Platoon (1986) Oliver Stone’s Iconic Vietnam Movie

Platoon-PosterArt

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

Advertisements

Heaven and Earth (1993) The Third Movie in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam Trilogy

Heaven & Earth is Oliver Stone’s third Vietnam movie. He started his trilogy with the intense infantry combat movie Platoon (1986), followed by the harrowing tale of one soldier’s ordeal Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and then the third part, told from the point of view of a Vietnamese village girl Heaven & Earth (1993). It’s anti-climatic to start a review with a verdict, so let’s just say, Heaven & Earth is the weakest of the three. And the most sentimental.

The movie is based on the true story of Le Ly. It starts in the 1950s, with Le Ly as a little girl of five, living with her family in a beautiful village in Northern Vietnam. In 1953 the village is burnt down by the French. Her father teaches Le Ly that the most important thing is freedom and it’s not surprising that she and her brothers will later actively help the Vietcong. While the younger brother is executed and the older one hidden somewhere, Le Ly is captured and tortured by the Americans first and later raped by the Vietcong.

Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) leaves her village and tries to make a living in Saigon. She and her mother work for a rich Vietnamese family until Le Ly has an affair with the husband and gets pregnant. They are chased away. Her mother returns to the village, while Le Ly stays in another city, Danang. Most girls from the villages end up as prostitutes but she sells cigarettes and other things, and fights off the advances of the American soldiers.

When her son is about five, she meets an American soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) who falls in love with her. They live together for a while and finally get married. Butler wants to take her back to America and some time later, after their first child is born, they leave for the US. Just in time to escape the chaos that breaks out in Vietnam after the war is over.

The US are a culture shock for Le Ly. But also a pleasant surprise. The way she sees it, this is the land of plenty. There is so much food and abundance everywhere. Everything could be great if her husband didn’t show signs of alcoholism and other issues. Le Ly who was a very independent woman in Vietnam, wants to open a business of her own but her husband is opposed to that. They fight more and more, the marriage is doomed.

In the final part we see Le Ly and her children return to Vietnam. She will forever be a part of both worlds, Vietnam and the US, Heaven and Earth.

I have seen a lot of negative reviews of this movie and while I was watching the first hour or so I didn’t understand why. The initial parts are not only beautifully filmed, they tell an intense and interesting story and the choice to focus on a girl from Northern Vietnam, to illustrate some of the complexities, wasn’t a bad choice. Unfortunately from the moment she meets Butler, the story starts to drift in a lot of different directions and from the story of a girl, exemplary for one nation’s suffering, it turns into the story of one woman and her failed marriage. It just didn’t work for me anymore, was too sentimental and lost its strength.

Heaven and Earth is cinematographically compelling and the first part is well above average. Then, unfortunately, it tumbles down and I don’t think it works well as a third part in Stone’s trilogy. It may however work as the story of one woman who may not have been able to free her country but herself.

Oliver Stone: One of the Greatest Film and War Movie Directors

When I watched Savior the other day, knowing it was produced by Oliver Stone, I thought of all the outstanding anti- war movies this man has done. Many film directors have chosen to do war movies but there are just a few that we associate more with the genre than others.

His trilogy of Vietnam war movies is probably known by almost anyone. Platoon is one of my Top Ten favourite ones, but I think Born on the 4th of July is equally powerful. Heaven and Earth, the third one, may be a bit less accomplished but maybe we have to see them all together as three different points of view of one war.

His name stands for many other extremely good movies that often circle around the themes of war and violence. War movie purists would not mention Alexander when speaking about war movies, I think it is debatable. What is not debatable is that  Alexander is highly watchable.

Salvador is without any doubt a further war movie. The Doors has a look at  the Vietnam war, politicians like JFK and Nixon have to be associated with war. You could say that Wall Street is the war of the brokers and Natural Born Killers  a personal war.

And even World Trade Center could be called a war movie (actually the only one I have not seen because of the obnoxious Nicolas Cage).

For me The Doors is Oliver Stone´s only failure. As much as I normally like Val Kilmer, as Jimmy Morrison he was just sacrilegious.

Be it as it may, Oliver Stone is an interesting film director.

I posted two tributes to him, both from Film Festivals, one from Austin and the other one from Zürich.

They are a bit different in as much as the Zürich one also shows some bits of interviews with Oliver Stone whereas the Austin one is purely dedicated to his movies.

Do you have a favourite Oliver Stone movie? I must admit that apart from Platoon I have watched Alexander more than once.