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PLATOON
(Oliver Stone .1986)

We're gonna lose this war.

PLATOON

Oliver Stone . 1986

 

The first - the only - Vietnam war film made by a veteran, a film-maker who had served there, twice wounded in combat - Oliver Stone.  Son of Wall Street (!) stockbroker, he quit college and actually volunteered for the Army.  “Told them,” as his alter-ego says in his film, I wanted the infantry, combat, and Vietnam…  I figured why should just the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids always get away with it? “

“Oh, I see ,” said the character called King. “What we got here is a crusader.“

We sure do. His films explore everything from two more Vietnam studies (Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth) and the Salvadoran civil war to political  biopix  about Presidents Jack Kennedy, Richard Nixon and George W Bush). 

Stone grunted through eight months  of ’Nam combat during 1967-1968. The experience  marked  him for life  and fed his desire to make a film about it – if, for no other reason, than   being viscerally closer to the real thing as possible, to combat  the spurious gung ho propaganda of the John Wayne version, Green Berets, 1966.  "Vietnam was really visceral, and I had come from a cerebral existence: study... working with a pen and paper, with ideas. I came back really visceral. And I think the camera is so much more ... that's your interpreter, as opposed to a pen."

Stone set out, said Roger Ebert’s review, “to make a movie about the war that is not fantasy, not legend, not metaphor, not message, but simply a memory of what it seemed like at the time to him…  There is no carefully mapped plot to lead us from point to point; instead, like the characters, we are usually disoriented. Anything is likely to happen, usually without warning.”

He wrote it quickly upon his return from action.  His screen personage is called Chris Taylor. It was very much Stone’s story.  

Or it is now.

The first scenario was called Break…  “It was another version of it - a very mythic version, The character dies in Vietnam and goes to the Underworld. A lot of mythology. I couldn’t  deal with Vietnam yet in a completely realistic way at that point. And, yes, I I did send it to Jim Morrison because it had a lot of Doors music in it. And he had it in his apartment in Paris when he died. It was returned to me in 1990 when I made The Doors. Very bizarre.”

He tried again, this time after film school, but his 1976 scenario was not considered upbeat enough. “Toorealistic.” Which is exactly why New York director Sidney Lumet liked it.  And planned to  make it with  Al Pacino…. who famously, refused all other ‘Nam flms, including Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July in 1988.

Hollywood only took any notice of  Stone when he won an Academy Award for  Midnight Express. “I was handed the Oscar from Lauren Bacall; that was quite a high. it wasn’t easy to sit there for three hours. If you look at the broadcast actually, they cut to the wrong person when I won. It was actually a friend of my mother’s! They really screwed up. I got a kiss from Elizabeth Taylor, who was my love object when I was young. It was a great night. Very special.”

Platoon, however, was still stuck in the cupboard.   “No one wanted to make a realistic movie. And then you had films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. And the feeling was our moment had passed. So I was sad about it - really heartbroken. I forgot about the script for a while, thinking it would never get made. And then Michael Cimino [director of  The Deer Hunter] said I should bring Platoon back and he would produce it. This was in ’84. And I thought it was going to happen.”

He lowered his fee to  to $200,000 to co-write Cimino’s Year of the Dragon for  Dino De Laurentiis on the proviso that the Italian producer would next back Platoon.  He did not. Finally, thanks to the Brit company, Helmdale, the chronological shoot of the 54 day, $6.5m film, startyed on the Philippines island of Luzon in February 1986.

He had searched his way through  50 actors  - 51 if you count Ben Stiller,  rejected by Stone for being “cute.” The final cast were put through a  tough  30-day military training regimen, organised by Dale Dye  They were on limited food and water, often awakened at night  by the firing of blanks. This was messing with their heads, to break them, “said Stone, “so we could get that dog-tired, don't give a damn attitude, the anger, the irritation... the casual approach to death.”  Dye, who also played Captain Harris (three rtoles, in fact), worked on other ‘Nam films, as well as Stone’s trilogy.  Dye was also a Vietnam vet and the two men would invariably go off and weep together after recreating their experiences.

Narration: ell, here I am, anonymous, all right. With guys nobody really cares about. They come from the end of the line, most of them, small towns you never heard of: Pulaski, Tennessee; Brandon, Mississippi; Pork Bend, Utah; Wampum, Pennsylvania But most of 'em got nothing. They're poor. They're the unwanted. Yet they're fighting for our society and our freedom. It's weird, isn't it? They're the bottom of the barrel, and they know it. Maybe that's why they call themselves grunts, 'cause a grunt can take it, can take anything.

Chris Taylor .  In the first, auditions, Stone felt Charlie Sheen was a kid,  gawky,  underweight  . His  sibling with the true family name, Emilio Estevez, was better.  “There was a kind of puzzled gaze to him that I’d also had as a young soldier new to Vietnam,” said Stone in his 2020 memoirs.  And, although I was seriously considering John Cusack, who had more experience as an actor and projected ambiguity, John felt older.  I wanted an innocence Charlie projected but didn’t possess.” Then, the finance split asunder in 1983. 

Kyle MacLachlan  came and went.  Johnny Deep  was too young. “Frankly, it’s going to sound cliche,” said Stone, “but I clearly believed he was going to be a star. He was a great looking kid. He was considered for other roles, but I didn’t think he was quite ready at that time to play Charlie’s role. He was shy. I think it was before Jump Street.”  He  was given  Private Gator Lerner and so, Depp, of all people, got to say  to someone (Rhah): “You're weird, man.”

