Gardens of Stone (1987)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: James Caan, Anjelica Huston, James Earl Jones, D. B. Sweeney, Dean Stockwell, Mary Stuart Masterson, Dick Anthony Williams, Lonette McKee, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fisburne
The gardens of stone are the cemetery stones of Arlington National Cemetery. The movie deals with the determination of a member of the home guard who really wants to serve in Vietnam War.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
A military funeral is being held complete with the 7 man firing squad. The young Mrs. Rachel Willow is now a widow. She is presented with the folded flag of the United States that was draped over her husband's casket.
Flashback. Sgt. Clell Hazard receives a letter from a young man he knows who tells him about how much harder it is to fight in Vietnam than he thought. He says sarge told him it was bad, but the young guy was too full of himself to listen.
Fort Myer, Virginia, 1968. Young specialist Jack Will reports in to Pete Deveber, the company clerk. Pete tells Jack that they are up to 15 drops (funerals) a day. Pete then says he thinks that Jack is going to like top (First Sergeant Slasher Williams). Jack wanders into Top's office. Top comes in and starts yelling at Jack for being in his office. He is really balling out the young man, that is until Sgt. Major 'Goody' Nelson comes along. He asks Top if this boy is bothering him? Top says no. Sgt. Major asks: "This boy bugger your pet goat or something?" The conversation is stopped when Sgt. Clell Hazard comes in.
Sgt. Hazzard complains to the sgt. major that he is sick about that unit of toy soldiers being permitted to wear the insignia of crossed rifles of the infantry. Captain Homer Thomas comes over and asks Cell what's his beef's about? Clell tells him that he was just saying he wants to get these snot-nosed kids "ready for the inevitable". He adds that's why he wants to teach. The captain says that Clell already put in for a transfer and it has been denied. That's it!
The captain sits down in his office to talk to Jack. He welcomes Jack to Delta Company. Jack's father was once a sergeant major in the army. He tells the captain that he is shooting for something higher. He is applying to Officer Candidate School (OCS) and wants to be transferred to a line unit in Vietnam. The captain tells Jack that he doesn't seem to realize what an honor it is to serve in the Old Guard, which is the escort for the president of the United States. But at least the captain says if Jack does a good job here, he will definitely help him get into OCS.
Willow speaks with the Sgt. Clell and he tells him it's an honor to meet him. Sarge wants to know why is it an honor? Because they both want out of this unit and he wants to go to the front line in Vietnam. Sarge tells him that there is no front line in Vietnam. He adds: "Nothing to win, no way to win it." Sarge tells him not to be in such a hurry to get himself killed. The sergeant knows his father, Shelby Willow. They fought together in the Korean War.
The sgt. major also knows Shelby Willow. Sarge talks to the sgt. major about Jack Willow and thanks him for getting the kid transferred over to Delta Company. He also shows the sgt. major the letter Shelby wrote to him asking the sarge to look after his boy.
Sarge goes to his apartment building. He meets a pretty Samantha Davis waiting for the elevator. He takes one of her heavy paper bags from her to lighten her load. She doesn't seem to really want to talk to him, but he perseveres and asks her to come to dinner tonight over at his place. A friend and his girlfriend are coming over for dinner. Sam really doesn't want to go, so sarge let's her go. As he walks away from her, she asks him what time?: 7:30 p.m. She's coming.
In his apartment sarge quickly calls up the sgt. major to ask him to come to his place tonight and bring Betty Rae. Sgt. Major says he can't tonight, so sarge reminds him about that time in Vietnam he saved the sgt. major's ass. He adds that the sgt. major owes him and he's calling in his marker. Sgt. Major says he will come with Betty Rae.
Samantha shows up on time and Clell has to apologize for his friends being a little late. He asks her what does she do and she says she works for the Washington Post. She came up from Charlotte, North Carolina.
The sgt. major and his girlfriend arrive. Betty says that the Washington Post is a hot bed of radicalism. Sam asks what the guys do on the base? Goody says they are "toy soldiers", who have rifles that don't work and bayonets that don't stick.
Sgt. Flanagan gets the men up in the morning. He gets really angry at one of the guys, named Wildman, and really balls him out. When he raises up his arm Jack jumps in and catches the sergeant's fist. The sergeant gets mad at Jack and he looks like he wants to smash Jack, but Jack has such soothing words and such a soothing style that the sergeant agrees to let Jack work with the man to try to improve him. As Jack says, sarge has better things to do.
