Ranked 056 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as May 2017). Watched April 2020.
Cast: Charlie Sheen (Chris), Tom Berenger (Sgt. Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt. Elias), Keith David (King), Forest Whitaker (Big Harold), Francesco Quinn (Rhah), Kevin Dillon (Bunny), John C. McGinley (Sgt. O’Neill), Reggie Johnson (Junior), Mark Moses (Lt. Wolfe), Corey Glover (Francis), Johnny Depp (Lerner), Chris Pedersen (Crawford), Bob Orwig (Gardner), Corkey Ford (Manny), David Neidorf (Tex), Richard Edson (Sal), Tony Todd (Warren)
Director: Oliver Stone
My rating: 9.0 / 10
Set in 1967 Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is a very naive young American who has left his privileged life at university enlisting to fight in Vietnam believing in the cause and glory of war.
Immediately on deployment to the 25th Infantry divisi Bravo Company reality starts as he sees body bags being loaded into his plane and he sees a shell-shocked departing soldier while the more experienced soldiers laugh at the new recruits. These experience soldiers don’t want to learn the names of the fresh meat arriving.
Later Taylor goes out on patrol into the inhospitable jungle dealing with mud, humidity, snakes and ants. Taylor’s enthusiasm for the war wanes as he is Worn down by the exhausting work and the reality of his situation. This is replaced for some admiration for the more experienced soldiers despite their general contempt for making friends with newer soldiers.
We are introduced to platoon commander Lieutenant Wolfe (Mark Moses) platoon sergeants: the slightly crazy but compassionate Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), the hard core Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), the cowardly lifer Sergeant Red O’Neil (John C. McGinley), and drug addict Sergeant Warren (Tony Todd).
One night the North Vietnamese soldiers set upon Taylor’s sleeping unit. Gardner (Bob Orwig), is killed, and another soldier, Tex (David Neidorf), is maimed. Despite having passed the watch duty to Junior (Reggie Johnson) Taylor is blamed for the casualties. Taylor discovers a light wound to his neck, and he is sent to the field hospital for treatment.
On Taylor’s return from the hospital a more experienced soldier named King (Keith David) helps Taylor gain acceptance of a tight-knit group led by Elias that socializes, dances, and takes drugs in a private bunker. In another bunker, Barnes leads the more traditional members of the unit whom drink beer, play cards and don’t smoke opium. These two groups having clashing approaches to approaching and surviving this war both destructive.
Taylor becomes a more seasoned soldier over the coming months. During a patrol on New Years Day 1968, the platoon finds what appears to be an abandoned bunker but it is booby trapped and two members of the platoon, Sandy (J. Adam Glover) and Sal (Richard Edson) are killed. Another soldier named Manny Washington (Corkey Ford) is takend and his mutilated body is found tied to a post close by. The platoon is infuriated by the senseless death of their comrade and are ordered to report to a nearby village of South Vietnamese citizens that starts the final descent into inhumanity and cruelty.
While searching the village Taylor discovers a mute and mentally challenged teenage boy and his mother hiding in a hole beneath the floor. Taylor harasses and taunts the retarded boy by shooting his rifle at his feet, but stops himself short of killing the boy. However, Bunny (Kevin Dillon) takes over and beats the boy to death with his gun.
While questioning the village chief, Barnes loses his patience and senselessly kills the man’s wife despite his denials that they are aiding the Viet Cong. Barnes is about to murder the man’s young daughter to force him to tell them to where the enemy is when Sergeant Elias arrives at the scene and starts a fistfight with Barnes. This fight has lasting consequences and divides the platoon.
On their next patrol, the platoon is ambushed and pinned down in a firefight several soldiers are killed. Lieutenant Wolfe calls in wrong coordinates for artillery support, resulting in the deaths of more of his soldiers Big Harold (Forest Whitaker) has his leg blown off by a booby trap while trying to escape. The platoon is ordered retreat.
