Explores the Vietnam Experience Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Drawing from his personal experience as a combat veteran, film director Oliver Stone created one of the most powerfully realistic Vietnam films ever made with Platoon, setting the standard for all such films.

Summary of Event

The Vietnam War became a topic for Hollywood films soon after the United States began its military commitment of men and material to Southeast Asia in the mid-1960’s. As The Green Berets Green Berets, The (film) (1968) soon demonstrated, this was not the sort of war that could be treated with the enthusiasm and patriotism that had typified Hollywood films concerning World War I, World War II, or even the Korean War. The purpose of the American commitment in Vietnam was ambiguous and seemed potentially imperialistic; the justification for the war was seriously and hotly debated by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Senator J. William Fulbright; Fulbright, J. William a protest movement grew and flourished; draft evaders were openly contemptuous of the federal government and burned their draft cards gleefully in public; and many Americans questioned the wisdom of getting involved in a civil war in Southeast Asia. Vietnam War (1959-1975);motion pictures Platoon (film) Motion pictures;Platoon [kw]Platoon Explores the Vietnam Experience (Dec. 24, 1986) [kw]Vietnam Experience, Platoon Explores the (Dec. 24, 1986) Vietnam War (1959-1975);motion pictures Platoon (film) Motion pictures;Platoon [g]North America;Dec. 24, 1986: Platoon Explores the Vietnam Experience[06310] [g]United States;Dec. 24, 1986: Platoon Explores the Vietnam Experience[06310] [c]Motion pictures and video;Dec. 24, 1986: Platoon Explores the Vietnam Experience[06310] Stone, Oliver Dye, Dale A. Daly, John

The temperament of the country was divisive and hostile. President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B. became a victim of his own faltering foreign policy and mendacious military advisers; he ultimately chose not to run for a second term in 1968. Meanwhile, the body count kept increasing. Reports of genocide, the massacre at My Lai, the suffering of Vietnamese citizens indiscriminately shot and bombed, and the determination of the Viet Cong, as demonstrated by the Tet Offensive, made many Americans ashamed of what their government was doing in the name of democracy to prop up despots in what appeared to be the American colonial enclave of South Vietnam. This was not, in short, a popular war of conventional heroism to be celebrated superficially on film; it was more like a bad dream that became a national nightmare.

Tom Berenger (second from right) stars as Sergeant Barnes in Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

(DPA/Landov)

Apocalypse Now (1979), Apocalypse Now (film) Motion pictures;Apocalypse Now directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Coppola, Francis Ford Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Francis Ford Coppola[Coppola] had been praised by critic Stanley Kauffmann Kauffmann, Stanley of The New Republic as an ultimate expression of an unsavory war, “the definitive Vietnam War epic.” Coppola’s strategy was literary, borrowing plot and structure from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Heart of Darkness (Conrad) (1902), and mythic. The film’s political strategy was apparently nondidactic and presumably neutral, other than demonstrating that “war is hell.” The characters of both Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s Cimino, Michael The Deer Hunter Deer Hunter, The (film) (1978) made symbolic descents into the hell of Vietnam and were transformed by the experience, without necessarily being made better. Neither Coppola nor Cimino had really experienced the war at first hand. These two directors’ mythic approaches became merely a dodge, a means of “treating” the war without really coming to grips with it in the manner of journalistic narratives such as Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) and Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977) or oral histories such as Mark Baker’s Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There (1981) or Wallace Terry’s Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War (1984).

Oliver Stone’s Platoon was the first film that attempted to treat the Vietnam War realistically. At the age of twenty-one, Stone Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Oliver Stone[Stone] reported for duty in Vietnam on September 15, 1967, assigned to the Second Platoon of Bravo Company, Third Battalion, Twenty-fifth Infantry. The film follows what he saw and experienced. Although still potentially mythic in its structure, the framework was essentially autobiographical, deriving from the writer-director’s firsthand combat experience as a “grunt” in the infantry during 1967 and 1968. “I wanted to explore the everyday realities of what it was like to be a nineteen-year-old boy in the bush for the first time,” Stone explained in a publicity statement when the film was released. “The story is based on experiences I had over there in three different combat units, and the characters of people I knew during the war.”

It took Stone ten years to get his screenplay produced, and that was not because he was a newcomer to the film industry. He had won an Academy Award as well as the Writers Guild of America Award for his screenplay for Midnight Express Midnight Express (film) (1978), and he had written and directed The Hand, a psychological thriller, in 1981. He was one of the collaborators on the screenplay for Conan the Barbarian Conan the Barbarian (film) (1982) and wrote screenplays for the remake of Scarface (1983) and Year of the Dragon Year of the Dragon (film) (1985). Stone was not, therefore, a beginner, but his Platoon script “was rejected everywhere,” Stone noted, because “it was too harsh a look at the war—too grim and realistic.” Perhaps the first draft of his screenplay was ahead of its time, following too closely on the U.S. military’s embarrassed evacuation of Saigon. Perhaps Americans were not ready to concede that thousands of young men had bled and died in vain in an essentially pointless war.

