Sunday, April 27, 2014

ANTIQUE or CLASSIC: The Fighting 69th



       “The Fighting 69th” was released in 1940, just in time to get us fired up about WWII.  Along with “Sgt. York”, the pair formed a potent propaganda / patriotic duo.  It must have been tough to be a Nazi leaving those theaters.  You just wait dude, we don’t want to have to kick your ass, but if we get into this fight…  “The Fighting 69th” was directed by William Keighley (this was his only war movie, thank goodness).  It was a huge box office hit so it must be a great movie, right?
                The movie opens to the strains of “Garry Owen” (oh please let this movie be as good as “They Died With Their Boots On”).  A crawl dedicates the film to the 69th Regiment and the Rainbow Division.  The Rainbow Division was famous for its multi-ethnicity and the 69th was all-Irish so mixed message much?  The opening scenes are at Camp  Mills for training.  We meet four historical characters:  the heroic Col. William “Wild Bill” Donovan (George Brent), the saintly Father Duffy (Pat O’Brian), the poet Joyce Kilmer (Jeffrey Lynn), and worst soldier in regimental history Jerry Plunkett (Jimmy Cagney).  Actually, Plunkett is a fictional character.  He is from Brooklyn so I don’t have to tell you he’s an asshole.  Before even being sworn in he has already been insubordinate, arrogant, and cowardly.
                Training camp montage.  Check.  Fight with another unit.  Check.  In this case, the 69th gets into a brawl with the 4th Alabama because the Rebels kicked their butts at Marye’s Heights in the Battle of Fredericksburg in the Civil War (true story) over fifty years ago.  Hopefully by 1940 audiences in the South were not rooting for the Germans in the movie.  The fight gives Donovan the opening to give a speech about how we’re all Americans now.  Tactical training.  Check.  Lame soldier barrack’s banter.  Check.
                They unbelievably bring Plunkett with them to France!  He’s still an asshole, but he’s Father Duffy’s project.  Saving this guy’s soul will really get the notice of St. Peter.  They go on a long march through the mud to reach the front line.  This was based on the famous Mud March of eighty miles and the movie gets the grumbling right (not the G-Rated nature of it, of course).  In the first combat, Plunkett panics and fires off a flare which brings down an incredibly accurate artillery barrage which collapses a dugout killing a bunch of men.  (Based on the Rouge Bouquet incident featured in a Kilmer poem.)  He also throws a grenade that lands in their trench killing some more Americans.  Plunkett runs away.  Irredeemable, right?  Fragging-bait, correct?  Tell that to Father Duffy who apparently feels that saving Plunkett’s soul is more important than the numerous lives he has taken and will take.
Bet on the bag

                Donovan decides to volunteer Plunkett for a dangerous patrol.  He may be a great leader, but as a judge of character…  Surprise, Plunkett turns coward and gets more men killed including Joyce Kilmer (the “Trees” poet, for Christ’s sake).  Now even Father Duffy wants to kill that son of a bitch, right?  Wrong.  But the U.S. Army does.  It’s going to be hard for Plunkett to find redemption while under arrest and scheduled for execution.  But this is Hollywood-hard which means distinctly possible.  Guess the rest and don’t be afraid to think inside the box.
Duffy and Doofus

                If I was coming out of a 1940 theater, I would probably have been fired up and thought it was the greatest movie since “The Lost Patrol”.  I also would have wanted to convert to Catholicism (if I wasn’t already a Catholic).  However, since it is now 2013 and there is no world war looming on the horizon, I find I am less than enthralled with “The Fighting 69th”.  Plus I’ve seen an awful lot of good war movies and this ain’t one of them.
                You have to give the film credit for portraying three significant figures from WWI and being pretty true to the people.  Father Duffy was thrilled with his depiction so we can’t fault the movie for canonizing him.  The movie is very religious.  At one point, Donovan kneels before him and Duffy says a prayer for the unit.  Donovan gets his due as one of the great combat leaders of WWI.  He did lead patrols like the film shows and was inspirational.  I cannot vouch for him giving speeches similar to the film.  Joyce Kilmer became the most famous American poet/warrior as a result of the movie.  His death was not as depicted.  He was killed by a sniper on a scouting expedition.  As far as Plunkett is concerned, I guess he was a composite of five guys:  1.  a gangster wannabe who washed out in boot camp  2.  an insubordinate wiseass private  3.  a coward who ran away at the first shot  4.  a soldier executed for killing several comrades  5.  a brave warrior.  Just kidding, he was totally a Hollywood creation.  In the real world, one of his comrades would have killed him early on.
Kilmer:  "What rhymes with asshole?"
                The movie has some positives.  The trench and dugout sets are authentic looking.  The combat is above average, but certainly not anything to get excited about.  There is not a lot of it.  This is not an action film.  The artillery bombardments are noisy and explosive.  No man’s land is semi-nightmarish.  You won’t be on the edge of your seat unless you are sitting in a theater in 1940.  The climactic battle is strong and death-filled with one very cliché demise.  The acting is good except for the inevitable scene-chewing by Cagney.  The plot is a bit of a mess.  The movie does not know whether it wants to be the story of a unit (like “Glory”) or the story of Father Duffy (like “Mister Roberts”) or the redemption tale of Plunkett (like “The Red Badge of Courage”).
                In conclusion, once again we have a popular movie that is very much of its time.  It’s a curio.  It was an important movie that helped prepare America for involvement in another world war.  With that said, there is no way you can watch it in the 21st Century and think you are watching a great movie.  Put it in a time capsule, not your DVD player.

grade =  C

 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

BOOK / MOVIE: Incident at Muc Wa / Go Tell the Spartans (1978)



