Platoon: 25th Anniversary
May 24, 2011
While Platoon (1986) was certainly not the first film about the Vietnam War, it was one of the first to focus on the average foot soldier in an honest and authentic way. Oliver Stone’s film really put you in the jungle with these guys as only someone who was there could. The film has already been released several times on DVD and this new Blu-ray edition celebrates its 25th anniversary with several new extras but is this really the definitive edition?
Platoon focuses on the 25th Infantry, Bravo Company in September 1967 with new recruit Chris Taylor (Sheen) as the audience surrogate and our introduction to this world. We see the war through his eyes, from that first blast of bright light as he walks off the plane with other newbies and they see a collection of body bags. They are then taunted by a group of battle-hardened veterans heading home. That will be them some day…if they live long enough.
Stone quickly cuts to the jungle and immerses us in it – dense foliage that makes it hard to see more than a few feet in front of you, the sounds of birds and other exotic animals and the oppressive heat that you can see on the sweaty, tired faces of the soldiers. This is not easy terrain to navigate and Stone makes sure we know it. He shows just how hard it is to fight in the jungle with a night time ambush that goes bad. Everything happens so fast and so chaotic that it is hard to follow what is going on until it’s all over.
The film sets up a platoon divided into two factions: the dope smoking guys who just want to survive the war and go home and the beer-drinking lifers who actually like it there or, at the very least, believe that what they are doing is right. The leaders of these two groups, Sergeant Elias (Dafoe) and Sergeant Barnes (Berenger), are polar opposites that Chris gravitates towards and must ultimately choose between.
At that point in his career, Willem Dafoe was known for playing bad guy roles in films like Streets of Fire (1984) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and so casting him as a good guy in Platoon must’ve seemed like a gamble. Dafoe is excellent as a dedicated soldier who takes the time to teach Chris a few things in order for him to survive. It’s a very soulful performance as he acts as the platoon’s conscience. Elias cares about his men and wants to see them all go home alive.
In contrast, Tom Berenger had been known for playing lightweight, good guy roles but caught Stone’s eye with his layered performance in The Big Chill (1983). He gives an absolutely ferocious performance as an intense, imposing figure who rules his men with an iron fist. He’s a tough man who leads by example, strict and unwavering in his beliefs. Berenger hadn’t really done anything before this to suggest such intensity and his performance was a revelation and is still his best to date.
Platoon packs in a lot of stuff: botched ambushes, the destruction of a village, discovery of an underground bunker and a climactic, large scale battle that probably wouldn’t have all gone down in such a limited time frame but Stone isn’t interested in making a documentary. His is a dramatization of a composite of several events that gives the audience some idea of what it was like there and what these guys went through.
The film’s centerpiece features the frustrated and edgy platoon taking out their anger on a village by raping their women, killing their livestock and even some the inhabitants. It is at this point when the conflict between the two sides of the platoon boils over. It is a gut-wrenching sequence, even after all these years, full of anger and madness. Stone underscores what an impossible situation the war was and one, now in retrospect, that the United States had no chance of winning because they were so out of their depth. Platoon is even more poignant now that we are embroiled in another Vietnam of sorts over in Afghanistan with U.S. soldiers dying almost every day for what many argue are for all the wrong reasons. It makes Stone’s film even more relevant today than it was 25 years ago.
The 20th Anniversary edition of Platoon DVD had some impressive extras, most of which are included on this new edition with a couple of additions. The transfer is excellent, exposing some of the film stock’s limitations but nothing can be done about that. Any dirt and artifacts from the DVD version appear to be gone from the Blu-ray edition. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track is very good and for purists there is also the Dolby Surround 4.0 soundtrack.
There is an audio commentary by director Oliver Stone. He gives his personal reflections of his experiences in Vietnam and points out the autobiographical elements in the film, like how early on in his tour he was put on point just like Chris was. Stone also talks about the challenges of making Platoon on a low budget and working in a harsh, unforgiving environment. This track is filled with fascinating personal insights and is essential listening for any fan of the film.
Also included is a commentary track by the film’s military advisor Dale Dye, a retired Marine of 22 years with 30 months in Vietnam. He points out that the actors had been training hard for 14 days when the opening credits sequence was shot and were very tired making their reactions very real. Dye made sure that every actor had their own distinctive look and points out the authenticity of the uniforms. Best of all, he points out all the little details that made Platoon so true to what it must’ve been like there, things that veterans of the war would recognize instantly. This is a great track that is technical but also accessible and really makes you appreciate the amount of work that went into this film.
There are “Deleted and Extended Scenes” with optional commentary by Stone. Included is the first time Chris smokes pot; a speech about love and hate that pays homage to Night of the Hunter (1955) and that also gives Johnny Depp’s character more screen time; and some good exchanges between characters. Most interestingly, is an alternate ending for Barnes which Stone says he now wishes had been used.
“Snapshot in Time: 1967-1968” gives a historical perspective to the time period the film takes place in and puts things into perspective by exploring the origins of the conflict and how the U.S. got involved.
“Creating the ‘Nam” takes a look at how the filmmakers created the condition of Vietnam in the Philippines on a limited budget. It also examines the grueling shoot that drove Stone to exhaustion. Some highlights include a bit about how they created the village in the movie from scratch and did such a good job that locals moved in with no prompting!
“Raw Wounds: The Legacy of Platoon” examines the film’s legacy and how it gave veterans the dignity they deserved and allowed the U.S. to come to terms with the war. However, some veterans were upset at how they were portrayed in the film and were worried that people would come away from it thinking that they just smoked dope and tried to kill each other or innocent civilians.
“One War, Many Stories” features a group of vets talking about the movie after a screening and how it relates to their own experiences. These guys tell some fascinating stories that are in turn juxtaposed with Stone talking about his own experiences. Some of these men’s stories are quite moving as they are still quite affected by what they went through.
“Preparing for the ‘Nam” examines what basic training was like with vets talking about their experiences. It was tough but also taught them valuable lessons that helped them survive and bonded them with their fellow recruits.
“Caputo and the 7th Fleet” is a much-too brief interview with Philip Caputo, author of the celebrated Vietnam War novel, A Rumor of War. He talks about his experiences in Saigon towards the end of the war.
“Dye Training Method” is a brief featurette on military advisor Dale Dye with a focus on his boot camp experience at his company, Warriors, Inc.
“Gordon Gekko” is a superficial time waster where editor Claire Simpson reveals the origins of Gordon Gekko’s (from Stone’s Wall Street) name.
Perhaps the most glaring omission from the previous edition is “Tour of the Inferno,” an excellent, in-depth retrospective documentary that brought back a lot of the film’s cast who talk about their experiences making the film. This is a fantastic doc and if you own the 20th Anniversary edition, you might want to hold on to it. On a lesser note, also gone from the previous edition are photo galleries.
Finally, there are three T.V. spots and a theatrical trailer.