I was too young at the tender age of 12 to see Platoon when it came out in 1986. I do remember when it came out, my parents discussing it. Dad had been drafted back then, but was fortunately for him sent to Korea instead of Vietnam. He did, however, know a number of people who had served in that war, and what he said that stood out to me was that from the people he knew who went to Vietnam, many of the things that happened in Platoon were things they had themselves experienced or witnessed while over there.
There’s a good reason for that. Writer/director Oliver Stone based much of the movie on his own experiences in Vietnam. Considering Stone’s career today, or what has happened to star Charlie Sheen, it may be difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced the movie to underestimate it. But this was made before Stone seemed to go off into the world of conspiracy theories and while Sheen was still a serious dramatic actor. Beyond those two, there are a number of familiar faces among the cast in small roles, most notably Forest Whitaker and Johnny Depp, but the movie is mostly about Sheen’s Chris Taylor finding his soul.
This is not a subtle movie. That isn’t a surprise since, well, Stone is not a subtle filmmaker. Sheen’s Taylor arrives in Vietnam during the opening moments among a new group of soldiers. As they get off the plane, they see the same plane being loaded up with bodybags. As it is, Taylor’s first view of Vietnam is a pile of corpses.
Much of the movie deals with Taylor gradually becoming a good soldier. He arrives, a volunteer from a well-off family, full of idealism, and has two roll models to choose from: Tom Berenger’s Sgt. Barnes and Willem Dafoe’s Sgt. Elias. Barnes outranks Elias, and also has the inexperienced lieutenant in charge of the platoon wrapped around his little finger. As it is, Stone’s lack of subtly makes it clear who Taylor should use as a role model.
Stone does gradually show the way both Barnes and Elias are different people. Barnes barks orders and delivers undeserving criticism and veiled threats from the beginning while Elias, like a good sergeant should, takes Taylor under his wing with actual valuable advise on how to be a good soldier. When the platoon returns to its base camp, the audience sees Barnes and his soldiers playing poker and drinking. Elias is hanging out with other soldiers listening to Motown and smoking pot. Taylor falls in with Elias.
Did I mention Barnes is heavily scarred? Like Barnes is both physically and morally broken? Yes, once again, Stone isn’t subtle.
Things come to a head when Barnes and Elias turn on each other while searching for the NVA in a small village. There are munitions there, but Barnes’ men go way beyond the pale, murdering the chieftain’s wife and threatening a pair of girls with gang rape. Taylor, who himself lost it with a one-legged man who couldn’t stop smiling, finds himself protecting the girls and sees Elias threaten Barnes with charges for other actions.
Is it a surprise that Barnes later leaves Elias behind to be killed during an ambush, leading to the most famous shot in the movie as the forlorn Elias holds his hands up to the departing helicopters? Again, no.
Barnes is a man who basically just seems to kill things. He isn’t a coward. He’ll go confront the angry potheads after getting Elias fragged and even threaten Taylor with a knife when he, and he alone, is willing to tackle the scarred psycho.
By the movie’s end, the innocent and idealistic Taylor is gone, one of the survivors of a terrible attack by the NVA who managed to get out by sheer luck and finishes Barnes off himself. Given its his second wound, he’s going home as is another soldier who stabbed himself in the leg to get out of Vietnam. As he flies off, Taylor does manage to see another soldier, a friend of his who likewise survived, strike a similar pose to the one Elias made, only this time, it is much more defiant, a survivor who isn’t going anywhere without a fight since, unlike Elias, he’s holding weapons when he throws his arms out to the departing helicopter.
Platoon hit a nerve when it came out, in large part due to the fact that the Vietnam War was somehow off-limits for movies for the longest time. Aside from some pro-war movies from the time of the war, there was Apocalypse Now and…that’s about it. Sure M*A*S*H* is set in Korea while reflecting the attitudes towards Vietnam, but the war itself was controversial enough that there just weren’t many movies made about it until Platoon came out. The topic was, it seems, too touchy. Heck, I seem to recall reading a commentary back in 2004 that said one nice side effect to John Edwards getting the Democratic Vice Presidential nomination was, given he was too young, maybe we could stop asking presidential candidates whether or not they served in Vietnam. Stone, as a veteran, could tell the story and make a movie that wasn’t so much for or against the war in Vietnam but about what it means to be a morally upright person in a combat zone. Not long after Platoon came out, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket came along. I’d actually say FMJ is a superior film, but that comes more from the first half than the second. There’s a notable drop in quality from the first half to the second, whereas Platoon maintains a consistent level of quality throughout the film. Platoon is important. Just try not to think too much what happened to Stone and Sheen since this movie came out.
NEXT UP: We have a movie I haven’t seen and that I don’t even know much about. All I know about Giant is that it’s James Dean’s third and final movie.