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

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Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996)

Rarely did a movie deserve the Academy Awards as much as The English Patient. It is one of the most beautiful war romances that I have ever seen. Or, to be accurate, two of the most beautiful romances as the movie tells two parallel stories. Based on Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful eponymous novel, The English Patient combines everything that an accomplished movie needs. Beautiful pictures, a touching story, an intriguing plotline, wonderful music, great characters  and outstanding actors. This is one of the movies that I have watched at least three times and every time I discovered another layer. It is surprisingly rich and, I would argue, flawless.

They call him “The English Patient” (Ralph Fiennes), the mysterious man, they rescued from a shot down airplane in the desert during WWII. He is heavily burned, will probably not survive. They bring him to Italy and a young nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), volunteers to stay back and take care of him. She moves with him into an abandoned villa. He doesn’t know his identity but Hana finds a notebook and with its help the memory returns slowly and the story unfolds in flashbacks.

They are not alone for long, Kip (Naveen Andrews), a young Sikh and the thief David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) join her. Kip is part of a bomb disposal unit and the growing love between Hana and him is the second love story in this movie. It is beautiful but by far less tragic than that between the English patient and his lover. Caravaggio adds even another story line to the already rich plot. He is someone who thinks he knows who the badly burned man is. In fact he is sure that the patient is someone who wronged him once.

The flashbacks show us the mysterious patient, the Hungarian Count Almásy, 1930 in the Sahara desert. He is a mapmaker of the Royal Geographical Society. At the beginning of WWII he is still in the Sahara where he meets the British agent Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his beautiful wife Catherine  (Kristin Scott Thomas). Despite their fighting the attraction, they fall in love. They have an affair that ends abruptly when Catherine breaks it off. They meet again later and the following events make this probably one of the most tragic movie romances of all time.

The figure of Count Almásy is actually based on a real person, only his story was a different one.

The nurse Hana is certainly one of the most appealing nurses in any war movie. The gentleness and devotion with which she takes care of the dying man is touching. I am sure that there were many nurses like her in different wars and they deserve an homage.  I have a great deal of admiration for these courageous, disinterested women.

The intensity of the interwoven stories, the mysteries, the wonderful settings (the desert, Italy during the war, the Italian villa), the gripping part of the bomb defusing, all this together make this an absolute must-see.  Last but not least I’d like to mention the beautiful score by Gabriel Yared (you can listen to it here).

Triumph of the Spirit (1989) or The Story of Salamo Arouch and how he survived Auschwitz

Salamo Arouch, a young Greek of Jewish descent became middle weight boxing champion of the Balkans in 1939. All his 24 fights ended with a KO. An absolute record. Surely he would have had a stunning career. Instead after Germany invaded Greece he and his family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau together with thousands of other Greek Jews in March 1943.

While the women of the family were gassed on the first day of their arrival, Salamo, his father and his brother were coerced into forced labour. Once the guards found out that he was a famous boxer they forced him to fight other prisoners for the entertainment of the Nazis. The loser would be gassed mercilessly. Somehow Arouch survived Auschwitz winning 208 fights by KO. After the liberation he emigrated to Palestine and witnessed the foundation of the state of Israel.

This incredible story, starring Willem Dafoe (at his absolute best) as Salamo Arouch is told in Triumph of the Spirit. Shot on location at Auschwitz this is one of the most impressive movies on the Holocaust I have ever seen. It feels spooky to know that we are actually seeing the very  place where all this happened. Salamo Arouch came back to Auschwitz as an advisor during the shooting of this movie. He died in April 2009.

I had so many questions while watching this… So many thoughts… What was it like to go back there after having endured all this? What was it like for the actors to play in such a movie in such a place that was saturated in pain? Can you still feel this? And what was it like to play a prisoner of Auschwitz? I think this must be one of the hardest roles for any actor. I was also wondering if this movie would not be good material to teach Auschwitz and the theme of the concentration camps in schools. And I was wondering, once more, how all this could have happened. When you see the guards, hit the prisoners, see how malnourished they are, so hungry that they would almost kill their own for a tiny piece of bread. The way they had to sleep with such little space. When you watch how thousands are forced to take showers but were ultimately gassed. When you see the piles of clothes, shoes, hair, jewelry… and the piles of bodies that had to be cremated. How could anyone help in any of this? How could that happen? I think we need to have such movies, we need to know what humans are capable of, and stay alert and never let this happen again.

Another question I was asking myself was: Would I like to visit Auschwitz? I must admit, I wouldn´t. I believe that places can store pain. I would not want to get this close to it. What about you? Would you want to visit Auschwitz?

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.