(Oliver Stone, USA, 1986)


We find a classic moment of face-to-face mirror-rivalry – and the escalation to murder which invariably accompanies it – where we might least expect it in mid 1980s cinema: deep in the Vietnamese jungle of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.


Platoon is an excellent social conscience movie – the kind most mainstream film reviewers reverently prostrate themselves before – but I wonder if its excellence really resides in the horrible truth of its depicted facts. Certainly, like all the worthwhile recent films that try to come to terms with the legacy of the Vietnam war, Platoon provides a salient reminder of the atrocities – rape, unauthorised killing, corruption of innocence. Likewise, it offers an extraordinary vivid account of the experience of war – staying entirely with the motley platoon, showing how unfathomable chaos descends upon it on a daily basis – even if this immediacy is achieved at the expense of any wider perspective on why the war was being fought and of what it consisted.


But Platoon’s real richness occurs at the level of what the film makes of war, the way in which Stone turns it into a (historically specific) metaphor for the (essentially) masculine condition. Stone’s scripts (Midnight Express [Alan Parker 1978], Scarface [Brian De Palma 1983], Year of the Dragon [Michael Cimino, 1985]) and his own films (Salvador, 1986) have always agonised about men and the masculine psyche, and particularly about the ethos of rugged individualism that has to play dirty in order to cope with a rotten world. When Stone simply celebrates the disgustingness of a supposedly authentic brand of machismo, he indulges a strong, nasty, sexist-racist streak in himself and his culture.


But Platoon is an altogether more sensitive and complex statement. Although, once again, Stone’s platoon of heroes is a bunch of cast-off outsider rebels – scum of the earth who are the sacrificial scapegoats for a WASP society back home – this wild bunch reproduces, within itself, all the power relations of American society (power exercised by virtue of race, age, sexual preference, position in hierarchy). We are presented with is an incredibly dynamic (often obscene and brutal) playing out of domination-subordination relations in microcosm – a sketching of the socio-psychological drives that might be seen as contributing to (but not explaining) the fact of the war itself.


Platoon is, on its deepest level, a veritable Freudian Family Romance of the male individual. Chris (Charlie Sheen) describes his rite of passage as the trauma of being “born of two fathers”, and of having to make the choice between them. Each father-figure stands for a distinct and opposed male lifestyle – so, for once in Stone’s world-view, there is an in-built option, an alternative. Elias (Willem Dafoe) leads the pot-smoking half of the platoon. He tries to tame the escalation of violence in war (when he can); he accepts and finds solace in the natural homo-eroticism of guys thrown so closely together; and he dreams of escape, hopes for a better world. He stands, in short, for the principle of life.


Barnes (Tom Berenger), on the other hand, defines what he stands for quite precisely and unequivocally: he is reality, the reality of death, the reality of what is (not what “ought to be”). Beyond the mere principle of death, the death-drive, he is death itself. Logically, therefore, the men under his tutelage are into booze (not pot), enjoy the murderous game of escalating violence, and desperately, defensively, assert their heterosexuality in acts of rape and verbal abuse.


Elias and Barnes are the mirror-rivals of Platoon; the entire film hinges on their personal confrontation and its repercussions on their symbolic son. It is at this level that we can best appreciate the value of Stone’s film.

MORE Stone: Alexander, Any Given Sunday, Heaven and Earth, JFK, Nixon, U Turn

© Adrian Martin March 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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