I’ve watched Platoon before and more than once. I even have a DVD in my collection. Even still, the fact that it was removed from Netflix occasioned watching it again. A few thoughts, 33 years after the release.
Platoon is usually featured in the top/definitive lists of Vietnam-themed war movies. Contrasting with great films that came before it, and here I’m thinking specifically of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, Platoon is a film that is much more about Vietnam or, more accurately, the Vietnam experience.
This was director Oliver Stone’s breakout success from the director’s chair and Platoon paved the way for the artistic control he would have over future projects. The project was a long-fermenting idea of Stone’s which had its basis in his own, personal experience in the Vietnam War. Like Charlie Sheen’s character Private Chris Taylor, Stone volunteered for the army and requested that he be sent to Vietnam. He served in units and locations similar to those depicted in the film. After the events in the film were over, the real Oliver Stone continued his tour with a distinguished service record, serving as a member of a Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon in the 1st Cavalry Division. His experience traumatized him and he struggled upon his return to civilian life. His first cut at what would eventually become the Platoon story was a screenplay called Break, which he intended to be set to Doors music and start Jim Morrison. Morrison never got back to Stone, but the screenplay was among his possessions in Paris when he died.
I understand the context much better than when I first saw this film in the late 1980s. We now understand the movie as part of a Vietnam trilogy; Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven & Earth. Chris Taylor is not only Oliver Stone, but also Ron Kovic and, perhaps, any young American man who longed to serve his country in 1965 only to become disillusioned. We also understand Stone’s overarching theme of dueling father figures. The battle for Taylor’s soul between Tom Berenger’s Barnes and Willem DaFoe’s Elias is at least as important, artistically, as the portrayal of the Vietnam experience, and would be repeated in subsequent films. I also understand, much better, Platoon within the context of the war.
The battle depicted, an engagement that was part of Operation Yellowstone, was an interdiction of the forces moving into place for the Tet Offensive. Those who planned and fought that battle obviously could not know what it foreshadowed. Stone did not try to attach a particular significance to the engagement within the film so that is left to the audience, who may or may not be aware of a greater context. Stone, himself, expressed disbelief that the New Years’ Day battle depicted in the finale never made the U.S. papers, leading him to question his own recollection of the events. Beyond any story or message, Stone seems to simply want to portray how the Vietnam War felt to the soldiers who were there, contrasting that experience with the perception of those who weren’t.
When I first watched it, I interpreted it as an anti-war film. Thirty-three years on, I’m less inclined to make that blanket statement. Today, I see a film that wants to portray, realistically, the horrors of way. Stone has said he specifically sought a contrast with the John Wayne film The Green Berets. It is also tempting, but unadvised, to read too much autobiographical content into what is seen on screen. Stone has said that the scene where Taylor halts the rape of some village girls is based on his own experience, but other pieces of the story are contradicted by the reality. For example, while Barnes and Elias are based on sergeants that Stone served with, he did not serve with them together and they did not fight and/or kill each other. The real-life Sgt. Juan Elias fought with Stone in the 1st Cavalry and died after being mortally injured by an enemy booby trap. He was evacuated and died in a floating hospital. Stone has never, as far as I’ve read, named the real Sgt. Barnes but I thought I saw some indication that the person on whom the character is based survived the war.
As I’ve written before, Stone at its best can transcend his own beliefs and feelings with his art while at his worst he is crippled by his eagerness to expound upon his politicized message. When I first watched this, I felt it leaned toward the latter. I’d now say this leans toward the former. The battle for Taylor’s soul is often described as the “good sergeant” versus the “evil sergeant,” but I think that’s wrong. It is, as Private Joker explained, about the duality of man. Elias and Barnes aren’t strictly good and evil. Barnes is the alpha-warrior. He is cruel and he kills, but he keeps his men alive and for that his men love him. His men owe their very lives to him. Elias is gentle and kind, but he is also a killer and he also keeps his men alive. Both archetypes, both Elias and Stone, were part of surviving a tour of duty but, having survived, some though it better to leave Sgt. Barnes behind and tried to embrace the peace symbol button on their body armor.