Platoon (1986)

Platoon is a 1986 American anti-war film written and directed by Oliver Stone, starring Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Keith David, Kevin Dillion, John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker, and Johnny Depp. It is the first film of a trilogy of Vietnam War films directed by Stone, followed by Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven & Earth (1993). The film, based on Stone’s experience from the war, follows a U.S. Army volunteer (Sheen) fighting in the war while his two sergeants (Berenger and Dafoe) argue over the leadership of the platoon.

Stone wrote the screenplay based upon his experiences as a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam, to counter the vision of the war portrayed in John Wayne’s The Green Berets. Although having written films such as Midnight Express and Scarface, Stone struggled to get the film developed until Hemdale Film Corporation acquired the project along with Salvador. Filming took place in the Philippines in February 1986 and lasted 54 days. Platoon was the first Hollywood film to be written and directed by a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Upon its release, Platoon received critical acclaim for Stone’s directing and screenplay, the performances, cinematography, battle sequences, and realism. The film was a box office success upon its release, grossing $138.5 million domestically against its $6 million budget. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards at the 59th Academy Awards, and won four including Best Picture, Best Director for Stone, Best Sound and Best Film Editing. In 1998, the American Film Institute placed Platoon at #83 in their “AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movies” poll.

In 1967, U.S. Army volunteer Chris Taylor arrives in South Vietnam and is assigned to an infantry platoon of the 25th Infantry Division near the Cambodian border. The platoon is officially led by the young and inexperienced Lieutenant Wolfe, but in reality the soldiers defer to two of his older and more experienced subordinates: the hardened and cynical Staff Sergeant Robert “Bob” Barnes, and the more idealistic Sergeant Elias.

Taylor is immediately sent out with Barnes, Elias and veteran soldiers on a planned night ambush for a North Vietnamese army force. The NVA soldiers manage to get close to the sleeping Americans before a brief firefight ensues; Taylor’s fellow new recruit Gardener is killed and Taylor himself lightly wounded. After his return from hospital, Taylor bonds with Elias and his circle of marijuana-smokers while remaining aloof from Barnes and his more hard-edged followers.

During a subsequent patrol, three men are killed by booby traps and unseen assailants. Already on edge, the platoon is further angered when they discover an enemy supply and weapons cache in a nearby village. Barnes, through a Vietnamese-speaking soldier, Lerner, aggressively interrogates the village chief about whether the villagers have been aiding the NVA, and cold-bloodedly shoots the chief’s wife dead when she snaps back at him. Elias then arrives, getting into a physical altercation with Barnes over the killing before Wolfe breaks it up and orders the supplies destroyed and the village razed. Taylor later prevents a gang-rape of two girls by some of Barnes’ men.

When the platoon returns to base, the veteran company commander Captain Harris declares that if he finds out that an illegal killing took place, a court-martial will ensue, leaving Barnes worried that Elias will testify against him. On their next patrol, the platoon is ambushed and pinned down in a firefight, in which numerous soldiers are wounded. More men are wounded when Lieutenant Wolfe accidentally directs an artillery strike onto his own unit before Barnes calls it off. Elias takes Taylor and two other men to intercept flanking enemy troops. Barnes orders the rest of the platoon to retreat and goes back into the jungle to find Elias’ group. Barnes finds Elias alone and shoots him, then returns and tells Taylor that Elias was killed by the enemy. While the platoon is extracting via helicopter, they glimpse Elias, mortally wounded, emerging from the treeline and being chased by a group of North Vietnamese soldiers, who kill him. Taylor realizes that Barnes was responsible.

At the base, Taylor attempts to talk his group into fragging Barnes in retaliation when Barnes, having overheard them, enters the room and mocks them. Taylor assaults the intoxicated Barnes but is quickly overpowered. Barnes cuts Taylor near his eye with a push dagger before departing.