                “Go Tell the Spartans” is a Vietnam War film released in 1978 (the same year as “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter”).  It was directed by Ted Post and is based on the novel Incident at Muc Wa by Daniel Ford.  The movie was shot in California with a shoe-string budget.  It is set in South Vietnam in 1964 during the period when the U.S. was still in an advisory role.  “In 1964, the war in Vietnam was still a little one – confused and far away.”
                Maj. Barker (Burt Lancaster) is in command of a base at Panang.  Barker is a war-weary veteran of WWII and Korea who is just putting in time.  He is cynical and not interested in “playing the game”.  His executive officer Capt. Olivetti (Marc Singer) is ambitious and hoping to advance his career by earning a Combat Infantry Badge. (They thought small back then.)  They command a motley group of ARVN and peasant farmers (who he refers to as “gooks”).  They get some help (whether they want it or not) from some new arrivals.  Barker interviews each as a form of character background.  Sgt. “Oleo” Oleonowski (Jonathan Goldsmith) is a tightly-wound veteran who has served well under Barker in the past.  Lt. Hamilton (Joe Unger) is a shavetail who wants to “see the elephant”.  Cpl. Abraham Lincoln (Dennis Howard) is a drug addicted medic.  He is put rooming with the alcoholic Oleo.  (At least in “Platoon” the dopers and drunks were segregated.)  Cpl. Courcey (Craig Wasson) is a draftee who volunteered for combat in Vietnam.  Barker is irritated, yet intrigued by Courcey.
                Gen. Harnitz arrives to order Barker to establish an outpost at Muc Wa.  Muc Wa had been a French outpost that was wiped out in 1954.  Harnitz’s rationale is that since the French lost Muc Wa and lost the war, logically if the U.S. wants to win the war, we have to hold Muc Wa.  When Barker points out that the site is not strategically important, Hartnitz counters:  “I don’t give a shit what the actual conditions are, the book says do it”.  He also mentions that just because the French were defeated there means nothing because we are the USA - we don’t lose.
                Barker sends a motley crew of Americans, ARVN, and some militiamen to rebuild and garrison Muc Wa.  Hamilton is suffering from dysentery and unsure of command, so Oleo is actually calling the shots (not that unrealistic for Vietnam).  Courcey is turning out to be a bleeding heart liberal and insists on befriending a refugee family and bringing them inside the wire.  Their Vietnamese guide Cowboy (Evan Kim) claims they are Cong.  How can you know?  Muc Wa includes an old French cemetery with a placard that reads:  “Stranger, tell the Spartans that we remain here in obedience to their orders.”  There are 302 French buried there.  (What a coincidence – there were 300 Spartans killed at Thermopylae.)   
                The unit sends out patrols and lays ambushes at night.  Lt. Hamilton gets killed trying to rescue one of Oleo’s men.  Oleo snaps over this and commits suicide.  Meanwhile, back at the base, Barker is assigned a nerd who will manage the “Incident Flow Priority Indicator”.  This MacNamaraish scheme will determine which outpost is statistically most likely to come under attack.  Barker is skeptical, but when Muc Wa rises to the red level, he takes steps to avoid disaster.    He sends his glory-seeking exec to take command.  To work up a relief convoy, he has to wheel and deal with the local South Vietnamese commander.  He bribes him with howitzer shells.  When asked if the U.S. might ask for the rounds back, Barker correctly points out that the U.S. never asks for anything back.
                A human wave night attack is barely defeated by the Muc Wa defenders.  It’s fairly good action and the body count is high.  It helps when you don’t have to reload.  They fire mortars that land ten yards away.  More is coming and so is Barker until Hartnitz turns around his convoy because the book now says to cut your losses over an unimportant outpost.  He does want the white guys evacuated so Barker choppers in.  When Courcey learns that the ARVN, militiamen, and refugees are on their own, he refuses to abandon them.  He’s a good American.  Guess who stays behind with him when the chopper leaves?
                The movie is distinctly low budget (Lancaster put up $150,000 to finish production) and that is the main reason it got lost in the glut of 1978 Vietnam War movies.  It has a made-for-TV feel for it.  This is emphasized by the soundtrack.  Filmed in California, Muc Wa does not look like it is in a jungle setting.   The cast (other than Lancaster) is low rent and it shows in the acting.  If it was not for Lancaster being great, the movie would not even be a blip.  He has one of his best performances.  He is totally comfortable in the role and perfectly portrays a veteran officer whose career was blunted by a sexual transgression (which he describes comically at length).  Because of that weakness for “pudenda” (as he quaintly calls it), he is forced to take orders from lesser men like Hartnitz.  He also does not give a crap and is not beyond threatening a general if necessary.  The rest of the acting sometimes drifts into terrible.  Howard, in particular, gets to play high and sing the Gettysburg Address from a tower until a mortar round thankfully shuts him up, but does not kill him.  Boo.
                The film tries hard to show how we were nuts to get stuck in Vietnam.  It is the rare Vietnam movie that is set in the advisory period.  Part of the reason it did not make a splash in 1978 had to be that audiences did not want to know how screwed up Vietnam was before we even started fighting.  The movie is very anti-war and it is not a feel good movie.  It is sincere and it deserves credit for being pretty realistic.  For instance, aside from Courcey (who is depicted as a naïve chump – the family turns out to be Cong), all the Americans look down on the Vietnamese people.  They are referred to as “slopes” and “gooks”.
               The book was written by a war correspondent who was in South Vietnam in 1964.  He later wrote a nonfiction account of America's early involvement in the war.  The movie is substantially different than the novel mainly in the characters.  Most significantly, screen writer Wendall Mayes beefed up the Barker role to attract a big name and it lured the 65 year old Lancaster.  In the book, Barker is like an office manager doing his job with little enthusiasm.  There is no druggie medic.  Olivetti is more of a womanizing jerk who is full of himself.  Hardnetz is a buffoon who is obsessed with doing things by the book  and there is no back-story creating dysfunction between him and Barker.  Barker is cowed by him which is very different than in the movie.
                The book is much more female-friendly and Mayes’ decision to remove two major characters is puzzling.  A radical journalist named Rebecca goes all the way to Vietnam to try to reconnect with Courcey (and to be hit on by Olivetti).  Granted, this is ridiculous, but we do get the hippie outlook and some unrequited romance.  The other female is a sexy teenage girl (called “Butterfly”) in the refugee family who Ski (as Oleo is called in the book) marries and gets pregnant.  They shack up (literally) at Muc Wa.  This relationship starts creepy and ends sweetly.  In the movie, Oleonowski is totally against allowing the family into the outpost.
                The main character in the novel is Courcey.  He is much more multi-dimensional than in the movie.  He does start off quoting from the book in his opening interview with Barker in the movie and he does sympathize with his Vietnamese charges.  In the book, he grows into leadership and becomes a good warrior.  He is the actual commander of Muc Wa and gradually comes to feel possessive.
                The novel has the luxury of going into more detail.  The time frame is much longer.  Muc Wa does not even exist when they arrive and they have to build it from the ground up.  The outpost is much larger than in the movie.  In fact, the Viet Cong capture half of it before the climactic battle.  Ski has time to develop a relationship with Butterfly.  Courcey has time to develop a relationship with an elderly militiaman called Corporal Old Man.
                The book is more satirical than the movie.  For instance, Gen. Hartnetz visits Muc Wa and Barker orders them to stage an attack to show off the defenses.  Courcey takes a unit out into the bush, but they do not do the show assault because a larger Viet Cong unit happens along and attacks the outpost.  Hilarious. 
                The book and movie make a good pair.  They are both low budget, but sincere.  Neither are great, but they are worth experiencing.
BOOK =  B
MOVIE = B

