Gardens of Stone (1987) Coppola’s Vietnam Oddity

What the hell was that? Sorry but I did not get this movie. I was so thrilled when I heard from one of my readers about this a while back and thought that would be just the movie for me. I was always fascinated by military cemeteries. Those rows and rows of crosses. Each cross a life. Each cross a story. To dedicate a movie to those who bury the dead seemed so worthwhile. But somehow Coppola‘s Gardens of Stone doesn’t keep the promise it makes. Instead of an in-depth exploration of what it means to be the one to bury those who come back in caskets we get a little bit of everything which sums up to nothing. The acting is quite good, James Caan, Anjelica Huston and James Earl Jones do a good job but the story is too predictable. The movie starts with a funeral and then rewinds so we know already what is going to happen.

Sgt Hazard (James Caan) and Sgt Goody Nelson (James Earl Jones), two  Korea veterans and close friends, are Honour Guards at Arlington military cemetery. Hazard wants nothing more than going to Vietnam and teach the young soldiers how to survive over there. When a friend asks them to look after his son Willow who joins the unit, it seems to be Hazard’s mission to keep him from harm. As the funeral of the beginning  shows us, all his endeavors are futile.

It is exactly this predictability that finishes off this movie. And then there is the relationship of Hazard with the anti-war Washington Post correspondent Samantha. Their discussions pro or contra war are so boring. And totally without any consequences as she keeps on dating him… Of course there is also the young man who want to fight for his country and who is exemplary for so many who died doing just that.

The movie intersperses actual TV footage in order to give a bit of  “real war movie” flavor.

Apparently – I am speaking as a total layman – this movie is highly appreciated by people in the military. It is said to be very accurate and true to military life and rites.

Before I give you my final statement here is what  Jamie Russell writes:

Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted (Caan and Jones’ performances offer a truly outstanding sense of military camaraderie), Gardens of Stone remains one of the most problematic films to have come out of the war – part pro-military, part peacenik, 100% pro-American. (Vietnam War Movies, p. 46)

In my own words: It’s deadly boring hotchpotch.

Here’s the trailer

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The Messenger (2009) or Fighting, Dying, Notifying

Some people say that The Messenger should have won the Academy Award instead of  The Hurt Locker. It is very possible that they are right.

As long as there are wars there will be fighting. As long as there is fighting there will be dying. And as long as people die in combat someone will have to notify the families. This difficult duty is the job of the Casualty Notification Officer. The Messenger explores this difficult task. To notify people is difficult for many reasons. Some are devastated and the their grief is unbearably raw. Others can´t even accept it. Some turn against the messenger, some are openly aggressive. Some are kind and caring.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) comes back from a tour in Iraq badly injured. He is said to be a hero even though he can’t accept this. He gets appointed to assist Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) who has done the job as Casualty Notification Officer for a very long time. He tells Will to strictly follow procedures. Don´t touch the relatives. Inform them directly. Be clear and precise and leave again.

The first job they get is already a harrowing one and Will realises that it might be even more difficult than he thought it would be. After their job is done, they go for a drink. Tony is a AA, so all he drinks is hot water with lemon. He asks Will very direct questions about everything. At first Will is reluctant to answer but he has no choice.

One day the two have to inform a young woman of the death of her husband. Will is very touched by her and her reaction and contacts her again later and they start to form a bond.

There are many different stories and storylines that are interwoven which is the strength of this movie. In it´s essence I would say, yes, this is a movie about war, but it is even more a movie about relationships. Deep relationships. Each and every single person in this movie carries a deep wound, either physical or psychological. Injuries, heartbreak, loss, betrayal. They have endured a lot and try to cope and heal by opening up to each other.

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are remarkable. Remarkable is actually and understatement.

I think The Messenger achieves a very rare thing. It gives us real people. Courageous and open people. And it says a lot of profound things about war and its consequences. Ultimately when there is a war, there will be death and dying. No one should forget this.

10 Vietnam War Movies You Must See Before You Die

The following 10 Vietnam War Movies are the ones you absolutely must see. There are more. Many I have seen, some I have not. You may be astonished that one of the most famous ones, Apocalypse Now, is not among them… I wanted to stick to 10 and these are my 10 choices. I always found Apocalypse Now slightly dubious. Whatever.  The list is in chronological order. I did not want to weigh them against each other as they show quite different aspects of the same war.

The Deer Hunter (1978):  Young second generation Russian-Americans volunteer to prove themselves and serve their country. In Vietnam they are  captured and suffer as POWs and are forced to play Russian roulette. They come home disillusioned and physically and psychologically broken.

Platoon (1986): Infantry combat. A young man volunteers to go to Vietnam and soon sees his dreams shattered. He gets caught between two antagonistic officers, the ultimately good Sgt. Elias and the mean Sgt. Barnes.

Hamburger Hill (1987): No-nonsense infantry combat at its toughest. A group of soldiers of mixed social backgrounds and ethnic origins must fight a senseless battle for a hill.

