Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) was not the first film about the Vietnam War. It was, however, the first one to be made by a man who had served as a foot soldier (with the 25th Infantry Division) in the conflict. Before it was the rah-rah propaganda of The Green Berets (1968). The melancholic drama of The Deer Hunter (1978). The surrealism of Apocalypse Now (1979). Although, in good company with many outstanding films about one of the most combative periods in our country’s history, both stateside and overseas, they lacked the gritty realism of Platoon. Stone’s film not only captured the sights and sounds of what it was to be a soldier in those impenetrable jungles, but also got the little yet crucially important details – their lingo, the tight brotherhood in each squad and the way they carried themselves as well as how they carried their equipment. Through every vein of the film runs an authenticity that only a filmmaker like Stone could give it.
If the aforementioned films had been released too close to the war, Platoon came along at just the right moment when enough time had passed so that the American public was more receptive to revisiting a war that tore this country apart, from decorated officers coming home to college students who had never touched a gun in their lives. It struck a chord with people in a way that previous films had not. Stone’s film was a commercial and critical success, catapulting him and his young cast of up and coming actors into the spotlight while also kickstarting a cottage industry of Vietnam War-themed films (Full Metal Jacket; Hamburger Hill), television shows (China Beach; Tour of Duty), novels (Chickenhawk; Going After Cacciato), and even comic books (The ‘Nam).
Platoon focuses on the 25th Infantry, Bravo Company in September 1967 with new recruit Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) as the audience surrogate and our introduction to this world. We see the war through his eyes, from that first blast of bright light as he walks off the plane with other new recruits and they see a collection of body bags. They are then taunted by a group of battle-hardened veterans heading home. That will be them some day... if they live long enough.
Stone cuts to the jungle with a beautiful establishing shot from a helicopter to show how impenetrable it is before dropping us in the middle of dense foliage that makes it hard to see more than a few feet in front of you. Robert Richardson’s cinematography conveys the dense landscape and how difficult it must’ve been to navigate, especially for a new recruit like Chris whose inexperience is glaringly obvious as he brings too much gear, becomes dehydrated and is eaten alive by red ants.
Stone spends the first ten minutes immersing us in the jungle with the sounds of birds and other exotic animals and the oppressive heat that you can see on the sweaty, tired faces of the soldiers. We observe how they interact with each other adopting lingo that is a mixture of Vietnamese and military jargon before Chris’ voiceover narration kicks in and he gives us initial observations after a week of being there.
The film’s rich atmosphere is evident in the first set piece where the platoon sets up to ambush the enemy in the middle of night during the pouring rain. Stone ratchets up the tension as Chris wakes up after falling asleep to see the man who relieved him on watch now asleep and several silhouetted figures emerging from the shadows. Chris is frozen by fear and indecision – does he go for his rifle or the explosives that were set up for the ambush? Stone shows how hard it is to fight in the jungle with a night-time ambush that goes bad. Everything happens so fast and is so chaotic that it is hard to follow what is going on until it’s all over.
Thirty minutes in and Stone establishes a platoon divided into two factions: the “heads,” dope smoking guys who listen to rock ‘n’ roll music, just want to survive the war and go home, and the “juicers,” beer-drinking lifers that listen to country music and who actually like it there or, at the very least, believe that what they are doing is right. The leaders of these two groups, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), are polar opposites that Chris gravitates towards and must ultimately choose between. Stone makes it pretty clear which side he prefers by having Chris initiated by the heads and bonds with them over Motown music and pot.
Stone shows how the deaths of three of their own angers and frustrates the platoon and they direct their wrath on a nearby village with Barnes focusing their rage through him. It is an ugly sequence as the soldiers kill animals and villagers, in particular, a harrowing scene where Kevin Dillon’s psycho redneck brutally kills a handicapped young man. Things go from bad to worse when Barnes interrogates the village chief and when he doesn’t get the answers he wants kills the man’s wife and then puts a gun to his young daughter’s head until Elias intervenes.
