Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: Oliver Stone
Back in 2003 I was 19 years old, in college, and aggressively involved in the world on a larger scale for the first time. At that young adolescent age my mind was exploding and I was hungry for all the knowledge in the world. For the first time I had stepped out of the world of Ryan (high school years) and started paying attention to the world around me. I was heavily invested in the Iraq War, both politically and emotionally. I was inspired and full of ideas in a way that only the young can be. I’ll never forget the feeling of despair I had when I sat in front of the TV and watched as the Iraq War officially began. I remember that once it had ultimately started I went to my tiny movie collection and put in this movie. I no longer wanted to see the reality of what must be taking place on the other side of the world. Instead I chose to watch the only thing I had that remotely related to the conflict, which was this movie.
Now there are several similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq wars but that had nothing to do with why I watched this film that night. I not only watched this film that night but I watched it every night after for probably as long as two months. This movie drew me in, it taught me something. It was real and a representation of the consequence of such actions. I watched it so much I knew every character in the film and when their character perished. This movie was made by a man who knew, a man who gave up his cushy life to fight alongside the common man who had no choice. This movie was based on the real life experiences of the man who made it, a man who lived through war. That meant something to me as my country entered another war that would undoubtedly lead to dire consequences for so many.
This is the movie that helped me understand war. The movie that taught me that war is more than action and wrong on several levels. There is “the way of war” and it’s an awful thing. No matter the circumstances that bring it about, when war becomes an option it is the innocent that suffer. In the way of war people are fighting for their lives. You have two sides pushed to the extreme and you have people caught in the middle. Who is to blame when horrible and awful things happen? The circumstances are a recipe for mayhem. When war is established life becomes dog eat dog for the people involved. It sucks but that is “the way of war.” Once the point of no return has been crossed the consequences that follow are inevitable. Wars are fought by the young, especially this war because most of the men serving were drafted. Teenage boys carrying guns through the jungle can’t be held accountable for when they snap under the pressure. The people caught in the middle can’t be to blame because they are just trying to stay alive. There are so many unfortunate circumstances created by war. These things can never be lost on the men making the decision to go to war. People are going to suffer when war becomes necessary, it has to be for good reason or else it is just wrong and there is no justice to it at all.
When I was 19 years old I thought Oliver Stone was a God. Not literally of course but I thought he was head and shoulders above other filmmakers. He was the number one director in my mind and I felt his career was one of the greatest. Those illusions came crashing down a year later when the much anticipated, to me at least, Alexander came out. I had eagerly awaited that movie only for it to claim the highest echelon in the ranking of movies that crushed my soul. That is neither here nor there though as a year prior when I was watching this movie night after night I still had all my hopes and dreams for films invested in this man. Oliver Stone was Private Taylor from this film played by Charlie Sheen. Stone had dropped out of Yale to fight in Vietnam, something admirable that I respected then and still do today. Oliver Stone may be a bit of a conspiracy nut and like all conspiracy nuts he will bend the truth to serve his own purposes but there is still plenty the man deserves our respect for.
I had become infatuated with Stone for the wrong reasons prior to 2003. Like most young adolescent boys I was rebellious and as a movie fan I was drawn to the films that inspired my wild and immature inclinations. I liked to walk the fine line between good and bad and experimented with an aggressiveness that was encouraged by the movies I loved. Stone came into the picture with films like The Doors, Any Given Sunday, and of course Natural Born Killers. These movies fueled my endeavors into rebellion, drug use, promiscuity, and profanity. There were several films and filmmakers that had this affect on me but it was Stone I stayed with as I matured from a boy into a young adult. With films like Platoon, Wall Street, Nixon, and JFK Oliver Stone inspired me in new ways that molded my personality during the developmental years that continue in college. I have since grown out of the stage I was in when these films inspired me and I no longer see Stone in the same light I did back then. Nevertheless I still hold most of his films in high regard and I will always respect the man. A man that lived the life he does and did the things he has done deserves respect. I know better as an adult than to take everything he made at face value but there are still plenty of things I took away from his films and I appreciate the lessons that they taught me.
