Vietnam War in Film: Oliver Stone’s Platoon Essay
Platoon The Vietnam War has often been characterized as the greatest American foreign policy debacle ever. American public support eroded in front of the television set nightly. The longest war in our history, divided Americans more drastically than any other event since the Civil War. After the exhausting toll on the American psyche, there was no doubt that by the wars end the nation was ready to put the Vietnam saga behind them. Still the story had to be told, and that would be up to Hollywood.
Arguably one of the most compelling Vietnam movies is Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), which depicts his experience during the war. Unlike many previous Vietnam War films, Platoon is not simplistic involving a single one dimensional character, predictable, or characterized by a familiar plot line. Rather it is a story that is creatively told, contains intense memorable imagery, and presents the human condition. Finally, Platoon serves as a nightmarish vehicle into the brutal experience of the Vietnam Hell.
Historical Context and Platoon
As American involvement in Vietnam dragged on through the late 1960’s and the body count spiraled upward, morale sagged in many sectors of the U. S. military. Many units suffered from internal tensions, the crippling and terrifying environment, drug use, unwillingness to fight, and the sense that the war was for nothing. Also, there was no doubt that battlefield atrocities were being committed by Americans, especially after the Mai Lai massacre. Finally, even more chilling and demoralizing was the practice of fragging.
Fragging is military slang for the killing or wounding of a soldier or officer deliberately. Debate about their seriousness and frequency of incidents continues to rage, but there is no question that it became a concern in the latter years of American involvement in Vietnam . Platoon examines these sobering experiences, in an artful yet disturbing fashion . Platoon captures the internal deterioration of one particular unit witnessed through Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) a young naive soldier, who serves as Stone’s alter ego.
During Stone’s tour in Vietnam, he quickly learned that that platoons were plagued by factionalism and disunity Other main characters (possibly based on real people) include sergeant Barnes played by Tom Berenger and sergeant Elias, William Dafoe. Barnes was the malevolent sergeant whose scarred face reflected a survivor, a consummate soldier, but a broken spirit. His toughness was legendary throughout the platoon, and was elevated even more after reenlisting from a gunshot wound to the face.
Barnes survival and savvy appeal to the poor white Budweiser drinking redneck troops of the platoon. Elias on the other hand is based on a 23 year old, Jim Morrison type like figure. Elias’s minions were the dopers, stoned whites, ex-hippie draftees, and blacks. The allegiance by the troops to these two leaders results in the platoon becoming divided and less united as the movie plays out. In dramatic fashion the two sergeants became metaphors for the good and evil, the animal and the human that exist within everyone.
Stone accurately portrays a jungle laced with booby traps, menacing insects, and an enemy that is elusive and hard to locate. In addition, the viewer cannot ignore the relentless violence that has been recaptured on screen. Not only to the body, but mind. The anxiety, fear, and the platoon’s inescapable despair. Consequently, the platoon terrorized by violence, senseless death, and infighting, breaks down after one of the soldiers, Manny, is found dead tied up and throat slit. As a result the men seek revenge on a tiny village that contains weapon caches and possible VC’s.
This sets up for the one of the more memorable scenes as well as the turning point in the film. Stone takes the audience through the darkest possibilities of war, and what can happen to people when they go through a process of intense stress. As the assault on the village plays out, Chris Taylor is momentarily taking part in the terrorizing of a man when he comes to, and begins to walk away. Bunny (Kevin Dillon) takes over and savagely beats the poor and obviously retarded man with the butt of a rifle, blood and brains squirting on his face as well as Taylor‘s.
Upon after Bunny unremorsefully boasting that he never seen a head fall apart like that before. Following the beating the group gathers where Barnes is interrogating a Vietnamese man regarding weapons, food, and VC troop movements. As his wife protests Sergeant Barnes shoots the screaming women in the head while her fellow villagers, husband and daughter watches in horror. After the killing of the woman, Barnes grabs her daughter and threatens to kill her if the father does not speak up and tell them were the weapons and other VC’s are hiding.
Elias horrified by the violence, intervenes and calls Barnes out, stopping the forthcoming murder of the girl. It quickly turns into a fight between the two men, with half the men cheering for Barnes and the other half for Elias. Finally, the fight is broken up and the Platoon was ordered to “torch” the village, which also meant for some, to rape innocent little girls. The ultimate result of the incident was that Barnes power was now challenged, and a civil war had commenced within the platoon.