The village sequence is important in that it is the catalyst that causes a serious fracture within the platoon, one that has serious repercussions later on. It also symbolizes America’s might makes right mentality, underlining how out of control things got over there as the line between the enemy and innocent villagers became so blurred that for some there was no difference. This sequence also shows how the frustration and madness of the situation could get out of hand with horrible results.
Stone does a good job of getting the pulse of both sides of the platoon, letting us know where Barnes and Elias are coming from. For the former, he believes Elias is like the politicians in Washington, D.C., “trying to fight this war with one hand tied around their balls,” while the latter admits to Chris that he’s disillusioned with fighting this war, sagely predicting, “What happened today is just the beginning. We’re gonna lose this war. We’ve been kicking other people’s asses for so long I figure it’s time we got ours kicked.” It’s a nice, quiet moment between Chris and Elias that Willem Dafoe handles wonderfully with a world-weary subtlety much as Tom Berenger approaches his scene with a less-is-more attitude. His intense, thoughtful stare says it all and one rightly assumes that these moments are the calm before the storm.
At that point in his career, Willem Dafoe was known for playing bad guy roles in films like Streets of Fire (1984) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and so casting him as a good guy in Platoon must’ve seemed like a gamble. Dafoe is excellent as a dedicated soldier who takes the time to teach Chris a few things in order for him to survive. It’s a very soulful performance as he acts as the platoon’s conscience. Elias cares about his men and wants to see them all go home alive.
In contrast, Tom Berenger had been known for playing lightweight, good guy roles but caught Stone’s eye with his layered performance in The Big Chill (1983). He gives an absolutely ferocious performance as an intense, imposing figure, a malevolent force of nature with a penetrating stare and a twisted scar down one side of his face. Barnes rules his men with an iron fist. He’s a tough man who leads by example, strict and unwavering in his beliefs. He is concerned only with maintaining his functioning war machine and when he spots a spanner in the works, as he does with Elias, he sees it as a malfunctioning part that must be removed and replaced.
Late in Platoon, Berenger delivers a fantastic monologue when Barnes confronts the heads, sharing his worldview with them. He even calls them out, telling them to kill him in almost pleading fashion that is unpredictable, only adding to the tension of the scene. It’s a speech that runs the gamut and the actor works the scene, moving around the space, and interacting with everyone around him in a way that is impressive to watch. Berenger hadn’t really done anything before this film to suggest such intensity and his performance was a revelation and is still his best to date.
Stone assembled an impressive cast of young actors that included Johnny Depp, Keith David, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, and John C. McGinley who appear with varying amounts of screen time. McGinley, for example, makes the most of his moments as the cocky sycophant O’Neill and Dillon is particularly memorable as a racist murderer while Depp and Whitaker hardly get any time to make an impact.
The battle scenes have a visceral, you-are-there feel to them as Stone wisely opts to eschew a manipulative score for the jarring sounds of battle as orders are barely understood amidst the sounds of explosions and gunfire. Soldiers are killed from inexperience and ineptitude as much as for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now presented very stylized representations of combat in Vietnam while Platoon is much more realistic, presenting it as noisy and chaotic.
Platoon packs in a lot of stuff during its running time: botched ambushes, the destruction of a village, discovery of an underground bunker, and a climactic, large scale battle that probably wouldn’t have all gone down in such a limited time frame, but Stone isn’t interested in making a documentary. His film is a dramatization of a composite of several events that gives the audience some idea of what it was like there and what these guys went through. Chris’ voiceover narration gets a bit pretentious at times but that’s the point as he comes from an educated background of privilege, fancying himself a literary chronicler of his platoon’s exploits. The images of what he experiences are so powerful that they render his sometimes cliché musings ineffectual.