Goody and Clell inspect the toy soldiers. Everyone does well in the inspection, except Goody finds a girly magazine under the bunk of Willow's student. Sarge takes a look but doesn't say too much about it, but Clell really gives the young fellow some dirty looks.
Jack reports to Goody and Clell at the bar. They tell him that his company had the cleanest uniforms and bunks in the entire unit. Clell and Jack gets into another verbal argument over Clell's cynicism toward the Vietnam War. To let off steam Jack joins in on a fight already going on. Clell and Goody have to get Jack out of trouble. They take Jack to the barracks as if they were three old friends home from a night of boozing.
Pete tells Jack that he has to go see the captain. Captain Thomas tells Jack that his father died of cardiac arrest. Willow cries a bit. Top sergeant gives the lad a week-long furlough to attend the funeral. Willow asks Clell if it's still possible for him to get his father buried in Arlington Cemetery. Clell tells him yes.
The toy soldiers have a demonstration for the public. Wildman makes some terrible mistakes during the show.
Sam says she grilled Betty and learned that Clell divorced about three years ago. And he has a son. Clell says that he hasn't seen much of his son. Clell takes Sam home and they kiss outside her door. They continue kissing as they open the door and go into the apartment.
Clell puts sergeant's stripes on Willow. The three sergeants take turns hitting Willow's stripes with their right fists.
Willow arrives at Sam's place. He is a little early for the party, so he helps set the table for Sam. Meanwhile, the captain is balling out Clell because now his views about Vietnam have reached the other company commanders. The others now call Clell the "peacenik sergeant".
Clell goes to the Washington Post to take Sam out shopping for Persian rugs.
30 May, 1968. Willow writes a letter to Rachel. He says they have been very busy in the gardens. Clell's girl Sam got arrested in a march on the Pentagon. He also writes that he still doesn't know if Rachel has gotten any of his letters and he would love to hear from her.
One day Rachel shows up at Arlington Cemetery. Jack sees her, goes up to her and asks her what's she's doing here? She says her family has moved to Georgetown. Her father works at the Pentagon. Jack invites her out and she accepts. He borrows $50 dollars from Clell and then asks to use Clell's car. Clell gives the young man what he wants.
Sam and Clell are at an outdoor party and Clell really doesn't like the attitude of one of the radicals there. Clell calls him an asshole, the guy says he wants to fight Clell for that, he takes a swing at Clell and Clell really hurts the radical with some blows to the throat. A woman calls him a fascist pig. Clell tells the crowd to call an ambulance.
Clell comes home one day. Sam shows up at his door. She tells him that the radical fellow is not going to press any charges against Clell. Sam throws her arms Clell and tells him that she loves him. Clell tells her the same.
Jack picks up Rachel at her home. He speaks with her father, who doesn't seem to approve of the young man. Jack asks Rachel straight out if she still has feelings for him? She tells him to ask that of her when he is a civilian again. Rachel adds that her father is afraid that if she married Jack, she would be marrying beneath her and that would shame her father. She says her father told Jack he would get him into West Point, but he was never serious about that. Rachel goes on to say that she broke up with Jack because he is so gullible.
Rachel says that she loved Jack so much, but he made his choice by going into the military. Jack and Rachel leave the eating place before they have eaten anything. He stops at a phone booth and calls Clell. He asks Clell for permission to use his apartment. Clell says he will leave the key under the welcome mat.
When the couple gets to the apartment, Clell is there with the bad news that they have been called out for maneuvers and they have to go now. Clell begs for some time to talk to Rachel, so Clell lets them go into the apartment while he stands out in the hall. Jack says he told her in his many letters he wrote to her that he wanted to marry her. He would even be willing to leave the service, if that's what she wants. Rachel says she didn't open any of his letters because she was trying to forget him. He tells her he loves her and then kisses her. They leave the apartment.
One group of soldiers under Clell pretend to be the Viet Cong. They sneak up on the the soldiers playing soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The Viet Cong group embarrasses the Americans and Captain Thomas is furious at him. He complains to Goody about Clell embarrassing him and his company. The real problem, says the captain, is that now nobody can find Clell and his Viet Cong. Goody goes out and finds Clell. He sneaks up on him and acts like he is knifing Cell in the back of the neck. He asks Clell what the hell is he doing? Clell asks Goody to let him continue for 24 more hours because he is really teaching his men something about how to fight a war. Goody agrees to let him have 24 more hours.
