By John H. Foote
On film, by 1986 Vietnam had become a comic book war won single-handedly by action heroes John Rambo or Chuck Norris. The searing truth seen in Coming Home (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) had given way to the macho swaggering of Rambo: First Blood II (1985), Missing in Action – Part 1and 2 (1986-87) and Uncommon Valour (1983), silly irresponsible films that trivialized the war, turning it into a testosterone video game.
It had taken so long for the war in Vietnam to come to movie screens, it was bizarre that the gritty realism of those seventies film was replaced by the ballsy jingoistic patriotism in the eighties’ films. Quite often the men returned to Vietnam to try and win the war they had lost. Kill, kill, kill, win, win, win. When John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is heading back to Vietnam to rescue some POW’s he actually asks his commanding officer, “Do we get to win this time.” I laughed out loud.
Turned down by the studios several times to make his film Platoon, Oliver Stone finally found success as a writer, adapting Midnight Express (1978) and earning an Oscar. He continued writing such films as Scarface (1983) and Year of the Dragon (1985) before finding funding for his projects in England with Hemdale Productions. After a minor critical and box office success with Salvador (1986), Stone directed and wrote Platoon which became a pop cultural smash. Made for just under eight million dollars the film grossed over two hundred million and earned rave reviews. Essays decorated the covers of Time and Newsweek, and Stone was suddenly the most acclaimed Director in movies, with both Platoon and Salvador in the race for Academy Awards. By Oscar time there was no question the film and director were going to win, and win they did.
At once those stupid action films set in Vietnam ceased as Stone plunged audiences into a hyper realistic vision of Vietnam that he, as a young patriot, had experienced. This was the jungle as we had not seen it: insects, deadly snakes, stifling heat, pounding rain, malaria drenched ponds, and booby traps meant to kill or maim. And in the trees, among the weeds and grasses, were the Viet Cong, armed and deadly. Stone makes clear the argument you cannot kill what you cannot see and the Viet Cong were masters of being invisible. They wore twigs and branches on their helmets to blend in, and moved in tunnels beneath the earth, booby trapping them when finished with them.
Of course, the greatest danger the Americans faced in that war were themselves. Their rash abuse of power, their blood lust and most of all their pure terror drove them to terrible abuses of power, dreadful violence. Stone explores such moments in his film when the platoon comes upon a village after finding one of their men slaughtered. When they leave, they do so, leaving destruction in their wake.
Seen through the eyes of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) from the moment he steps into the blistering heat, he of course is Oliver Stone, the idealistic young man who volunteered for duty, and very quickly realizes the mistake he has made. Hacking through the jungle exhausts him, the ants bite constantly, and his first fire fight is terrifying.
Under two young sergeants Taylor serves, the first Elias (Willem Defoe) is a decent, fair young man who believes America will lose the war. Elias has a kindness within him, his serious tone disarmed by a full, toothy smile; Taylor likes him at once.
Barnes (Tom Berenger) is the opposite of Elias. Heavily scarred from combat, his face is a map of pain from the rough hastily stitched scars and his soul has gone black. Something within Barnes has disconnected from humanity and though the men admire his courage, they also realize he is self destructive, and his fearlessness is driven through a death wish. He hates the enemy, does not see them as human beings, and he loves war.
Both men seem at war for possession for Taylors’ soul as he says at the end of the film. When Elias dies a most horrible death, seemingly wounded by the Viet Cong who surround him and fire round after round into his shattered body, Taylor realizes Barnes had something to do with his death and refuses to let it go.
Leaving Vietnam, Taylor recognizes his path has forever been altered by his experiences in Vietnam, for good and bad. Bloody, wounded his soul forever scarred he leaves the war the boy who would become the angry filmmaker Oliver Stone.
The stunning box office success of the film caught everyone involved with the film off guard, especially Stone who suddenly was a household name. Though the film won none of the major critic’s awards in LA or NY, it conquered the Golden Globes, Stone won the Directors Guild Of America Award as Best Director, and the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, twice for Best Supporting Actor (Berenger, Defoe) and Screenplay. It would win the aforementioned Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound and Best Film Editing.
If the film has a signature sequence it is the seething invasion and subsequent attack on the village. Led by Barnes’ unbridled rage, the soldiers spill out, killing, maiming and attacking, leaving the village in flames and ruins. Elias arrives and attacks Barnes, and at once we see the real war, the one between the Americans fighting for right and wrong. Meant as a metaphor for the My Lai massacre, the sequence explores power gone made, young men with weapons suddenly having the power of life and death. Anyone who has seen the film knows the sequence I speak of and it has lost none of its riveting power.
Flawed only by a weak central performance by Charlie Sheen, simply out of his element and depth as an actor, especially against Dafoe, Berenger, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, and a haunted Johnny Depp. Not weak enough to hurt the power of the film, perhaps it was intended by Stone, who knows? Many stars emerged from the film; Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp among them. The young Hollywood crew got a rude awakening with the boot camp, conducted by former marine Dale Dye. Stunned by the conditions they were forced to live in, there was open rebellion, quelled by the older actors who reminded them of the film they could be making, and that truth was paramount.
Does film hold up 33 years later?
To a degree, but there is always the spectre of self indulgence that is Charlie Sheen. These days his very face and presence draws snickers and revulsion, and if he could I am sure Stone would recast if he had to do it over again. Still, the raw, visceral power cannot be denied.
Stone went on to an impressive career, winning a second Academy Award for Born on the Fourth Of July (1989), the true story of combat vet Ron Kovic, played forcefully in the film by Tom Cruise, and JFK (1991) an electrifying study of the many theories of who killed President Kennedy, making a compelling and likely true statement that Kennedy, like Caesar died at the hands of his senate. Perhaps the least likely of his great films was Nixon (1995), a brilliant, surprisingly honest and sympathetic look at the disgraced President, portrayed in the film superbly by Anthony Hopkins.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.