Establishing Oliver Stone’s reputation as a truly outstanding filmmaker, the Oscar-winning (but inflammatory) Platoon gives absolute credence to the adage ‘war is hell’.
Middle-class boy Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) volunteers for Vietnam to fulfil his patriotic duty. Once there, however, he finds the stark brutality of the war stripping away his values and his humanity.
As time goes by, Chris begins to see that the platoon is divided into two groups. On the one side is the evil, battle-scarred (literally) vet Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), who believes in total war, and on the other is the good, battle-weary veteran Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), who believes in compassion and humanity.
Taylor’s ﬁrst assignment is to join Barnes, Elias, and veteran soldiers on a surprise attack on a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit. After Gardner (Bob Orwig), another new recruit, falls asleep on night watch, NVA soldiers are able to sneak up on the slumbering unit in advance of a ﬁreﬁght.
Gardner perishes in the exchange of bullets, and Taylor sustains injuries. After a brief trip to the ﬁeld hospital, Taylor returns and gets close with Sgt. Elias and his relaxed crew.
Meanwhile, three soldiers die during a patrol, inciting anger among the troops as they uncover stored enemy supplies in a neighbouring village. Barnes uses an interpreter to question the village chief (Bernardo Manalili) about his peoples’ involvement with the NVA and then shoots the chief’s wife when she speaks out of turn.
Elias enters the scene and comes to blows with Barnes in response to the senseless killing.
The inept Lt. Wolfe (Mark Moses) ends the ﬁght and orders the soldiers to trash the supplies and tear down the village. During the destruction, Taylor saves two female villagers from being sexually assaulted by two of Barnes’ men. When the unit arrives back at camp, Captain Harris (Dale Dye) states that he will investigate the claims of illegal killing and will initiate a court-martial if he ﬁnds the claims to be true.
Barnes worries that if he is found out, Elias might testify against him. When Elias, Taylor and a few other soldiers enter the jungle to hunt down enemy combatants, Barnes sends his unit to retreat and, ﬁnding Elias alone, shoots him, telling the other men that Elias was killed by enemy soldiers.
While the troops are airlifted away via helicopter, they see a gravely injured Elias stumble out from the trees, pursued by NVA soldiers, who shoot him down. Seeing Barnes’ facial expression as they watch the scene unfold below, Taylor realises what Barnes has done.
Once at basecamp, Taylor shares his theory with the other soldiers and encourages them to retaliate. Barnes, drunk, overhears Taylor and provokes an attack. Barnes cuts Taylor with a knife before stumbling away.
The soldiers are ordered back to the frontline and during the ﬁrst night, the NVA launch a large-scale attack against the Americans. Wolfe dies in the attack, along with most of Barnes’ crew. Amidst the madness, Taylor ﬁnds Barnes wounded and ranting. Barnes moves to kill Taylor, but the two are knocked out by an aerial bombing.
Taylor awakens the next day, grabs a gun, locates Barnes, and kills him. A helicopter evacuates Taylor and a fellow soldier who has wounded himself in order to secure a leave of absence.
As Samuel Barber’s deeply mournful Adagio for Strings plays on the soundtrack (also used elsewhere in the ﬁlm), Taylor looks down on a huge crater full of corpses.
After a lull of seven years since Apocalypse Now – the last serious film to depict the Vietnam War directly – Platoon forcefully returned the war to the Hollywood agenda. It was also the first movie about the war in Vietnam made by a veteran of that conflict.
Director Oliver Stone, the son of a wealthy family, could have avoided the Vietnam-era draft. Instead, he dropped out of Yale, volunteered for the infantry as a private and saw the war in Southeast Asia “from the lowest level”, being twice wounded and decorated.
In 1975, as Saigon was falling, Stone wrote a script about the war which took 11 years to bring to the screen. The movie reflects his own experience, with Sheen cast as Stone’s alter-ego.
Platoon immersed the viewer in the 360-degree chaos of jungle warfare, blurring the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, leaving only the dissociated terror of firing through the foliage at unseen foes and the fatality of young men facing imminent death.
At the same time, it showed the terrible things grunts did in the name of Uncle Sam – taking drugs, raping and shooting villagers (and making them dance) and singing out of key to soul classics.
Shot in the Philippines in 54 days, on a low ($6m) budget, Platoon grossed over $127.5 million.
John C McGinley
Alpha Company Major