Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Tom Berenger (Sgt. Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt. Elias), Charlie Sheen (Chris Taylor), Forest Whitaker (Big Harold), Francesco Quinn (Rhah), John C. McGinley (Sgt. O'Neill), Kevin Dillon (Bunny), Reggie Johnson (Junior), Keith David (King), Johnny Depp (Lerner).
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
It's a more of a surreal opening to the film. Everything seems to be in a haze. The new guys are coming in to replace some of the guys who have been in Vietnam for awhile. Body bags are taken off carriers and put by the by the side of the plane. Christ Taylor is one of the new guys. He and his fellows pass a line of Vietnam veterans who tease the newcomers with such phrases as "new meat" an you guys are going to love Nam, but Chris notices a rather gaunt looking white man who passes by without saying a word, but his face revealing some of the pain that is to come Chris's way.
September 1967, Bravo Company, 25th Infantry, somewhere near the Cambodian border. Chris is already on patrol with his new buddies. Sgt. Barnes tells Taylor to get a move on. Taylor is about to fall over with exhaustion. Sgt. Barnes asks Taylor what the hell is wrong with him and says he's one simple son-of-a-bitch. To make things worse for Chris, ants are biting him. In contrast to Barnes, Sgt. Elias comes over to check on Taylor in a kind way. He says Taylor is carrying too much junk with him. He tells Taylor he will haul this stuff this one time but next time Taylor will have to check with him first before he goes out with so much junk.
A helicopter sets down and Chris and the other grunts go take the boxes off the helicopter. The black guys, Junior and Harold, tell Chris to get to digging his fox hole. Taylor is already beginning to regret coming to Vietnam. He says: "That is what this place feels like -- hell. I hate it already and it's only been a week. Some God-damned week, grandma. The hardest thing I think I've ever done is go on point. Three times, this week. I don't even know what I'm doing. A gook could be standing three feet in front of me and I wouldn't know it. I'm so tired." It says it's scary because the more experience soldier don't tell the new guys anything.. He adds: "I don't think I can keep this up for a year, grandma. I think I made a big mistake coming here."
Sgt. Barnes tells Sgt. Elias to go out on point. Sgt. Elias says it's O'Neill's turn to go, but O'Neill says absolutely not. Barnes reiterates that Sgt. Elias is going out, but then he tells O'Neill that his men can stay in, but he wants him out with Elias because they are short of good men. That's the last thing O'Neill wanted to hear.
Taylor is assigned to Tex and Gardner will go with Sgt. Elias. At night it rains a lot and Taylor has to lay out some of the Claymore mines. Taylor says that most of the guys are from small towns all over the United States. They are relatively poor with perhaps only two years of high school education behind them. And yet these men are fighting for the United States and its liberty. In the middle of the night Taylor is awakened for his turn at guard duty. He is given the device to set off the Claymore mines if needed.
Taylor awakes the black grunt Junior because it's now his shift. But Junior almost immediately falls asleep. Taylor suddenly jerks up from the ground and sees Junior fast asleep. He puts a hood over his head and tries to calm down. He thinks her hears and then sees an enemy soldier. they are coming his way. Taylor's heart is beating very strongly as he looks for the claymore mind detonator. One of the enemy steps on the line that detonates the claymores. Tex is hit and won't just the hell up. Junior says that Taylor fell asleep on his shift, but Taylor denies that. Barnes comes over and grabs Tex by the face and tells him to shut up and take the pain! The medic tries to save Gardner, but he dies while being worked on. Barnes tells the men to take a good look at Gardner, because if they don't got their shit together at all times out here, they could just as well be Gardner. He then singles out Taylor and Junior for not staying awake on ambush. Taylor says it wasn't him, it was Junior, but the other guys don't want to hear from Taylor. Elias tells Barnes that Gardener might still be alive if he had just a few days to learn something.
Taylor gets back at base from the hospital. O'Neill gives Taylor and some other guys latrine duty. King asks Taylor how did he get out here to Vietnam. After all, he looks like an educated man. Taylor says he actually volunteered for infantry, combat duty, Vietnam. He says he was thinking why should just the poor go fight in Vietnam, so he volunteered. King makes fun of Taylor saying what they got here is a real crusader. He says: "Shit! You got to be rich in the first place to think like that." He adds that everyone knows the poor are always getting fuck over by the rich.
