Original release: 18th August 1989
Running time: 113 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Daniel Lang, David Rabe
Composers: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, Don Harvey, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Ving Rhames
Around the same time the infamous My Lai massacre was made public during the Vietnam War in 1969, a pattern of atrocities committed by American soldiers started to emerge when an article by reporter Daniel Lang was published in the New Yorker the same year; soldiers losing what most would consider a very basic sense of morality became evident.
Those stories and images generated outrage as the anti-war movement turned increasingly vocal and active in the U.S. at the time.
While Daniel Lang’s report doesn’t compare to the My Lai massacre in its magnitude, the pre-meditated nature of the lengthy ordeal Vietnamese girl Pham Thi Mao was subjected to showed the corrupted state of mind that always seemed to be the driving force behind these events.
Brian De Palma adapted this harrowing incident for the screen in 1989 to mark the first war film in his body of work. Casualties Of War takes a closer look at the soldiers who were directly involved in the “The Incident on Hill 192” and explores the reasons and motives behind immoral behaviour under the extraordinary circumstances of war. Based on what is known about the kidnapping, gang rape and murder of Pham Thi Mao by American soldiers in November 1966, De Palma’s film stays close to the actual events that took place.
Combat-experienced Sergeant to a small army patrol Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) is the person everyone looks to for guidance in the midst of war. He is mean and tough — but he is the soldier who can save your life when you get in trouble. When the film opens, he does just that for Private Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) who gets stuck in a Viet Cong tunnel in the middle of a fierce battle. Eriksson has been in the field for mere three weeks and soon has to experience the fall of a fellow soldier who gets shot in the neck. However, it’s Sergeant Meserve whose mind changes fundamentally after this.
Before their next mission, Sergeant Meserve tells Eriksson and the others in the patrol that they will take a detour to kidnap a girl from a nearby village to be their sex-slave. Eriksson is not sure whether Meserve is serious or not but soon finds out he meant every word. Eriksson’s futile resistance to what takes place after the kidnapping is really hard to watch. With the patrol out in the open without direct authority, Meserve and the other men threaten and ostracise Eriksson after being unable to persuade him to take part in the crime.
The crime itself shows a very rigid army structure in which doing the right thing is extremely difficult. Eriksson’s options are limited; taking the girl with him and away from the others would be desertion, and attacking them in defence of her would be an even greater offence — he would have to do something illegal to prevent the crime from taking place. Facing this dilemma, he fails Pham Thi Mao and stands by while she is repeatedly raped, beaten and eventually murdered.
In the aftermath of the crime, Eriksson finally decides to use official channels to seek justice. As this coincides with the turmoil following the My Lai massacre, high ranking officials prefer to cover up the incident instead of dealing with it. However, Eriksson — through a conversation with a friend — has come to the conclusion that doing the right thing is actually very simple: you just have to do it. So he is not deterred by his dissuading superiors and pushes relentlessly until Meserve and the others are court-martialled.
While its meaning may be up for debate and interpretation, I think the film tries to make the point that war makes good people do bad things. I tend to disagree in this context; Meserve’s character strikes me as someone who is capable of committing such a crime — the circumstances of war just make it easier.
Author Heather Marie Stur makes an insightful point about Meserve’s trial testimony:
Based on his own testimony, Meserve made a conscious choice, and what he believes about the culture of war is sharply contradicted by Eriksson’s fight for justice. Ultimately, Casualties Of War is more about the nature of Meserve’s character than about the nature of war. When we look at the specific crime Meserve and the others committed, it becomes clear that it is not at all unique to war — home invasions have taken place in peace time with nearly identical — and often worse — consequences for the victims.
De Palma made a film that is insightful and true to real life but did not necessarily demonstrate that war in itself is capable of turning a human being into a monster. The film is most revealing though about the military structure and its willingness to defend its own ranks even if that means covering up atrocities.
In the end, the story of Casualties Of War is a snapshot of something much larger — it simply doesn’t have enough reach to convince me that “The Incident on Hill 192” is to be blamed on the war instead of Sergeant Meserve. Although a compelling piece in many ways, Casualties Of War reveals much about human nature while it doesn’t reveal very much about human nature in war.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.