After dropping out of Yale University and a stint with the Merchant Marines, Oliver Stone enlisted the United States Army, arriving in Vietnam on September 15, 1967 as a member of the second platoon of Bravo Company, third battalion, 25th Infantry Division. He was wounded twice and awarded the Bronze Star for combat gallantry and a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. He was later transferred to the First Calvary Division and finally returned to the U.S. after more than 15 months in 1968.
By mid-1976, Stone’s marriage had broken up, he was struggling financially and his screenwriting career had yet to take off. Ever since he had returned from Vietnam in November 1968, he had wanted to write about his experiences in the war: “I realized I had forgotten a lot in eight years. I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m gonna forget.’ It’s part of our history nobody understands—what it was like over there.” Stone decided that he would write about his experiences as truthfully as possible, making only slight adjustments, changing some names and combining a few characters. “It took me eight years to get to that screenplay, because I couldn’t deal with it before. I needed the distance.”
Stone finished the script in a few weeks, finding it challenging in getting the tone right and also the character of Elias, which he envisioned as a “free spirit, a Jim Morrison in the bush.” With only one B-horror movie (Seizure) to his credit, Stone couldn’t find anyone willing to buy his script until Sidney Lumet showed some interest and toyed with the idea of directing with Al Pacino starring. After the scripts for Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983) were made into wildly successful films, filmmaker Michael Cimino, whom Stone co-wrote the script for his film Year of the Dragon (1985), encouraged him to get Platoon going again with him in a producer capacity. In 1984, Stone cast it and went to the Philippines to scout locations. Dino de Laurentiis, who agreed to back it, pulled out. He was willing to cover the $6 million budget but could not find a distributor willing to take a chance on the commercially risky project.
Stone took the project’s collapse hard and felt that his career was over. In addition, De Laurentiis refused to give Stone back his script until he paid for the cost of the Philippines location scout. This experience, and witnessing how his script for 8 Million Ways to Die (1985) was completely rewritten, made Stone wary of making Platoon for a Hollywood studio. In 1985, he successful wrestled the rights for his film away from De Laurentiis and gave the script to producer Gerald Green. He sent it to John Daly over at Hemdale, a small British independent production house. Both Daly and Green loved the script and wanted to make it with Stone as director and Orion Pictures as distributor. Producer Arnold Kopelson, a lawyer turned movie producer, read the script and felt it was a game changer. He contacted Green and told him that he would raise the money for Platoon.
After making Salvador (1986), Stone launched right into Platoon in February 1986, two weeks before the former was released in theaters. The filmmaker was locked into a tight nine-week shooting schedule and used the same crew that worked on his previous film. In addition, he hired retired Marine Corps captain and Vietnam War veteran Dale Dye as technical advisor. It would be the beginning of a long-standing collaboration between the two men over many films.
When it came to casting, Stone saw Tom Berenger in The Big Chill and was impressed by his performance: “I felt like there was a redneck side to Tom, an ugly side that could really be seething, and I used it.” When it came to Willem Dafoe, Stone saw him in films like Streets of Fire and To Live and Die in L.A., “playing ugly roles and I thought there was something spiritually heightened because of the ugliness. So I went the other way.” Dafoe had met Stone when he first tried to make Platoon and then he almost got John Savage’s role in Salvador. Charlie Sheen auditioned for the role of Chris in 1983, but Stone felt he was “gawky and underweight,” according to the actor, and offered the role to his brother Emilio Estevez with Michael Pare cast as Barnes (both Mickey Rourke and Kevin Costner were considered for the part). When the film was restarted, Stone considered Keanu Reeves, Kyle MacLachlan and Johnny Depp for Chris. Sheen had made a couple of films and auditioned again, this time Stone cast him in the part.
The cast was scheduled to arrive in the Philippines in February 1986 shortly after the presidential election, but when it went sour people died and revolution erupted into civil war! President Ferdinand Marcos fled on February 25 and Corazon Aquino took over. Dafoe had flown in early and went to sleep in a Manila hotel only to wake up to the sounds of tanks in the streets. The rest of the cast flew in nine days later. Stone contemplated moving the production to Thailand, but it would have been a logistical nightmare. He held out and made new deals with the new regime, including renting all the military equipment from the government. Stone said, “I remember the helicopters were pretty dangerous because they weren’t maintained well.”