During the chaos Barnes finds Elias in the forest, they stare at each other for a few moments and then Barnes fires three rounds into Elias’ chest and leaves him for dead. Barnes runs into Taylor and tells him that Elias is dead. After they take off, the men see a severely wounded Elias emerge from the jungle, running from a large group of enemy soldiers. He dies after being shot several more times in an iconic scene of desperation. As they fly from the area, Taylor takes a long look at Barnes’ hardened face.
Back at the base Taylor starts calling for Barnes to be killed not having faith in military justice. Barnes walks into the room having heard the discuss daring the group to kill him. No one takes up the offer but as Barnes leaves, Taylor attacks him. Barnes quickly gets the upper hand, pins Taylor down and holds a knife to his face but eventually leaves.
A few days later, the platoon is sent back to the ambush area in order to build and maintain heavy defensive positions against a potential attack. The platoon is so severely weakened, though, that there are numerous gaps in their defence. When this fact is pointed out to him, Lt. Wolfe only replies that he doesn’t “give a fuck” any more. The troops try to prepare for the incoming battle, during which they know the majority of them will die. Numerous soldiers try to get out of the fight requesting leave or injuring themselves but it doesn’t work.
That night a large attack occurs and the American defensive perimeter is broken and the camp overrun by hundreds of attacking North Vietnamese troops. The command bunker is destroyed by a suicide bomber (with Oliver Stone making a cameo as the doomed battalion commander inside the bunker). Many members of the platoon are killed, including Lt. Wolfe, Parker, Doc, Bunny, and Junior. The cowardly O’Neil survives only by hiding himself under a dead body (later saying his men run like they were the cowards not him).
The desperate company commander orders the Air Force pilots to bomb his position. During the chaos, Barnes and Taylor come face-to-face. As a crazed Barnes is about to beat Taylor with a shovel, the two are knocked unconscious by the last-ditch American napalm attack.
A wounded Taylor regains consciousness the next morning seriously wounded. Taylor soon finds Barnes, who is also wounded. Taylor had taken a rifle from a dead enemy soldier and aims it at Barnes who dismissively orders Taylor to call a medic. When Taylor does not comply a deranged Barnes dares him to pull the trigger by saying: “Do it!” Taylor hesitates for a second but kills Barnes collapses, and awaits medical attention but considers committing suicide.
Francis stabs himself in the thigh with a bayonet in order to be evacuated as a casualty. As Taylor is loaded onto an evacuation helicopter Francis reminds him that because they have been wounded twice they can go home. Back at the bombed-out command post, hundreds of North Vietnamese bodies are being dumped into mass graves. As the helicopter flies away Taylor weeps as he stares down at the destruction. Taylor narrates that he will forever be in Vietnam, with Barnes and Elias battling for “possession of his soul”, and that he believes he and other veterans must rebuild themselves, and find goodness and purpose in their lives.
What’s to Like
The amazing score and visuals. The brutal storyline without any heroes just individuals descending at different rates into a living hell as they lose a sense of morals and become more and more dehumanised.
What’s not to Like
A stunning visual and audio experience with a gripping story. There is no glory in this war story in fact the lead character liking volunteered to come to Vietnam due to war movies glorifying war.
Oliver Stone left university to serve in Vietnam War and this is occasionally a deeply personal film for him. In many ways this is an anti-war movie or at least a movie that makes you question war, it certainty does not make war look like fun or even honourable.
There is rarely a clear shot of an enemy soldier as the movie show the enemy within as soldiers each and go beyond breaking point. Every major engagement is chaotic at best, sometimes it’s hard to know who the enemy is. I’ll never serve in a military force but I’d imagine this would be the horror of close quarter combat.
The actors are amazing and have some of the best in their generation especially some in smaller roles before they went onto bigger roles. A great movie and I’m glad I finally got to watch it.
- Best Picture (Arnold Kopelson) – winner
- Best Director (Oliver Stone) – winner
- Best Sound (John Wilkinson, Richard D. Rogers, Charles Grenzbach, Simon Kaye) – winner
- Best Film Editing (Claire Simpson)Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Tom Berenger) – nominee
- Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Willem Dafoe) – nominee
- Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Oliver Stone) – nominee
- Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson) – nominee