The Boys in Company C (1978)

Boys in Company C

The Boys in Company C is one of those Vietnam war movies you either like a great deal or not at all. I was surprised to find myself among those who really like it. It isn’t a masterpiece because it’s a bit patchy and the acting is not always stellar, but it has a fittingly pessimistic tone and some great scenes, which I appreciated a lot. Besides it was interesting to see the precursor of movies like Full Metal Jacket.

Vietnam movies are commonly divided into four sub-groups: allegorical-epics, veteran movies, revisionist movies and grunt/ensemble movies. The Boys from Company C is clearly a grunt movie or infantry combat movie. And it contains all the clichés of grunt movies, notably that we get to see a group of diverse people from various backgrounds and that each of them is more like a type than a real character. This is a weakness of the movie but, in a way, it wasn’t important to create characters, as the goal of the movie was another one.

Like a few of the more famous Vietnam movies it has two parts. A boot camp part and a part that takes place in Vietnam. The most interesting aspect is that the same actor, R.Lee Ermey, who plays the evil drill-inspector in Full Metal Jacket plays the drill-inspector here. He’s not as crass as in Full Metal Jacket but he sure is an unlikable character here as well.

After our group of grunts has survived the boot camp at Fort Bragg they are sent to Vietnam. There are a few combat scenes but more than anything we see how surprised our guys are when they realize that things aren’t exactly as they were told.

What are they fighting for really? And is there a justification to this war at all? There isn’t any moment in the whole film in which anyone thinks they are fighting for a good reason. Plus there’s the criticism of the military command. Officers sacrifice soldiers just to get a promotion. They order them to take hills although its impossible. They kill Vietnamese civilians to raise the body counts. The Vietnamese are shown to be just as corrupt.

The ending of the movie is unfortunately quite corny and the football game episode, which is meant to illustrate how futile and corrupt  the war is, isn’t exactly a movie highlight.

Still, this is one of the early films and it’s one of the most unambiguously anti-war. It’s dark and pessimistic. There’s no heroism, no glorifying of any acts. It’s overall very sober, has hardly any feel-good moments, hardly any music. No jungle scenes.

Sometimes I can appreciate a movie for its intentions and for its consistency.This is one of those. In my opinion, while not an artistic highlight, it’s still a must-see.

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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

Heroes (1977) Another Vietnam Vet Tale

Last year I posted on the topic of Most Memorable Vietnam Vets and collected quite a list of movies in which a Vietnam vet is the main character. With the exception of four movies I had seen all of them. Heroes wasn’t on the list because I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I’ve watched it meanwhile and included it in the list. I still think that Jacknife and Taxi Driver, both starring Robert de Niro, are the most memorable ones, still, I would say Heroes is worth watching for many reasons, if only to see the young Sally Field and Harrison Ford in an early role.

Jack Dunne has escaped from a mental hospital. Not for the first time, he has escaped before but this time he is determined to not get caught again. His friends at the hospital have given him money for an unusual business involving earthworms. His plan it to travel to Kansas to meet a former comrade Ken (Harrison Ford) who was in the same unit and then travel on to see other buddies, who all served with him as well. On his journey he meets Carol who is just about to get married but for reasons even unknown to herself she wants to get away for a few days before the wedding and stay on her own for a while.

While she is at first somewhat alienated by Jack’s strange behaviour and the fact that he is chased by the police, she is also intrigued and fascinated by this odd fellow who carries around a box of worms and doesn’t seem to be able to take anything seriously. When they accidentally get into a bar fight and Carol has to pay for the mess Jack has made, she decides to follow him. Jack has promised that Ken will pay her back.

Ken, Jack’s friend, isn’t much better off than Jack. He lives outside of a town in a trailer hoping to make money with car racing. He is part of Jack’s fantastic business plan to make money with earthworms but not only does he not take the idea seriously, he is in no condition to think about business at all.

After having stayed with Ken, Jack and Carol take Ken’s car and go on a trip to visit Jack’s other buddies but nothing turns out as expected. One of them died, a fact Jack new but repressed, another one is hiding somewhere. On top of that the horrible war memories which Jack had tried to repress start to resurface violently.

Heroes is part road movie, part Vietnam vet tale and part love story. Both Carol and Jack have issues, both drift through life, do not belong anywhere and in meeting each other they find for the first time someone with whom a real relationship is possible.

As a road movie and a story about an intense relationship, the movie worked well. I also liked the character of Ken quite a lot. I was not too sure about the veteran part though. Jack suffers from PTSD and there are a few subtle moments (nightmares, flashbacks…) which show this very well, on the other hand, he seems to be a very naive, childlike person and one gets the impression that he must have had problems before he even went to Vietnam. That creates a bit of a mix. He is an interesting character but as a portrait of a vet it didn’t work all that well for me.

Still, Heroes is watchable and entertaining and it was nice to see the very young and pretty Sally Field and Harrison Ford in an early role.

I couldn’t find  a trailer, just this very short scene.

The Odd Angry Shot (1979) Australian SAS in Vietnam

A comment on my post Australian War Movies: A List put me in the mood to watch the Australian film  The Odd Angry Shot. The topic is quite unique as for once it doesn’t show Australians during WWI or WWII but Australians in Vietnam. The movie came with such high praise that I was really looking forward to it. However, before watching it, I had a look at Gary Freitas book on war movies and the movie had a rating of 1.5/5. I cannot remember having ever seen such a discrepancy between someone’s recommendation and Freitas’ assessment and was a bit puzzled and keen to find out for myself. The solution to the riddle is, in my opinion, that if you have the wrong expectations you might not like it but if you know what to expect chances are high you will.

