This week’s flick of the week takes us with Willem Dafoe from his small role as Captain John Darius in Inside Man, to his breakout role as Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone’s seminal Vietnam War film, Platoon.
Dafoe has certainly made a career of turning up in some very good films. He is a bit of a go to guy when you need someone who is serious but also a little bit unhinged. The guy’s characters always seem to have a past. Oddly, his role of Elias runs somewhat counter to his current persona. Elias is “a crusader” to quote the other Sgt in the platoon – Sgt Barnes (played by Tom Berenger in the best thing he’s ever done). Were the film being cast today it is unlikely that Dafoe would be considered for Elias (ignoring the age issue). Defoe now has that nasty aspect that would have you expecting Elias to go on a killing spree at any moment rather than philosophising about war. Berenger meanwhile would not be cast because he has milked this role to death in all those God-awful Sniper films.
Would Charlie Sheen be cast in the lead role? Er well probably not. Were they to go back in time, more likely the role would now go to Johnny Depp who has a bit part – though Sheen is well cast.
It’s easy to forget the impact Platoon had when it came out. After The Deer Hunter, with its odd depictions of Russian Roulette, and Apocalypse Now with its madness that makes it utterly compelling, but hardly realistic, cinema was ready for a film to treat the Vietnam War with some realism. When it was released it packed a punch that had the media (especially in America) talking about how watching it was an almost cathartic process for Vietnam Vets. It certainly pulled no punches and there are many scenes that leave you gasping. I was always a bit bemused when Saving Private Ryan came out, and how reviewers made a big deal about how it depicted war, as though Platoon (and many other excellent war films) had never been made.
For Aussie Vietnam Vets the film likely had an impact as well – but it certainly does not depict their experience – The Odd Angry Shot did that job. Aussie soldiers in Vietnam for example were not dope smokers – and certainly not while on patrol. (By the way, my old colleague from James Cook Uni, Janine Hiddlestone has an excellent study on the impact on the stereotype of the American experience in the Vietnam War on Australian veterans). But just having the war so discussed and visible was a huge step – and as the film was only released in Australia in 1987 it coincided somewhat with the veterans’ welcome home parade held in Sydney in 1987 October of that year.
The film of course was written and directed by that mad genius of the baby boomer era, Oliver Stone. For a short while there he was the pre-eminent director in Hollywood from his amazing Salvador, through Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, the indulgent The Doors and then the magnificent JFK (regardless of if you believe the theories, Stone directed the hell out of that film). Then things started to get a bit fuzzy – Heaven and Hell was, well I’ve watched it only once, and don’t really want to go back, and Natural Born Killers has plenty of fans, but for mine it was a film before its time, and I don’t think that time will ever come.
There are some great and very intense scenes in the film – the massacre of the village, Elias’s death (a take that was so perfectly done by Dafoe they used it even though the fake blood packets didn’t fire as planned – you see him react as though shot, but no blood is seen), and the final battle. It deservedly won Best Picture – though it wasn't a strong year – hell Crocodile Dundee got nominated for Best Screenplay.
The film has always resonated pretty strongly for me. When I first saw it I saw it twice in a week and it was one of those films which I quickly came to know all the dialogue. In 1989 when I was in Japan I met a group of other exchange students – some of whom were from Canada. The night prior to our meeting Platoon had actually been on TV. As we were walking around the temples that we were sightseeing that day I mentioned that I had watched it and one of the Canadians said he had as well, and suddenly we were quoting the entire script back to each other.
When such a thing happens you just know you have met a friend for life, and so it has turned out to be. (You also know everyone else in the group is looking at both of you as though you are rather deranged.)
1989, was an odd time – the cold war ended and the threat of world war seemed gone for good. We were just old enough to feel some sort of connection with the characters in the film, but knew as well that neither of us were ever going to have to worry about being drafted to go kill someone for some unknown reason. It was a year in which so much happened that for some it seemed nothing could be the same again – Francis Fukuyama for example would write an essay called “The End of History”
Our generation – that terribly named Generation X – to a very large extent grew up without war. The Gen X war films are Buffalo Soldiers – a film about bored soldiers with no war to fight, or Jarhead – about Desert Storm that was over so quickly the snipers didn't even get to shoot. This is not say no soldiers died in Desert Storm, but overwhelmingly the vision for people of that war was just of a smart missile going through a door. Infantry? Grunts? The long drawn out years like Vietnam? The protests? That would not happen then; its time would come again though.
By September 2001 my generation was at least in the mid-twenties; many over thirty, and joining to go fight was neither realistic, nor a concern from most. Of course my generation had no say over any of the timing of all of this, though I like to think that we were so obsessed by the baby boomer period – so determined to repudiate all of it we just wouldn’t have stood for the whole let’s go off and fight a long drawn out war game. We knew in our rebellious teenage years that we were pretty well rebelling against not having much to rebel about (try going to uni and the best you can do is go for a march against HECS and see how fired up you can get). In the end you knew it was nothing of any real consequence – and given the general apathetic nature of the generation, a war just seemed to smack of effort that was well beyond us.
Perhaps I just think too much about this film. But whenever I watch it and see the opening title card with the passage from Ecclesiastes of “Rejoice O young man in thy youth...”, I think of my youth in 1989 when quoting dialogue from a war film was fun and I knew I’d never have to worry about going into battle.
Previous Flicks of the Week:
Inside Man – Clive Owen
Gosford Park – Robert Altman
The Player – Tim Robbins
Bull Durham – Kevin Costner
Field of Dreams – Ray Liotta
Goodfellas – Samuel L Jackson
Pulp Fiction – Frank Whaley
Swimming with Sharks – Kevin Spacey
Working Girl – Sigourney Weaver
Aliens – Bill Paxton
Apollo 13 – Ron Howard
American Graffiti – Richard Dreyfus
The Graduate – Dustin Hoffmann
All the President’s Men – Jason Robards
Once Upon a Time in the West – Henry Fonda
Mister Roberts – Jack Lemmon
Some Like it Hot – Billy Wilder
Witness for the Prosecution – Marlene Dietrich
Touch of Evil – Orson Welles
The Third Man – Trevor Howard
Brief Encounter - David Lean
Lawrence of Arabia – Claude Reins
Casablanca – Humphrey Bogart
The Big Sleep – Howard Hawks
His Girl Friday – Cary Grant
Charade – John Williams
Schindler’s List – Liam Neeson
Love Actually – Emma Thompson
Sense and Sensibility – Ang Lee
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Michelle Yeoh
Tomorrow Never Dies – Pierce Brosnan
The Thomas Crown Affair – Renee Russo
In the Line of Fire – Clint Eastwood
Where Eagles Dare – Richard Burton
Zulu – Stanley Baker
The Guns of Navarone – Peter Yates
Breaking Away – Dennis Quaid
The Right Stuff – Ed Harris
The Rock – Sean Connery
The Longest Day – Richard Beymer
West Side Story – Ernest Lehmann
North By Northwest - The first one