By John H. Foote
21. PLATOON (1986)
By the mid-eighties films about American involvement and the Vietnam war had been reduced to comic book stories, usually depicting the Americans going back to the country to bring back men left there as prisoners of war or to deal with unfinished business. Films such as Rambo – First Blood II (1985), Uncommon Valor (1983), Let’s Get Harry (1983) and the Chuck Norris Missing in Action franchise were very much comic book versions of what the war truly was.
Vietnam made its appearance in mainstream Hollywood film vaguely in Taxi Driver (1976) where the mad cab driver Travis (Robert De Niro) was a Vietnam veteran. Was that responsible for his break from society? His madness? Two years later Coming Home (1978) explored the impact on the men coming home after the war, winning three Academy Award for its genius. The Deer Hunter (1978) won five Academy Awards for its depiction of small town America, before and after the war, the celebrated middle section showing the men at war. Controversy surrounded The Deer Hunter, as I have written about previously, because of Cimino’s plethora of lies about his service in the war. He did not serve, but claimed what he witnessed as a Green Beret was in the film.
The greatest film made about the war in Vietnam was released in 1979, the stunning Apocalypse Now, which was a surrealistic journey through the war and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, directed with bold fury by Francis Ford Coppola.
It was just a few short years after the release of Coppola’s film that these comic actioners started flowing out of Hollywood, lasting about 10 years before Platoon ended them.
A young screenwriter, Oliver Stone, had won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Midnight Express (1978) which made him the hottest writer in movies. He was set to have his screenplay to Born on the Fourth of July produced with Al Pacino in 1979 when funding fell through, leaving him to go on to write Scarface (1983) and Year of the Dragon (1985). When he pitched two films to Hemdale Pictures out of Britain, he first decided to direct Salvador (1986) so he could learn more about directing, which he did, but then followed it with Platoon (1986), which was based directly on his experiences in Vietnam. Stone had won two Purple Hearts in Vietnam on two tours of duty, thus his experiences, unlike Cimino’s, were very real.
From the first seconds of the incendiary, extraordinary film we are, like the soldiers just arriving (fresh meat), plunged into the heat, the inferno and madness of Vietnam. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is part of a platoon and very soon he is hacking his way through the jungle, on point, which he says is the hardest thing he had ever done. Biting ants crawl into his clothing and feast on him, his pack is loaded down with things the army assigned him but that he does not need, and the intense heat overwhelms him, bringing him to faint. The kindly Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) instructs him and takes over point for him, but that night the platoon is attacked and the man that came in with Taylor is killed. Though one of the men tries to blame Taylor, the other Sgt., the sadistic but gifted soldier Barnes (Tom Berenger), knows better. His face a roadmap of scars, Barnes is fearless, loves the war, but more loves the power it gives him over the men and mankind. Together Barnes and Elias make up a Jekyll and Hyde of the men who fought in Vietnam, one a moral decent warrior, the other nothing of the kind, but a great warrior, a born soldier.
The days for Taylor consist of marching through the jungle, fire fights and many discussions with the men. He befriends the men who smoke pot, including Elias, and many of the black soldiers. The other group are pure redneck, with Barnes very much a part of their circle. Taylor will comment later that Barnes and Elias seemed in constant war over his soul, which neither would take possession of, yet each would alter him in every way.
After the kidnapping and murder of Manny, Barnes moves towards a village he believes is hiding Viet Cong, and he might be right, but what happens there is total blood lust. Taylor is caught up in the madness for the first time, hitting a dim witted young cripple, shooting at his feet to make him dance, until the deeply psychotic, terrified Bunny (Kevin Dillon) beats the boy to death with the butt of his rifle, joyous that the boys head splits open. The sequence unfolds like a reminder of My Lai, and is terrifying. Barnes shoots a wailing woman dead, leaving her child motherless and to cry herself, and he is about to kill a child when Elias shows up and attacks Barnes for what he has done. Everything Barnes has done is against what the Americans were sent to Vietnam to do, like Ahab chasing Moby Dick, Barnes is drunk and obsessed with his quest for the enemy, clearly not this village. Before they leave the tiny village, they torch it, carrying any small children with them to safer grounds, but their homes are gone, nonetheless. Waking up that morning the villagers had no idea what was coming at them, and they would never forget it either.
Now sworn enemies, Barnes and Elias clearly hate one another but are still on the same side. Despite this, when Elias goes into the jungle to take out some Viet Cong, Barnes goes after him to bring him back for the evacuation chopper on the way, but rather than helping him he shoots him. Running back to the chopper alone, he tells Taylor and the men Elias was dead in the jungle. But as the chopper lifts off rising high over the ground, they see Elias running through the jungle with Viet Cong in hot pursuit, shooting him to pieces. Reaching to the heavens as his last breath escapes him, Elias dies, leaving Taylor knowing Barnes killed him.