I have always found the Vietnam War to be fascinating and prefer the war movies from that era as opposed to the ones from before. There are different themes from those differing generations that I think are important. WWII left Americans with the impression that they were the greatest country in the world and could do no wrong. Many WWII movies I find enhance this theme. As a young man I whole heartedly believed in these all-American ideas as well but when I grew up I felt differently. Vietnam was like a slap in the face to Americans because it reminded them that not only were they not the unbeatable super power who could do anything but they were not even the good guys in some circumstances. Vietnam happened during a time when the children of the Baby Boomers were coming of age and they had different ideas about the state of the union. The things happening in Southeast Asia were being broadcast on television every evening for the first time and the news was rarely good. It left an impact on the younger generations not only because it was in their face but because many of them were being recruited to fight in the conflict. Vietnam was going on during a cultural change in America. It was not a time where the country united to protect the world for the greater good like in WWII, but a time when the country was bleeding at home and divisions among the public were fueled by the conflict at hand. I feel like WWII films tend to represent the propaganda age of America while Vietnam films represent the realism that the country had to face. Vietnam films usually focus on the reality of war, the consequences that it creates, and the truth that we all need to understand as a people.
This movie taught me many of those truths, and I took them more seriously because the man teaching was one who knew. He was there and had firsthand experience in what he was trying to explain. I still find this film just as inspiring as I did when I was watching it for the first time and I still find lessons in it that we can all learn from. I am no longer the diehard Oliver Stone fan I was in my youth but that is by and large due to growing up. As an adult I am not as infatuated with the stoned and suspicious mind of Oliver Stone. The man’s work is on screen and he made some incredible things, but in the grand scheme of things they spoke to a younger version of myself that went into hibernation years ago before my kids were born. There is often a fine line between brilliance and insanity and Stone danced that line till he fell over into the insane side a long time ago. I am no longer the young and impressionable adolescent who believed in such grand ideas as the JFK conspiracy and believed that with a strong enough voice things in the world would change for the better. The world is what it is; you can only accept it at face value and keep moving forward. Delving into the larger scheme of things is only going to bring you disappointment and amount to wasted time.
There is something from this movie that I always used as an example to suggest Stone’s abilities and it had nothing to do with his take on the war. In this movie Oliver Stone got an impressive performance from Charlie Sheen in the role of Private Taylor, and again a year later in Wall Street. Charlie Sheen is an incredibly interesting person, but that aside, he has never been a particularly good actor. In the years before all his crazy antics in the press I used to wonder how it was that this man was such a celebrity and made such a good living at it. There were so few performances aside from the two already mentioned that I thought were worth anything. Point being, he was not a very good actor. However, I have always believed that a bad actor can be made great in a film by the right director. Hence the impression of Stone I had grew because of the performance he was able to get out of Sheen. In contrast I felt that in 2004 the opposite was true. Despite all the time he had invested in the film Stone made a horrible movie with his Alexander and specifically got an awful performance out of another bad actor, Colin Farrell. Alexander, as far as I am concerned, was the end of Oliver Stone’s career for me as a fan because it signified a decline in skill. A couple years prior to Alexander one of the greatest directors ever, Steven Spielberg, had gotten a good performance out of Farrell in Minority Report. If Spielberg could do something that Oliver Stone could not it suggested to me that Stone had lost something, and I still feel like that holds true because in the last 10 years nothing he has done has impressed me as it did prior to Alexander.
Beyond Charlie Sheen this movie offers a very rich cast of actors. Tom Berenger gave one of the best performances on his career playing Sgt. Barnes. The role of Barnes was initially meant for Kevin Costner, who I think could have pulled it off well but Berenger made it his own. Willem Dafoe gave an equally good performance as Sgt. Elias. Dafoe is such an interesting actor and continues even until today to show a range and diversity as an actor that is impressive. Stone intentionally cast Berenger and Dafoe in roles contrasting what the public was used to seeing them play. Berenger, who usually played good guys, was cast as the ruthless and cruel Sgt. Barnes while Dafoe, who usually played villains, was cast as the crusader Elias. An interesting idea that worked well and brought more diversity to the careers of both men.