Thursday, April 17, 2014

THE CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH

Here are the other rounds:

ROUND 1

Boys in Company C (11) vs. Casualties of War (6)
84 Charlie MoPic (7) vs. We Were Soldiers (10)
Bat-21 (9) vs. Go Tell the Spartans (8)
Platoon (5) vs. Siege of Firebase Gloria (12)
The Deer Hunter (4) vs. The Green Berets (13)
Full Metal Jacket (3) vs. Platoon Leader (14)
Apocalypse Now (2) vs. The Tunnel Rats (15)
Hamburger Hill (1) vs. Under Heavy Fire (16)

ROUND 2

Hamburger Hill (1) vs. Go Tell the Spartans (9)
The Deer Hunter (4) vs. Platoon (5)
Apocalypse Now (2) vs. 84 Charlie MoPic (7)
Full Metal Jacket (3) vs. Casualties of War (6)

ROUND 3

Final Four #1
Final Four #2





CHAMPIONSHIP
 
 
MATCH
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
VS.
 

 
 
The survivors of this intense competition are “Platoon” and “84 Charlie MoPic”. One is a blockbuster that won the Best Picture award and the other is on the other end of the spectrum. One had a substantial budget, acclaimed director, and famous actors. The other has none of this. One is the best known Vietnam War movie. The other is virtually unknown. This is David versus Goliath! As per the tournament rules, the final match-up is a summary of all the categories (because there is no way I can think of four more) and to ensure I do not show favoritism in the finals. So here it is:


ACTING                                            Platoon = 10                 MoPic = 9
PLOT                                                 Platoon = 9                   MoPic = 9
COMBAT                                          Platoon = 9                   MoPic = 8
REALISM                                         Platoon = 8                   MoPic = 10
CHARACTERS                               Platoon = 9                    MoPic = 9
BEHAVIOR                                     Platoon = 9                    MoPic = 9
WEAPONS AND TACTICS          Platoon = 8                    MoPic = 8
ACCURACY                                    Platoon = 8                   MoPic = 8
CLICHES                                         Platoon = 7                   MoPic = 8
DIALOGUE                                     Platoon = 9                   MoPic = 9
IMPLAUSIBILITIES                     Platoon = 8                   MoPic = 9
EDUCATIONAL VALUE              Platoon = 9                   MoPic = 9

FINAL SCORE

PLATOON = 103
84 CHARLIE MOPIC = 105


ANALYSIS

I have to say truthfully that I am shocked by the results of the tournament. I know that seems fake because I set the rules and do the reviews, but I seriously did not see this coming. When you look at the field, two things were apparent from the beginning. First, there are some great Vietnam War movies and several have strong claims for being the best. They also have fan bases that insist they are the best and their challengers suck. Second, there are some movies in the field that had no chance of winning. In between, there was a little movie called “84 Charlie MoPic”. I first saw this movie on PBS more than thirty years ago. I managed to tape it on VHS and even showed it to my classes occasionally. I had not seen it for decades. Thank God for You Tube! If ever there was a forgotten gem, this is one. I hope this tournament encourages people to view this movie. (I have posted the You Tube link below). By the way, I personally think “Platoon” is the best Vietnam War movie. I also think Florida had the best basketball team this year.

 
 84 Charlie MoPic
 
 











HAMBURGER HILL (1) vs. UNDER HEAVY FIRE (16)

 



VS.
 
 
 
 
 
***  THIS MATCH SLIPPED THROUGH THE CRACKS.  I BET EVERYONE WAS WONDERING WHO HAD WON THIS MATCH.

 
 
 ACTING

“Hamburger Hill” has a cast of actors who were unknown at the time, but some were at the start of significant careers. The cast is likeable and does not perform like a bunch of rookies. They are a bit too sincere in spots and their line readings sometimes indicate they do not understand the slang they have memorized. Although there was no Dale Dyeish “boot camp”, they do not look like actors playing soldier. Dylan McDermott is good as the sergeant who leads by example on and off the battlefield. His contract specifically mentioned “don’t touch the hair”. The standout in the cast is Courtney Vance as Doc. He chews a little, but it is a memorable performance. It was the first significant film role for both as well as the underused Don Cheadle. The only weak performance is Steven Weber as the platoon sergeant. B

“Under Heavy Fire” has a similar cast of unknowns, but they will remain that way. The “big” star is Casper Van Dien as the troubled, but ruggedly handsome Capt. Ramsey. You know you are in trouble when you wish that Casper would have given the others acting lessons. Carre Otis, as a documentary film bunny, succumbs to his charms. She is also ruggedly handsome. The rest of the cast should have gone to acting camp. They are typically sincere, but fortunately they save the foaming for the end. D

FIRST QUARTER SCORE
Hamburger Hill = 8
Under Heavy Fire = 6


PLOT

HH is a battle film that has two distinct parts. The first half deals with character development and tutoring the audience on what the soldiers had to go through. We are supposed to relate to the five FNGs and empathize with them. The second half is the payoff with the battle. Intense action interspersed with soldier campfire banter and bitching. The expository moments advance the theme that the home front can kiss these soldiers’ asses. The movie is clearly anti-anti-Vietnam War (as opposed to pro-war). The plot is the standard “who will survive?” variety. Don’t get too attached to the men. B

UHF has a daring plot. It starts twenty years after the war with a group of vets returning to Vietnam with a documentarian in tow. Meeting them there is their ex-commander who went from “Most Likely to Succeed” to “Most Likely to Make Us Bleed” during their time together. The first scene introduces us to a friendly fire episode for which Ramsey is blamed. The film effectively uses flashbacks to gradually flesh out the arc that led to the unit dysfunctionality. This builds to … a reenactment of the friendly fire incident! The movie closes poorly. B

