“Casualties of War” is Brian De Palma’s entry into the Vietnam War movies competition. It was based on an actual incident known as “the incident on Hill 192” which occurred in 1966. De Palma wanted to make the movie after reading Daniel Lang’s article in The New Yorker in 1969. Lang later turned the article into a book entitled “Casualties of War”. The movie was filmed in Thailand where the local cuisine ravaged the cast. The bridge used in the climactic scene was part of the Japanese Burma railway system of River Kwai fame. The budget was $22 million and the box office was $19 million. The movie was a hit with most critics and is considered by some to be one of the better Vietnam War films.
The movie opens with a night patrol in which PFC Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) falls partly into a Viet Cong tunnel and has his about-to-be-stabbed life saved by his Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn). Eriksson is a cherry who wants to be friendly with the Vietnamese civilians in spite of what the veterans tell him. Their point of view seems to be confirmed when Meserve’s best friend “Brownie” is killed when a farmer throws a grenade while the squad is relaxing near a “friendly” village. Back at base camp, Meserve outlines a mission to scout a Viet Cong camp. He proposes they make a side trip to a village to acquire a Vietnamese girl as a sex slave. Eriksson is not on board for this, but the other members of the squad go along with it. Clark (Don Patrick Harvey) is Meserve’s henchman. He is a bitter ass hole who hates “gooks”. Hitch (John C. Reilly) is a hick who is easily manipulated. Diaz (John Leguizamo) is a new addition who just wants to get along.
They kidnap a girl and take her with them. They set up in an abandoned hootch and proceed to rape her. Each takes a turn with Diaz participating due to peer pressure, but Eriksson refusing in spite of threats from Meserve and Clark. The next day they locate the Viet Cong camp and set up an observation post to call in an air strike and a gun boat. Meserve decides the girl must be killed. The resulting atrocity leads to Ericksson bringing charges against the other members of the squad. A court-martial results.
|Thuy and Fox react to Penn's performance|
Michael J. Fox does an outstanding job playing the naïve, moralistic Eriksson. It is his best performance in my opinion. John C. Reilly (his first film), Don Patrick Harvey (playing his usual typecast bad guy), and John Leguizama (his second role) are solid. Thuy Thu Le is remarkable as the doomed Oanh (it was her only acting credit). Plus we get the bonus of Dale Dye in a fiery take on ass-covering brass. The only problem is the scene-chewing of Sean Penn as Sgt. Meserve. The performance has been praised, but not by me. His hammy portrayal of the villain is distracting. (See the poster.) He plays Meserve as a retarded bully and made the “actor” decision to vocalize him as such. Oscar please! Imagine a movie where he is the weak link in a cast with three comedians in their first substantial dramatic roles. His emoting of faux grunt slang is the worst thing about the movie. At one point he spouts the familiar “this is for fighting, this is for fun” but gets the hand gestures backwards! This is typical of a script that seems to throw in grunt slang to establish realism, but comes off as trying too hard and has Hollywood actors mouthing words they obviously don’t understand. Meserve refers to an enemy ambush as a “mad minute”, for instance. (For those not familiar with Vietnam War slang, a "mad minute" was when an American unit fired all its weapons into the bush for a minute.) More bizarrely, when they locate the enemy camp Hitch proclaims “there’s a bunch of them cruel-hearted little people.” Huh?
|Penn dreaming of his Oscar|
Although the soldier talk is lame, the rest of the script is powerful and the movie tells a story that needed to be told. In fact, the story was so powerful that the movie could not have been made until well after the war. De Palma adds some military justice to combat to produce a movie that is similar to “Paths of Glory” in that respect. It is not in a league with that classic, but it does tell a true story well. The cinematography is what you would expect from De Palma. He uses deep focus, odd angles, and off center shots. The rape scene is especially well done as a stationary camera from mid distance gives the outside looking in perspective. The music is orchestral with a lot of pan flute and surprisingly no Vietnam era tunes.
The movie does not avoid some common Vietnam movie clichés. We get the required death of the clueless cherry and the authorities trying to cover up the atrocity. One of the unit is looking forward to going home soon when he is killed. The movie would have seemed even more clichéd if it wasn’t based on a true story. The movie does track the book fairly well until the obligatory Hollywood insistence on a big set piece battle to satisfy combat junkies. The enhancements are acceptable because the movie does bring to the screen a story that needed to be told. The Eriksson character was a real hero even though he does not fit the usual war movie template of killing the enemy in heroic ways. In a war like Vietnam, more should be made of the heroism of the soldiers who did not succumb to the corruption of that war. Unfortunately, although De Palma obviously was trying to make a statement about that corruption, he dilutes his message by not adding a post-script about the Army’s wrist-slapping handling of the war crime.
Is it going to crack my 100 Best War Movies? Probably not. It is a must see movie and well done, but it is only in the middle of the pack of Vietnam War movies.
GRADE = B
Thuy Thu Le > Sean Penn