When I was younger, I used to romanticize war. I look back on those days, and I thank God I did not go through with a military career. In the meantime, I continued to study warfare, even when my graduate coursework had nothing to do with the subject. Of course, this meant movies about the subject. The change in my attitude on this matter can only be attributed to my growth in my Faith. I turn to Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to summarize my current feelings: “Wars are always madness: all is lost in war, all is to be gained in peace.” Those first four words are also a good way of describing Platoon (1986), the eighty-sixth movie on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list. Read this review to spare you the unnecessary anguish of having to see the movie.
The desolation is evident from the opening shot in Platoon. Christ Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a new recruit freshly arrived in Vietnam. As we find out a little later, he had dropped out of college to volunteer, which is a rare trait for the soldiers fighting in this part of the world in the late 1960s. As is a familiar refrain for green troops, the seasoned ones do not want much to do with him. The only one who takes an interest in his survival is his squad leader, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). Indeed, Chris is lucky to be placed in this unit and not the one led by Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). The multiple-scarred higher ranking non-commissioned officer has a reputation for cruelty, and the title group is split between the two sergeants. Their commander is the useless Lieutenant Wolfe (Mark Moses), who typically defers to Sergeant Barnes despite trying to appear to be in charge. During one of the first times out on patrol, Chris’ squad gets sent out to ambush a potential North Vietnamese company in their area. Chris is the only one still awake when they attack, and is lightly wounded in the process. When he returns from a brief stint in the hospital, he is more officially welcomed into the squad by King (Keith David). It is in this sequence that we get to see some more differences between those who gravitate to Sergeant Elias, and those who follow Sergeant Barnes. For those with Sergeant Barnes, they pass their time at base camp the way we have seen almost any group of soldiers behave in most films. In other words, they act as if this is any other war. Meanwhile, Sergeant Elias’ men deal with the misery of this seemingly pointless conflict by doing drugs, mainly marijuana. It is this to which King introduces Chris. Soon thereafter, they get sent back into the jungle to look for more elements of the North Vietnamese army. This time they find a bunker complex that looks to have been recently abandoned. Nearby, they find a village that the American army suspects to be aiding the enemy. Having lost men to boobytraps amongst the shelters in the woods, Lieutenant Wolfe’s men decide to take out their frustrations on the villagers. When they discover weapons hidden there, it adds to the rage they are feeling. Thus, when Sergeant Barnes’ questioning of one of the villagers does not produce information as to who this village is supplying and where they are located, he decides to murder one of them. This enrages Sergeant Elias, and following a brawl between them vows to see his counterpart punished for his crimes. Lieutenant Wolfe, though, once again seems to be on Sergeant Barnes’ side. Thus, the next time they are on patrol and they are attacked by a large force, Sergeant Barnes makes sure he locates Sergeant Elias alone, and kills him. Chris immediately suspects that Sergeant Barnes is responsible, but is ordered to retreat. Once they are at base camp, he tries to get his friends in the platoon to retaliate against Sergeant Barnes. He overhears their plotting and intimidates them into non-action, though there is a brief tussle with Chris. Nothing else happens until they are once more sent back into the jungle. Already thinned out from the fighting we have witnessed, they are nonetheless ordered to hold the line against a sizable expected attack. Specifically, Chris and one other soldier are ordered to hold a bunker on the perimeter. When the maneuver comes, they put up a valiant resistance. Chris seems to lose his temper and goes on a rampage. Indeed, all semblance of order is breaking down as a wave of North Vietnamese troops overrun their position. The situation gets so bleak that their company commander, Captain Harris (Dale Dye), orders an airstrike to be launched directly on their position. This means fighter jets dropping bombs on friend and foe alike. As this bombardment is commencing, Chris finds Sergeant Barnes. They begin to claw at each other when a bomb detonates near where they are just as Sergeant Barnes is about to kill Chris. He comes to first a few hours later. Dazed, he manages to stand up and finds a weapon. Nearby, Sergeant Barnes is crawling away but realizes that somebody has crept up behind him. It is Chris, of course, who shoots Sergeant Barnes multiple times, thus avenging Sergeant Elias. Chris then limps down through the carnage of the previous night’s fighting where he is eventually treated for his wounds. He is then loaded onto a helicopter to be taken away from the warzone, apparently for good.
If any of what I just described in Platoon sounds pleasant, then I am worried for you. I certainly do not think even Oliver Stone meant for it to be pleasant. These days, when I see films like this, what I try to latch onto are moments when Christianity pops up in the proceedings. The first thing you see in the movie is a quote from Ecclesiastes 11:9, “Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth.” In context with the rest of the film, it is meant to underscore what people Chris’ age should be doing: being young and not entering into the madness that Pope Francis discusses. The problem with the movie, though, is that faith is nowhere to be found. A telling symbol of this is the battle during which Sergeant Elias is killed. The position the rest of the unit falls back to is a ruined church. It is not specified as being Catholic, though the historian in me surmised that this is likely the case. Either way, it is there, prominent in the background while the fighting rages. What I also find interesting are the little pieces of a belief in God. One of the soldiers has a shrine to Jesus next to his bunk. Another is clutching Rosary beads as he is being transported after being wounded. A few have crosses around their necks. It is a common theme in war, cinematically and historically. When people are close to death as are soldiers, a desire for something after that possible fate works itself upon their conscience. You do not need to take my word for it. One of Chris’ comrades, Rhah Vermucci (Francesco Quinn), expresses this sentiment. If only they could truly turn to God, what a world this would be.
Instead, what you see most of the sympathetic characters in Platoon turn to are illicit substances in order to escape the reality of their situation. This, along with all the death and destruction that goes on, makes this a truly tragic film. Men should not kill other men in this manner, or any manner, and I pray that I can live to see a day where this is no longer a reality.