HALF TIME SCORE
Hamburger Hill = 16
Under Heavy Fire = 14


COMBAT

HH has a high quantity of combat. It reminds a lot of “Pork Chop Hill”. There is an intense opening combat scene and then a patrol mission, but the core of the movie is the sequence of frontal assaults up the titular hill. The violence is graphic and the deaths are random and unpredictable. There is some pretty gory stuff, including decapitations. The film manages to avoid being repetitive. Probably only “We Were Soldiers” has higher quality and that could partly be explained by the higher budget. A

UHF does a good job with combat considering the production values. One thing you can be sure of – if it’s a flashback, there is going to be some action. The incidents portrayed are a greatest hits compilation. For instance, there’s a patrol with the trio of mortars incoming, spider holes, and a sniper. There is a briskly paced tunnel scene. The big set piece is in Hue during the Tet Offensive. The urban combat is pretty good and leads to an atrocity that sets up the full circle return to the friendly fire incident. There is little shooting from the hip and few hands thrown up in the air deaths. B

THIRD QUARTER SCORE
Hamburger Hill = 25
Under Heavy Fire = 22


REALISM

HH is one of the more realistic Vietnam War movies. The soldier behavior and camaraderie is on target for the army midway through the war. The bonding versus racial tensions is well played. The only discordant note comes from the dialogue put in the actors’ mouths. The screenwriter uses every slang term ever uttered in the Nam to the point that the dialogue feels forced. The battle is one of the more famous ones from the war and the movie is solid in its realistic depiction of it. One could complain about the exaggerated mortality rate, but that’s a war movie sort of thing that will always be with us. Besides, the actual battle did have a high casualty rate (just not Hollywood high). B

UHF has some problems with reality. Some of the combat scenes evidence either an ignorance of combat or more likely a disregard of reality for entertainment purposes. For example, when confronted by an NVA tank, Ramsey calls for a Skyraider to drop its fuel tank which the unit fires at causing an explosion that destroys the target! The behavior of the main characters both in the war and upon their return is the biggest problem. They are too melodramatic and one dimensional in response to the stresses they encounter. This leads to the laughable reenactment scene which degenerates into a cartoonish standoff. By the way, when you are shot an inch above the heart, you don’t run around unaffected like Ramsey does. D

FINAL SCORE
Hamburger Hill = 33
Under Heavy Fire = 28


ANALYSIS

This match was a lot closer than I anticipated. I had never seen “Under Heavy Fire” before and assumed that it’s seeding at #16 meant it was the worst movie in the tournament. It by no means is a good movie, but it does take a different approach to the war. Unfortunately, friendly fire was a fact of life in Vietnam (“Hamburger Hill” has a scene where American helicopters fire on their own men) and to use an incident as the framework for a military mystery was intriguing. Of course, with the low budget and the poor actors, the idea did not match the execution, but it was a nice try. The categories used for this match-up did not lend itself to the strength of UHF. It uses a lot of POV footage which is overdone, but still effective. As far as HH, it may not deserve the #1 seed (which is based on generic movie reviewers), but it is still one of the more highly thought of Vietnam War movies. It has no spectacular elements like “Apocalypse Now”, “Full Metal Jacket”, or “Platoon”, but it also does not have some glaring weaknesses. It is a balanced movie overall.
 
 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

HAMBURGER HILL (1) vs. PLATOON (5)



VS.
 
 
 



CLICHES
“Hamburger Hill” has several classic war movie clichés. Some are particular to the Vietnam War. There is a scene that emphasizes the cluelessness of the media about the true nature of the war. The soldier who is short is doomed to die before he can enact the joyful homecoming that he brags about. Two standards are updated for the war. A character receives a “Dear John” letter, but his girl friend advances one of the film’s themes by explaining that she is jilting him because of her anti-war college friends. There is the trite appearance of “Hanoi Hannah” who makes the obligatory reference to their unit. We also get the guy who talks about the car he is going to buy back in “the world”. Even though the movie focuses on the five replacements, that does not stop it from killing them off. On the other hand, the unit is not overtly heterogeneous and the grunt who shows off his girl friend’s picture does not die. C

“Platoon” also has several classic war movie clichés. In fact almost immediately we get a double dose with the fat guy ensuring his doom by showing off a picture of his girl. The movie helped establish some uniquely Vietnam tropes. The LT is green and incompetent. The sergeants run the platoon. There is a psycho in the unit who enjoys the killing. The incompetent leader calls in the wrong coordinates, resulting in a friendly fire incident. In one refreshing twist, the short-timer (King) is evaced before the final battle. The unit is heterogeneous, but not in a barracks identification scene sort of way. C

FIRST QUARTER SCORE

Hamburger Hill = 7
Platoon = 7


DIALOGUE

The dialogue in HH could be described as stilted and it tries too hard to sound authentic to the way the grunts talked. I have read a lot of eye-witness accounts and found several of the lines and the sincerity with which they were uttered to be laughable. There is a monologue by Worchester about his experience back home that is painful to listen to because it is so melodramatic. On the positive side, for those who have not read a lot on the war, you do get the greatest slang hits. C

“Platoon” was written by a combat veteran and although Stone can be faulted for excesses in many of his movies, his dialogue is restrained in this film. He interweaves slang into the soldier speak in a natural way. There are some fine dialogue driven scenes like when Elias explains the evolution of his war view to Taylor. The companion scene with Barnes in the doper’s bunker nicely bookends this. There are some great lines and they are spread a out among the characters. Some are critical of Taylor’s narration, but I feel that although flowery at times, it does add to the theme of lost innocence. A

HALF TIME SCORE

Hamburger Hill = 14
Platoon = 16


IMPLAUSIBILITIES

HH does not have any glaring implausibilities. The most ridiculous moment is a key moment in the film. Worcester recounts his return to the states and the litany of abuses he encountered. It is a montage of urban myths about the treatment of returning vets. Hippies throw dog poop on him, a hippie is shacked up with his wife, and everyone he meets is hostile. This is gross exaggeration pushed by the anti-anti-war movement. The film fulfills the short-timer must die by putting McDaniel on point. This would have been highly unlikely in reality. Similarly, when Duffy takes a bullet in the shoulder, he is not sent back off the line. The movie offers a lame excuse for this. As is typical for most war movies, artillery fire support is called in much too close to the friendlies. B

