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.

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My Top 10 Favourite War Movies – Revisited

I re-watched Glory the other day and while I still think it’s a very good movie, I don’t think it deserves to be in my Top 10 nor will it end up in my Top 20. Top 50 certainly. This made me think that it’s about time to revisit my Top 10. I had to replace Glory and I also decided to get rid of Band of Brothers. It is excellent, absolutely deserving of being watched and re-watched but it’s a mini-series and not a movie.

So here is the list which will probably change again, sooner or later.

Black Hawk Down

Stalingrad

Platoon

When Trumpets Fade

The Thin Red Line

Gallipoli

Joyeux Noel

Hamburger Hill

Cross of Iron

The Army of Crime

Two movies were almost included Days of Glory and Das Boot.

I’m in the process of re-watching and while I know that Black Hawk Down, Stalingrad, Hamburger Hill, Platoon and The Thin Red Line will stay on the list, I’m not a 100% sure about the others.

Which movies would have to be on your Top 10?

Obnoxious and Unlikable War Movie Characters

I was thinking today, why shouldn´t  I write a post on the war movie characters I hate most? Obviously I am not talking bad acting here. On the very contrary, it is maybe more difficult to play a truly unlikable and obnoxious character. A true bully or a monster like Hitler. Bruno Ganz who stars as Hitler in The Downfall aka Der Untergang apparently refused the role at first whereas I believe I remember having read, Anthony Hopkins found his role in The Bunker to be particularly challenging and he did enjoy such a challenge.

But apart from  extreme  evil historical people like Hitler, there are numerous mean characters populating war movies. The list I made are those that came to my mind easily, those I will never forget, no matter how many years have passed since I last saw the movie. Often those really evil people are paired with good ones like in Platoon, Casualties of War and Cross of Iron.

Here´s my list of war movie impersonations of meanness or just plain unlikable geeks.

Gny. Sgt Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket. THE Boot Camp Devil.

Herbert M. Sobel (David Schwimmer) in Band of Brothers. Mean and dumb.

Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger) in Platoon. How evil and sadistic can you possibly be?

Lt. Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) in The Blue Max. Over ambitious with and inferiority complex. An annoyingly obnoxious arriviste.

Cpt Hauptmann Stransky (Maximilian Schell) in Cross of Iron. A conceited, arrogant upper-class Prussian officer.

Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) in Casualties of War. An abusive rapist.

Lance Cpl Harold James Trombley (Billy Lush) in Generation Kill. Total lack of feeling, an empty shell.

I am not sure which one I consider to be the worst. I guess either Sgt. Barnes or Hauptmann Stransky.

I am sure the world of war movies contains many more bad people than those I just mentioned. Who is your most hated character?

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.

African American Soldiers in War Movies

It is a fact that until recently African American actors were almost nonexistent in war movies. This is quite unfair since they were also fighting for their country. Even though they are not omnipresent in today´s war movies, they seem to get a fairer share.

The makers of Generation Kill faced quite some questioning as to the reasons why there was no African American cast in the series. As fishy as this may have seemed initially there was a very good explanation for this. Generation Kill is based on the true story of the First Recon Company, a highly specialized troop, in which there were actually no African American soldiers, or only one, as we can deduce from the group photo in Evan Wright´s book.

The questioning however was very justified since there is really no war movie on contemporary conflict in which there are no African American actors. Be it Battle for Haditha, Redacted, The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss, Home of the Brave and many more. There are always African American actors and this is highly justified since many of the troops are of said origin.

How does the situation look regarding other wars? For example Vietnam? When it comes to combat movies – with the exception of We Were Soldiers – black soldiers are very often present. The best example is certainly Hamburger Hill that has a big African American cast. But they are not absent from Platoon or Full Metal Jacket either. Now what about We Were Soldiers? I honestly don´t know. Since it is based on a true story it might be possible that there were no African American soldiers in that company. If anyone knows the reason, tell me please.