Once the cast assembled in the Philippines, Dye proceeded to put them through a grueling 14-day boot camp in order to get them in the foot soldier mindset: “Oliver said, ‘I want you to take them to the bush, beat them up, make them understand what it was like for you and me in Vietnam.’” Used to staying in hotels and being pampered, the actors underwent culture shock as they were constantly in the bush with no beds, bathrooms, hot showers or any of the creature comforts they were used to. Dye had them dig their own foxholes to sleep in, set ambushes, learn how to use various weapons, and go on ten-mile patrols with full gear and weapons. As Sheen later remarked, “This was a cram course in an infantryman’s life. And it was rough.”
At dusk on the first night, Dye asked the special effects people to stage a mortar “attack” without the exhausted actors knowing what was going on, yelling at them to return fire. Dye said, “It was utter chaos and they were shaking by the time it was dark.” The actors learned military lingo, listened to period music and had to refer to each other by the character’s names. After two weeks of this, they bonded and were ready to start filming. The cast went from training straight into principal photography. Dye remembers, “They were just flat exhausted and that was exactly the look that Oliver wanted.”
The production was not without its problems as the cast and crew endured fights, injuries, a near-fatal viper bite, insects, monsoon rains, and the firing of 4-5 production people. There were also several close calls with the helicopters, including cinematographer Bob Richardson almost getting clipped by the rotor of one. In another incident, Dye, Richardson and Stone were in a helicopter that almost hit a ravine! Stone remembers, “We scraped it by that much. We were so low, and these Filipino pilots are good, but they’re crazy.” With the start of the rainy season looming rapidly and running out of money, Stone compromised the last few shots in order to make the deadline and did it with a day to spare.
Platoon received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “There are no false heroics in this movie, and no standard heroes; the narrator is quickly at the point of physical collapse, bedeviled by long marches, no sleep, ants, snakes, cuts, bruises and constant, gnawing fear.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote of Stone’s direction: “He doesn’t telegraph emotions, nor does he stomp on them. The movie is a succession of found moments. It’s less like a work that’s been written than one that has been discovered … This one is a major piece of work, as full of passion as it is of redeeming, scary irony.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “This is movie-making with a zealot’s fervor … [Stone] clearly wants us to understand what fighting in that war was like. He succeeds with an immediacy that is frightening. War movies of the past, even the greatest ones, seem like crane shots by comparison; Platoon is at ground zero.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley praised Berenger and Dafoe’s performances: “They are explosive, mythic Titans in a terrible struggle for the soldier’s souls.” Finally, Gene Siskel gave it four out of four stars and wrote, “Platoon is filled with one fine performance after another, and one can only wish that every person who saw the cartoonish war fantasy that was Rambo would buy a ticket to Platoon and bear witness to something closer to the truth.”
Platoon presents the Vietnam War as a moral quagmire, an impossible situation that the United States had no chance of winning because they were so out of their depth. All the average soldier could hope to do was survive. Stone’s film shows what it was like for them to be there with startling detail and authenticity, from the camaraderie to the madness. For Stone and a lot of veterans I imagine the experience of making the film and seeing it was therapeutic. After years of being looked down on by an uncaring public that saw the war as an embarrassment, Platoon was an opportunity for veterans to get some much deserved and long overdue respect.
Nashawaty, Chris. “Oliver Stone Talks Platoon and Charlie Sheen on the Vietnam film’s 25th Anniversary.” Entertainment Weekly. May 24, 2011.
Norman, Michael. “Platoon Grapples with Vietnam.” The New York Times. December 21, 1986.
Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Hyperion. 1995.
Willistein, Paul. “Platoon: The Vietnam Odyssey of Oliver Stone.” The Morning Call. February 1, 1987.