Jack and Clell now capture Captain Thomas, sleeping on a cot. When they get the captain back to their home base, they remove the tape over his mouth. The captain says that the sergeant is not going to make him look bad in front of the other officers. He is going to tell them that Clell is the finest man he ever trained and he helped his captain show the army what's wrong with their training program.
The next day Goody balls out Sgt. Hazard. When Clell comes out after his being chewed-out, Jack tells him he should be back in Vietnam being a platoon sergeant for his men. He can teach those men how to survive in Vietnam. But Clell has had enough of death and dying in Vietnam. Jack doesn't seem capable of understanding Clell.
Rachel with Jack tells her parents that she is marrying Jack. Her father says he's sorry but he just can't let her do that. Rachel does not back down in front of his resistance.
Rachel and Jack marry. At the wedding reception, Sam and Clell dance together. Rebecca is there dancing with Goody. Then Clell dances with the bride, while Sam dances with the groom. Rachel's parents are at the wedding. Rachel gives her wedding bouquet to Sam.
In two weeks Jack is set to go to Officer Candidates School
Scenes from the fighting in Vietnam are shown.
1969. Jack writes Clell that in one month he will be out of OCS. He mentions that he hears a lot about the anti-war demonstrations. He says the war is tearing the country apart. Wildman and Sgt. Flanagan are both sent to Vietnam.
Jack and Rachel pay a visit to Clell and Sam. Goody and Rebecca are also there. They toast to Jack now being an officer. Jack tells them that in a couple of weeks he will be in Quang Tin Province, Vietnam.
More scenes of the fighting in Vietnam. Helicopters are evacuating the badly wounded men from the battlefield.
Goody and Clell are shocked to learn that Wildman has earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving his buddies in Vietnam.
Sam tells Rachel to cheer up. She has lived through a year of her husband being in Vietnam. And now he will be home in three weeks. She says that the husband of one of her friends says that her husband came home very different from the war. She adds: "Men come home crazy and broken and cold." At a dinner prepared by Rachel, Clell reads a letter from Jack to everyone at the table. He says that the Vietnam experience has proved to be much harder than he ever thought. When he gets back to the States, he wants to sit down and talk with Clell and Clell can help straighten him out.
Pete comes to Goody and tells him that there's a problem with Sgt. Hazard. They both rush upstairs where Clell is ripping his office apart. Jack has been killed. He will be grave 1644 in Arlington Cemetery.
Clell comes home to an already crying Sam. She tells him she knows already. Sam hugs Clell. He tells Sam that he and Goody tried to tell him about the war in Vietnam. Clell is really down on himself. He so wanted to be able to save at least one boy. Now he is thinking of going back to Vietnam. Sam doesn't want him to go back. Clell asks Sam if he is going to go to Vietnam, would she marry him before he shipped out? Sam cries and says: "Oh, yes." They hug each other and say that they love each other.
Clell is alone with the casket of Lt. Jack Willow. He tears off his combat infantry badge and puts it on top of the casket.
The funeral procession begins. Sgt. Hazard says a few words about Lt. Willow.
Back to the present. The firing squad of seven soldiers shoots seven volleys in a set of three into the air. The widow Rachel receives the flag. Taps is played by a bugler.
The film never takes us to Vietnam, but it tells us a lot about the war over there. For instance, some of the men are very cynical about the war, as is Sgt. Clell. Some veterans of the war most likely suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. This includes Clell who goes into some violent rampages. Clell never wants to go back to Vietnam. He has seen too many men terribly wounded or killed. He wants to find a new purpose in his life, so he takes on the new guy Jack Willow and treats him like a son. The sergeant major shares the father role along with Clell. Jack Willow is a lucky man. And then again he is not lucky for he wants to go to Vietnam to fight. And he wants to surpass his father, who was a master sergeant, by going to OCS. The sergeants want to protect Jack, but Jack welcomes the dangers of combat and there's not much the sergeants can do about that. They are two fathers worrying about their headstrong son who insists on taking a big chance with his life. When Jack marries Rachel, it is as if the fathers now have acquired a daughter. It's harder for them to relate to Rachel, but they do try, and they do fret over her. Thank goodness that both sergeants have wonderful girlfriends to see them through the often cruel vagaries of life.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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