the time they were first authorized for American military service just prior to World War I. It was during the mid-1920s that the M1911A1 variant was introduced, cosmetically differentiated by its curved mainspring housing and shorter trigger.
It could be argued that Kilgore endeavored to fashion himself after the famous General George S. Patton Jr., who notably carried his ivory-handled six-shooters into the field, though this was the same overnice flag officer who bitterly corrected a reporter on his choice of armament: “Son, only a pimp in a Louisiana whorehouse carries pearl-handled revolvers; these are ivory.”
Despite lacking the late General Patton’s endorsement, Kilgore’s keenly aware of the role his pearl-gripped pistol plays in crafting his image, eschewing the full-flapped M-1916 or M12 holsters approved for service in favor of a more open-topped design with only a single-snap thumb strap securing the pistol in place so that his mother-of-pearl handles with the faintly imprinted Air Cavalry logos can be seen in all their glory.
In “Armed Storytelling: The Weaponry of Apocalypse”, Everett Kolto writes: “Interestingly, Kilgore does have a handgun strapped to his belt, but without any motion or gesture towards it, it may as well not even be there. As it rests there in its holster, its purpose lost and forgotten, so too are the motive and purpose behind the Vietnam War. When Kilgore and the soldiers around him dive at his feet, flattening themselves and making themselves a harder target for incoming fire, Kilgore doesn’t budge as the camera shows him standing triumphantly over them, daring the enemy to try and take a shot at him. With no personal stake in the fight, why should he care?”
Despite their seemingly ceremonial purpose, Kilgore’s M1911A1 appears to have seen considerably usage as suggested by the blued finish wearing away in some places.
Kolto continues: “The only time Kilgore does take a weapon into his arms is to cover for the soldiers that he orders to change out their uniforms to get ready to surf; even then, he doesn’t attempt to use the rifle as his reluctance towards engaging the enemy becomes clearer. A fully automatic rifle capable of taking down handfuls of enemies with a single clip sits there in the palm of his hand, but he merely tosses it aside off screen. He then proceeds to call in a wave of bombers, not to deliver a strategic strike on enemy forces, but to give the troops some extra protection for surfing. Kilgore trivializes the more traditional weapons around him, dismissing them as nothing more than tools for his own entertainment. The rifle lays in the sand, discarded.”
The rifle in question is a variant of the M16 battle rifle, freshly approved for U.S. military service in 1964 and authorized for jungle warfare in Vietnam the following year, chambered for the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge. The rifle Kilgore picks up has a curved thirty-round box magazine.
The eagle-eyed experts at IMFDB identified the exact variant as a unique M16 (SP1) with its original “slickside” upper receiver (lacking a forward assist) and a M16A1-style lower receiver (a raised “full fence” around the magazine release button). This configuration would have been correct for the the Colt Model 604 variant then fielded by the U.S. Air Force but not for the Army, though it’s most likely that the rifle itself was a commercially available Colt AR-15 SP1 rifle converted to fire fully automatic and modified by a movie armorer to resemble a military M16.
At the end of the day, the only gun that matters to Kilgore is his board, the eight-foot, six-inch Yater Spoon:
If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, Captain, it’s safe to surf this beach!
After all… Charlie don’t surf.
Colonel Kilgore’s Tropical Combat Uniform
I know I don’t have to warn any BAMF Style readers against stealing valor by appropriating military uniforms or badging… but you know what would be a safe bet if you want to channel Colonel Kilgore? A black Stetson, a surf shop T-shirt, gold aviators, and green cargo pants!
- Olive green (OG-107) 6-ounce cotton sateen U.S. Army Tropical Combat Uniform, Type II
- Modified “jungle jacket” with 5-button fly front (with inner gas flap), slanted flapped bellows chest pockets (with two concealed buttons), flapped bellows hip pockets (with two concealed buttons), button-adjuster side tabs, and button cuffs with gauntlets
- Fatigue pants with belt loops, side adjuster waist tabs, slanted side pockets, flapped cargo pockets, flapped back pockets, and ankle ties
- Dark olive drab cotton web belt with brass slider buckle
- Black leather gun belt with brass rectangular buckle, right-side holster and left-side cartridge loops
- Black leather tanker-style boots with buckled instep straps
- Black fur felt Cavalry Stetson cattleman’s hat with black grosgrain band, black-and-gold acorn corded band with “combat spurs”, and pinned rank and unit insignia
- American Optical (AO) Original Pilot FG-58 military aviator sunglasses with squared gold frames and straight “bayonet” temples
- Yellow cotton cavalry scarf
- Silver dog tags
- Sterling silver ID bracelet
- Gold class ring with ruby red stone
- Steel wristwatch with round light-colored dial on black strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, though several versions have been released: the theatrical Apocalypse Now released in 1979, the extended Apocalypse Now Redux that appeared in 2001, and Coppola’s ultimate Apocalypse Now Final Cut released for the film’s 40th anniversary.
I love the smell of napalm in the morning.