Strumpets aside, we take a look at three films covering the horrors of the Vietnam war with Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Casualties of War. Join us as we find out if they hold up.
You are, I trust, familiar with the limited police action undertaken by the US of A in Vietnam back in the sixties. It proved controversial.
Enter, then Oliver Stone, whose personal experiences during the war no doubt heavily informed Platoon, and his further films Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth, and I would imagine also the mindset and characterisation of Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor, a son of privilege who dropped out of university to do his part for the Stars and Uncle Sam, just like his father and his father’s father before him.
He finds, however, like all wars once the propaganda wears off, a world of hurt. He’s dropped into a platoon of the 25th Infantry Division in the sweltering jungles, and struggles to find his feet. He meets and rubs up against the various characters composing the platoon, played by the likes of the extraordinarily young looking John C. McGinley, Johnny Depp, and Forest Whitaker.
However, the real conflict at the heart of Platoon is not with the Viet Cong, but between the two defacto leaders of the platoon, Tom Berenger’s Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes and Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias Gordon. Elias has maintained as much morality and principles as can be reasonably expected from someone sent expressly to perform violence, whereas Barnes is taking a, no doubt from his perspective more pragmatic, take no prisoners, kill-em-all-and-let-god-sort-’em-out approach to this. Hearts and minds, but only if the hearts and minds are extracted from the bodies.
For a while, it’s looks like it’s shaping up to be the story of the impressionable young Sheen swaying between these two embodiments of the dual faces of war, the high minded ideals that (hopefully) started the war, and the desperate struggle to survive the damn thing once you’re there, although once the actual war crimes start happening, well, it turns into a fight to survive with your principles while dodging the backstabbing of those on your own side who don’t share them.
It’s a hell of film, particularly for only six million dollars, no doubt reflecting it being seen as a risky proposition for the studio that, as it happens, payed off both at the box office and critically – despite The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now being things by this point. Charlie Sheen seems to have been someone who’s been a parody of himself since 1991, so it’s easy to forget that he was actually good, in the dim and distant past, like in here. He’s joined by a raft of equally committed performances across the board, which really sells the narrative.
You could, perhaps, make a case that this narrative is being told rather heavy handedly here. There’s not a lot of subtlety or nuance to any of these actions, and while I suppose it’s to show the effects of repeated exposure to the inhumanity of war, a few characters just seem to go straight to outright evil as fast as possible. It’s not as pronounced as in Casualties of War, but it’s certainly not doing much to challenge your view of war-time morality or present much of a defence of Barnes and his followers mindset. Of course, perhaps the point is there simply isn’t one, regardless of the pressure of war.
So, yes, hell of a film. Not one that we could call enjoyable, really, but it’s compelling viewing and holds up very well in Space Year 2019.
Full Metal Jacket
Like Casualties of War, which we will come to next, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is based on literary sources, in this case The Short Timers, a novel based on the real-life experiences of Gustav Hasford, effectively Matthew Modine’s Private Joker character, and co-writer Michael Herr’s memoir, Dispatches.
A film of two parts (though, actually, it feels more like a film of two films), Full Metal Jacket’s first portion takes place at the Parris Island bootcamp where a group of new Marine Corps recruits are drilled to combat readiness by R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. This sadistic git puts the young men in his charge through physical and psychological hardship and humiliation to turn them into a viable fighting force, apparently one of that group that believes “break ‘em down to build ‘em back up” is the appropriate way to train soldiers, and who almost certainly have never even considered trying an alternative.
Reacting particularly poorly to these tender ministrations is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Leonard Lawrence, nicknamed Gomer Pyle by the ever-delightful Hartman. While the film is commenting on the abuse these young men endured in a job many of them never requested, Pvt. Pyle is too incompetent at pretty much every aspect of military life that credibility is strained beyond breaking point that he should ever have been there, ranking somewhere below Forrest Gump in “yeah, sure, I totally buy him as a soldier”. This poor schlump has no business being anywhere near a firearm or military unit, though I honesty don’t know if it’s the film or the reality it’s based on that is incredulous, though I fear the latter. Nevertheless, D’Onofrio gives a great and sympathetic turn as the driven to breaking point recruit with a tragic end.
