War in films tends to be painted with the brush of victory. War is often devastating and always ugly, but film narratives often emerges with a sense of glory that renders the whole thing worthwhile. There’s a triumph to be had, particularly when America is involved, and Americans love their victories.
Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) doesn’t fit that description. The Vietnam War was as much a domestic social and cultural conflict as it was an overseas battle, and Platoon tells a story at the heart of the lasting legacy of the war it depicts—one of brutality and distress, not of heroes and ascendancy. It’s regarded as not just one of the greatest Vietnam war films, but one of the greatest war films, due to its ground-level narrative approach that renders the viewer as afraid and hopeless as the grunts on screen.
Stone was a Vietnam veteran himself. Much like Platoon’s central character Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), Stone volunteered for ground-level combat duty as he felt it was his responsibility as an American. Stone was wounded twice and awarded both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his valor. Semi-autobiographical in nature, Stone wrote Platoon to give those who didn’t serve, and future generations, a glimpse into the realities of surviving in Vietnam using well-known historical events and personal experiences from his own service as fodder for story points and characters. As The New York Times wrote in their 1986 review of the film, “Mr. Stone says his aim was to ‘make a document of a time and place,’ to re-create the reality of Vietnam so that those who stayed home or came of age after it ended would now know ‘what it was like to be there.’”
Platoon’s plot follows Taylor, a young man who saw going to Vietnam as a self-inflicted coming-of-age tactic. He dropped out of college (he “wasn’t learning anything anyway”) and picked up a gun, displeased with the notion that only poor people with no options should be the ones doing the fighting. The war becomes his transition into adulthood—the mentality is if he can survive this, he has a purpose in the world. What he finds is the opposite of his expectations.
“Somebody once wrote, “Hell is the impossibility of reason.” That’s what this place feels like. Hell,” Taylor narrates early in the picture.
The entry scenes in Platoon are directly pulled from Stone’s memories of his initial days in Vietnam, arriving in-country to the sight of dead comrades and receiving unwelcome sentiment from the living. The final battle the characters engage in is based on the New Year’s Day Battle of 1968, in which Stone himself fought. The terrifying village scene mid-way through the film, which sets up Platoon’s primary antagonist struggle between commanders Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Elias (Willem Dafoe), is thematically inspired by the famous massacre at My Lai.
War extracts barbarism from many of the characters. The enemy is rarely seen, and even less understood. The film reveals the contentious nature of their entire existence in Vietnam, and the way power, confusion, and fear can pull the worst out of people. Even Taylor, who generally sides with the moral faction and attempts to maintain his humanity, tries his hand at being savage. Nothing in Platoon champions that war is glamorous or exciting. It’s a palpable place of endless mayhem that requires those involved to adopt a level of stoicism or else they’ll be wrecked by the realities that surround them.
The cast was put into a boot camp to experience the rigors of soldier life, and the film was shot chronologically so that once characters died, they could be shipped off-set and back home, compounding the realism of losing people in war. In his book “Oliver Stone,” author Chris Salewicz writes Stone said he wanted ‘to mess with their heads so we could get that dog-tired, don’t give a damn attitude, the anger, the irritation… the casual approach to death.” The film succeeds in its representation. It’s often uncomfortable to watch and speaks to the dubious nature of America’s involvement in the war. Knowing and talking about something is one thing—seeing it is another.
By the end of the film, Chris Taylor is dramatically changed by the war and his comrades. Narratively, the film works like a classic piece of war literature: The innocent, unequipped man sets off to fight in a battle, survives, and leaves with knowledge and memories that live through time. Chris Taylor is not far from Henry Fleming or Paul Baumer in structure. The film ends with a quote: ‘‘Those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach others what we know and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.’’ It’s the wisdom of the ages that Chris takes away, not the victory.
The difference between classic literature like “The Red Badge of Courage” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Platoon lies in Platoon’s dedication to portraying the chaos, fear, and discomfort of combat. As The New York Times says, “few veterans will find any fraud in his milieu and many will remember the way combat left them feeling numbed and stupefied.” In Platoon, nobody triumphs, and even the “good” characters are marred by their experience. Heroes don’t emerge and save the day, and nobody walks out of battle with the prosperous fate of America cradled in their arms.