The platoon is sent back to the front line to maintain defensive positions, where Taylor shares a foxhole with Francis. That night, a major NVA assault occurs, and the defensive lines are broken. Most of the platoon, including Wolfe and most of Barnes’ followers, are killed in the ensuing battle. During the attack, an NVA sapper, armed with explosives, destroys the battalion headquarters in a suicide attack. Now in command of the defense, Captain Harris orders his air support to expend all their remaining ordnance inside his perimeter. During the chaos, Taylor encounters Barnes, who is wounded and driven to insanity. Just as Barnes is about to kill Taylor, both men are knocked unconscious by the air strike.

Taylor regains consciousness the following morning, picks up an enemy rifle, and finds Barnes, who orders Taylor to call a medic. Seeing that Taylor will not help, Barnes contemptuously tells Taylor to kill him; Taylor does so. Francis, who survived the battle unharmed, deliberately stabs himself in the leg and reminds Taylor that because they have been twice wounded, they can return home. Taylor waves goodbye to the remaining troops as helicopters carry him and Francis away along with other wounded soldiers. Overwhelmed, Taylor sobs as he glares down at multiple craters full of corpses. In a voice-over, Taylor says that although the war is now over for him, it will remain with him for the rest of his life.

Cast

  • Charlie Sheen as Chris Taylor
  • Tom Berenger as Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes
  • Willem Dafoe as Sergeant Elias
  • Keith David as King
  • Forest Whitaker as Big Harold
  • Francesco Quinn as Rhah
  • Kevin Dillon as Bunny
  • John C. McGinley as Sergeant O’Neill
  • Mark Moses as Lieutenant Wolfe
  • Corey Glover as Francis
  • Johnny Depp as Lerner
  • Chris Pedersen as Crawford
  • Richard Edson as Sal
  • Tony Todd as Sergeant Warren
  • Dale Dye as Captain Harris
  • Oliver Stone as Alpha Company Major

After his tour of duty in the Vietnam War ended in 1968, Oliver Stone wrote a screenplay called Break, a semi-autobiographical account detailing his experiences with his parents and his time in the Vietnam War. Stone’s active duty service resulted in a “big change” in how he viewed life and the war. Although the screenplay Break was never produced, he later used it as the basis for Platoon.

Break featured several characters who were the seeds of those he developed in Platoon. The script was set to music from The Doors; Stone sent the script to Jim Morrison in the hope he would play the lead. (Morrison never responded, but his manager returned the script to Stone shortly after Morrison’s death; Morrison had the script with him when he died in Paris.) Although Break was never produced, Stone decided to attend film school.

After writing several other screenplays in the early 1970s, Stone worked with Robert Bolt on the screenplay, The Cover-up (it was not produced). Bolt’s rigorous approach rubbed off on Stone. The younger man used his characters from the Break screenplay and developed a new screenplay, which he titled The Platoon. Producer Martin Bregman attempted to elicit studio interest in the project, but was not successful. But, based on the strength of his writing in Platoon, Stone was hired to write the screenplay for Midnight Express (1978).

The film was a critical and commercial success, as were some other Stone films at the time, but most studios were still reluctant to finance The Platoon, because it was about the unpopular Vietnam War. After the release of The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, the studios then cited the perception that these films were considered the pinnacle of the Vietnam War film genre as reasons not to make The Platoon.

Stone responded by attempting to break into mainstream direction via the easier-to-finance horror genre, but The Hand failed at the box office. Stone began to think The Platoon would never be made. Stone cowrote Year of the Dragon for a lower-than-usual fee of $200,000, on the condition from producer Dino De Laurentiis would next produce The Platoon. (Dragon was directed by Stone’s friend Michael Cimino, who had done Deer Hunter.)

De Laurentiis secured financing for The Platoon, but he struggled to find a distributor. Because De Laurentiis had already spent money sending Stone to the Philippines to scout for locations, he decided to keep control of the film’s script until he was repaid. Then Stone’s script for what would become Salvador was passed to John Daly of British production company Hemdale. Once again, this was a project that Stone had struggled to secure financing for, but Daly loved the script and was prepared to finance both Salvador and The Platoon. Stone shot Salvador first, before turning his attention to what was by now called Platoon.

