Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Oliver Stone's 'Platoon' and the Politics of Romance

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Oliver Stone's 'Platoon' and the Politics of Romance

Article excerpt

Some of the more suggestive literary criticism practiced today, usually under the aegis of the new historicism, feminism, Marxism, or cultural studies, seeks to re-locate discursive forms in the historical and material conditions in which they were produced. Such an approach allows the critic to address either the politics of a literary text or the poetics of a culture. Like any marriage of strong individuals, this combination of formalist and historicist-ideological critical modes depends on an adroit balancing of claims. On the one hand, the critic must not reduce literature to propaganda or cultural commonplaces. On the other hand, as Louis Montrose reminds us, the critic must resist the temptation to reduce history and material culture to purely esthetic forms (401).

Montrose's caveat might also be applied to the interdisciplinary study of literature, where the artifacts or procedures of another discipline are often translated into a quasi-literary medium to permit comparison with literary works. At its best, this medium is a "text" in the sense Roland Barthes has described, a field for the play of signifiers rather than a product of signification (75-76). So construed, the text serves as a kind of lingua franca, facilitating dialogue between disciplines. Whatever the discipline-as-text may lose in precision and determinacy it gains in its capacity for generating new insights. Gerald Graff goes so far as to say that the meaning of any literary text depends on other texts and what he calls "textualized frames of reference" (256). Meaning is thus a function of intertextual relations.

In this essay, I offer an interpretation of Oliver Stone's Platoon that textualizes several frames of reference, notably Stone's wartime experience and class conflict in America. Since I regard Platoon as a romance, a genre whose history (another intertext) has been chiefly literary, I treat the film as more literally a text than many critics working in the field of film studies. I also make more extensive use of the screenplay published by Random House in November 1987. Described as the "complete original screenplay," this is presumably what Stone committed to paper during the Bicentennial summer of 1976. As ur-text and intertext, the screenplay discloses generic intentions that are not always apparent in the finished film.

My approach is influenced by the kind of genre criticism Fredric Jameson calls for in The Political Unconscious. From the Marxist standpoint, Jameson acknowledges, traditional genre criticism has been largely discredited (105). To be serviceable today, he maintains, study of the structural and semantic aspects of literary forms must be located in the broader horizon of ideological analysis. One need not accept Marxism as a total system in order to benefit from Jameson's treatment of the ideology of genre in general and the romance genre in particular.

Platoon established itself as an important cultural artifact when it appeared in December 1986 and went on to win Academy Awards for best picture and best director. It has proven curiously resistant, however, to intertextual interpretations. Though the film explicitly invokes literary works like the Bible and Moby-Dick, though it belongs in the tradition of the Hollywood combat film (as Thomas Doherty has shown), these connections seem incidental and even gratuitous rather than structural. They shed little light on Platoon as a statement about American culture or the American experience in Vietnam.

The problem may lie partly in the film's celebrated realism. Following its premiere, Platoon was widely praised for its accurate representation of the war. Time magazine, for example, ran a cover story entitled "Platoon: Viet Nam As It Really Was," in which viewers as different as David Halberstam and Steven Spielberg acclaimed the film's authenticity (Corliss). Unlike such epic adventures as Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon appeared to forgo sweeping cultural statement in favor of close-up, tightly cropped images of mud, insects, leeches, elephant grass, heat, fear and frayed nerves. …

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