Saturday, July 11, 2015
(December 1986, U.S.)
The original trailer for Oliver Stone's PLATOON calls it "the first real film about the war in Vietnam". That's not to suggest that PLATOON is the first, however. Vietnam War films date back as far as 1967 with a film called THE GREEN BERETS with John Wayne just when we were in the thick of it. This film, however, was considered very anti-communist and very pro-Vietnam with a very gung-ho theme and attitude that would have been likely considered outdated since World War II. In other words, hardly very real at all! In the 1970s, Micheal Cimino gave us THE DEER HUNTER (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola gave us APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). While these are two of the most extraordinary war films ever made, they focused their attention on very unique individuals in very unique tales against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, without specifically concentrating on the general themes of the American solider at war and his comradery with other fellow soldiers in the battlefield. During the first half of the 1980s, our only real (and unfortunate) guides to the plight and turmoils of the Vietnam vet came in the form of Chuck Norris (MISSING IN ACTION) and Sylvester Stallone (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD-PART II). Stone, a Vietnam combat vet himself, chose to tell a story based on his own experiences in the field of battle, as well as the brothers of war he formed bonds with. In PLATOON, these are not particularly special or extraordinary men. They are simple men from simple places in American who are just trying to survive day by day while fighting for their country's freedom (at least that's what they choose to believe at the time). And yet, these are men you're likely to never forget when the film is over.
Charlie Sheen, back when he may have been considered an actor to be taken seriously, plays Chris Taylor (hey, that was the name of one of my college roomates!), who has dropped out of college to "do his part" because he doesn't feel only the poor kids should have to be the ones who go to war. An idealist, to be sure, and a young man of almost complete innocence when he first arrives in Vietnam. As we all know, because we've seen enough war films to know, innocence is the first thing to go in one's soul if they can manage to physically survive the horrors of the battlefield. The battle scenes themselves are fast paced and full of good combat action. But within Taylor's platoon is a private civil war as half the men believe in the more decent morals of Sergeant Elias (played by Willem DaFoe), while the other half prefer to side with the more hard-ass, immoral behavior of Sergeant Barnes (played by Tom Berrenger), a man who's been shot multiple times, has many battle scars on his face and seems to refuse to die without a fight. Stone, who's character of Taylor may have been somewhat based on himself at that time in his life, shows us the slow character development of Taylor as his innocence slowly and gradually turns to ugliness, aggressiveness and outright murder in the end. The transformation can be seen as physical, as well. At the beginning of his tours in the jungle, Taylor still looks like a decent man of morals...
By the end, however, he's become a ruthless killing machine for the simple reason that the horrors of war and the men who decide what is right and what is wrong have turned him into such a man...
And yet, even when it's all over and Taylor is on his way home, he can't help but cry out his frustrations and narrate to us that his soul, his sanity and his humanity have been the true enemy of war and that he will likely spend the rest of his life trying to reclaim it and return to the decent, caring individual we met at the beginning of the film. One can only wonder if these were the horrific demons that Oliver Stone himself struggled with as a soldier before he finally had to courage to tell his story on film. His story, to its credit, and unlike some other films of war, is at a ground level view and shows us a no-holds-barred vision of not only war itself, but its casualties on men and their relationships with other men in the field. PLATOON may not have been the first, but it's surely one of the best and opened the door for many others tales of Vietnam on film in the 1980s that included FULL METAL JACKET, HAMBURGER HILL and even GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM (all released in 1987). I suppose that just goes to show that it takes a good twenty years before Hollywood (as well as ordinary Americans) are ready to face the ugly side of war, as well as our own history, no matter how faulted it may be.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Chris Taylor (voice-over): "I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days as I'm sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession of my soul. There are times since, I've felt like the child born of those two fathers. But, be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know, and to try with what's left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life."