Much of the implausibilities in “Platoon” are designed to advance the main plot theme of the dysfunctional platoon dynamics. The whole idea of a platoon divided not only between two sergeants, but divided into dopers and boozers is clearly a plot device. Resolving this with two fragging incidents is pure Hollywood. However, most of the incidents that develop the theme are plausible, including the atrocity. B

THIRD QUARTER SCORE

Hamburger Hill = 22
Platoon = 24


EDUCATIONAL VALUE

You can learn a few things from HH.
1. The Chieu Hoi program encouraged VC to defect to the ARVN. (In the movie, the defector is NVA and he is helping the U.S. Army.)
2. The NVA were nicknamed “Nathanael Victor” as opposed to “Charlie” for the VC.
3. The NVA were respected by the Americans and were worthy adversaries.
4. Contact with a single enemy would bring an American unit to ground.
5. New guys (FNGs) were not welcomed with open arms.
6. There were racial tensions in units, but the closer to the front line, the more the men put color behind them. There was an unofficial segregation of the races in the rear areas.
7. The Battle of Hamburger Hill is pretty accurately portrayed, but the movie flubs a teachable moment by not including a post script pointing out that the hill was abandoned soon after its bloody conquest. Probably purposefully because this historical fact clashed with the theme of flogging the anti-war movement. B

Although not based on an actual battle, Stone insists the incidents and characters in his film are based on his Vietnam experience. Taken as just a tutorial on the Vietnam experience, “Platoon” teaches a number of things to an audience not well-read on the subject.

1. Replacement soldiers (i.e. Cherries) were treated like dirt.
2. Sergeants ran the platoons in many cases.
3. Every soldier knew how many days that they had left in their tour.
4. If a Vietnamese civilian ran, it was assumed they were the enemy and you could shoot them.
5. Villages were burned if they were considered sympathetic to the Communists.
6. Some soldiers injured themselves to get out of combat.
7. Volunteers felt they were fighting for our society and freedom.
8. Latrine waste was burned using kerosene.
9. Drug and alcohol use was common in rear areas.
10. Young Americans sometimes committed atrocities due to stress or revenge.
11. The Vietnam War gave some sociopaths an outlet. A

FINAL SCORE

Hamburger Hill = 30
Platoon = 33


ANALYSIS

This is my fourth March Madness tournament and once again the #1 seed does not win. I suppose this is partly explained by using “Rotten Tomatoes” for the seeding. My theory is that generic movie critics look at war movies differently than I do. I’m a lot more specific to what makes a movie good within the genre. That is not to say that HH is not a very good movie. It deserved to be highly seeded. On the other hand, “Platoon” was criminally seeded at #5. Four Vietnam War movies better than “Platoon”? No way. I am aware that the film is polarizing and its victory will upset people, but I think that I am on firm ground here. Fire away.

Monday, April 14, 2014

THE FINAL FOUR


The Final Four is set.

Hamburger Hill (1)
Platoon (5)

Full Metal Jacket (3)
84 Charlie MoPic (7)

Two very intriguing matchups! Hopefully I will have time in my crowded weekend to post the next round. Thanks to everyone who has stuck around this long. I appreciate it.

Here is a preview of the categories:
Cliches
Dialogue
Implausibilities
Educational Value
 
 
VS.
 
 
 
CLICHES
I went back and reviewed my old post on war movie clichés (which I need to update) and found few that apply to “Full Metal Jacket”. One that appears is the main character (Joker) is an intellectual who is above all the militaristic macho behavior and is snarky. And, of course, the fat guy dies (albeit in a unique way). The drill sergeant is an a-hole. Not one, but two, BFF couples are decoupled (Joker/Cowboy & Animal Mother/Eight Ball). The noncombatant who wants to get in the s*** (Joker and Rafterman) learn that its not called the s*** for nothing. However, for the most part the movie is not only free of clichés, but even flips some standard tropes. For instance, Joker does not turn Pyle into a competent soldier. There is no redemption arc for Pyle. There are no boot camp enemies that become buddies. The boot camp unit and the Lust Hogs are not overtly heterogeneous. The movie did contribute to purely Vietnam War movie clichés: A member of the unit is a psycho who revels in killing (Animal Mother). B

“84 Charlie” has a few clichés. The unit is pretty heterogeneous. There is a wiseacre and a hick. Another cliché is one of the BFFs dies, but not saving the other. It has the Vietnam trope of the sergeant running the unit instead of the Lieutenant. However, in this case the LT is stereotypically green, but not incompetent. We do have a short-timer (Easy), but he does not die. Most of the characters that die are not predictable. B

FIRST QUARTER SCORE

Full Metal Jacket = 8
84 Charlie MoPic = 8


DIALOGUE

Obviously FMJ is most remembered for the foul-mouthed DI. His dialogue is the one thing everyone remembers about the movie. Since R. Lee Ermey was a drill instructor, the words spewing out of his mouth are authentic to the type. The rest of the dialogue in the film is not bad, it’s just forgettable in comparison. The soldiers have the rough camaraderie of Vietnam grunts. Joker’s first confrontation with Animal Mother is typical of this. The Vietnam locker room slams are amusing. The movie does not go overboard on the Vietnam slang. One weakness is the narration by Joker is flat. B

84 CM has surprisingly good dialogue for a low budget film. This is important because the movie is very dialogue driven. The soldiers speak like American grunts. It is natural sounding. Their jokes are appropriately low brow. The dialogue is peppered with Vietnamisms, but it does not lay it on thick in a showy way. They use the catch-phrase “there it is” without making a big deal out of it (compare this to Hamburger Hill’s use of “it don’t mean nothing”). The interviews with the men are heart-felt, but not schmaltzy. The screenplay was written by a vet (who later wrote “Courage Under Fire”). A

HALF TIME SCORE

Full Metal Jacket = 16
84 Charlie MoPic = 17


IMPLAUSIBILITIES

FMJ: 1. The same prostitute that Joker encounters in Da Nang shows up in Hue. Hue during the Tet Offensive – the go-to place for prostitutes. 2. That sniper is an amazing shot with a standard AK-47. 3. Were the Marines that desperate for recruits to put up with Pyle all the way through boot camp? For a Kubrick film, there is not too much that is implausible in the film. B

