In Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), American soldiers bound for service in Vietnam sang a military ditty as they marched and trained. It was a soldier's ode to his rifle and his penis – and the respective functions of each. "This is for fighting," they declared, brandishing rifles, and then, grabbing their crotches, "this is for fun."
This already rather chilling chant is given a further blood-curdling twist in Brian De Palma's Casualties of War. As Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn) prepares to lead the military gang rape of captured Vietnamese girl Oahn (Thuy Thu Le), he explains that his penis is the true weapon: "This is for fighting" – the rifle is "for fun".
Casualties of War is another American film (in the tradition of Apocalyse Now  and Platoon ) about the Vietnam war and the atrocities committed in its name. It is a deliberately shocking, highly wrought, extremely emotive film, certain to shake up many people. Its tone is – to borrow Meserve's graphic self-description – "as serious as a heart attack". As a liberal film, its message is the usual one, delivered loud and clear: the American GIs were bastards, the war was immoral, innocent Vietnamese citizens were terrorised infinitely more than they were protected. Perhaps we can never be reminded too many times of such historical political truths.
Yet De Palma's film, powerful and persuasive as it may be, ultimately veers away from any actual consideration of the Vietnam war. As in many contemporaneous films on the subject, this particular war is blown up into something bigger than, and almost removed from, itself. In Apocalypse Now, for example, the war became an obscure metaphysical symbol for the universal struggle between Good and Evil. More regularly, Vietnam films offer the opportunity for a particularly agonised reflection on the eternal problem of masculinity, and in particular male sexuality.
The essential thesis of Casualties of War is that the army frustrates and channels the natural sexual instinct of its men to manufacture the "kill instinct" necessary for wartime. When this already morally dubious process goes wrong – when men are too stimulated and too frustrated all at once – the situation escalates out of control and into the kind of sexual atrocity depicted. The film argues that the exercise of calm rationality is even more crucial in wartime than in peace – particularly to avoid arousing the ever-latent dark side of the male animal.
The story is told as a nightmarish flashback experienced in the present day by former soldier Eriksson (Michael J. Fox). It was he who, after the gang rape, brought the men of his squad to court martial – in the face of both his superiors' indifference and his buddies' murder attempts. As played by Fox, Eriksson is surely one of the purest good guys ever dreamed up by the American cinema. Infused with innocent, idealistic righteousness, he is apparently completely immune to the frustrations that drive the other men. He is clearly intended as a comfortable identification figure for the audience – through him, we are allowed to finally forget Vietnam as if it were just a bad dream.
De Palma's place in filmmaking history has already been secured by his masterpieces of the 1970s and '80s, such as Carrie (1976) and Scarface (1983). In the later half of the '80s, his films became rather unconvincing in their attempts at high seriousness, morality and compassion. De Palma has always been just a big kid playing with the great train set of movie making in the Hitchcock mould. His characters are usually puppets to be spectacularly moved around inside wild plots, conceits and visual effects. His preferred filmmaking attitude has been one of cheekiness, amorality, notoriety. One cannot help suspecting that Casualties of War really only interests De Palma when he can turn on the juicy moments of approaching death, disaster or revelation. Yet such moments only serve to unbalance or contradict the liberal pieties of the script.
As a melodrama, Casualties of War is certainly worth seeing. Penn, one of the screen's most remarkable actors, has that rare ability to reflect the psychopathic character of Meserve in every aspect of his physical bearing. Ennio Morricone's musical score is, as ever, deeply affecting. And the film undoubtedly engineers an overwhelming, almost cathartic emotional response in the viewer. The Vietnam war offers filmmakers and filmgoers, one more time, a good show. But is that really enough?
© Adrian Martin January 1990