|‘The first casualty of war is innocence.’
Released: November 21st, 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Keith David, ForestWhitaker
I saw plenty of war movies as a kid such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket. I also saw plenty of action movies such as First Blood and Lethal Weapon. What ties these two sets of films together is the theme of the experience of the American soldier in the Vietnam War, during and afterwards. While they all made for good drama, memorable action sequences, quotable dialogue and (in the infamous case of The Deer Hunter) life-imitating-art, Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Platoonsurpassed all of them. A surpassing that was birthed from Stone’s own first-hand harrowing experience as a combat infantryman during that war.
is told from the point-of-view of Chris Taylor (played by Charlie Sheen), a college dropout from a well-to-do background. Significantly based on Stone, Taylor volunteers to join the U.S. Army, lured by the glamorous notion of combat and glory (while rationalizing his enlistment as a response to class discrimination in the draft, “I figured why should just the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids always get away with it?
“). Upon arriving in Vietnam
in September of 1968, he learns almost immediately that he may have made a mistake by joining Bravo Company, 25th Infantry.
At first, Taylor
is forced to learn on his own how to survive in the jungle. Through his eyes, the politics of the ranking officers in his platoon is evident. The platoon commander, Lt. Wolfe (Mark Moses) has no combat experience, is indecisive and heavily relies on his non-commissioned officers for the decision making: The ambivalent Sgt. Warren (Tony Todd), the cowardly Sgt. O’Neill (John C. McGinley), the compassionate Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Staff Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), the brutal platoon sergeant. Both Barnes and Elias have served 4 tours of duty in ‘Nam
. And while Elias is a war-hardened hippie, he never succumbed to Barnes’ brutality towards human life (enemy or otherwise). Taylor
is assigned to Elias’ squad and the dichotomy of the platoon becomes evident with Barnes as head of one side and Elias on the other. See the video below (NSFW Language)
casting his lot with Elias, he becomes a capable soldier over the course of the next few months and becomes part of the platoon. His turning point was when the group comes across a farmer’s village harboring enemy weapons and supplies. The men had lost three of their soldiers hours earlier and take out their aggression on the villagers. It culminates in a series of unspeakable acts that split the platoon down the middle.
Staff Sgt. Barnes and Sgt. Elias. Berenger and Dafoe both gained Oscar nods for their respective roles.
The battle scenes with the American soldiers against the enemy take up a good chunk of the story, but they’re executed as essential without being gratuitous. But the heart of the story is in the platoon’s morale seen through Taylor‘s eyes. Despite his allegiance and friendship with Elias, Taylor is influenced by him and Barnes. At one point, before regaining composure, he is briefly overtaken by Barnes’ vengefulness against civilians potentially harboring enemy soldiers. In another instance, he stops fellow soldiers from raping a Vietnamese child (to drive the point home, they chide him for it). As more of the platoon soldiers are killed and injured, the final battle takes all of them to a conclusion that leaves them all scarred in more ways than one.
This film won four Academy Awards and had two nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category (Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe). This was Charlie Sheen’s first serious role that garnered him a level of fame that shot light-years past his father (Martin Sheen) and his brother (Emilio Estevez). He portrayed Chris with such a convincing naiveté that Sheen almost had me fooled when he answers “yes” after Dafoe’s character asked him if that was his first time smoking pot.
Willem Dafoe portrays Sgt. Elias as a capable officer who is disillusioned with America
‘s presence in Vietnam
. He is compassionate, intelligent, and deadly in combat. Many of the men under his command endear themselves to him because he hasn’t lost his humanity despite all that he’s seen. His personality rubs off on his men. As does his look:
See the resemblance?
But the yin to Elias’ yang is Barnes. A battle-scarred staff sergeant with four years of experience in ‘Nam, Barnes is the kind of killing machine the United States wanted at the time. Callous and brutal, he views his platoon as a well-oiled machine that only works when the men do as they’re told. He respects experience and is shown to have more respect for his Captain (Dale Dye) than the youthful, indecisive Lt. Wolfe.
Future stars rounded out the rest of the platoon, each of them bringing life to their characters, no matter how good or repugnant. Stand-outs were Johnny Depp, Keith David, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn, Corey Glover, John C. McGinley, and Kevin Dillon.
Dillon’s 19-year-old Bunny may seem like your typical psychotic soldier, but his was a stand-out performance among that crowd because of his chilling yet blunt explanation regarding all of his gleefully horrendous actions the audience had been subjected to up to that point.
Stone wanted to make the acting as authentic as possible, so all of the actors were subjected to boot-camp conditions and lived in the Philippine jungle for 14 weeks of filming, living and subsiding as American soldiers did during Vietnam
. That level of enforced method acting paid off, along with Stone’s meticulous attention to every conceivable visual and sound, lending further credence to his film’s authenticity.
Forest Gump wasn’t even a movie about Vietnam, but it had one of the best war action sequences ever. But Platoon had three. The kind that makes you mimic the scenes in your living room as they happen on screen. The gunshots and explosions were done in such a manner that it actually immerses the viewer on a sensory level. Pivotal death scenes were accentuated with a well-known violin score that would still be a tear-jerker if this film were played in theatres today.
|Explosions to the sound of violins.
I won’t post any Youtube videos of the action scenes, you’d have to see them for yourself. Most vets who served in combat verify the realism of those scenes while casual viewers decry it as cartoonish violence. I myself am a casual viewer and don’t compartmentalize every movie explosion as cartoonish simply because the majority of explosions I’ve seen on TV have been provided courtesy of cartoon programming.
I have no problem with the movie, even after seeing it multiple times as an adult with greater understanding of the Vietnam War. However, the novelization of the film (written by Dale Dye) did a better job expanding on the characters. He gave them full names and backgrounds, along with sufficient dialogue that gave insight into their personalities.
: 5 out 5 Arnolds
This was perhaps the most definitive movie ever made about the Vietnam War, mostly because it was made by Vietnam
veteran. The weapons, lingo, cigarettes and even the inner politics of the platoon have been confirmed as genuine from folks who’ve been there. It has replay value and I recommend it to those who like action and drama that serves a point.
Although based on true events, Platoon serves as a fantasy for the viewer. Films with fighting and action allow viewers to project themselves in place of the dominant character. Though there are scarce female characters, I view it as masculine without being overtly macho. Part of what endears me to this film is the level of masculine escapism it provides. Almost akin to professional wrestling, it’s male fantasy.
Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Francesco Quinn & Kevin Dillon
Written By Sy
Sy L. Shackleford is jack-of-all-trades columnist for Action A Go Go. A UConn graduate with a degree in both psychology and communication sciences, he is a walking encyclopedic repository for all things Marvel Comics, hip-hop, et. al. He also writes reviews for hip-hop albums which can be viewed on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/sy.shackleford