84 CM: 1. The sarge points his M-16 at the LT. This is the only thing I can think of. A

THIRD QUARTER SCORE

Full Metal Jacket = 24
84 Charlie MoPic = 26


EDUCATIONAL VALUE

Things you can learn about the Vietnam War from FMJ: 1. Marine boot camp was mentally and physically abusive (but not as bad as the movie depicts). 2. A “blanket party” could be used to punish a troublesome recruit. 3. “Stars and Stripes” had a party line that it pushed. 4. American soldiers had a low opinion of the ARVN. 5. Civilians were executed by the Communists in Hue. 6. American soldiers in Vietnam would go to great lengths to rescue wounded comrades. 7. Hue was destroyed in the process of retaking it. 8. Vietnamese prostitutes were “honny”. B

Things you can learn from 84 CM: 1. Soldiers would duck tape their gear to cut down on noises. 2. The film shows various booby traps like punji stakes. 3. Americans called the VC “Chuck”. 4. Officers wanted combat duty to enhance promotion. 5. Soldiers used C-4 to heat their MREs. 6. Marijuana use was discouraged in the bush. Most importantly, the viewer gets a good picture of what a LRRP was like. A

FINAL SCORE

Full Metal Jacket = 32
84 Charlie MoPic = 35


ANALYSIS

This upset came down to the fact that 84CM is a better story about the Vietnam War and the soldiers that fought it. Placing the audience with them from a POV standpoint was genius. That one cinematography stunt makes up for all the big budget fireworks Kubrick throws at us. That is not to say that FMJ is not a great movie. Some of the things that make it a near masterpiece make it an unrealistic account of the war. It is the kind of movie experience you hope to have when you settle into your seat in the multiplex, but it does not take you into the screen like 84 MoPic does.
 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

FULL METAL JACKET (3) vs. CASUALTIES OF WAR (6)



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CHARACTERS
“Full Metal Jacket” has one of the iconic characters in Vietnam War movies. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, as played by R. Lee Ermey, is mesmerizing. He is the main reason the first third of the movie is so strong. However, I do need to point out that Ermey was basically playing himself and many of his lines came directly from the novel “The Short Timers”. “Pyle” is another iconic character. His evolution from sad sack to boot camp graduate to psycho is fascinating and chilling. The rest of the characters are fine, if unspectacular. Modine’s “Joker” has the right amount of cynicism, panache, and wit to anchor the last two thirds. Having a writer for “Stars and Stripes” get involved in the fighting in Hue was a grand idea. Of the “Lust Hog” squad, Cowboy is a likeable and sympathetic character, but “Animal Mother” is the standout. B

“Casualties of War” is a character driven movie. There are only six significant characters in the film and each is distinct. Although based on a true story, it is obvious Hollywood differentiated the characters to service stereotypes. Still, it’s an interesting mix. Fox’s Eriksson is appropriately naïve and principled. Clark is the psycho creep meant to represent young American boys corrupted by the war. Brule is the country hick. Diaz is Eriksson without the guts to resist peer pressure. The problem is Penn’s Meserve. His eccentric performance drains the character of credibility. His sudden change from savior to sociopath is loopy. C

FIRST QUARTER SCORE

Full Metal Jacket = 8
Casualties of War = 7


BEHAVIOR

FMJ is not meant to be a realistic take on soldier behavior, but it actually is fairly authentic. The boot camp scenes were accused of going over the top and were one reason why the Pentagon declined to cooperate with the film. However, in reality Marine training was harsh and not only verbally, but physically abusive. The military also objected to the language which is ridiculously prudish since the grunts in the film talk very much like soldiers. The behavior of Joker and Rafterman as correspondents feels right. The camaraderie of the men conforms to the macho attitude of American boys in Vietnam. The banter is not forced like in “Hamburger Hill” and the lusty humor is characteristic of the U.S. military for most of the 20th Century. The behavior of the Lust Hogs in Hue seems spot on to me. B

COW deals with an actual atrocity, but the incident was atypical. It is unfair to lightly assume American soldiers would kidnap a girl for sexual purposes and with the intent of murdering her at the end. This was also extremely unlikely behavior for a LRRP. The behavior of the men is an aberration. In fact, this was one sorry ass patrol. If the movie was not based on an actual atrocity, I would be tempted to complain about the caricatured depiction of American soldiers by a clueless liberal. C

HALF TIME SCORE

Full Metal Jacket = 16
Casualties of War = 14


WEAPONS AND TACTICS

The weapons highlighted in FMJ are authentic, with a fairly significant exception. In boot camp the recruits use M-14s and it is the weapon used on Hartman. However, in Vietnam the actors are armed with M-16s, not the appropriate M16A1s. Animal Mother is armed with a M-60 and although shooting from the hip was rare, it was not unbelieveable. It does seem unlikely that Joker would have been designated to fire an M-60 during the sapper assault on his base, but it’s possible. As far as tactics, the actions by Americans in Hue leave something to be desired. When the unit, supported by tanks, is entering the city and encounters fire, they proceed forward without calling in artillery fire on the suspected enemy position. This would have been unlikely considering the tendency of the Americans to plaster any threats, especially after casualties had resulted. The duel with the sniper has a truer feel to it. You would expect the men to go to great lengths to rescue a wounded comrade even if he was clearly sniper bait. C

COW gets the M16A1s right. The squad also has an M-79 (Eriksson) and an M-60 (Clark). In an early scene, Eriksson hits an incoming grenade with is M-79. Unbelievably, this incident actually happened. As far as tactics, the movie has some problems. This is apparent from the beginning when Eriksson is sent off to defend part of the perimeter by himself and armed with an M-79. The foliage is thick and it is ridiculous to think he could have done anything with that weapon. The movie covers the tactics used on the mission fairly closely. The problem is that the tactics shown in the film are not true to a normal LRRP mission. These guys go stumbling around in the jungle like a herd of elephants. At one point, Brule shoots at a water buffalo and Meserve does not seem to mind (at least in the book, he scolds him). Their “love shack” is laughably indefensible. The final “battle” is pure Hollywood and far from the actual incident. What the Hell is the gunboat doing there? D

