“Man, that boy was bagged and tagged the minute they cut his orders to this place. They should’ve just shot him at home.”
As far as Vietnam War movies go, the big ones are Apocalypse Now and Platoon. With good reason, they are the two that got plenty of critical acclaim and box office at the time, and have endured well in the years since. But there’s another Vietnam War movie that I saw once, on TV in the early 90s, that I still remember vividly. I would have been maybe 12 or 13, so probably not old enough for the horrific stuff the movie addressed and depicted. But in the more than 20 years since, I have never forgotten the impact of this movie. Which is why I think it’s unfair that Casualties of War isn’t on the same pedestal as Coppola and Stone’s Vietnam classics.
Riding on a metro train sometime in the late 60s, Errikson (Michael J Fox) sees a young Vietnamese woman and starts flashing back to his days in ‘Nam. Three weeks into his first tour of duty, he’s saved during a firefight by his sergeant, Meserve (Sean Penn). Like the rest of his platoon, Meserve has been hardened by the war, and while Errikson is a little put off by their actions, he can’t help but realise that their ruthless attitude is a big part of why they have survived so long.
But his initial instincts are proven right when Meserve and the others (including John C Reilly as Hatcher and John Leguizamo as Diaz) take an innocent Vietnamese village girl hostage for no other purpose than their own pleasure. Soon Errikson is torn between what he knows is right, and what could very well mean dying in the jungle if he decides to stick to those convictions.
When I look at Brian De Palm’s filmography, I see a career built on heightened style and over the top visuals. Movies like Scarface, Blow Out and The Untouchables. These movies all work on a certain level of cool. Well, levels of cool for the times they were made. I’d never call Scarface of Blow Out timeless. But it’s that history of style that makes me so impressed with his restraint on Casualties of War. He knows this movie is too serious and too important to be slathered in artifice. It would have to be the only De Palma movie I’ve ever seen where the word ‘gritty’ is appropriate.
Watching this 20 years after my last viewing, Casualties of War didn’t just hold up, it hit even harder than I remembered. I remembered it for one harsh moment that takes up maybe less than 10 minutes of its running time. Watching it again, I can see how important the buildup is to that moment, and even more so, how important the fall out is after it.
What I saw as shocking, almost for the sake of being shocking back then, now works so much better as a whole. And more now than ever, I think Casualties of War should be up there with Apocalypse Now and Platoon when talking about the great Vietnam War movies.