Format: DVD from personal collection on itty bitty bedroom television.
When it comes to war in the movies, the granddaddy for sheer numbers and numbers of great films is World War II. The winner in terms of realism, though, is Viet Nam. There are a number of possibilities for this. The most likely is that the great Viet Nam films were made by filmmakers who were there, and who were far less restricted in what they could show then the veterans of World War II were allowed to depict on the screen.
The greatest of the Nam films will depend on whom you are speaking to. Opinions vary, but in any group of people, it won’t be long before someone mentions Platoon. Certainly, by any standards, Platoon should be mentioned in the same breath with other Nam films.
It had been years since I’d seen this. In fact, while I can’t pinpoint the date I saw this movie, I can pin a rough time on it. I saw it in the theater in 1986 with my mother. In retrospect, I’m not sure Mom was that comfortable watching this movie with her teenaged son. It’s plenty violent, features copious amounts of language, and makes a number of references to sex that aren’t so much fun in the company of one’s parent.
Like any good war movie, Platoon is about much more than just the war, although it’s certainly about that as well. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen, back when he still had a career that didn’t involve hookers and a bad sit-com) has enlisted in the Army because he no longer appreciated his privileged life back in the States. He’s quickly disabused of his patriotic notions, however, when the war shows up to slap him across the face almost as soon as he gets there.
We’re introduced to a number of characters including Big Harold (Forest Whitaker), King (Keith David), the gravel-voiced Rhah (Francesco Quinn), Bunny (Kevin Dillon), and Junior (Reggie Johnson). Most importantly, we are introduced to Bravo Company’s sergeants, the spiritual Elias (Willem Dafoe), the scarred and terrifying Barnes (Tom Berringer), the terminally paranoid O’Neill (John C. McGinley), and the addicted Warren (Tony Todd).
Bravo is divided into two groups: Barnes’s group are drinkers, fighters, and psychotic killers existing only to destroy as much of the VC as they can. Elias’s group, on the other hand, tend to spend time in an underground bunker getting as stoned as possible. Chris initially fits in with neither group until he is wounded mildly in combat and comes back from the hospital. King takes him to Elias’s bunker, and Chris has essentially chosen his side.
The difference between the two groups is made manifest when the platoon investigates a Vietnamese village. Chris locates a mother and her disfigured son hiding under a floor in a hut. Chris torments the boy, but leaves it at that. Bunny, on the other hand, brutally kills the boy with the butt of his rifle, and then leaves the hut bragging about the splatter he created. Shortly after, Chris protects a young Vietnamese girl from what would likely have been a serial rape at the hands of Barnes’s crew.
The battle between the two sides of the platoon intensifies and finally culminates in a battle that goes badly. While chaos reigns on all sides, Elias runs off to flank the enemy. Barnes tracks him down and pumps three rounds into his chest, then makes for the evac helicopter, telling all who survived that Elias was killed. But, as the helicopter takes off, Elias breaks through the trees, only to be gunned down by the NVA as he attempts to flee. Chris is convinced that Barnes killed him, but can’t really prove it.
And that’s the movie, or at least the most obvious parts of it. Of course, there’s a lot more, which is what anyone watching an Oliver Stone movie should expect. Platoon is about choices, and the value of those choices we make. Here, those choices are represented by Elias and Barnes. Elias is a tremendous soldier. He’s smart, cunning, quiet, swift, and effective. But, he doesn’t kill needlessly. He’s as peaceful as a soldier can be, killing only from need and because he must. Barnes, however, lives for the killing. He kills out of hand simply because it’s what he does. There is something mystical about him as well—his severely scarred face serves as a constant reminder of his near-immortality. One member of the platoon comments that Barnes has been shot seven times, and that the only thing that can kill him is himself.
At this point, you can choose your dichotomy. Elias represents good, Barnes evil. Elias represents God, Barnes is Satan. Elias is humanity, Barnes is inhumanity. They’re probably all correct, although I favor the reading that Elias is a Christ figure. The first time we see him, he’s in the classic crucifix pose, rifle over his shoulders, arms slung over the top. Chris receives one of his first drug hits courtesy of Elias “baptizing” him through the barrel of his rifle. Finally, he dies and comes back, however briefly.
It’s a straightforward allegory, but that’s really the only thing straightforward here. Everything is confused by a haze of characters and personalities. That sounds like a criticism, which is unintentional. The movie is confusing because the war is confusing. Everyone shifts and positions change and mutate. Chris chooses, and so must we in the audience.
Why to watch Platoon: Realistic war and sweet, delicious allegory.
Why not to watch: Violence that will stick with you for a long time.