While Platoon is not a movie about American massacre’s, Stone with this scene, does possibly parallel the events that took place at a village called Mai Lai in 1968 . The incidents and acts of violence that were committed permeated the conscious of the country and helped further facilitate the anti-war debate. Moreover it caused many to re-examine the rightness of the war and the country itself. According to Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth- Century America, he contends that;
More that any other single event, the revelation [ of the massacre at Mai Lai] transformed the terms of ideological and political debate on the war, lending authority to the idea that American society was in the grip of a ‘madness’ whose sources might be endemic to ‘national character’. Mai Lai came in the wake one of the most violent times in American history. Assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, violent clashes at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, the Manson Murders, and of course mounting casualties in Vietnam.
Consequently, news of the massacre reinforced the belief held by some that Americans were trapped in an irrationally rising tide of violence which shed doubt on the goodness of American character. As the war was increasingly governed by bureaucrats back home, what transposed on the battlefield could be a complete different story. While many battalions fought efficiently, others were afflicted with infighting. As a result the violence was not just limited to the VC army and Vietnamese civilians. Warring factions between officers and soldiers was not uncommon.
Battles were also being fought between the “enemy within” as many soldiers would contend. Platoon does a remarkable job at showcasing the “enemy within”. These themes are exemplified throughout the film, with inept sergeants who have little control over their men, racial tensions, different philosophies on winning the war, low morale, Chris Taylor’s disillusionment with the soldiers and country itself, Barnes quest for power, Elias’s crusade to take care of his men and see them through the war, and finally the most pervasive being fragging. The killing or wounding of one of your own.
Stone takes us into the chilling world of fragging shortly after the fight with Elias. During a Vietnamese ambush Barnes finally gets his chance to get back at Elias and shoots him three times when the two men come across each other alone in the jungle. During this time Taylor goes back into the jungle to find Elias, only to find Barnes who said he is dead and orders him back to the chopper. As they embark back to base camp in the rescue copter the platoon witnesses Elias stumbling out of the jungle arms raised as he is shot down by the VC pursuers.
Following Elias’s death Taylor tries to convince the others that Barnes was responsible for the death of Elias. Barnes is drunk and eavesdropping on his claim and berates him causing Taylor to attack him. During the clash, Barnes assumes control and threatens to kill Taylor, but another soldier reminds Barnes of the consequences. Later that night the camp is over run by the VC and an air strike is called in. Barnes still seeking revenge on Chris Taylor attempts to kill him, yet is knocked out by the explosion.
The following morning the alive but wounded Taylor wakes up from the haze of the blast and picks up an enemy AK and kills the wounded Barnes. Shortly after a tearful Taylor is taken to a chopper to go back home lamenting on his torturous experience. Debate about the seriousness and actual numbers of fragging incidents continues to rage. Reports of bounties on officers circulated with increasing frequency in 1967 and 1968, and by 1969 the U. S. Army had admitted knowledge of at least 200 hundred fragging incidents .
To many soldiers fragging was seen as a self preservation system, for officers were often inexperienced, and had the power to enforce decisions that threatened the lives of the soldiers. It became a mechanism to remove perceived threats. As a consequence, the militaries effectiveness in many instances was hampered by this breakdown in discipline. Overall Conclusion Stone does a remarkable job capturing the ferocity of battle, but more importantly he exposes the inner strife that many American soldiers had to face in Vietnam.
This is best summed up by Taylor’s quote at the end of the film; “ I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves, and the enemy was in us…. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there the rest of my days- as I am sure Elias will be fighting with Barnes for…. possession of my soul. ” While Platoon is open for harsher assessment of elements of controversy, including racial elements, alleged drug use among soldiers, low morale, and the killing of civilians and fellow soldiers.
But most would have to agree that whatever its faults, Platoon paints a powerful, convincing portrait of the physical and moral challenges that confronted American soldiers in Vietnam. Moreover there is no doubt that movie jolts the viewer with an intense rousing of the senses, including danger, anger, fear, and sadness. Finally from a historical standpoint the movie is successful in recreating an atmosphere that many of us will never experience, that of hell on earth, and in such a convincing manner to hopefully detour us from such a place.