Film #47 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1986 – directed by Oliver Stone
I was more or less raised on war and time pieces movies. My father in particular loved (and still does) these old classics where all kind of acts of valor and gallantry would be displayed. The motto always seems to be: “This is the War. Do your duty for your country/world/planet.” And what do you know, good always prevailed.
Platoon is a stark departure from these clichés. Of course, it has the gun-ho attitude, armed fights and zipping bullets of the classics, but the movie is not so much about the war itself than the men who are fighting in it, and what is going on between them. Because of this (in my humble opinion) Platoon is an ideal companion movie to Apocalypse Now by Francis F. Coppola, set in the same region at the same time. The action takes place in 1967 Vietnam, near the Cambodian border. An American battalion (a platoon) is searching for the elusive 41st regiment of Infantry of the Vietnamese Army. Constant skirmish and ambushes have contributed to building a climate of fear and uncertainty among the men.
Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a private who volunteered in the war, has recently joined them. He did so out of a desire to serve as his old man in the 2nd World War and his grandfather in the Great War did before him. He is about to discover the untold truths and witness the dark aspects of war: tension, selfishness, fear, loneliness, helplessness, and all kinds of abuse and war crimes. With no guidance but the support of his own comrades, Taylor has to learn and make sense of the apocalyptic situation he’s been thrown into. Standing in front of him are wardens of two very different dogmas: Sgt. Bob Barnes (Tom Berenger), a ruthless man leading the men and the humane free-spirited Sgt. Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe). Under continuous strain, sleep deprivation and abuse, what path will Taylor choose?
The movie depicts the changes Taylor undergoes in a few months from being a wet-behind-the-ears rookie to becoming a seasoned soldier, injured twice in the line of combat. As the story unfolds, the idealistic volunteer falls prey to the meaningless habitual atrocity of war, all the while trying to keep his humanity. Prior to this review, I did not read any analysis of Oliver Stone’s work when it comes to Platoon. The cluelessness and isolation of the soldiers lost in a foreign and hostile country is portrayed very accurately. Connection to the outside world is non-existent; all considerations are closing in on what is going on in the regiment and whether or not it makes sense. In this brave new world without recognizable landmarks, men have to do their best to stick to their values and remember who they are or risk turning into plain monsters.
Taylor notices that most of the platoon conscripts are very poor men who enlisted mostly because they had no feasible prospects in life. They serve America’s interests and defend its principles in a faraway land, yet they seem forgotten and abandoned, especially by the country’s elite. As King (Keith David) says, “The poor do the battles for the rich. Always have, always will.” Another unnamed man says, “Politics man, it’s all politics“. Internal politics also play in the battalion itself, as supporters of Barnes and Grodin clash and isolate themselves from each other further as the movie goes.Changing and hardening doesn’t leave any of the men unscathed. After razing a village and killing some of its residents, Big Harold (Forest Whitaker) says, “I don’t know brothers, but I’m hurting real bad inside“. However, in order to survive among the unit, one often has to turn a blind eye when atrocities are committed: “Don’t think too much and don’t you be no fool” says King to his friend Taylor before leaving to return back to America.
Some, like Sgt. Barnes, actually elect this new life of violence, embracing it entirely. Grodin, when asked about his morality, replies, “Barnes does what he believes“. Rhah (Francesco Quinn) warns ominously, “Barnes was injured seven times and he survived. The only thing that can kill Barnes is Barnes.” Barnes about smoking weed, “You smoke this shit to evade reality. I am Reality.”
Taylor ends up falling like the others, when he turns into a fit of savage fury and kills a mentally-handicapped farmer. He later redeems himself and saves local girls from being raped by soldiers from the platoon: “She’s a fucking human being, man!” Thanks to his own ideals and the support of his friends, most notably Sgt. Grodin, who carries on the fight but lost his own ideals: “Back in ’65, yes (I believed). Now, no. […] We’re gonna lose this war […] We kicked the pants of so many. It’s about time we get kicked.”
Men like Grodin resort to drugs to cope with the insanity of it all. In the end, both Barnes and Grodin are products of this hellish environment; neither could resume a normal life if peace came. There is no way out for them.
There you have it. In the end this movie serves as a testimony to the atrocious nature of war, especially when you put in the perspective of other conflicts since then. I see three messages:
- War doesn’t makes sense.
- There are no good sides.
- War destroys equally the conquerors and the conquered.
As a conclusion, here are some of Taylor’s ending lines:
“We did not fight enemies. We fought ourselves.”
“The war is over for me, but it will always be there, until the end of my days.”
“We have an obligation to rebuild, […] to find goodness and meaning to this life.”
To extend your reflections on the theme of war, here are two comments taken from two very different movies:
The North Star (1943)
Kolya (Dana Andrews), a Russian pilot is about to throw his plane into a column of German tanks, in a desperate attempt to stop their progress. Here are his last words: “I do this for the people that I know, and for the people that I don’t know.”
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Faramir (David Wenham) talks to the hobbits on how he considers his enemies: “The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from. And if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not rather have stayed there in peace. War will make corpses of us all.”