THIRD QUARTER SCORE

Full Metal Jacket = 23
Casualties of War = 20


ACCURACY

FMJ is not meant to be historically accurate. It is based on a novel, but Hasford was a correspondent in Vietnam and supposedly based the book on personal experiences. The Joker character is apparently based on him. The boot camp segment is realistic as to Marine boot camp in 1967. If anything, the movie underplays the physical abuse. (The DI in the book is more brutal.) The “Stars and Stripes” reporting strategy is accurate. Da Nang was one of the targets for the opening Tet attacks (note the fireworks in the background –nice touch). As far as Hue, civilians were executed by the Communists. There was a sniper problem as part of the urban house-to-house combat although the movie does not refer to a specific incident. Last, but not least, there were hookers in Vietnam that offered to sucky sucky for ten dollars. My only real problem is I doubt the sniper could have been that accurate using a standard AK-47 from that distance. C

COW is based on an atrocity investigated by a reporter for the New Yorker magazine. I read the resulting book and the movie is very hit and miss. The opening scenes that are designed to establish Meserve as a hero who cracks are patently Hollywoodized. He did not save Eriksson’s life, thus creating a dilemma for Eriksson later in the movie. However, the kidnapping and rape are accurate up until the murder which was not nearly as dramatic and action packed. The fire-fight that transpires parallel with the murder is way overblown. In actuality (true to Vietnam), the skirmish resulted in the search for one KIA. Boring! The court-martials are accurate although the cover-up is clichéd. Oh, and there was no fragging incident. B

FINAL SCORE

Full Metal Jacket = 30
Casualties of War = 28


ANALYSIS

This was closer than I anticipated although “Casualties of War” has its fans. I call them Brian DePalma fans. It is a good little movie and tells a story that needed to be told. Watching it reminds one of how Hollywood takes interesting stories and makes them more interesting by playing fast and loose with the facts. Did I mention John Reilly’s character was added? Ironically, “Full Metal Jacket” does the opposite by taking a fictional story and making it less entertaining than the source material. Even though the screenplay could have been better, it is still an outstanding film. It is uneven, but its strengths were enough to defeat a pesky underdog. It will be interesting to see if its weaknesses cost it in the next matchup.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

APOCALYPSE NOW (2) vs. 84 CHARLIE MOPIC (7)

 
VS.
 
 


CHARACTERS
“Apocalypse Now” has some strong characters. Two are in the top ten Vietnam War movie characters – Willard and Kurtz. Willard is the burned out assassin who is questioning his avocation. Kurtz is the Pattonesque commander who is obsessed with surfing. Kurtz is the classic scene-stealer and Willard is the rock that the story buffets. The crew of the patrol boat are distinct characters and likeable, but none grab your attention. On the other end are Kurtz and the photojournalist. Kurtz could have been a mesmerizing figure, but Marlon Brando’s lethargic performance drains the character. The same happens with Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist as the actor plays him as the opposite of lethargic. C

“84 Charlie MoPic” is a heterogeneous small unit movie. It has only seven characters with speaking roles. Each character is given a distinct personality and there is little stereotyping. The strongest characters are OD and Easy. OD is the tough as nails sergeant who cares deeply (in an alpha male way) for his men and is very averse to strangers messing with his unit dynamics. Easy is the humorous radio operator who is short not only in time left but in his tether. It is noteworthy that the LT is honest about his promotion quest and starts out incompetent and ends up growing into leadership. The others all have their moments in a movie that is intimate. A

FIRST QUARTER SCORE

Apocalypse Now = 7
84 Charlie MoPic = 9


SOLDIER BEHAVIOR

“Apocalypse Now” is not meant to be a realistic portrayal of soldier behavior. Bizarre would be the best way to describe much of the behavior. Willard seems to behave as an operative would and the crew of the boat are typical of young Americans thrust into a war they do not understand. However, everyone they run into is not typical. Anyone familiar with the USO shows knows that the soldiers did not riot when they saw a sexy woman. At no time in the war did American soldiers toting suitcases wade out to a patrol boat (heading deeper into dangerous territory) to escape from their post. Oh, and no soldiers surfed deep in VC territory. I’ll give it a default C because it is supposed to be bizarre. C

“84 Charlie MoPic” is one of the best movies when it comes to soldier behavior. The dialogue is natural and is not filled with slang the screenwriter found in a Vietnam Soldier’s Dictionary. The viewer is on a long range patrol with the squad and we see and hear a realistic depiction of that kind of mission. The bonding of the men is true to the situation. OD and Cracker are best friends even though they are of different races. Each character represents an archetype well. The only false note is ODs belligerence toward the LT. A

HALF TIME SCORE

Apocalypse Now = 14
84 Charlie MoPic = 18


WEAPONS AND TACTICS

“Apocalypse Now” is unique in centering the movie on a PBR. The armament displayed is accurate for a patrol boat in Vietnam. The crew uses the twin Browning .50 calibers (Lance) as well as the shielded .50 cal (Chef). There was also a mounted M60 that Mr. Clean is firing when he is killed. In the ville assault, the Hueys (belonging to the Philippine Army) are armed appropriately. The movie does a good job of depicting the variety of weapons available on Hueys. We see the M-6E3 weapons system, a mini-gun, the M3 Aerial Rocket Artillery, among others. The infantry are predominately armed with M-16s, but the curved clips should not have been so prevalent. There is one notable use of the M-79 grenade launcher by The Roach to silence the gook in the wire. As far as tactics, it’s not that kind of movie. The ville assault is ramped up on steroids. A napalm strike would have been called in to silence the incoming fire on the surfers, but it would not have been F-5s. (Obviously the Pentagon did not provide appropriate air craft for the film.) B

“84 Charlie MoPic” was written by a Vietnam veteran, but I could not find out anything about his experiences. The weaponry is fine. Cracker carries a shot gun and a sniper rifle. Hammer has the “pig”. Pretty Boy has a M-79. The rest are armed with M-16s. The movie is tactically sound. The squad is dropped off by chopper and then hump through the boonies. Their noise discipline is wanting, but the movie is dialogue driven so it’s understandable. They discover a NVA base camp and call in artillery. They set up their own booby traps for the egress. They rush a group of VC blocking their path after discussing the options. This makes sense. B

THIRD QUARTER SCORE

Apocalypse Now = 22
84 Charlie MoPic = 25


ACCURACY

Francis Ford Coppola once claimed his movie was a realistic view of the war. He could not have been serious. Although clearly fictional, very little that happens in the movie could actually have happened in the Nam. The central premise of a rogue colonel with his own private army is not even loosely based on anyone. The most inaccurate scene is the bridge sequence. The panicked Americans trying to escape and the whole premise of the bridge being destroyed and rebuilt each day is ludicrous. C

