Platoon (1986) Oliver Stone’s Iconic Vietnam Movie


Platoon is one of those war movies I have seen quite a few times and every time I discover something new. It’s one of those which has stayed among my Top 10 after each viewing, I never even considered to remove it like I did with some of the others.

It’s a powerful anti-war and anti-Vietnam movie. There is no doubt about Oliver Stone’s position. Stone is a veteran of the Vietnam war, Platoon was the first in his Vietnam trilogy, Born on the 4th of July and Heaven and Earth were the other two.

Reviewing it seems odd as I have a feeling it’s one of the most famous war movies and almost everybody who likes war movies knows the story to some degree. I will therefore only give a very short summary.

Chris (Charlie Sheen) volunteers to go to Vietnam. He is a college student unlike most of the others who are in his company and wouldn’t have had to join up but since his father fought in WWII and his grandfather in WWI he felt it was his duty. He is the typical naive recruit, one of those who usually get killed in the first week but he survives. He learns a few things which will help him to survive and looses a lot of his illusions.

The main story is certainly Chris’ transformation only I never saw it as that before. It’s only now that I’ve watched it for the third time that I realize how important it is. Until now, the story that I was most interested in was the story between the morally good Stg Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the bad Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger). Barnes represents everything I hate in a character while Elias is – together with Lt David Manning from When Trumpets Fade – my favourite war movie character. Barnes shows the worst aspects of the war in Vietnam while Elias shows the best. The fight and hatred between the two makes for intense viewing.

Barnes and Elias never get along and after a massacre in a village they become open enemies. Based on a true event (My Lay Massacre), the massacre is one of the most sickening scenes I have seen in any war movie.  

Elias is a saviour figure or sacrificial hero and, as I have written elsewhere (see below), it’s not surprising he was cast as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, just like Caviezel was cast as Christ after having been in The Thin Red Line in a similar saviour role.

Many elements speak for the comparison of Elias and Christ. The most obvious is the iconic poster showing him with his arms outstretched. In the movie there are different instances which emphasize this further. One person says that he thinks Elias is Christ, Barnes says of him that Elias is one of those who think they can walk on water. And there are more.

What I had forgotten is the character of Chris who is at first naive and then gets swept away by the collective acts of violence. This shocks him, it shocks him to see that he is capable of such violence at all. I think that at the end, Chris is the most important character as he is neither black nor white but just an “ordinary good” guy who becomes violent under certain circumstances. What is interesting is the fact that the movie shows that he cannot go back to the state he was in before he acted brutally. This seems crucial too and is exemplified by his final actions.

Platoon is certainly a must-see war movie and will always be one of my favourites.

Platoon is a war movie to which I return frequently and I’ve written a bout it quite a few times before:

Is Platoon a War Movie?

History versus Story or Platoon versus Hamburger Hill

Obnoxious and Unlikable War Movie Characters

My Favourite War Movie Character

Christ and the War Movie Hero

22 thoughts on “Platoon (1986) Oliver Stone’s Iconic Vietnam Movie

  1. the war movie buff says:

    Agree on everything. I am also a big fan. I tend to focus on the small unit dynamics where the platoon is divided between the Barnes/conservatives/hawks/boozers vs. the Elias/liberals/doves/dopers. Chris is meant to be torn between the two, but actually leans clearly to the Elias group.

    • Yes, he does but what also surprised, I never even üpaid attention to the commanding offocer so far. If he wasn’t so weak and such a typical example of lack of leadership, the other two couldn’t get so caugth up…
      It one of those movies you can watch several times, there is always a new angle to discover.

  2. the war movie buff says:

    The Lt. was kind of clicheish. Typical green officer hoping to get some combat time to advance his career. Usually those types would let the sergeant run things, but in this case there were two sergeants so it was more complicated.

    • Maybe he was clicheish. I thought it had a bit of WWI theme going. The one with the higher education and socila backgroud was in charge despite the fact he was clueless. But maybe that’s just typical of the military?

    • If I can ‘butt’ in rudely 😉

      Officer – especially junior officer ‘rotated’ in and out of units a lot more frequently than enlisted soldiers during the period of the war. Whilst a soldier had 364 and a ‘wakey’ junior officers spent up to 6 months with a unit in the field before rotating away to another, usually a staff job, elsewhere. This was in order to gain as much valuable combat experience for the officer corps. So platoon commanders were very green and inexperienced – plus they would be a lot younger than grizzled Sgt’s with multiple tours under their belts. It would be a very intimidating experience for some of these young blokes.

  3. Great Movie but one thing I found curious was how remarkably similar its story was to the book ‘Tiger Force’, released in 2006 by Investigative journalist Michael Sallah (who won a Pulitzer for his articles on this investigation) based on the real life action of a unit of the 101st Airborne in Vietnam in 1967. You read the book and the characters from Platoon jump out at you. Its uncanny.

    • That’s interesting but not impossible. Stone based it on his own experience. Was there no link mentioned? That would be odd.

      • No, my lazy 2 minute ‘research’ via wikipedia shows the same year (1967) but Stone was in the 25th Infantry Div then 1st Cav whilst ‘Tiger Force’ was a specially setup unit of the 101st Airborne by the infamous Colonel David Hackworth.

        If you get ahold of the book and read it I guarantee as you read it you’ll be thinking….’I’ve seen this movie’….and I would recommend reading it as it is a very well researched book and very frank and candid about what went on.

