By Michael Dodd
As Hollywood entered the 1980s the war in Vietnam had only recently reached its end and was dominating the world of American cinema. Not only was the conflict itself still a hot topic in the United States but the Vietnam War movie was now in vogue following its legitimisation as a high art genre in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. The Reagan decade would see Hollywood build on the foundation that these two masterpieces had established and take the on screen Vietnam War to new levels, resulting in some of the most powerful films ever made.
How did Hollywood tackle the conflict itself? The confusion of a new and unsettling kind of warfare and the trauma inflicted upon those who participated? And how did the Vietnam of Hollywood affect the American movie-going public’s perception of the actual war?
Just as with any major artistic movement there are but a few landmarks which define the era, and following The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now the first major Vietnam War movie milestone to tackle the subject of the conflict itself arrived in 1986 with Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Just like The Deer Hunter this picture was imbued with high art status when it was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture, but there was another factor which makes this one of the most significant if not the most significant Vietnam films. Oliver Stone had already written a visceral screenplay for Scarface in 1983 which was loosely based on his own drug abuse, and with Platoon he now transcribed his experiences as a Vietnam veteran to the screen.
Written from true life experience in the Vietnam War, Platoon was therefore not so much a work of fiction based loosely on the horrors of ‘Nam but more of a Hollywood eyewitness account. The fact that this more true to life movie shared many commonalities with The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now served to not only cement its place in the Vietnam War movie canon, but also the key themes and tropes of the movement itself.
The fundamental theme of Platoon is a loss of basic humanity. Charlie Sheen’s fresh-faced Chris Taylor is the picture of innocence when he departs from a helicopter to join up with his unit and is immediately confronted by the horrors of war when he sees a multitude of body bags being loaded up for transport out of the war zone. By the end of the film, and having partaken in the use of hard drugs and seen many of his friends die, his face is no longer a picture of innocence. Now caked in dirt and blood from a recent battle, he ruthlessly slays one of his own comrades in revenge for an earlier act of friendly fire. This distortion of battlefield morals and confusion of objective is earlier highlighted by a raid on a village of purported collaborators which sees Taylor’s unit murder and attempt to rape what turn out to be innocent civilians.
There is much to be said about the act of friendly fire which Taylor was avenging at the film’s conclusion. Sergeant Elias, played by Willem Dafoe, is portrayed as the conscience of the American armed forces in Vietnam. He’s a soldier and he will get his hands dirty, but he is also a man with a clear idea of right and wrong who is appalled by the more thuggish elements of the platoon. In a power struggle with Tom Berenger’s Sergeant Barnes, Elias is very much the angel taking on the devil, and he loses the fight when Barnes guns him down. This act prompts perhaps the most iconic Vietnam War movie visual, the shot of Dafoe collapsing to his knees and raising his arms, Christ-like, to the sky as he falls, taking the morality of the American forces with him. Stone’s message is clear: in Vietnam the American soldier losing his grasp on morality and humanity was more than possible, it was inevitable.