Gardens of Stone
Francis Ford Coppola has an intimate, hard-won
understanding of metaphor in cinema. After some of the most excessive
(sometimes gloriously so) exercises of the 1980s (One from the Heart , Rumble
Fish ), it is intriguing to see him gear down to the naturalism of Gardens of Stone.
The film is quiet, humble, calm; audiences that go
expecting to see a Big Vietnam War Statement will be definitely disappointed. Gardens of Stone reflects on that war
from the viewpoint of those who could not fight in it – the literally named “Old
Guard” who stayed at home to bury the dead.
Coppola uses this premise to carve out a particular,
humanistic space within 1980s reflections on the legacy of the Vietnam War. It
can rightly be said that it sits quite comfortably within a certain pocket of
American conservatism; it avoids any question of politics (either left or
right), and wishes to speak up instead for the “family” of U.S. soldiers.
In this instance, at least, Coppola wins the right to
his display of sentimental conservatism.
Gardens of Stone refuses the
typical ways of representing the American military. Clell Hazard (James Caan)
and Goody Nelson (James Earl Jones) – both performances are magnificent – are
neither proto-fascist, authoritarian tyrants nor explosively proletarian
grunts. There’s no power scenario à la Platoon (1986): these guys are civilised and sensitive.
Even their colourful obscenities do not spring from deep-set anxieties over
what constitutes the norm of masculinity – one cowardly recruit asks Clell “Am
I less of a man?” and gets the reply: “You’re as much a man as anyone here”.
The plot, understated as it is, revolves around a
symbolic father/son connection between Clell and young Jackie (D.B. Sweeney),
who finds himself pushed and pulled in every possible direction in relation to
the prospect of heading off to join the war effort. The film follows his career
The central characters reject the politics of their
government and of the anti-war movement (embodied, without much depth, in the
figure of Samantha played by Anjelica Huston) alike. All they believe in,
ultimately, is each other. Coppola wrings much well-judged pathos from their
painful, in-between position.
Subsequent to its initial release, Gardens of Stone has seldom been
programmed or discussed. Coppola himself has only unhappy memories of its
production, since it is overwhelmingly associated, for him, with the tragic
death (in a speedboating accident) of his 22 year-old son and collaborator,
Gian-Carlo, in May 1986.
© Adrian Martin July 1987