Platoon was filmed on the island of Luzon in the Philippines starting in February 1986. The production was almost canceled because of the political upheaval in the country, due to then-president Ferdinand Marcos. With the help of well-known Asian producer Mark Hill, the shoot commenced, as scheduled, two days after Marcos fled the country. Shooting lasted 54 days and cost $6.5 million. The production made a deal with the Philippine military for the use of military equipment. The film employed Vietnamese refugees living in the Philippines to act in different roles as Vietnamese in the film. Filming was done chronologically.

Scenes were shot in Mount Makiling (for the forest scenes), Cavite (for the river and village scenes), and Villamor Air Base near Manila.

James Woods, who had starred in Stone’s film Salvador, was offered a part in Platoon. He turned it down, later saying he “couldn’t face going into another jungle with [Stone]”.

Denzel Washington expressed interest in playing the role of Elias.

Upon arrival in the Philippines, the cast was sent on an intensive training course, during which they had to dig foxholes and were subject to forced marches and nighttime “ambushes,” which used special-effects explosions. Led by Vietnam War veteran Dale Dye, training put the principal actors—including Sheen, Dafoe, Depp and Whitaker—through an immersive 30-day military-style training regimen. They limited how much food and water they could drink and eat and when the actors slept, fired blanks to keep the tired actors awake. Dye also had a small role as Captain Harris. Stone said that he was trying to break them down, “to mess with their heads so we could get that dog-tired, don’t give a damn attitude, the anger, the irritation … the casual approach to death”. Willem Dafoe said “the training was very important to the making of the film”, adding to its authenticity and strengthening the camaraderie developed among the cast: “By the time you got through the training and through the film, you had a relationship to the weapon. It wasn’t going to kill people, but you felt comfortable with it.”

Stone makes a cameo appearance as the battalion commander of 3/22 Infantry in the final battle, which was based on the historic New Year’s Day Battle of 1968 which he had taken part in while on duty in South Vietnam. Dale Dye, who played Bravo company’s commander Captain Harris, is a U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran who also served as the film’s technical advisor.

The movie is “Dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Vietnam War.”

The film score was by Georges Delerue. Music used in the film includes Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, and “Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard (which is an anachronism, as the film is set in 1967 but Haggard’s song was not released until 1969). During a scene in the “Underworld”, the soldiers sing along to “The Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, which was also featured in the film’s trailer. The soundtrack includes “Groovin'” by The Rascals and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding.

The film was marketed with the tagline “The first casualty of war is innocence”. This was an adaptation of Senator Hiram Johnson’s assertion in 1917 that “The first casualty of war is the truth”. Platoon was released in the United States on December 19, 1986 and in the Philippines and the United Kingdom in March 1987, with its release in the latter receiving an above 15 rating for strong language, scenes of violence, and soft drug use.

Due to a legal dispute between HBO Home Video and Vestron Video over home video rights, the film was finally released on tape on January 22, 1988 through HBO, and was reissued on September 1, 1988 by Vestron. It made its DVD debut in 1997 by Live Entertainment. It was released again on VHS in 1999 by Polygram Filmed Entertainment (who briefly held the rights to the film through its purchase of the Epic library). The film was rereleased again on DVD in 2001 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (who now owns the rights to the film through their purchase of the pre-1996 Polygram Filmed Entertainment library). MGM and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release the film on DVD in 2006 for its 20th anniversary. MGM released the film on Blu-Ray in 2011 and will release the film again on September 18, 2018 with Shout! Factory on Blu-Ray.

  • Avalon Hill produced a 1986 wargame as an introductory game to attract young people into the wargaming hobby.
  • Platoon (1987), a shooter video game, was developed by Ocean Software and published in 1987–88 by Data East for a variety of computer and console gaming systems.
  • Platoon (2002), also known as Platoon: The 1st Airborne Cavalry Division in Vietnam, a real-time strategy game based on the film for Microsoft Windows, developed by Digital Reality developed and published by Monte Cristo and Strategy First.

 

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