Original release: December 19th, 1986
Running time: 120 minutes
Writer and director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Keith David, Kevin Dillon
What does it feel like to kill and what happens to us once we’ve committed that act? The rules are no longer the same when we stop being civilians and become soldiers. Whereas in civilian life, to kill is morally and legally wrong, in war this becomes permissible. As armies fight against an opponent to defend its nation or its interests, lines have to be drawn between civilians and combatants. Yet it’s not as simple as point, shoot and forget. It takes a toll, and these lines can start to fade.
The Vietnam War, as experienced by those who fought in it, has been captured before in movies such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), but in 1986, writer and director Oliver Stone added his own unique perspective to the genre. His story begins in 1967 and follows Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a college drop-out who volunteers for Vietnam.
Taylor is assigned to the Bravo Company 25th Infantry and arrives for combat duty near the Cambodian border, but is immediately met with the reality of war. He sees piles of body bags containing dead soldiers waiting to be flown back home and the remaining guys give him a cold reception. No one cares about the new guy and they don’t waste any time with the new platoon – there’s no point when they’ll all be dead within a week. It doesn’t take long before Taylor realises combat duty involves carrying a lot of heavy equipment, and for long periods of time. He quickly suffers from exhaustion and gets ambushed by ants along the way. He also manages to get on the bad side of Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), a man they should be fearful of.
Taylor experiences an attack by North Vietnamese Army that leaves a new recruit dead and later on we see three other men mutilated and killed by booby traps. As they continue on their way, and after surviving his first ambush, he slowly begins to gain the acceptance of those around him, including Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and King (Keith David). Smoking, doing drugs and drinking with them, they bond over stories of what they miss back home. Yet the tension among them continues to build – the men are on edge.
Reaching a village where they discover a cache supply, Taylor finds a disabled Vietnamese man and an elderly woman, both civilians. It’s at this moment while questioning him, Taylor finally snaps and unloads a round of gunfire at the man’s feet, forcing him to dance for him. The man continues smiling, unaware of the danger he’s in, but then fellow soldier Bunny (Kevin Dillon) gets in on the action and beats him death in front of Taylor. Afterwards, Barnes tries to find out if the villagers have been helping the Viet Cong and Elias arrives in time to prevent him from a further bloodbath. Despite his earlier disregard for civilian life, Taylor prevents the rape of a young girl at the hands men from his platoon. “She’s a human being!” he protests – while her village burns.
As they return to their base, Barnes begins to worry about Elias giving testimony in the illegal killings that just took place and will look for a way to make sure that doesn’t happen. It culminates with Taylor realising it was Barnes’ intention to kill Elias when he sees him running wounded from a group of NVA soldiers and falling down with his arms reaching up toward the sky. Amidst another NVA attack, which sees many from his platoon killed, Taylor comes face to face with Barnes and avenges Elias’ death, and perhaps countless others too. Now that he’s wounded, he can return home, he can get away from this hell, and as a helicopter lifts him away, he looks down at the crater of destruction they’ve caused.
With Taylor’s narration throughout, Stone offers us his own account of what Vietnam was like. For most of the time, Taylor is an observer and it’s through him Stone tells his story. We see the war through his eyes and experience what it’s like to be a “grunt”. As he writes his letters to his family back home, he shares his deepest thoughts and feelings in a way we rarely saw with soldiers on the screen before Platoon.
It’s never pretty, it’s at times brutal and what we see is a group of men journeying deeper into a place some of them are never going to come back from. As a film that engages us, not only in the horrors of war, but also in the horrors of ourselves, Platoon balances realism and emotion to bring us a story that’s hard to ignore or forget, and forces us to look back on the Vietnam War and ask “who were we really fighting?”
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .