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Sense Memory: "Platoon" Through a Veteran's Eyes

On Saturday, November 5, 2016, The Cinefamily in Los Angeles will show Oliver Stone's "Platoon", with a discussion afterward between RogerEbert.com contributor Sam Fragoso, myself, and RogerEbert.com contributor Jim Beaver, a film historian, actor and Vietnam veteran. Details are here.

The following is an excerpt from my book The Oliver Stone Experience, a combination biography and critical guide that interweaves Stone's life story with essays about different aspects of his work. Jim wrote this piece about the emotional impact of seeing "Platoon" for the first time, more than fifteen years after his return from serving in Vietnam.

SENSE MEMORY: PLATOON THROUGH A VETERAN'S EYES

B Y   J I M   B E A V E R

I remember sitting very still.  Not moving at all. 

From the blackness arose, quickly, an unconscionable bright light.  

I sensed, dully, around me, some vague, vaporous semblance of the real world, of people moving, speaking mutedly with each other, of motion and sound. Yet it was at a great remove, and it seemed separated from me and my thoughts and feelings, the way conversations and arguments bleeding dully through a wall from a neighbor’s apartment are at once heard, but isolated from one’s own existence. I sensed the presence on my right of my friend Tom and, on my left, of my wife Cecily, both of them silent, unmoving, attentive but desperately unobtrusive. 

I sat for a very long time. Two minutes? Ten? Twenty? I don’t know.

I had just seen Platoon for the first time.

I joined the Marines in 1968. I was sent to Vietnam as an infantry radio operator in 1970. My tour of duty in country lasted from June of that year until April of the next. I came home with my body intact, save for a small scar on my hand from where I’d been bayoneted accidentally by an idiot from Corbin, Kentucky who was trying to kill a rat. My time in Vietnam was largely a mild time. The old saying about war being long periods of boredom interrupted by occasional flashes of terror was true, but my flashes were remarkably rare:  Some early transits through enemy-rich territory, a few times when rockets came closer than comfortable, a night alert when the entire valley leading into Chieu Hoi Pass outside Da Nang lit up with a thousand parachute flares to illuminate the hordes of attacking VC who never got around to showing up, and a single firefight when sappers were discovered in the wire at a battalion command post on an isolated hill. The rest of my war, insofar as the terror/tedium ratio went, was exclusively tedious. 

Far more disturbing than my own brushes with combat were my experiences visiting a boyhood friend at a nearby Marine medical unit. On virtually every visit, our conversations and low-level carousing would be interrupted by medevac choppers coming in with loads of freshly wounded and dead. At such times, it was all hands on deck, base personnel and visitors alike, unloading the choppers, and my experiences of the screams and blood and horror in Vietnam were largely confined to the LZ at 1st Med Battalion. Stretcher after stretcher went either left off the LZ to triage or straight ahead to Graves Registration. I never saw anyone shot or blown up in Vietnam, but I saw a good deal of what was left afterwards.

The night before I departed for Marine boot camp in ‘68, I left the Marine recruiting station in downtown Dallas and caught a movie before heading home. The picture was John Wayne’s much-reviled but naïvely well-intentioned Vietnam movie, The Green Berets. The night before I left for Vietnam two years later, I finished reading Dalton Trumbo’s horrifying anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun. 

My timing was less than impeccable, but the ironies were not lost on me. By 1986, there had been better movies about the Vietnam war than Wayne’s, but not many. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter exquisitely caught the madness of the war without being terribly revelatory about what it was like on a realistic basis. The Boys in Company C captured Marine boot camp wonderfully, but when its characters moved on to the killing fields of Vietnam, it seemed a far cry from the Vietnam I knew about. Only the under-seen Go Tell the Spartans (about the earliest days of American involvement in the war) and the TV movie A Rumor of War came remotely close to depicting something of the actualities experienced by combat infantrymen in that conflict. Then came Platoon.

I knew a little about the film beforehand. My wife Cecily, an actress and casting director, had worked on a film in the Philippines at the same time Platoon was shooting there, and she spent time with many of the largely (then) unknown actors of that film. She had reported to me their stories of their training in remarkably arduous conditions for the film, and she said that they all believed they were involved with something special. Well, my own film career was just beginning at that time, but even I knew that everybody thinks they’re working on something “special.” 