The second part of the film follows the boot camp’s other main character, Matthew Modine’s J.T. “Joker” Davis, assigned after basic training to Stars and Stripes, the in-house military newspaper. After surviving the Tet Offensive, Joker is attached to a squad during the Battle of Hué and sees a number of its members killed by a sniper. After finding and wounding the sniper, a teenage girl, Joker earns his thousand-yard stare around the same time that the US media declares Vietnam an unwinnable war.
I had never been particularly enamoured of Full Metal Jacket, remembering that I found it underwhelming and largely pointless. As such I didn’t feel any need to watch it again, and so hadn’t done for two decades. With my knowledge and experience of films vastly broadened in the interim, and my critical abilities more acute, though, I was quite happy to return to this now. And having watched it again… it’s underwhelming and largely pointless. (Likewise its unnecessary voiceover, used two, maybe three times throughout?)
Technically it’s a well-made film (I don’t think that should come as a surprise in a Kubrick piece), but it continues to fail to engage me. I come to the same conclusion now as I did in the 1990s, though, and that is that the essential pointlessness of the film is reflective of Kubrick’s view that the Vietnam War was pointless. This does not make for compelling or entertaining viewing, however.
I’m sure my feelings about FMJ aren’t helped by the perception and culture around it: like the cult of Fight Club, I feel like the more macho, harder of thinking, fans have extracted entirely the wrong message from the film, more likely to lionise than criticise R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman or the crazy door gunner: holding them up as heroes or at least some sort of admirable or aspirational character, rather than the despicable torturer or cold-blooded murderer they, respectively, are.
It’s almost comical quite how unlikeable nearly every character is, and while the casual, and sometimes not so casual, racism and homophobia may be accurate it’s difficult to sit through, and I can only wonder how unpleasant it may be for people who have actually been on the receiving end of that. Full Metal Jacket is very much not unique in this regard, of course: the next film is, in fact, considerably worse. At least Casualties of War makes pretence to consider Vietnamese as people in FMJ all Vietnamese are sex workers, pimps or enemy soldiers.
For all of its fame and popularity, to me Full Metal Jacket remains an inessential Vietnam War film and if you’ve not seen it then know that you can carry on like that without feeling like you’re missing out.
Casualties of War
We are rounding things off with Brian De Palma’s 1998 effort Casualties of War, which tells us of a particularly shocking war crime on Hill 192, as told by Michael J. Fox’s PFC Max Eriksson. There’s a little time to know the protagonists before that, including Sean Penn’s Sergeant Tony Meserve, who, after the squad get into a bit of bother, risks his own life to save Eriksson, pulling him out of a VC tunnel.
However it seems that the death of his friend, played by Erik King causes something to break in Meserve’s mind, as after subsequently being denied leave, he formulates a plan to kidnap a young girl from whatever village they are next patrolling near and carry her along to rape at will. While it’s perhaps initially laughed off as a joke, he actually does it, with varying degrees of support from his squad members.
Ericsson is very much against it, but is kept in line with threats and violence. Even so, he’s still trying to help Thuy Thu Le’s Than Thi Oanh, but ultimately to no avail as this slow motion tragedy unfolds.
On return to base, he attempts to get some justice, but finds little, with most willing to sweep it under the carpet until a sympathetic Chaplain stumbles across him and his story, allowing a modicum of resolution to it all.
Now, unquestionably this, and the central event of the piece, is pretty powerful and affecting. How could it not be, unless you are a sociopath? As a film, though, I’m rather less convinced of the necessity and quality of it, certainly compared to the previous two.
It has a decent cast, and while they’re clearly all very committed performances I don’t think a lot of the characters escape the gravity well of the stereotypes they’re based on. Penn’s, in particular, while full of bluster and menace, is played so close to a working class Eastern seaboard stock character that it feels almost exploitative.
Fox is likeable enough, and shows enough mettle to get his character over the line, but ultimately this film isn’t going to challenge you, or make much of an attempt to understand why someone could convince themselves, and then others, to do something so terrible. Again, perhaps there’s no defence or understanding, but it does leave this film with no real moral conundrum to leave you with. It’s just a straightforward presentation of a horrible thing that happened that we can’t learn anything from, other than don’t rape people.
For all that, and while I’d say it’s the least of the films here, it’s still worth watching. If nothing else, just to witness the very early career performances of John Leguizamo and John C. Reilly. They got better.
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