Life & Liberty: War Is Hell, but Americans Aren't Demons
In the cinema, as everywhere else, timing is everything. Elmer Gantry, if released now in our era of televangelists raising the dead, succumbing to blackmail from God, and bilking the masses in order to live like potentates, would be greeted by an acceptance that eluded it in 1960. Conversely, cloying clones of E.T. are destined for critical jeers and box-office disappointment, since we've had the real movie so recently. Movieland timing is not an esoteric art; it is simply sensing when something on-screen will be hot and when not.
Vietnam has been hot of late. Why the Vietnam war should be the focus of renewed cinema interest is fodder for the sociologists. Suffice it to say, as other wars (the undeclared war against Nicaragua) and potential wars (with Iran) confront Americans, the one that is over has at last become "in," on the screen even if not in popular history.
Not only did two brilliant films examining the Vietnam war appear within eight months of each other—Platoon at the end of 1986, Full Metal Jacket in mid-1987—but repertory houses tentatively began dipping into the stock of such films from the past. The Boys in Company C, for example, has cropped up here and there. And one of the notable though then-largely ignored movies from the 1970s, Go Tell the Spartans, was given a national release in the fall of 1987. As I write this, neither Apocalypse Now nor The Deer Hunter nor, for that matter, Coming Home, is slated for release again, but surely their reappearance cannot long be delayed. America is evidently ready for Vietnam at last.
Coming in 1978, Go Tell the Spartans confronted the just-concluded war with intelligence, compassion, and high-spirited passion. Unfortunately, it was (and remains) lost in the shuffle of much larger, more popularly conceived films. But its point of view is one that Americans are now ready for and that has made more-recent films box-office and critical successes.
The time frame of Spartans is 1964, when America was in Vietnam as a friendly advisor. We knew just as little about what our country was getting into as we did when the war was lost a decade later. Burt Lancaster—in one of his last roles before graduating to Cinema August Presence—stars as a major who never made colonel because he had cavorted with a general's wife. His task: to secure a village against the Viet Cong.
Our hero is aided by a ragtag bunch of idealists, dreamers, a hotshot captain thinking only of his promotions, and a "friendly" Vietnamese sadist who takes pleasure in lopping off the heads of his captured countrymen, all of whom, to his reading of the situation, are "communists." Some, of course, are, and their betrayal of the soldiers who have aided them leads inevitably to the massacre of half the squadron.
Spartans is a grimly unprettified picture. It is not high-falutin' nor philosophically rich nor trendy, but it is tough and deeply moving. I don't believe that Spartans has yet appeared on television, owing to the sometimes intense brutality it depicts. Its cast of largely unknown performers, among them the then-new Craig Wasson, provided no immediate audience pull, and Burt Lancaster was in a career slump. Screen writer Wendell Mayes and director Ted Post were not and are not major figures.
Most importantly, the abiding image is tremendously depressing: the slaughter of young men whom the audience comes to care about. Spartans partook of the venerable gambit of assembling a bunch of disparate American types and showing them razzing one another and then dying in each other's arms. But it was too much, too fierce, for that time.
Spartans is a movie to inspire bitter tears. It is available to America now because Platoon and Full Metal Jacket triumphed. And that has happened not only because America is ready—but because all three films possess one central attitude that is not dependent upon either a pro- or an anti-Vietnam war mentality.
The three movies offer filmgoers the obvious—war is horrible. But also and more so they offer us basically good Americans shaken and corrupted by their experiences. Spartans angered the American right because of its bitter conclusion; Platoon, because of its realistic portrayal of soldiers at play (drinking, swearing, dancing with each other, and slaughtering wantonly); Full Metal Jacket, because its first half depicts the dehumanization of the Marines in basic training and its second half resolutely draws the midst-battle conclusions that flow from that uncheery premise.
Of course these movies are "anti-war." But ideologues who find them unpalatable miss the essential quality that makes them fine and makes them acceptable to ordinary people who go to movies: they remind us that Americans, including American fighting men, are basically good people. Saintliness does not easily come to them, and from them terrified reactions and beastly behavior can be expected in terrifying and beastly times and places.
Platoon, which swept the 1986 Oscars, offered both a dichotomy—the "good" sergeant (William Dafoe) and the "bad" sergeant (Tom Berenger), contending for the "soul" of their men—and a young narrator (Charlie Sheen) upon whom the war works its corrupting wiles. Tremendous visually, Platoon is hackneyed in its schematic presentation of these alternatives and their influence. But the film provides an escape hatch: the war stinks; the men, by and large, do not. The youngster is innocence incarnate. His inane letters home make explicit and mundane what the film itself shows with awesome power, and his compatriots run the full gamut of virtue and vice. Kevin Dillon, kid brother of the more famous Matt, plays a psychopath belying his baby-faced beauty; Keith David plays one of the blacks who has good reason to detest what he is doing but who is noble nonetheless; others round out a superlative cast of characters and types.
Full Metal Jacket, by Stanley Kubrick, is like Oliver Stone's Platoon in its gritty realism and its central innocent (Matthew Modine does the Charlie Sheen role here), but its orientation is very different. Platoon places its characters into the tedium and the terror of war without a prelude; Jacket devotes exactly half of its time to the training at Parris Island. Young men—first shown blandly, without emotion, losing their hair to the barber—then lose their individuality to the shriekings and purposeful sadism of their drill instructor (a former D.I., Lee Ermey, a certainty for an Oscar nomination). But they also develop an esprit de corps that manifests itself where that virtue matters: on the battlefield. What may seem stupid to non-Marines—sending men to near-certain death in order to retrieve dead or dying compatriots—has become second nature to these young men. They are Americans, they are Marines, they are semper fidelis incarnate.
Ultimately it is not this particular war but this particular people, Americans, who are the focus in these three films. The movies say that war sucks but America's young men do not. That may or may not be true, but it is a comforting notion. Raised to popular art in three terrific movies, the message permits moviegoers that rarity in films nowadays, identification with the characters. And this identification in turn permits, even demands, a confrontation at long last with the circumstances in which those characters find themselves.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is a film critic for Boston's WBZ Radio, the Tab newspapers, and a New England cable TV channel.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: War Is Hell, but Americans Aren't Demons".