WWII is another story altogether. Looking at the massive production of WWII movies it is incredible how absent African American actors are. Sure there are a few exceptions. A Soldier’s Story that I reviewed a while back is a good example. And then we have the Tuskegee Airmen based on the true story of the African-American 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Aircorps (see my movie review). This fine movie illustrates how unjustified the belief was that Blacks were not capable of flying modern fighters. But apart from these two examples? And what about Flags of our Fathers? It´sad to say that there were 900 black troops participating in the battle of Iwo Jima but not one of them is represented in Eastwood´s movie. He has been questioned many times and asked to clarify but he did not reply. This infuriated many people, among them the film director Spike Lee. I think his Miracle at St. Anna might be a direct response to Eastwood´s omission. It is actually incredible but the absence of African American actors in Flags of our Fathers makes Pearl Harbor look good in comparison. At least  Cuba Gooding Jr had quite an important role. Spike Lee´s just mentioned Miracle at St. Anna focuses on the 92nd Infantry Division that fought in Italy. This division was the result of the segregation of the times. It was a purely African-American division, also called Buffalo soldiers  (I must admit that I have not seen Miracle at St. Anna but read many reviews that did NOT appreciate it). I think we are still waiting for a truly good depiction of African American participation in WWII.

And WWI? I am lost. Have no clue if there ever was  a WWI movie with African Americans in it.

Let´s rewind some more: The Civil War. And yes here we finally find an outstanding movie with a largely African American cast. One of my Top 10. Yes, I am talking about Glory. If you haven´t seen it yet, watch it.

Looking at the whole picture again we can say, it is getting somewhat better, but a contemporary movie, based on a conflict younger than the civil war, with an African American main actor is still outstanding. Now, don´t mention Hotel Rwanda (Don Cheadle was actually also in Hamburger Hill). Although it is an impressive movie  there was really no chosing a white main actor. Not even Clint Eastwood would have had the insipidity to do so.

History versus Story or Platoon versus Hamburger Hill

I named both these infantry combat movies among my Top 10 favourite war movies (of course, since this list ist out there for everybody to see I doubt its content. Typical.). Apart from thinking that these are great representatives of the genre I think they illustrate wonderfully the topic “history versus story” and why critics often rate the second as the better movie, whereas the general public will be more likely to prefer the first one.

Hamburger Hill is foremost based on a historical event, namely one squad´s  battle for Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam from May 11- 20, 1969. The squad consisted of 14  U.S. Army soldiers of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The battle was later called Hamburger Hill since the losses were so high and the American soldiers literally shredded to minced meat.

You can not be more precise than this when chosing to tell a story in a movie. That is the theme, and that is what is shown. No niceties, no made up story, no sugar coating to make the bitter pill go down any better. War movies don´t get any more visceral than that.

And then there is Platoon. We know the year and that some events resemble other events that happened but apart from that this is purely fictional. Especially the whole good and bad officers theme and a young soldier´s loss of innocence. All these roles are played by famous actors which is not the case for Hamburger Hill.

As I said before many critics rate Hamburger Hill higher than Platoon and from an intellectual point of view I can´t blame them. But I don´t agree. They think it is more realistic. Somehow morally superior. There is not a tiny spark of beauty in that movie. OK, I agree. But… If we really wanted pure unadulated realism, authenticity, moral education, unambiguity, shouldn´t we stick to documentaries? (And even those can show us whatever  they want to make us believe has happened. But this is not the subject here).

I´m afraid but I like a  bit of symbolism and an interesting story. And I also judge movies by the criterion whether their pictures stay in my memory or not.

For many of these reasons  if been considering lately to kick out Hamburger Hill of my Top 10 list and integrate one of the most artistic Vietnam war movies ever: Full Metal Jacket.

Yes, right, why wouldn´t I?

My Favourite War Movie Character or The Ultimate Sacrifice

To determine who is your favourite war movie character is a very, very subjective thing. At least for me. No objectivity here. It is neither linked to the fact if I do consider the movie he´s in to be outstanding or average, it doesn´t say anything about the acting in itself, I really only think of the character. And, yeah well maybe it has something to do with the fact that the role is played by one of my favourite actors.

What I loved about this character is his goodness. In all the horror that surrounds him, he stays good. Nothing compromises him, nothing turns him into an inhuman being devoid of feelings or compassion. And in the end he doesn´t shy away from sacrificing himself. He is the ultimate war movie hero, hero through his sacrifice not through his killings.

And yes, I alluded to him in another post (Christ and the War Movie Hero). My favourite character is Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) in Platoon. And yes, I´m sure it´s no coincidence that he was later chosen to play Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ. He´s been my favourite for many years now and I only wavered once, after having seen When Trumpets Fade where we see another sacrificial hero.