Stone’s “realistic” approach was both risky and controversial, but after making his equally controversial film Salvador Salvador (film) (1986) for the Hemdale Film Corporation, Stone got the attention of Hemdale chairman John Daly. “When I read the script, I was struck by its shattering insight into Vietnam and all the cruelty and insanity that war brings,” Daly explained. “I felt that this was a movie that had to be made.” The film was scheduled to be shot on location in the jungles of the Philippines, and the crew arrived at about the time of the civil war that removed President Ferdinand Marcos from power and set up a new government under Corazon Aquino. The film was shot in seven weeks on a budget of $6 million.

Stone had seen hard duty in Vietnam. Born in New York, he had spent two years teaching English to students in the Chinese district of Saigon before enlisting for duty. He was wounded in 1967 during a night ambush and again in 1968, just before the Tet Offensive, earning the Bronze Star for combat valor and the Purple Heart before being transferred to the First Cavalry Division. Before the cameras started rolling for Platoon, he recruited retired Marine captain Dale A. Dye to give his cast two weeks of basic training in the jungle. “The idea of the cram course was to immerse the actors into the infantryman’s life,” Stone explained. He wanted the actors to be angry, frustrated, and tired. Stone remembered being “so tired that I wished the N.V.A. [North Vietnamese Army] would come up and shoot me and get this thing over with.” The filming began immediately after the cast went through thirteen days of this rigorous jungle training.

The plot of Platoon follows a new recruit, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), Sheen, Charlie on his rite-of-passage tour of duty in Vietnam under the influence of two strong and battle-weary sergeants, Barnes (Tom Berenger), Berenger, Tom a potential psychopathic killer who has no respect for civilians, and Elias (Willem Dafoe), Dafoe, Willem who is more compassionate and still has a sense of morality and decency. In Barnes, Richard Corliss Corliss, Richard wrote in Time magazine, “the grunts find everything worth admiring and hating about the war.” The action is set in 1967, near the Cambodian border, where Stone served. The main conflict is between Barnes and Elias and climaxes when the platoon enters a village and nearly commits a massacre. Although the memory of My Lai may be recalled here, Stone works from his own experience: “We did shoot livestock,” he told The New York Times (December 21, 1986). “We burned hooches. One of my comrades did kill a woman. I did save two girls from being raped and killed. It was madness.”

Platoon follows a mythic structure similar to Apocalypse Now, involving a journey into the underworld, a knight’s quest (with Sheen as the voyager and crusader), and iconography recalling both Oedipus and Christ, in both a symbolic crucifixion and a resurrection. The resemblance to Apocalypse Now is even more striking when one considers that the two Sheens, father Martin and son Charlie, play similar symbolic roles in the films. Stone’s film is not as surreal as Coppola’s, and the you-are-there first-person perspective of the voice-over narration gives Platoon a much stronger sense of realism. Upon its release, Platoon was praised by many as one of the greatest war films ever made.

Significance

After its nationwide release on December 24, 1986, Platoon quickly replaced Apocalypse Now in many critics’ opinions as the ultimate Vietnam War film, as Stone’s uncompromising screen realism sent shock waves through the film industry. Platoon set a new standard for the genre and perhaps changed the way people thought not only about Vietnam films but also about the Vietnam crisis in general. Platoon served notice that a radical reassessment of the American legacy in Vietnam was long overdue. In his Time magazine review of Platoon (December 14, 1986), Richard Corliss called Apocalypse Now “by comparison, all machismo and mysticism; Stone’s film is a document written in blood that after almost 20 years refuses to dry.” For Corliss, it was “the most impressive movie to deal with the fighting in Viet Nam.” David Ansen Ansen, David of Newsweek (January 5, 1987) found earlier films on Vietnam wanting in comparison: The Deer Hunter, Coming Home (1978), and Apocalypse Now, he wrote, merely “used the war as a metaphor to explore the American psyche, metaphysics or personal relationships.”

