Writing About Film

Platoon, 1986Stones Unturned Oliver the Place, but Understandably So

Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)

Paper for Vietnam and the Cinema class, 1988

Oliver Stone’s Platoon is an extraordinarily realistic film. Veterans who served in Vietnam — including those in the area “somewhere near Cambodia” in late 1967 and early 1968 — where the film’s events take place, agree that Platoon captures the essence of their experiences to an unprecedented degree. What are Platoon’s aims that it painstakingly attempts to recreate the events which writer/director Stone’s platoon encountered? By all accounts, Stone’s motivations are clear: Platoon is the result of his struggle to deal with the war and what he witnessed, in a medium which Stone hopes can make a connection with other veterans. Additionally, Platoon condemns the futility and criminality of the war, the result of uncalled-for U.S. intervention in another country’s affairs.

The title of Time magazine’s cover story about the film, "Viet Nam as it was, on film," [my emphasis] is obviously not literal, if for no other reason than because Platoon is not a documentary — it is, at best a recreation of events; and, at worst, a distortion of them. Time’s editors naturally understood this, the title of their story acknowledging that cinema is art, after all, and not reality. The cover title may, however, be a sly comment about film audiences, implying that some viewers do confuse film representations and history, to the point where in their memory the two become interchangeable. In a significant way, though, the cover, and the article inside, legitimize Platoon, declaring that it is the authoritative film document of the war. That is a statement which must be refuted.

Compared to the Vietnam films which precede it, Platoon achieves remarkable heights in evoking certain aspects of the war, particularly the physical rigors to which the grunts who fought in the jungles were regularly exposed. This “stark realism” should not be underestimated: besides technical and military details, Platoon successfully recalls the period’s language and atmosphere, from the soldiers' lingo to the slogans on their helmets to the music to which they listened. Platoon, through the character of Chris, submits its audience to many of the most repelling details of a grunt’s life, from red ants, leeches, and suffocating heat to Army rations, jungle rot, and malaria. Additionally — and here is where an understanding of the film’s subjectivity comes into play — Platoon ignores or sidesteps certain other elements of commonplace grunt life: the nicknames almost all grunts were given, and the warped, racist, and cruel humor often employed by the men.

Vietnam was a different reality for everyone who was there, man and woman, GI and noncom, American and Vietnamese. Dear America and Platoon successfully demonstrate that Vietnam could manifest itself differently, in time, within even one person’s breast: the cherry PFC saw Vietnam worlds differently than the scarred veteran who walked — or was carried — out just a few short months later. As previous films display, Vietnam was also a separate reality for those who were never there at all: specifically the people behind The Green Berets, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Rambo. Obviously, no single film could encapsulate more than a tiny fraction of those differing views, and Platoon is strongest when it retains its personal tone and documents Chris’s (Stone’s romantic alter-ego) experiences. It is when the story strays into symbolism and allegory that it loses its drive. This is also when Platoon becomes most dangerous, as it portrays the whole war itself in a generalized, removed fashion — Barnes' and Elias’s struggle for Chris’s soul. For this reason, if no other, there should be many, many more films (and books, poems, music, art, and so on) about Vietnam, not only to give solace to the thousands who were touched by the war, but also to keep films such as Platoon (and works such as Michael Herr’s Dispatches) from becoming the definitive documents of the war. Platoon only truly succeeds if it is viewed — by both producers and audience — as one man’s interpretation of the Vietnam War.

Platoon works best when it bluntly depicts the inherently dramatic and horrifying episodes of Stone’s experience — nothing else is needed to hold a viewer's attention. In interviews, Stone acknowledges that his platoon actually fought the rainy forest battle after the night ambush, but the reversal of events in Platoon is relatively unimportant: they are both from Stone’s experience, and, regardless of the order of their presentation, are not intrinsically symbolic. Since the movie does not claim to be a documentary record of specific events, but is rather a forum for Stone’s emotional release, such minor historical digressions are relatively innocuous. Platoon loses potency, however, by allegorizing the battle between Barnes and Elias: the metaphysical struggle for Chris’s soul, reinforced by the literary allusions to Melville, lessens the film’s specificity. Similarly, by concluding Platoon’s narrative with Chris’s voiceover generalizations, the film’s antiwar tone is lessened. His reminiscences, instead of reflecting his own limited experiences, elevate the film’s message to a supreme comment about all of humankind and its moral duty to rectify its mistakes. This is at the expense of Platoon’s strength, which is its ability to draw viewers into the action so that they see for themselves why the Vietnam War was so brutal, scarring, and, ultimately, futile. The symbolic subplot and the continual allusions to Elias’s resemblance to Jesus Christ are doubtlessly the outcome of Stone’s insecurity as a writer: his fear that the movie would not be palatable without the incorporation of a familiar, grand theme with which to resolve the narrative. Unfortunately, the symbolism lessens the main story’s impact — and its relevance — by weakening Platoon’s attack on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It would succeed much better without the added conflicts, and a less resolved ending would allow viewers to reach their own conclusions about the film’s message.

Platoon sets a positive precedent for films of its genre, declaring that movies which wish to be taken seriously must ascribe to certain realistic criteria. Works such as Hamburger Hill and 84 Charlie MoPic more successfully communicate the war’s futility, as they conclude in either pyrrhic victory or outright defeat. These films show that there is no final lesson to be learned from Vietnam other than the understanding that the United States should never have been there in any capacity, least of all by sending teenagers into combat 10,000 miles from their homes.

Similarly, though Platoon spends a significant amount of film-time with its black characters, its portrayal of the black soldier is rife with distortions and stereotypes. Black soldiers were as courageous as their white counterparts, and they died in greater proportional numbers. Junior, the most developed black character, is hateful, cowardly, and foolish, a butt of jokes who spouts Black Panther rhetoric but hangs out with the platoon’s rednecks. The other major black character, King, serves to initiate Chris into the underworld, as it were, where he meets the other “good” grunts and Elias. An exploration of King and Junior’s names is illuminating: the former’s alludes to the nonviolent, consensus-building figure of Martin Luther King; while by virtue of Junior’s name and actions, the audience sees that he is not a man, but something less, a minor among adults. By typing its main two black characters in such a way, Stone to some extent dehumanizes all of the film’s blacks. According to Wallace Terry, Oliver Stone’s platoon was known for its courageous black soldiers, including a lieutenant who is never shown in Platoon. In any case, a film with a limited number of roles for minority characters has an obligation to not distort an already stereotyped group, whose members arguable gave up the most of any race by virtue of their fighting in Vietnam. Time’s cover story title, by aggrandizing and legitimizing Platoon, affirms that Stone’s film tells the whole story, for black and white, American and Vietnamese. That is just not true.

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