King takes Taylor into a small bunker where the guys are smoking pot. Taylor hasn't smoked the stuff before and he gets a lot of razzing. Taylor is in the group heavy with minorities. Most of the white guys stick to the barracks and drink beer and liquor instead of getting high on marijuana.
New Year's Day, 1968. The guys come upon a recently abandoned Viet Cong camp. The camp fires are still burning. Elias goes into a tunnel system with a pistol and a flashlight. He finds an underground hospital. He continues moving forward and takes a shot at an enemy soldier in the next compartment. Two guys snooping around papers lift up a metal container and it explodes. The soldier who picked it up is killed. The unit has to move down to the river fast as a North Vietnamese unit is supposed to be in the area. The men were looking for King and now find him dead and trussed up like a scarecrow.
The men next come upon a village on which Sgt. Barnes wants to punish for what happened to King. The men were solidly behind Barnes on this thinking. Trigger Happy Bunny shoots one of the villager's pigs. Barnes forces women and children out from a hiding place, but then before everyone is out he throws a grenade into the hole killing a young boy. The women are all crying.
Taylor starts picking on what is obviously a retarded young man, but he's too hopped up to be paying attention to others. He pushes the guy around and then makes him dance by shooting down at the guy's feet. Of course, this type of harassment really keys up the natural born killer Bunny. Taylor starts crying over the incident. Bunny calls him a pussy and knocks the retarded man to the ground and starts mercilessly beating his face in with the butt of the shotgun.
Barnes gets a hold of someone to interrogate and gets himself all worked up. He is then egged on by the other soldiers to do something bad to the fellow. The old woman whose son Bunny killed now shouts at Barnes why are the Americans doing this to them? Why do they kill the pigs, burn the rice and kill villagers? Barnes gets really angry at the old lady and walks right over to her and shoots her in the forehead. Now other villagers start crying and complaining. The soldiers seem to want to kill the whole village now. Now Barnes threatens to kill the woman's daughter. The man says he doesn't know anything, but Barnes is predisposed not to believe him.
Finally, Elias comes and stops Barnes. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he says. Elias hits Barnes in the face with the butt of his rifle. The two sergeants now start fighting each other with everything they have got. The soldiers eventually get the two sergeants separated. Now, the Lieutenant starts speaking up to tell them to stop it. Elias asks: "Lieutenant? Why the fuck didn't you do something?" The lieutenant says he doesn't know what the fuck Elias is talking about.
Now they have orders from the captain to burn the village. On his way out Taylor stops several soldiers from continuing to rape a small girl. He calls them animals, but they say that Taylor doesn't belong out here in Nam. Now the army leads everyone out of the village and through the rice fields.
Elias reports the Barnes and Bunny incidents to their superior officer and he says he will look into it when they get back to base. But for now they have to cooperate because he needs all the help he can get in getting rid of the bunkers and tunnel complex in the forest. He tells both Elias and Barnes that they must call a truce between them for now. Both men agree to the truce.
The lieutenant tells Barnes not to worry about it because Elias won't be able to prove a thing.
Barnes has his followers and Elias has his. Taylor sides with Elias. Elias says to Taylor that they are going to lose this war.
Taylor speaks of a civil war in the platoon with half the men with Barnes and half with Elias. Walking through the jungle the unit comes under fire. Sgt. Warren is hit and so is Lerner. Elias tries to tell the lieutenant that he can take three men an flank the enemy. The lieutenant thinks it sounds too far fetched, but Barnes tells Elias to go ahead and do it. Taylor gets one of the enemy with a grenade. The lieutenant calls artillery fire down on the position ahead of them but the rounds are falling too short and killing the Americans.
Barnes walks deliberately over to the lieutenant and balls him out for getting their own men killed by American artillery fire. He says the lieutenant gave the wrong coordinates to the artillery guys.