Some journalists took umbrage with the film. Syndicated columnist Tom Tiede, Tiede, Tom for example, rejected the notion that Vietnam veterans were “ticking bombs” and resented the way Stone showed American soldiers as “murderers, rapists, and terrorists, which is to say simply and completely evil.” He scoffed at the Time reviewer’s claim that Platoon showed “Vietnam as it really was.” If Platoon was rejected by right-wing Americans, it also was denounced by left-wing Germans at the Berlin Film Festival of 1987, who considered it “imperialistic maundering.” A right-winger from Scottsdale, Arizona, wrote to The New York Times (April 12, 1987) to deplore the film’s portrayal of the “moral vacuum” of soldiers “whose chief concerns were to shirk duty, blame the next fellow for one’s own dereliction, get high, assassinate and rape the innocent, disobey orders and murder either one’s fellow soldier or one’s superior.” For some, then, Platoon was both disturbing and controversial. Stone’s film spat in the face of many Americans who wanted to forget about Vietnam and feel good about their country.

Platoon broke with traditional war films in its graphic and psychological realism. Critic Vincent Canby remarked that he had never seen “in a war movie such a harrowing evocation of fear.” The film was disturbing not only in its vivid dramatization of the ordeal of combat but also in what it suggested about the behavior of American soldiers abroad. It is doubtful that any motion picture could tell the entire truth about Vietnam, given that there were so many facets to the war, but Stone’s film told a truth, personally realized. David Halberstam, Halberstam, David the Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent who covered Vietnam for The New York Times, wrote (March 8, 1987) that Stone struck “an enormous blow for reality, for what happens when we do not understand what we are doing and what our limits are.” The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, including those for Best Director and Best Picture. Academy Awards;Best Director Academy Awards;Best Picture It also earned Golden Globe Awards Golden Globe Awards for Best Director and Best Motion Picture—Drama of 1986.

The issue of Vietnam remained an obsession for Oliver Stone, who later filmed the bitter story of Ron Kovic Kovic, Ron in Born on the Fourth of July Born on the Fourth of July (film) (1989). Kovic’s story paralleled Stone’s with one crucial difference: Oliver Stone did not return from Southeast Asia as a paraplegic. Stone’s background, however, was similar to Kovic’s. He described his father as a very patriotic right-winger. “I believed the John Wayne movies,” Stone said in an interview after Platoon was released. “I believed the Audie Murphy movies. I thought war was . . . the most difficult thing a young man could go through.” With Born on the Fourth of July, Stone broke with the conventional mythic structure of Vietnam films, but that film was as much about the aftermath of the war on the home front as about the war itself. Perhaps even more controversial was Stone’s JFK JFK (film) (1991), which, among other things, attempted to answer the question, Why were we in Vietnam?

Oliver Stone understood Vietnam because he had lived it. Halberstam praised Platoon as “the ultimate work of witness, something which has the authenticity of documentary and yet the vibrancy and originality of art.” He asserted that Stone “has done something more important than all the war’s historians; he has given us something which is not only real, but which lives.” This is perhaps the strongest tribute to one of the most important films of the 1980’s. Vietnam War (1959-1975);motion pictures Platoon (film) Motion pictures;Platoon

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adair, Gilbert. Hollywood’s Vietnam. London: Heinemann, 1989. Chapter 8, “I Am Reality,” includes discussion of the alleged “realism” of Platoon. Criticizes the film’s “scenes of paroxysmatic physical violence” as being “basically as gratuitous and exploitative as those of any other film.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderegg, Michael A., ed. Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. Several essays in this collection, but notably Judy Lee Kinney’s “Ritual and Remembrance,” comment on Platoon, particularly its realism and mythic structure, its voice-over narration, and its Christian iconography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auster, Albert, and Leonard Quart. How the War Was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam. New York: Praeger, 1988. Part 4, “Confronting Vietnam,” deals with Platoon as “part of the healing process.” Asserts that the film’s greatest strength “lies in its social realism” and “its feeling of verisimilitude.” Praises Platoon as offsetting the dangerous patriotism of the Rambo films. Well researched, sensibly written, and readable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, James West, and Mark Hamilton Lytle. “Where Trouble Comes: History and Myth in the Films of Vietnam.” In After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. 5th ed. Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Essay evaluates the historical authenticity of Vietnam films and the role of motion pictures in creating myths about the Vietnam War. Includes photographs and suggestions for additional reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dittmar, Linda, and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. Includes essays that address Platoon substantially, generally from a left-wing perspective. Features a selected filmography and a chronology that shows both films and historical events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dye, Dale A. Platoon. New York: Charter Books, 1986. Novelization, based on Oliver Stone’s screenplay, written by a retired Marine captain who served in Vietnam and later became Stone’s military adviser on the film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Mark. The Vietnam War in History, Literature, and Film. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003. Provides a chronology of the events of the war and examines how literature and film have depicted the “truth” of particular events. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.

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