War Movie Mondays: ‘Platoon’

Happy Memorial Day to all those currently serving in the U.S. armed forces, and to you vets of America’s foreign wars.  This week’s pick is Oliver Stone’s 1986 Academy Award winner for Best Picture Platoon, which depicts the horrors and struggles of infantrymen figthing not only the enemy, but themselves during one of the most difficult periods of the Vietnam conflict.

The film stars Charlie Sheen (Chris Taylor), Tom Berenger (SSgt. Bob Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt. Elias), Forest Whitaker (Big Harold), Francesco Quinn (Rhah), John C. McGinley (Sgt. O’Neill), Kevin Dillon (Bunny), Reggie Johnson (Junior), Keith David (King), Johnny Depp (Lerner), Mark Moses (Lt. Wolfe), Chris Pedersen (Crawford), Corey Glover (Francis), and veteran Marine and the film’s technical advisor Dale Dye (Captain Harris).

The film is an autobiographical account of Stone’s own experiences during 1967-68 as told by a fresh-faced new recruit Chris Taylor (Sheen) who dropped out of college and volunteers for combat duty in Vietnam.  The film opens with Taylor’s arrival in country as he and others deplane from an Air Force transport.  Taylor and fellow recruit Gardner (Bob Orwig) see body bags which are being loaded onto their plane.

Taylor and Gardner have been assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division which is supposedly close to the Cambodian border.  Taylor quickly discovers that the rigors of infantry live quickly takes its toll on him who is trying to gain respect from seasoned troopers who avoid getting to know FNG’s “fucking new guys”.

Taylor quickly succumbs to the indigenous insect life of Vietnam and faints due to exhaustion and slight dehydration.  SSgt. Barnes (Berenger) is quick to criticize Taylor and verbally abuses him by calling him a “simple sonofabitch”.  Barnes then calls for the doc and the other FNG or “Cherry” Gardner who is also looked down as a new recruit.  Taylor is helped by the kind and fatherly Sgt. Elias (Dafoe) who tries to explain to Taylor that he is humping too much stuff on patrol and that next time he should check with him before going on patrol to know what to take.

Sheen’s narration back at base camp shows the living conditions that the grunts have to contend with.  Monotonous routine and preparing perimeter defenses to guard against enemy attacks are the norm. While digging a fox hole by filling sacks with dirt, Taylor tells his grandmother in a letter that he feels that he has made a huge mistake in his one year tour of duty.

The film’s two other main characters Sgt. Elias and Barnes constantly clash with one another and despise one another over policy and tactics.  While sitting down with their inept, college ROTC platoon leader Lt. Wolfe (Moses) and both Sergeants Warren (Tony Todd) and Sgt. O’Neill (McGinley), both men help plan a night time ambush for Viet Cong and NVA within their sector.

Elias informs Barnes that his squad has too many new recruits who are inexperienced and that the chances of running into enemy action are a given.  O’Neill is all to quick to inform Elias that his squad has two men who are going on leave and that his squad has the “fresh meat”.  Elias clashes with O’Neill and is told by Barnes to get his men ready for the ambush.

Taylor narrates further while on ambush that the men he’s with come from all walks of life and that they are the poor and unwanted who fight for the freedoms of everyday Americans.  Taylor’s watch shift is passed to Pvt. Junior (Johnson) who falls back asleep.  Hours later Taylor awakens to be mosquito bitten and soaking wet from an earlier rain storm.  The scene is brilliantly terrifying when NVA soldiers appear out of the dense jungle foliage and are moving in on their position.

Taylor’s heartbeat can be heard throughout the scene as he looks to his left and right to his unsuspecting sleeping fellow grunts for assistance.  He then looks down to his rifle and claymore mine triggers, but is paralyzed by fear.  A firefight erupts where casualties occur and Taylor is blamed for the death of Gardner and for “Tex” (David Neidorf) who was actually maimed by friendly fire due to the clumsy Sgt. O’Neill who threw a grenade too close to Tex’s M-60 machine gun position.

Taylor is wounded slightly in his neck and is cared for by the kindly Big Harold (Whitaker) who tells him the joys of hospital stays and oral stimulation from the nurses.  Barnes blames Taylor for the mishap and also knows Junior is equal to blame.  While heading towards an extraction point, Elias passive aggressively tells Barnes that Gardner would still be alive if he had a few more days to have learned something valuable.

As the film progresses, Taylor finds that he will succumb to the breaking point and witness the horrors and atrocities of combat life first hand.  When he returns from the hospital, he is no longer a recruit, but a seasoned veteran who quickly gains respect from his fellow soldiers.  Taylor falls in with a group known as the “heads”, who smoke dope and share a fraternal lifestyle of non-conformity towards army life.  One of the film’s most disturbing scenes occurs when the platoon enters a village they believe is housing food and weapons for the enemy.

Barnes enters the camp determined for payback when the platoon discovers that one of their own was ambushed and horribly mutilated by the enemy.  The village people are rounded up and threatened with death if they don’t admit that they are unfriendly and helping the Viet Cong.  Barnes executes an old women whose husband is being interrogated by Barnes and Lerner (Depp) as to why the weapons and food were being housed in tunnels.  Elias and others arrive at the village and the two men fight over Barnes’ actions.  Elias also holds Lt. Wolfe accountable due to him sitting back and allowing Barnes to commit an illegal killing of civilian personnel.

Platoon was hailed as a standout film with incredible performances and won 4 Academy Awards in 1986 for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, and Film Editing.  My favorite part of the film is towards the end, where an epic battle between the Americans and NVA occurs along the Cambodian border. The platoon has splintered into two factions who have aligned themselves with either the hard hitting Barnes or with the benevolent Elias, the two men are seen as opposing ideals throughout the whole film.

Elias tells Taylor that Barnes fights for what he believes to be true and that Elias thought very much like Barnes when he first arrived in country in 1965.  After three tours of duty, Elias believes that America will lose the war which was in fact growing more unpopular on the American home front with each passing day.  Elias tells Taylor he’s now positive that they will lose the war after the actions of Barnes and others like him.  Taylor scoffs and says that it’s impossible they will lose the war.  Elias responds with “we’ve been kicking other people’s asses for so long I figured it’s time we got ours kicked”.

Platoon is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray disc from MGM/UA Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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