Elias and three men including Taylor go on the flanking adventure. Meanwhile, Barnes orders a pull back of the main force. When the North Vietnamese move forward, the three buys open up on them. Crawford, however, gets hit. Barnes arrives and tells the three guys to retreat. He says he himself is going after Elias. Elias runs straight toward the enemy that is running straight at him. He kills a number of the enemy. But now Barnes is closing in on Elias. He see Elias coming towards him. He aims his weapon and shoots Elias several times. Taylor catches up with Barnes, but Barnes tells him that Elias is dead and there are gooks all over the place. He tells Taylor to get back to the church.
Taylor helps put the wounded onto the helicopters. As Taylor is evacuated he sees Elias still alive running away from the North Vietnamese soldiers. he is shot down, gets up and tries to run some more. Eventually he is killed. And now Taylor knows Barnes lied to him. He tells the other guys all about Barnes killing Elias. Taylor wants to "frag" Barnes, but the others won't go along with it. Barnes comes in and confronts the people at the meeting. He says Elias was a crusader but when the machine breaks down everything starts breaking down and he won't stand for that. Barnes tells the guys that they can kill him here and now. Taylor attacks Barnes, but Barnes gets the upper hand on him.
The unit is send back to where they were the day before. Taylor says it was like returning to the scene of a crime. Somewhere out there was the entire 141st NVA regiment and Taylor's unit is going to used as bait to lure the NVA toward them. King gets send home. Taylor wishes him good luck. O'Neill tries to work on Barnes to get him sent out of here on the chopper with King. Barnes says he can't do it because they need every man they can get. O'Neill virtually begs Barnes, but it does him no good.
The North Vietnamese surround and wipe out a squad sent out by the Americans. Now they head for the main lines of the Americans. Taylor and Francis get out of their hole just in time before an RPG hits their hole. Taylor goes charging after the North Vietnamese. Francis is inspired by his success and comes charging out after Taylor. Junior is bayoneted to death. Bunny is killed. The North Vietnamese overrun the American lines and get inside the perimeter. The commander tells the planes to bomb his position. Barnes is about ready to kill Taylor when the planes drop a bomb near Barnes. The next morning Taylor awakens and sees a deer near him. He picks himself up and starts walking. He picks up an AK-47 rifle and goes to look for Barnes. He finds Barnes. Barnes tells him: "Do it!" Taylor shoots him three times.
O'Neill survived by covering himself wit a dead man's body. Francis survives, but knifes himself in the leg so he can go home. Taylor survives. O'Neill is given command of second platoon. He is not happy. Taylor gets helicoptered to a hospital. As he leaves he says the many dead bodies below him. He says: ". . . those of us who did make it, have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know, and to try with what's left of our lives to find a goodness and meaning to this life."
"Dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Vietnam War."
This is a marvelous movie. It is also very important historically. It was the first very popular movie that portrayed war in a more realistic vein complete with blown-off limbs and men screaming and crying "like little girls." This is important because the generation of the Vietnam War were brought up on John Wayne movies where all the deaths were nice and clean -- a shot in the chest or the stomach with nothing hanging out or blown off.
The movie also catches the difficulty of fighting the Vietnam War. A great difficulty was not knowing clearly who was the enemy. This shows up in the soldiers shooting civilians.
The army made a big mistake by promising men that they would be rotated out of combat areas in one year. This meant that men tended not to form close attachments. And close attachments are what make for good fighting units: men who have become friends fighting hard to protect each other. With tenuous attachments to one another, the newcomers to a unit were regarded as "fresh meat" and would be send out on the most dangerous assignments.
A great scene in the movie is when Charlie Sheen arrives in Vietnam on the airplane tarmack and we see the contrast between the naiveté of the just arriving troops with nice and clean faces and uniforms with the frazzled faces and unkempt uniforms and faces of the veterans leaving Vietnam. In this encounter, Sheen gets his first inkling that this is not going to be a joy ride ahead. The faces tell it all.
The morale of the troops is tenuous. They are divided by the same things in their units as that which divides the nation. And there are drugs, sex, and rock-n'-roll in Vietnamese just as there is back home.
There is a sub-plot between the good sergeant (Willem Dafoe) and the bad sergeant (Tom Berenger), which is interesting, but not as interesting as the portrayal of the disturbing atmosphere of Vietnam as a whole.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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