Full Metal Jacket (1987): Artsy movie. First part is an unforgettable look at boot camp horrors. The second centers on  street fighting in Vietnam. Unusual setting. Vivid, haunting pictures.

Jacknife (1989): A brilliant De Niro in the role of a memorable Vietnam vet. (More details on this movie in my post).

Born on the 4th of July (1989): Maybe the ultimate anti-war statement and a in-depth exploration of masculinity. A movie that makes you cringe.

84 Charlie MoPic (1989): Documentary style but much better than the Iraq movie Redacted. Embedded journalists follow an infantry combat unit in the bush.

Heaven and Earth (1993): A look at the other side. What was the meaning of this war for  Vietnamese civilians?

Tigerland (2000): Boot camp. We see the soldiers train long before they are shipped out. Tensions rise until a drama unfolds.

We Were Soldiers (2002): The only Vietnam War Movie that truly attempts to show more than one side. Close look at the Vietnamese command. Heavy combat. Story switches between battle field and home front where the wives wait for the letters who will inform them they have become widows. Very emotional but not unproblematic movie. Too much trying to make us believe it was  a “good war”.

Maybe you disagree with this list. Let me know which ones you would choose. Which one do you really prefer?

How to Kill the Reputation of a Genre or Rambo: First Blood Part II

I have gotten many negative reactions when I have told people that I am interested in war movies. There are many people who think a war movie will always glorify violence and favour supermacho heroes that are close to brainless machines using guns for fun and sport.

I was always reluctant to watch Rambo until I finally gave in. I don´t think that First Blood Part I is that bad. The depiction of a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress syndrome is quite OK. However, I don´t like Stallone. His facial expressions are far too limited.

But when it comes to First Blood Part II… That is another story. I truly believe that this movie damaged the reputation of the whole genre.

“Do we get to win this time…?” Now seriously… Do you not consider this to be totally tasteless?

Here is what the journalist James Mottram has to add:

If the original film suggests men like Rambo are still fighting the war back home, be it on the inside or in a mountain-town, its sequel took far greater liberties. By the early 1980s, after the dust had settled on grandiose epics like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, Hollywood saw the opportunity to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War. A film so guilty of this it should be court-martialled, Rambo: First Blood Part II recast its embittered lead –  jailed in a civilian maximum-security prison between the first two films – as a one-man wager of war. A pure “fighting machine”, as his mentor and father-figure Col. Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) dubs him, he is a nostalgic reflection of what Philip Caputo, in his 1977 book A Rumor of War , called “that savage, heroic time… before America became a land of salesmen and shopping-centres. (James Mottram in Under Fire: A Century of War Movies, p. 155)

What do you think? Did Rambo: First Blood Part II not have its part in killing the reputation of war movies?

Brothers (2009): Post-traumatic Stress Unrealistically Embedded

I am in two minds about Brothers. In parts I liked it in parts it made me frown at the amount of implausible details. Escapism built on a serious topic.

A young Captain, Sam (Tobey Maguire), married to a lovely wife (Natalie Portman), is sent back to Afghanistan where he was stationed many times before. Just before he leaves his delinquent older brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from prison. Shortly after arriving back in Afghanistan Sam´s helicopter is shot down. Two officers are sent to inform his wife, Grace, of Sam´s death.

From that moment on Tommy changes a great deal and  assists the young woman and her two little daughters wherever he can. Soon they become close friends. Tommy and Grace discover that they have quite a lot in common despite not having liked each other in the beginning.

What none of them knows, Sam is a POW. During the months of his captivity he has to endure torture and cruelties. In the end he is even forced to do something he won´t be able to forgive himself. When he is finally freed he is not the man he used to be. He is withdrawn and doesn’t talk. He seems to suffer a great deal and accuses his wife and his brother of having had an affair. The situation grows more and more acute until it escalates in the end.
I do not deny that I liked watching this movie since it is a well done production. The score is nice, Jake Gyllenhaal is convincing (but then I have been his fan ever since I watched Donnie Darko), the pictures are appealing, individual scenes are captivating. Nevertheless this is not a good movie. Many details are highly unrealistic. The way the soldiers get captured is not convincing nor is the fact that Sam is reported to be dead and not just MIA. His wife never even questions this although nothing has been found of him or his belongings. His return is also very abrupt. No questions are asked and he seems to not be getting proper treatment even though he shows signs of severe post-traumatic stress.

All these elements are quite anachronistic. Relics of another time, a time when there was hardly any psychological treatment available and the awareness of PTSD was very low. You might expect this in a Vietnam movie, but not in one dealing with a contemporary conflict.
The dynamics of a dysfunctional family are shown convincingly. The father, a  Vietnam vet with an alcohol problem, plays the two brothers off against each other. Obviously he favours the one who opted for the same career. The development of Tommy´s character is also very well done. He becomes more and more endearing towards the end of the movie.
Tobey Maguire playing a  Captain is not credible at all. I just did not buy it. He should have played a lower rank. He seems far too young to be a captain.
This movie is for Jake Gyllenhaal Fans, people, who go for dysfunctional family stories and all those who would like to see a movie where the key message is: You will be healed as soon as you can talk about the shit you have done and been through.