Three years later, Estevez was too busy, directing his first film and Stone found Sheen's "eyes, the look, the mood, the feeling, the face - it was just right."  However, worried about Charlie’s partying, the suits insisted that Stone see the rising Keanu Reeves. “Exciting, sexy, and seemed perfect - perhaps too perfect. We made him an offer but he passed, telling his agent he ‘hated the violence in the script.’ Considering what he would go on to do in films, the mindset behind this decision is confusing, but Keanu seemed in search of himself; some people say he still is.”

A great fan of  Stone’s Midnight Expres, and Scarface, Charlie Sheen thought “it'd be cool to play the man on screen and be directed by him at the same time." During the shoot, Stone gave Sheen  a handwrittejn contract for his next endeavour. Wall Street.  His father, Martin Sheen, would play his father. And just as Sheen Snr narrated Coppola’s operatic Apocalypse Now (one of the ‘Nam films which nearly cancelled his film) Sheen Jnr narrated Platoon...

Narration:Day by day, I struggle to maintain not only my strength but my sanity. It's all a blur. I have no energy to write. I don't know what's right and what's wrong anymore. The morale of the men is low. A civil war in the platoon. Half the men with Elias, half with Barnes. There's a lot of suspicion and hate. I can't believe we're fighting each other when we should be fighting them.

Ah yes,  the murderer  Barnes and the compassionate Elias - fighting for Taylor’s  heart  and mind,  his very soul.

Sergeant Barnes . The director’s first choice, “in spite of my frustrations and concerns,” was Jimmy Woods. They had made Salvador together.  “I could imagine his reaction: ‘A Philippine jungle with Oliver? Yikes! More dysentery, bugs, reliving his nightmare? No thanks!’ His agent told us by way of explanation, ‘Jimmy doesn’t want to play an antagonist anymore,’ which means ‘he wants to play a protagonist,’ which means the lead, preferably a ‘hero’ - and Barnes was definitely not that.”  More refusals  came from  Jeff Fahey, Scott Glenn. Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis… and the young Kevin Costner; he didn't want to disrespect his brother, a Vietnam veteran. (Costner won the lead in Stone’s amazing post-mortem of the JFK assasination).

Thomas F Wilson appplied for the role, but Chris Penn, Sean’s younger brother, was even more  keen. “Animalistic in his excitement, proposing to lose 20 lbs and threatening to terrorise the other actors,” reported Stone, who Ioved his defiant spirit.  “But he had to withdraw suddenly because of a hernia that required rest.

“This is where the Fates stepped in. “Tom Berenger was ‘there,’ he’d always been there, unassuming, polite, but just not exciting like the real Barnes had been. Tom told me, ‘I was born to do it.’ I sensed in him a raw, seething backcountry quality that could be unsettling, and at the urging of our mutual agent, Paula Wagner, I went with Tom, albeit with hesitation. And he grew day by day… into an approximation of the real thing. If he survived that war, I’ve always wondered if the actual ‘Sergeant Barnes’ ever saw the film and recognised what Berenger was doing?”

Sergeant Elias .  Unable to find a  Native American actor for Elias, “who looked like a young Jim Morrison,” Stone adjusted his aim.  Val Kilmer changed the perspective even further, giving a bizzare audition as an Indian shaman. Next? Jeff Bridges (“quite possibly,” admitted Stone, “I don’t remember”) was followed by Denzel Washington. A suit, or two, suggessted Kris Kristofferson – he’d been an Airborne Ranger.  Too old, said Stone, and and besides, he’d seen  William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA and was intrigued by its villain. “Willem Dafoe, with his prominent cheekbones and strange, intimate voice. He was of mixed European origin with a flat Wisconsin intonation, but there was a ‘soul’ in him, a gentleness that could radiate from those eyes. He was a hunch at best, but as with Berenger, I felt ‘something.’ In a way, perhaps, I didn’t make the choice’ as much as ‘the choice’ made me - and as we went along, I felt better and better about both men.”

Sergeant  O’Neill . John Spencer was in  then dropped out. Which is how   John G McGinley won the great line: “Excuses are like assholes, Taylor, everybody got one.”  McGinley had already  been chosen for  Tony – finally played by Ivan Kane.   Spencer went on to be Leo McGary, right-hand man of President Josiah Bartlet in  all 155 episodes of The West Wing, 1999-2006,  when POTUS was Martin Sheen, father of we know who…  (Both of them).

Morehouse . William Petersen was also noticed in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA. But he wasn’t impressed: the pay wasn’t good enough to make up for having to be away from his family for six weeks. None of which bothered  Kevin Eshelman.

Closing narration: I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days as I'm sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession of my soul. There are times since, I've felt like the child born of those two fathers. But, be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know, and to try with what's left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.

 "Dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Vietnam War," thje film  won Oscar glory. Best Picture and  Director. “A an emotional night for me,” recalled  Stone, “being accepted as a director in Hollywood after so many years of trying.”

"The film has been widely acclaimed," admitted critic Pauline Kael  before lambasting it with her vast  knowledge of warfare. “Some may feel that Stone takes too many melodramatic shortcuts, and that there's too much filtered light, too much poetic license, and too damn much romanticized insanity ... The movie crowds you; it doesn't leave you room for an honest emotion."

As usual, our favourite critic, Roger Ebert, said it best. (They don’t give Pulitzer Prizes away for nothing).   “It was François Truffaut who said that it's not possible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun. If Truffaut had lived to see Platoon, the best film of 1986, he might have wanted to modify his opinion. Here is a movie that regards combat from ground level, from the infantryman's point of view, and it does not make war look like fun.”

 [This page could not have been compiled  so fully without the memoirs of the man, himself, Oliver Stone: Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon,  Midnight Express, Scarface,  Salvador and the Movie Game, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020]





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