By this point in my cinematic quest, I’ve seen a shitload of war movies, but non of them have such a dire feeling of Hell on Earth like Platoon. From the moment Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) steps off a plane and in Vietnam, he is deep in it. Before his eyes can even adjust to the light, veterans shout to him, “You’re gonna love the Nam. For fucking ever.” and to his side, a newbie comrade points to a line of body-bags and asks, “Aw man, it that what I think it is?”
Turns out, Taylor dropped out of college to serve in Vietnam thinking it would be some great honor where he could emerge with a new found purpose and honor in his life. He soon discovers that his generation’s war has no honor, dignity or purpose. When his comrades die, they are then referred to as a “pile of shit” and made an example of what not to do. It is all so brutal and savage and as Taylor becomes more disillusioned, he writes home less, smokes more pot and just doesn’t care if he lives or dies.
His platoon is lead by two opposing sergeants, Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Elias (Willem Dafoe). Barnes is the indestructible, scar-faced, brute who has seen a lot of action and doesn’t give his men any slack. Elias is a more spiritual, passionate man who smokes dope regularly and tries to connect with his men. Both Berenger and Dafoe were nominated as best supporting actor. When Taylor realizes a horrible injustice between Barnes and Elias, the battles won’t just be left out in the jungle anymore.
The film quickly becomes a collection of horrific images. We witness the men slay innocent villagers for no reason. They kill each other, leave the weak or slow behind and watch their dramatic and iconic death. After the final battle, the amount of bodies scattered around is just staggering. One of the last images is from a helicopter we see a crater and all around, almost neatly spaced, are fallen men in and around the crater. These images are not about gore, but the brutality, destruction and devastation of the Vietnam War on human life.
With all these horrible things being just another day in Nam, it is no wonder that many of the men turn to drugs and alcohol. In a bunker, they smoke pot and drink beer just to escape reality for a while. This form of escapism brings out the anti-war message. These men realize that they are not really accomplishing anything out there, their fighting and dying is just an undignified bunch of bull. With that astonishing level of mental defeat, yeah, I’d be lighting up too.
Oliver Stone wrote and directed Platoon after his own tour in Vietnam where he won a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He has said, “I believed in the John Wayne image of America. My father was a Republican, and he taught me that it was a good war because the Communists were the bad guys and we had to fight them. And then there was the romanticism of the Second World War as it appeared in the films we mentioned. Obviously, the reality was very different.” We can easily see that Sheen’s character is loosely based off Stone’s own motivations and experiences. Stone was introduced to drugs and revolutionary anti-war music while in Vietnam.
From Stone’s experiences in Vietnam sprung this great film, one of the most brutal and honest depictions of war you can find on film. He put his actors through an exhausting boot camp before filming even began to give them that haggard look of just wanting to go home. It worked. Platoon rightly won the Oscars for best director, sound, editing and picture. If you can stomach two hours of Hell on Earth, Platoon is a must see film for all generations.
Finally, I hope you don’t mind my quote choice. I just never thought I’d hear this outside my hometown.
“Ain’t nothing like a piece of pussy, except maybe the Indy 500.”