All those who would like to see a realistic coming-home story of a war veteran should not go for it. The aim of this movie was to be dramatic, not realistic.

Since this movie seems to be an American remake of a Danish movie I might try to see the other one. It would be interesting to see how that was handled.

True Blood and The Vietnam Vet

I read a lot. All sorts of things. Classics, literature, prize winners, pure entertainment, crime and thriller, some Fantasy… I am curious when I hear people enthuse about a book. That´s how I got lured into reading the first two in the Southern Vampire Series, Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris. I do not really want to go into this reading experience here (I do understand why the series is succesful), nor is this the place to analyse women´s obsession with vampires (…. maybe…or,…..no, I don´t even go there…), what caught my attention early on was the character Terry Bellefleur. I felt he was very intense and with very few words Charlaine Harris captured the personality of a truly traumatized person. Without elaborating this character much she added another dimension to the already multi-faceted people swarming these books. Like in many Vampire novels before the Sookie Stackhouse series, one of the major themes is the outsider, someone who has lost contact with the society or was never part of it. And since the Southern Vampire books are populated with so many different types of fictitious and real outsiders like vampires, shape-shifters, homosexuals, Afro-Americans, addicts, the addition of a Vietnam vet seems of almost stringent logic.

I had read the books before even hearing of the series but was very curious to watch it. Six Feet Under will always be my favourite series so it was only logical I would at least have a look at what magic Alan Ball would be weaving  in True Blood. I was not disappointed. This series is just great fun. Very sexy and daring. Great cast, great stories, greatest intro song to any series ever (sure, it is only my humble opinion).

Writers and director took quite a few liberties especially with the cast. Many characters are much more developed than those in the book. Some are totally different, like Tara. Other types of outsiders are added, like alcoholics.

And what about our Vietnam vet? Miraculously transformed into an Iraq veteran to offer identification to the younger audience and to raise the awareness and understanding of and for those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is more or less the explanation given by the producers. Quite nice, only it does not work for me. It does not feel right. I cannot explain it, but to me he is and will always be a Vietnam vet. No matter how much rationalization they put into his “transformation”.

When the actor Todd Lowe, whom many know from Gilmore Girls, was asked how he did prepare for the role, he explained he pictured a Vietnam vet that he had known as a young man. A homeless guy that talked him into giving him his cigarettes.

I wonder if there is not another reason to switch from Vietnam to Iraq. Maybe the age? Would a Vietnam vet not be much older than a guy returning from Iraq and Afghanistan? Of course this is a rhetorical question. Maybe the producers, even though they are extremely inclusive of marginal groups did not want to embrace the elderly? Now, don´t tell me this is not food for thought. Aren´t we living in a society that is ever so obsessed with age? Aren´t the vampires  ageless…always young, always beautiful? There is a certain logic in ostracizing the elderly from a vampire movie, right?

Or – which is not much better – did they think it was too hard to believe that someone could still suffer from PTSD after having come back such a long time ago? If so, what do they know?

I think they should have let this be. And I don´t buy the explanations. I would have preferred Terry Bellefleur to be an elderly Vietnam vet.

What about you?

I have to post the opening credits here for you, they are just too good to be missed and, let´s be honest, when will I ever get another chance to do this in a blog on war movies? Although…Come to think of it… what about a post dedicated to Generation Kill and  Alexander Skarsgard….

De Niro in Jacknife (1989)Part II

Often when you ask someone  who is their favourite actor especially men tend to name Robert de Niro. Surely his merits are undisputable still he did get on my nerves in several of his films since he´s got the habit of overacting and that way tends to turn into a parody of himself. I thought I´d seen many of his movies and knew that he was at least in two Vietnam related ones, The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver. Somehow Jacknife sneakily escaped my attention.

I saw it recently and must say, it would have been a pity not to see  it and this for several reasons. (Check out the trailer in an older post).

First, I think, it is one of de Niros´ best performances, second I think it is a very good attempt at showing the theme of the Vietnam vet. Post traumatic stress and so forth.

Megs (de Niro) and Dave (Ed Harris) served in Vietnam together. They hadn´t seen each other for a while when suddenly, out of the blue, Megs invades Dave´s home to take him on a fishing trip. Unfortunately he realises he´s less than welcome. Dave showing every sign of full-blown alcoholism still blames Megs for the death of Bobby, the third guy they went to Vietnam with.

Megs tries everything to cheer up Dave but fails completely. The fact that Megs begins a relationship with  Martha (Kathy Baker), Dave´s sister doesn´t exactly improve anything.

Even though at first it looks as things were not going well at all, Megs´ likeable character, his outgoing, eccentric ways liven up the brother and sister and ultimately transform them profoundly. The story is interwoven with flashbacks that show what went wrong in Vietnam where Megs was by far too gung-ho and shooting way too fast at everything.

Sure, these are personal stories, character studies, no analyzing of the war as such or its political and social impact.

I just adored de Niro in this and understood again why so many think he´s one of the best actors alive.