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
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.
© Adrian Martin March 1987