Gardens of Stone

(Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1987)


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 [1982], Rumble Fish [1983]), 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 trajectory.


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.

MORE Coppola: Apocalypse Now Redux, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Godfather, Rumble Fish

© Adrian Martin July 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search