Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Platoon

Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

Platoon

Article excerpt

A retrospective by Jonathan Lighter

An epigraph like "'Rejoice O young man in thy youth...'-Ecclesiastes" must signpost a movie of unusual seriousness, and those words on a dead-black background form the opening shot of Platoon (1986), Oliver Stone's harrowing, worm's-eye account of infantry combat in the Vietnam War. The first images are those of newbie Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) deplaning from the black maw of a C-123 into the shimmering heat, blinding glare, and swirling dust of an air base in the Republic of Vietnam. To show just how muted any rejoicing will be, Stone immediately shows Taylor and his fellow innocents a flatbed trailer laden with bagged American corpses for return shipment on the same plane. And for the next three quarters of an hour, Platoon draws a graphic picture of the Vietnam War as seen by one unworldly young volunteer. It is probably the most shocking portrayal of Americans at war since Robert Aldrich's almost equally stagey, and equally jolting, Attack! (1956), set during the battle of Hürtgen Forest. Unlike most Hollywood directors, Stone had actually fought in South Vietnam, was twice wounded, and was awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious action in combat. His personal knowledge and his meticulous care for visual and auditory detail lend Platoon an undisputed authenticity.

For almost the first time on a Hollywood screen, the wounded in Platoon, like real people, thrash, cry, and welter in their own blood. An NVA soldier is blasted into a mute, jaw-working blob. Anxious, unsmiling medics (rather than George Romero's zombies or the clown-surgeons of M*A*S*H) get slick with gore to the elbows. A man who's earned a medal stabs himself to get out of combat. A bulldozer rolls piles of dead into a mass grave. And there are lesser elements previously elided or at least downplayed in conventional Hollywood war epics, as though they simply don't count: flesh-cutting saw grass, biting fire ants, humming mosquitoes, lurking cobras, and the nauseating burning in diesel fuel of latrine-loads of human excrement. (There's also a beautiful Conradian shot of a tarantula creeping up the face of a stone Buddha in the still moonlight: the exotic, patient East, the jungle, the undisguised malevolence of nature all in one image.) Of the casual verbal obscenities, which the strait-laced found offensive (just as they had almost forty years earlier in the case of Mailer's The Naked and the Dead ), the poet Bruce Weigl, another Vietnam veteran, wrote with enthusiasm that Stone "celebrate[d] the language by which we speak and imagine and love and hate and bless and curse daily."

But the ambitious Stone-independently directing a screenplay he'd written in the '70s that was rejected by every studio-wants to make a statement about Life as well as about Vietnam. To do so he injects consuming cultural, racial, moral, and personal conflicts into his symbolic platoon, which thus becomes an artificial microcosm of the American body politic of the late 1960s. Regrettably Stone's splendid talent for depiction gets subordinated midway through to a portentous, allegorical battle between a Christ-like sergeant of Benevolence (Elias, played by Willem Dafoe) and a merciless sergeant of Nihilism (Barnes, played by Tom Berenger). (Aldrich's Attack! likewise featured the disintegration of a small unit, but in it Lieutenant Costa's desire for vengeance on the indecisive, half-insane Captain Cooney was without symbolic overlay.) Barnes shoots Elias to keep Elias from getting him court-martialed for killing a hysterical Vietnamese woman and threatening to blow a child's head off. (Fans of Tony Nelson's country-western "Battle Hymn of Lieutenant Calley"-said to have sold 200,000 sides in a few days in 1971-may find even the possibility of court-martial inexplicable.) Taylor too, surprisingly or not given the overwrought circumstances, winds up committing murder, even if the dying and despicable Barnes has dared Taylor to finish him off. …

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