The Odd Angry Shot tells the story of a group of Australian SAS soldiers who do a 12 month tour in Vietnam. Long stretches of boredom are broken up by recon and other missions during which there are casualties, some men are severely, others fatally wounded. During the periods in which there isn’t a lot to do, the men drink A LOT of beer, play games, tease each other. It’s an atmosphere of mateship and camaraderie and to watch them is nothing if not funny. Story-wise that’s it.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war movie done like this and I can understand that if you think you are going to watch an intense war movie like Hamburger Hill or Platoon you will be very disappointed but that’s because you’re watching it with the wrong expectations. For me this is a war comedy, a movie that wants to show the spirit and the mateship in the Australian troops but still tries to show their sacrifice and achievements just without being graphic or gory. Judging from the reviews of a lot of Australian vets who commented on this movie, this is exactly how the Australians experienced Vietnam. They emphasized that most of the time, they were sitting around, waiting, being debriefed but that intense combat was pretty rare. Most of the time they were sent to capture the one or the other informant. In order to keep their spirits high, they did drink a lot, and try to have fun. A way to cope with the horrors of war.

The only real problem I had was that I still have no clue why the Australians felt they had to be in Vietnam. We hear absolutely nothing about the war as such, only that the majority of the people “back home” were not keen on it.

If you want to watch a gritty and graphic war movie in the vein of Platoon, don’t watch it. If you are interested in Australia and Australian movies, why not? If you look for an enjoyable and entertaining movie, it’s a great choice too. It’s very funny, the characters are extremely likable and Graham Kennedy does a great job. 

Here’s a short scene that captures the spirit very well.

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.

Tigerland (2000)

Tigerland is one of those movies on which people disagree. One can’t really say it is a question of love it or hate it but a question of appreciating or not appreciating it. I liked it far better the first time I watched it. This time around I noticed far more of its flaws but it’s still decent.

It’s 1971 and a group of recruits is sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana, to undergo combat training. The place is called “Tigerland” and is as close to the real Vietnam as can be. One of the recruits is Private Bozz (Colin Farrell). Private Bozz is one of the most insubordinate privates I’ve ever seen in any war movie. He doesn’t only disobey, he makes fun of his superiors and provokes them constantly. He breaks every rule, can’t take anything seriously and is unwilling to participate in anything that will lead him to kill civilians or torture Vietnamese soldiers. The other recruits are torn between hatred and admiration. 1971 is late in the war and nobody, not even some of the superiors, sees any sense in the war anymore. Despite being arrogant and cocky, Bozz has a good heart and helps more than one soldier to be sent back home. He tells his only friend, Private Paxton, that he is going to try to escape to Mexico.

Halfway into the movie his dispute with another Private, Wilson, that started early in the film, escalates and when the training intensifies, he isn’t only hit and abused by one of the aggressive Sargeants but he must fear for his life as Wilson has sworn to kill him in action. The training is as close to war as training can get and an “accident” could happen any time.

The whole beginning of the movie is reminiscent of the Boot Camp part in Full Metal Jacket – including the abusive training instructor – while the second half is rather like a thriller. I thought that this worked well and when I watched it for the first time I found it quite suspenseful. What didn’t work for me is Bozz’s tone and attitude. I can’t help feeling that it’s not appropriate. I found the movie felt too modern, had more of an Iraq movie feel. I’m not sure if anyone else has felt the same but I really found the movie felt too modern for its theme. This is a movie that looks back and not one that tries to convey a feeling for how it was. Maybe I’m wrong but that’s how I felt about it.

Apart from that it illustrates very well how disillusioned the soldiers and recruits were and how pointless the war really was.

I would really like to know what others thought of this. Did you like it? Did it work for you? Isn’t Private Bozz overdrawn?

R-Point aka Ghost Soldiers (2004) A Korean Ghost War Movie

Now that was different. Feeling in a Halloweenish kind of mood I was hunting for a movie that would go well with the occasion and I must say R-Point aka Ghost Soldiers was an excellent choice. And a very unusual genre blend at that. I don’t think that there are a lot of horror/ghost war movies out there or Vietnam ghost war movies to be more precise. Korean filmmaking is famous for its horror movies and that’s why I think this movie will appeal to war movie fans and aficionados of Korean cinema alike.

Vietnam 1972. R-Point is a strategic area some 100km outside of Saigon. It’s not a combat zone but Korean, US and French troops stayed there for various amounts of time. The Vietcong are present as well but there is no talk of real fighting. Despite that fact, a whole platoon of Korean soldiers has never returned from their mission. Nobody gives this too much thought until high command receives radio transmissions from that platoon six month after their disappearance and decides to have someone investigate what happened to them. Have they been killed or are they still alive? Lieutenant Choi is designated to lead a squad of eight officers and to rescue the missing soldiers.

The moment they arrive at R-Point they get under heavy fire. It’s an intense moment and it takes a while until someone takes the shooter down. What follows is reminiscent of the end of Full Metal Jacket only here  the men let the shooter die on her own. They enter farther into the area until they find a tombstone indicating that Chinese killed Vietnamese and dropped them in a lake. The men find this quite spooky and heavy fog and drizzle makes it even worse.

I don’t want to spoil the movie and will only mention that Choi’s squad finds an old mansion that seems to have grown out of the fog and takes quarters in it. From that moment on weird things start to happen. They don’t seem to be alone. American soldiers come to the mansion in the evening, French soldiers transmit messages on the radio, a woman in a long white nightgown appears at night, people get lost, someone from the missing platoon follows them. The tensions between the soldiers are high and when the first one of them turns up dead, they get really scared.

I’m glad I watched this, it is very interesting and I could say a lot about it but it’s not possible without spoiling it. It’s unusual and well worth watching and says a lot about the wars in Vietnam. There are better Korean movies out there but I couldn’t think of another ghost war movie.