I was skeptical that any movie could encapsulate the experience of that war, though I was happy to know that it was being filmed by a veteran of the war. I hadn’t seen any of Oliver Stone’s work, but I knew the failings of most previous films about Vietnam were due in part to the filmmakers guessing what the war was like instead of knowing from experience. With Platoon, I hoped Stone would get a few things right.

As far as I can tell, he got everything right. The opening scene of fresh meat coming off the plane while old meat is laid out on the tarmac for shipment home was more dramatic than my own arrival in Vietnam, but it expressed a fear that gripped all of us, I think, at the beginnings of our first tours. 

No one tells you anything about what to expect when you’re about to land in Vietnam, and the tension and fear that our plane would be blown up before we had a chance to get off of it were no less palpable for being based on a false impression. The blast of fear and isolation and sickness we felt stepping off that plane matched the massive blast of heat and smells that accompanied it. The sudden awareness that nothing you’ve been taught or trained to do feels sufficient for your needs, the withering consciousness that everyone you meet hates you on sight because you’re ignorant and, thus, a danger to them all, these Stone captures perfectly, as he does the sense of the countryside, the heat and even, somehow, the smells. 

There was a smell in Vietnam that took over your clothes. 

It was probably some kind of exotic Asian mildew from always being wet either from sweat or rain. 

It was a smell I never encountered before Vietnam, and one I never smelled again after I left – until the night I saw Platoon

I remember the smell of rotting clothes come over me in waves as I watched the actors drenched in perspiration.  Sense memory, I suppose, but no other film has ever made me smell something from the other side of the world, a decade and a half later.

As I’ve said, my experience in actual combat was limited. But I know what rifle fire sounds like, up close and from a distance, and I’ve seen the orange tracers going out and the green ones coming in, and 45 years later, the sounds of certain helicopters catch at some place far deeper than my inner ear. Platoon reproduces these sensory impressions better than any film up till then ever had, and only Forrest Gump, a picture I’m not particularly fond of, did a better job of nailing the sounds of the war.

But authenticity of time and place and sight and sound, while vital, are not the most vital goals for a picture that hopes to paint a true picture of Vietnam’s heart of darkness. 

Where Stone’s genius, and his daring, most reveal themselves is in his delineation of the characters and transformations of the people who form a combat unit in a war as infinitely flawed and misunderstood as was the war in Vietnam. 

In spite of the unity suggested by the term “United States,” a deadly diversity afflicted America’s military personnel in Vietnam. Gaps of wealth, of education, of race, of political inclination, of conscience, and in understanding and consciousness of our national goals (whatever they actually were) undermined unit cohesion in a way they did not seem to do in prior wars. Stone covers every base in his portrayal of how men of presumed like intent splinter under the pressures of war when the goals and reasons for that war are unclear. 

My experience mirrors that of the men in Stone’s cinematic platoon. The greater the pressure, the greater the divisions. Stoners, rednecks, scholars, idiots, patriots, cowards, ghetto kids, psychopaths, mentors, drunks, layabouts, hard-chargers, every possible variation on human behavior gets a chance to reveal itself in blinding clarity in the cauldron of war, and in Stone’s film, he not only depicts it, he realizes that these isolating divisions between people create and exacerbate the possibilities for failure, whether for a nation or a small group of men. 

The Vietnam war was spoiled and rotting before Americans ever stumbled into it, and its putrefaction not only pulled apart the nation, it ripped at the fabric that created in earlier wars the bond of bands of brothers. It is a mark of Stone’s insight as a filmmaker and his courage as an artist that he confronted this inconvenient truth. Certainly there was (and remains) a brotherhood of warriors who fought and survived the Vietnam war.  But by confronting the collapse of unity and commonality of purpose among the soldiers characterized in his film, Stone is able to confront the larger issue of the collapse of unity in the American nation as inflamed by the central conflict of his generation, and to do so in a more concrete and unambiguous way than such exercises in deadly surrealism as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now could approach. And that, beyond even the magnificently authentic recreation of the details of life in a combat unit is why I believe Platoon to be the greatest and most important film about the Vietnam war to date.

RogerEbert.com contributor Jim Beaver is the author of the memoir Life’s That Way, and has starred as an actor in Deadwood, Justified, Supernatural, and nearly 200 other films and TV shows. He was the only actual Vietnam veteran in the principal cast of Norman Jewison’s acclaimed film about Vietnam vets, "In Country."


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