Platoon (1986) Director: Oliver Stone
“I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy… was in us.”
Often compared to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Platoon is Oliver Stone’s direct confrontation with popular views on war. Based on his personal experiences in Vietnam, Stone created the film, in part, to counter the optimistic pro-war propaganda of John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968) which was critiqued by many veterans, as well. Platoon eventually became the first part of an eventual trilogy of films by Oliver Stone focused on the Vietnam War, followed by Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven & Earth (1993).
Platoon is a film that explores the nature of courage. How does a soldier act courageously in an unjust war? What is courage in the midst of horrendous savagery? We (the audience) experience the Vietnam War through the eyes of Chris Taylor (played by Charlie Sheen), a wide-eyed and young infantryman assigned to a platoon stationed near the Cambodian border. Rife with 1960’s classic rock tunes, and the now famous Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, we witness atrocities of all kinds especially the slaughter, burning, and gang-rape of poor Vietnamese villagers in response to a murder. This dramatic scene causes a rift within the platoon. There is the battle against the enemy, but there is also a battle within the platoon. The struggle is between Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), a battle-hardened but cynical and scar-faced leader; and Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), a romantic moralist who is a bit of a wild card. Notably the de facto leader Lieutenant Wolfe (Mark Moses) is mostly feckless and irrelevant. Those who simply want to survive the war follow Barnes, while those who want a courageous leader follow Elias. However, like the sword of Damocles, Barnes realizes he has a court martial potentially awaiting him when gets off the battlefield for his abuses of the villagers. A number of notable actors appear in the platoon: Keith David, Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley, Johnny Depp and others. All the actors in Platoon were all put through an intense boot camp wherein they were all addressed only by their characters’ names.
Next, we see a raid in the jungle during which the platoon is very nearly destroyed by friendly air fire. When Barnes finds Elias alone in the trees, he pauses and then raises his rifle and shoots. Thinking he has killed Elias, and thus eliminated the threat of court martial, he walks away. When he returns to the helicopter, Barnes claims that Elias was killed by the enemy. As the helicopter takes off the men see an injured Elias hobbling out of the jungle trailed by a band of enemy Vietcong. He is tragically shot to pieces and dies with his comrades watching from above. Later Chris gets into a fight with Barnes over his betrayal of Elias. Shortly thereafter, the platoon is called to maintain a defensive position for an overnight raid. Many of the men are killed, but Chris finds courage (much like the courage of Elias) within himself. He advances on the enemy, killing many, until he happens upon Barnes who has been shot and has gone insane. Barnes nearly kills Chris when a nearby airstrike hits, but when Chris awakens he shoots and kills Barnes (a parallel of an earlier scene in which Barnes executed an enemy combatant).
Platoon was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won four including Best Picture and Best Director (Oliver Stone). Interestingly enough much of Platoon was shot in the Philippines and the extras were true Vietnamese refugees who had fled to the Philippines. Platoon is “Dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Vietnam War.” Thankfully, Platoon shows a great deal of respect for the soldiers –the troops are neither portrayed as pitiable victims nor as unrealistic Übermensch. There is room for complexity, failure, vengeance, courage, insanity, recklessness, resentment, anger, heroism, fear, and nobility. In Platoon, Oliver Stone delicately condemns the war, not the soldier.