      • I’m certainly glad for the suggestion and might read it at some point.
        Maybe there were many similar stories or Stone has incorporated what he heard and not only what he experineced first hand.

  4. nem baj says:

    Oh well, if Platoon is ‘anti-war’, that should make (De Palma & Stone’s) Scarface ‘anti-drugs’, shouldn’t it?

    It’s a good movie and I don’t doubt the intentions of the director are sincere, however neither war in general, nor the Vietnam war, are questioned in this film. Everybody thinks it’s a job that has to be done, and the only quarrel is over style.

    Surely, the Liberals (to follow up on Kevin’s opposition) are sexier. Elias is simply too attractive for somebody like Chris, who obviously had a rather square education. Now, at the time he could have met characters like Elias in civilian life. Woodstock, perhaps?

    As much as I do appreciate the attempt of Platoon to celebrate, through this coming-of-age story, the victory of the Liberals over the hearts and minds of… young Americans, in the context of war I’d rather follow Barnes.

    • I think it is very anti-war and not only about “get the job” done at all. It’s just hidden under the Elias/Barnes story. I never really payed that much attention to this before either.

      • nem baj says:

        Of course it’s only my opinion – but I would be interested if you could elaborate on yours. How is Platoon “anti-war”?

      • It shows that war can turn people into monsters, and I’m not talking about Barnes at all. I mean the secen in the village in which Christ beats a disabled Vietnamese man. it alos clearly shows that there is no turning back when he kills Barnes in the end. You ould certainly argue that it’s not ant-war but anti-violence.
        Then there are discussions between Chris and Elias in which it’s clear that Elias doesn’t believe there is a good reason for being there and there are other instances like that. I don’t think it’s in any way ambiguous like Full Metal Jacket.

  5. nem baj says:

    About the massacre at the village: Chris seems more frightened than anything else, and it is presented as an isolated incident, not a strategy nor a habit. Criminal? Obviously. But ‘monster’ is too strong a word for me.

    And nobody leaves. Not Elias. Not Chris. It has happened, though, in Vietnam like in every war – soldiers refusing to fight. Not them. And what happens? Elias dies in a way that seems to sum up his mystical side; Chris becomes a man from the boy he was. Two rather positive outcomes…

    I’m writing this because I watched yesterday Drums Along the Mohawk, an excellent Ford movie about the American Revolution. Henry Fonda delivers a truly dismal account of his first battle (including that he was horrified when he realized that his best friend seemed to actually enjoy killing enemies). It’s a very powerful moment of cinema, it says something about the effect of violence… but throughout the film, much as in Platoon, war itself is never challenged.

    PS: I don’t find Full Metal ambiguous at all: ‘Joker’ thinks he can outsmart the system, but in the end he can’t, he’s trapped into it. It is pessimistic, but it’s a clear warning.

    • I find Full Metal Jacket ambiguous because I know there are fan groups who glorify it.
      Animal Mother is one of the charcaters which seesm to encourage this. Maybe the movie wasn’t menat like that at all and depending on who watches it, there is no doubting it but there is a pro-violence, pro -war fraction which enjoys it very much for the wrong reasons.
      Yes “monster” is strong but I didn’t mean Chris, I meant some of the other soldiers who explicitly say several times “I came here to shoot gooks”. And this as well, is for me very anti-war.
      Drums Along the Mohawk sounds interesting. You’re still in your John Ford phase then.

      • nem baj says:

        Oh well, at the movies some of us (or perhaps some part of any of us) will always fall in for the Villain, won’t they? ‘Animal Mother’ makes a good one, although he’s only a supporting character.

        That people should actually enjoy the education to violence depicted in Full Metal Jacket, whose results are either that men dive into it (Animal), end up trapped inside (Joker) or turn it against themselves (Pyle) doesn’t bother me: since the depiction stands accurate, it’s every viewer’s informed choice.

        To me, Full Metal Jacket an essay on institutionalized violence, and Apocalypse Now a meditation on human nature. Both works reach further than their factual background. Platoon is on the social commentary side, it reconciles an individual journey with a collective mentality, that of the dislike for the Vietnam war. But in my view, it remains a ‘dislike’ because people at the time thought they had more interesting things to do at home, unquestioning war itself.

        PS: yes, still completing the Ford collection. I’ll have to turn up to the silent flicks now!

      • In any case, I think they are all three anti-war. I don’t really understand how Platoon is not.
        I’ll write a short thing about Animal Mother in a day or so.

  6. This is a marvelous movie. It is also very important historically. It was the first very popular movie that portrayed war in a more realistic vein complete with blown-off limbs and men screaming and crying “like little girls.” This is important because the generation of the Vietnam War were brought up on John Wayne movies where all the deaths were nice and clean — a shot in the chest or the stomach with nothing hanging out or blown off.

    • That’s a very important point, you’re right and for me one of the reasons why I feel this is really anti-war.

      • I’m going to disagree. I don’t feel it was the first movie to show the horrors of Vietnam or of war in a more realistic way. I think that Platoon just came along at the right time. Society took a break from a decade of Vietnam on the TV every day and night and people just didn’t want to know or hear about it any more. What Platoon did, successfully, was re-introduce the Vietnam veteran and his story back to the people. Platoon launched a decade of ‘Welcome Homes’ and a plethora of more palatable Vietnam War movies.

      • I’d be interested to know which one you think was the first important Vietnam combat movie then.
        I didn’t feel it was focussing on the veteran. That was rather the job of Born on the 4th of July.

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