He tries to rally the men to lash back against Barnes, but overhearing the conversation, Barnes intimidates Taylor into attacking him, but ever the soldier, Barnes throws him to the ground and draws a knife, prepared to use it. Barnes laughs and leaves the men alone for his Jack Daniels.
The final battle, after men from the platoon have gone home, have been killed, is a study in the madness that was Vietnam, that is combat. Chaotic, disorganized, no method to any of it really, until the napalm drop kills both Americans and Viet Cong. Taylor finds Barnes, terribly wounded again crawling, looking for a medic, but instead, Taylor kills him for Elias. Himself wounded, for the second time Taylor is lifted by helicopter, now going home. The war has torn his soul apart, and he is not the same idealistic kid he was when he arrived. How many other young men went home like Taylor? Damaged, perhaps for the rest of their lives. Yes he represents Stone, no question, but after doing what he did in combat, from the one-legged boy to Barnes, can he ever be the same?
Platoon opened like an explosion in North America, a huge success at the box office. Made for just under $8 million, it would gross more than $200 million, making Stone, finally, a major filmmaker in Hollywood. The performances in the film were, aside from one, to the man are excellent, though in fairness, Charlie Sheen’s work has not aged well. The work of Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger was superb, each creating different men, each being very much part of Taylor’s experience. There were superb performances from an array of young actors on the rise in Hollywood including 2006 Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp, Kevin Dillon, and Keith David. Stone put the actors through a boot camp with war trainer Dale Dye and by the time they hit the set, they were ready for the hardships of war.
Audiences came in waves to see the film, critics were kind and gracious to it, perhaps happy to see a film that portrayed Vietnam with honesty. For this kind of film, an intense drama it was a huge box office hit.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director, two nominations for Best Supporting Actor – both Berenger and Dafoe – and Best Original screenplay. On Oscar night, the film won four Academy Awards, echoing what had taken place at the Golden Globes a few weeks earlier, with Best Picture and Best Director wins. In addition, Platoon won Oscars for Best Film Editing and Best Sound and had many champions in the audience, including Jane Fonda, the most famous spokesperson against the war in American during the sixties and seventies, who heartily admitted to loving the film. Though there had been love for The Deer Hunter a few years earlier, it had been tainted by the fact reporters discovered many lies in Michael Cimino’s past, making his presentation of his truth very suspect. Stone had the medals, he had the history, what he gave audiences was frank, hard hitting and real, possessed with blistering power and startling realism. More so than any film about this war before it, Platoon was the most frank and visceral film ever made about this ugly, vile war. Stone is relentless is showing that young boys were sent to Vietnam and slaughtered, those that made it out with their lives very fortunate. As Chris Taylor is being airlifted out of the war zone, he knows he is going home, but that he is going home to a very different life, and that he is a very different man.
Stone made no allusions the film was based on his experiences in the war, which made the power of the film all the more powerful. This was not mere American patriotism, or a study of war, this was real, angry, powerful and a nightmare come alive. When someone is shot, the bullets tear through them, often killing them dead an in instant. Torture takes place, atrocities are committed by both the enemy and the Americans, many who are drunk with power in irresponsible hands.
In the grand scheme of the great war films, Platoon was not the finest, but it was an exceptional film, which could not be denied. The following year Stanley Kubrick gave audiences his version of Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket (1987) and two years later Stone revisited Vietnam in the remarkable Born on the Fourth of July (1989), a long simmering screenplay based on the experiences of Ron Kovic, portrayed by Tom Cruise in the film. And Stone returned a third to Vietnam on screen, though this time he focused on the other side in Heaven and Earth (1993), which failed to interest in audiences.
There was something haunting about Vietnam, something that stayed with audiences long after the film ended. I think it might have been a recognition of the intense loss of innocence that came to America with the war, young men right out of school plunged into the jungle and told to kill.
Unforgettable is the first scene with Chris landing in Vietnam. The heat hits him like a blazing inferno, and soldiers going home walk past, one of them hitting him with a dead eyed stare that seemed to pity him, arriving just now. What that man has saw will be the nightmares Chris lives with all his life. The wind stirred by the chopper blades blows the tarps covering the dead on the strip, many of them mangled and rotting, horrifying the new men who see them. In the brief seconds of arriving, they see the horrors they are about to face, or imagine the unimaginable, that will immerse them in hell. Stone drops us in the inferno of Vietnam, and its dark, exquisite beauty is astonishing. A huge new talent had arrived.
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.