“84 Charlie MoPic” is not based on an actual LRRP mission, but it does adhere to a typical mission. The goal of locating an enemy base camp fits one of the roles assigned to these patrols. Having the veteran sergeant take charge instead of the new LT is realistic. The sniper incident fits enemy sniper tactics. The decision to call in a fire mission and then diddy mao is accurate. B

FINAL SCORE

Apocalypse Now = 30
84 Charlie MoPic = 33


ANALYSIS

I am a big fan of “Apocalypse Now”. It is a flawed masterpiece and a great movie in spite of its flaws. With that said, it is not a great Vietnam War movie. It is Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” placed in a Vietnam setting. The surrealistic approach used by Coppola in several scenes makes for mesmerizing viewing, but pulls it further away from reality. “84 Charlie MoPic” could not be more different. It is amazingly good for such a low budget film and the no name actors are much better than anyone could have expected. The movie feels right and the POV style really works well. You feel like you are on the mission and care about the men more than your typical “who will survive?” film. This result will appear to be a huge upset, but not to those who have seen this obscure gem of a movie.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

THE DEER HUNTER (4) vs. PLATOON (5)



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CHARACTERS
The Vietnam War sections feature only two characters but they are iconic. Mike (DeNiro) was born to lead and was in his element in the Nam. He comes up with the plan to save the trio from captivity and then tries to hold together the group afterwards. DeNiro is perfect in the role and the character represents the guys who cannot be blamed for us losing the war. As tough as he is, he comes back damaged goods. The other dominating character is Nick. Christopher Walken won a Best Supporting Actor award for his searing performance. Nick is the PTSD poster boy. They represent two extremes in a movie that is not noted for subtlety. The problem is the movie tells us nothing about the characters from enlistment to captivity. B

“Platoon” is also dominated by two characters – Elias and Barnes. Elias is the disillusioned older brother and Barnes is the alcoholic uncle. However, it is definitely an ensemble piece. The roles run the gamut of soldier types. In that respect it reflects the standard small heterogeneous unit with Taylor playing the cherry who has to learn quickly to survive. His character arc is the central outline of the film. The movie has several other memorable characters – the psychotic Bunny, the ass-kissing O’Neill, the stolid Rhar. Repeat viewings reward because some of the characters are indistinct at first. The key to the film is the division of the platoon into the competing cliques of the dopers and the boozers. Although a bit heavy-handed, the use of the two factions is a useful metaphor for the hawks and doves. A

FIRST QUARTER SCORE

The Deer Hunter = 8
Platoon = 9


BEHAVIOR

It is problematical to discuss TDH in terms of soldier behavior because when we first see Mike, Nick, and Steven in Vietnam they have been there for several months and are immediately captured. The movie is not interested in portraying the soldier experience. It does a seemingly good job depicting the behavior of typical young males from a steel town before and after their experience (provided their experience is uniquely horrible). I’m going to go with a default C for this one. C

“Platoon” was lauded for its realistic representation of Vietnam soldiers when it was released. The praise was too strong, but the film deserves a lot of credit for being one of the best tutorials on grunts. There are many things the viewer can learn about soldier life from the film. Some examples are: the treatment of new guys, the use of drugs in rear areas, the role of sergeants. Most importantly, the movie depicts the different ways soldiers reacted to stresses. The camaraderie and banter is not forced like in other Vietnam War films. A

HALF TIME SCORE

The Deer Hunter = 15
Platoon = 18


WEAPONS AND TACTICS

As with the behavior category, TDH is hard to grade here. There is a very brief segment where Mike is participating in either attacking or defending a village. He uses a M2 flamethrower to roast a NVA regular. That seems an unlikely weapon for him to use. The soldiers that arrive soon after, including Nick and Steven, are all armed with M16A1s. As far as tactics, there are none shown. This would be an appropriate place to mention that the enemy tactic of forcing captives to play Russian roulette for sport was bull crap. D

“Platoon” has a variety of weapons as would be typical of a platoon. Most of the men are armed with M16A1s and King has a “Pig” (M-60). One messup has the sergeants armed with the Colt Model 653P in an apparent attempt to arm them differently than their charges. This model was not used in Vietnam. The movie does a good job featuring Claymores. Tactically, the movie has several scenes that show a variety of tactics. The night ambush is fine. The search and destroy that results in the location of the tunnel and the subsequent activities in the village fit the war. Sending the platoon back in as bait to make contact with an enemy force and having them walk into an ambush is true to the war. The big battle at the end is similar to several in the war and includes a “broken arrow” reference. B

THIRD QUARTER SCORE

The Deer Hunter = 21
Platoon = 26


ACCURACY

TDH is totally fictional and it is more of a character study than a war movie. The scenes set in Vietnam have some accuracy problems. I already mentioned that there is no evidence that the VC forced their captives to participate in Russian roulette tournaments. In fact, there is little evidence that Russian roulette was played even in the anything goes atmosphere of Saigon. Not to mention that Nick would have been playing for years by the time Mike returns during the fall of the capital. D

“Platoon” is also fictional, but supposedly semi-biographical from Oliver Stone’s experiences in the 25th Infantry. Some of the vignettes are supposedly based on incidents that he witnessed or had happen to him. The most that can be said is that everything that happens in the film probably did happen to some platoon at some time. It’s the accuracy of the portrayal of the soldier experience that makes the movie accurate. B

FINAL SCORE

The Deer Hunter = 27
Platoon = 34


ANALYSIS

This is an upset only to Rotten Tomatoes reviewers. Keep in mind that most critics reviewed “The Deer Hunter” as a movie, not a Vietnam War movie. It is undoubtedly a cinematic masterpiece, but as a war story it has weaknesses. It tells you very little about the Vietnam War and some of what it tells is false. It is much better as a home front movie which means the categories that I have chosen were not its strengths. I questioned whether it should have been in the tournament to begin with but included it because I could not get some more obvious choices (like “A Rumor of War”) and it is hard not to include one of the most famous Vietnam War movies. On the other hand, “Platoon” is still the Vietnam War movie for most of the public. Both films won the Best Picture award (the only Vietnam War films to do so), but I think it is clear that “Platoon” is the superior film.