In the roles of other Sergeants were long time Stone collaborator John C. McGinley and the scariest man ever, Tony Todd. McGinley never reached that upper echelon of stardom but he played so many terrific parts over the years. Tony Todd plays a small part in this movie but his presence in anything should never go unnoticed because when you fail to notice Candyman he comes up behind you with a hook and kills you. Johnny Depp played the translator Lerner in one of his first roles ever. Stone reportedly met with him during casting and immediately predicted his future fame. In fact he considered casting Depp in the lead role of Taylor but didn’t because Depp was so young and unknown at the time. Keith David plays one of the biggest parts of any of the grunts in King. I am a big fan of Keith David and like just about everything he has ever done. Also as another grunt was future Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker whose part was small but shouldn’t go unnoticed. Kevin Dillon played Bunny, the sadistic grunt who by the end nobody knows what to make of. Dillon probably had high hopes for his career in 1986 but he turned out to be the less famous brother of his not so famous older brother Matt Dillon.
The making of this movie was quite an incredible thing that went a long way with how the final product came out. As a veteran Stone didn’t just cast actors and put them in the jungle. He went farther and put them through an actual boot camp in the Philippines that ended the day before shooting. He didn’t want them to have any down time after the camp because he didn’t want them getting soft again before shooting the movie. It was a rigorous shoot that had some actors feeling like they had actually been in the war by the time they got home. Charlie Sheen reportedly kissed the ground upon his return to the States. These guys went into the jungle and did it the hard way; the way it should have been done to get it right. Even the fun stuff during this shoot was hard on the actors. In the scene where King takes Taylor to “meet the heads” the actors had been actually getting high all day on potent Filipino weed. By the time they actually shot the scene they were all stoned out of their minds and some were even feeling sick. An interesting story that I’ve always figured had to play into the long term drug use of the young Johnny Depp and Charlie Sheen. I don’t know but if I had to guess I’d wager Oliver Stone was the guy who introduced Charlie Sheen to his favorite drug of choice, cocaine. I imagine the Filipino weed was merely a stepping stone for Sheen as he moved onto coke and ultimately…tiger blood.
This movie is important to me because it taught me something that I will never forget. However this movie is important for many more reasons because it was a great movie and it accomplished what it intended to. The screenplay for this movie was written back in the 70s when Stone returned to America and didn’t appreciate how the war was depicted in John Wayne’s The Green Berets. In that sense it succeeded in depicting a more realistic view of what the war was actually like. It wasn’t alone in trying to send that message as a few films about Vietnam came out around the same time. Most notably, Full Metal Jacket came out the following year. Both are great movies but they should not be compared because they are so different. Platoon was a film about the Grunts while Full Metal Jacket was a film about the Jarheads. The significant difference there was that men were drafted into the army while the marines are a branch made up of volunteers. That makes all the difference as one film is about men who chose to serve while the other is primarily about men who had no choice in the matter.
The Vietnam War was a fascinating chapter in American history and a true example of how history is never used enough going forward. Had the powers that be reflected on history during the development of the conflict in Vietnam the whole thing may have never happened. On the flip side, had the lessons from that conflict specifically been learned the US may not have entered another long war to force democracy down the throats of people who had no interest in it. It is difficult to fight a war on the other side of the world for reasons that mean little to the inhabitants. Guerrilla warfare is hard to combat, the British learned that over 200 years ago but somehow the lesson seems lost on the US. When the enemy can be anybody and can come from anywhere bad things will happen all around to everyone involved. The soldiers fighting under the pressures of their lives being on the line can’t be held accountable for the things that happen nor can the inhabitants who at some point may just get fed up and take up arms against the foreign soldiers in their country. It is the “way of war” and war never goes well. It’s not an action movie and it’s not a video game. When it happens people are going to suffer and someone’s hands are going to get dirty.
Movies are made to entertain but they are so much better when they can actually teach us something at the same time. This movie can do that and I appreciate it more for that very reason. This is a great film and it doesn’t need my stamp of approval on it because it has plenty already. If you haven’t seen this movie then you are missing out. If you don’t know the incredible history of the Vietnam War you are missing out, but you’d need a lot more than a movie to learn about that. As time moves forward things get lost behind us but it is important to never forget the lessons the past has to offer. This movie, for me at least, represents such a lesson and that makes it worth everybody’s time. This is an awesome movie and I think everybody should see it.
NEXT MOVIE: Pleasantville (1998)