Oliver Stone – Biography
Born on the Fourth of July
Heaven and Eart
Oliver Stone is probably one of the most controversial film directors in Hollywood. His films - like JFK or Natural Born Killers - often receive enthusiastic praise as well as fierce criticism. A subject that frequently reoccurs in Stone's work is the Vietnam War. Stone, who is a veteran of the war, wrote and directed three films that directly deal with the conflict and which he calls his "Vietnam trilogy": Platoon, (1986) Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (1993). Apart from those, many of his films make references to Vietnam, most obvious JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995) and to a lesser extend The Doors (1991).
This essay focuses on the three films of the Vietnam trilogy. To what extend do they represent the truth about the realities of the war and how are they influenced by the director's own experiences as a GI in Vietnam?
First I will give a brief Biography of Oliver Stone, followed by a chronological discussion of the envisaged films with reference to the questions presented above. Due to the large nature or this topic, I will only broaching some of the numerous aspects and interpretations of the films.
Oliver Stone - Biography
Oliver Stone was born on September 15, 1946 in New York City. He went to New York's Trinity School in 1957 and later to Hills School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He attended Yale University where he studied liberal arts but, in 1965, dropped out after only one year. He applied for a position as an English teacher at the Pacific Institute in Saigon in the same year and was accepted. He arrived in Vietnam in June 1965 at the age of eighteen and stayed at the Institute for two terms. The next year, Stone returned to the U.S. He lived in Mexico for a short time and wrote a novel about his time in Asia. In 1967, he joined the US Army. At that time, he thought that it was his duty to fight for his country and against communism: "...I had a serious dose of patriotism. I believed in the country, believed in the ideals, believed that the communists were undermining us everywhere." He served 15 months in an Infantry division, where he was injured. However, he received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star awards for his service.
When he returned to his home country in 1968, his views had changed. The Vietnam War had left its mark on the twenty-two year old, as it had on so many young Americans. The horror of the war had washed away his patriotism and his ideals. He later used his experiences in Vietnam as the basis for Platoon, the film's protagonist, Chris Taylor, representing Stone's alter ego.
In 1968, Stone attended the New York Film School where Martin Scorsese was one of his teachers. Completed his studies, he earned his living by writing screenplays, working as a taxi driver and xerox messenger.
In 1973, he directed his first movie, called Seizure, which was a horror film. The break-up with his first wife and an uncertain financial situation, however, brought him to a low point in his life. Then, in 1976, came to terms with his Vietnam experience which resulted in the writing of the screenplay for Platoon. But it took another ten years until Stone had the opportunity to bring his script to the screen.
"I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we
fought ourselves, and the enemy was in us..."
The story of Platoon centers on the Bravo Company that is deployed in the jungle near the Cambodian border. Very quickly we learn that the platoon is split into two groups, each led by two different sergeants. Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), head of the "juicers" (the GIs who drink in their spare time) is a highly effective combat machine. He is depicted as the survivor of countless battles, as exemplified by the scars on his face. Barnes is an unprincipled killer who would do everything to win the war and he is convinced that it will be won if only everybody would behave like him. In contrast, Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), leader of the "heads" (those who smoke pot), although as experienced in combat as Barnes, has retained a sense of humanity, trying just to survive the war. In a conversation with Taylor he says that he the U.S. are going to lose the war. He is almost a saint-like character, which is emphasized at the beginning of the film when he is seen carrying his rifle crosswise over his shoulders, his posture eluding to the image a crucified Jesus.
As the film progresses, the differences between the two groups grow bigger, culminating in the village-scene and the fight between Barnes and Elias. This scene also shows Taylor shifting between the two poles of 'good' and 'evil'. First, he turns mad in one of the huts shooting at a crippled Vietnamese, though not killing him. Shortly after, he behaves human and heroic again when he saves a Vietnamese girl from being raped by some of the GIs.
The tensions between the two groups, and especially their leaders, increase further when the captain of the platoon announces an investigation of the shooting. During the next ambush, Barnes shoots Elias. We see Elias, hunted and finally killed by the Vietnamese, finally succumbing to death in a praying pose, an image that further supports the earlier impression of him that viewed him as a saint. When Taylor kills Barnes in a later battle, this constitutes the solution of the protagonist's inner struggle "...killing the Barnes in himself."
Platoon is by far Oliver Stone's most autobiographical film. Not only are the characters of Barnes and Elias based on GIs he met in Vietnam, also most of the ambush scenes originated from the director's own experience. The film was praised by critics for its realism and its exact description of the soldier's every-day-life in the war. Apart from his own experiences, Oliver Stone had another Vietnam War veteran, Captain Dale Dye, as technical advisor. Therefore, it can be said that the film shows us the war through the eyes of the ordinary soldier.
However, the film was also criticized, because of perceived flaws, especially its depiction of the Vietnamese forces. Apart from the fact that they are barely visible throughout the film, heir brutality is emphasized when the platoon finds one of their comrades, tied to a tree and his throat cut. In addition, the omission of all political and military contexts aroused some criticism. Neither the historical circumstances that led to American involvement in Vietnam are mentioned nor is the military strategy questioned. The village scene suggests that atrocities against civilians were single incidents and not part of an overall strategy. But there is no further elaboration on that point.
 Biographical dates from: N. Kagan (1995): The Cinema of Oliver Stone, New York: Continuum Publishing Company, pp. 13-28 and J. O'Brien: Oliver Stone: Biography, at: www.geocities.com/Hollywood/2682/, accessed 10/5/00
 P. Blauer (Dec 1986): Coming Home, New York, cit. in: N. Kagan, op. cit., p. 15
 Chris Taylor in Platoon, dir. Oliver Stone, 1986
 S. Mackey-Kallis (1996): Oliver Stone's America: "Dreaming the Myth Outward", Boulder-Oxford: Westview Press, p. 72
 P. Attanasio: Review of 'Platoon', at: www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Highrise/3361/, accessed 12/5/00; D. Cannon: ' Review of Platoon', at: www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Highrise/3361/, accessed 12/5/00
 D. Hart: Responses to War: An intellectual and cultural history: Oliver Stone, Platoon (1986), at: chomsky.arts.adelaide.edu.au/person/Dhart/Films/ Platoon.html, accessed 12/5/00
 N. Kagan, op. cit., p. 106; M. Klein: Historical Memory, Film, and the Vietnam Era, in: L. Dittmar; G. Michaud (eds.) (1990 ): From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, London: Rutgers University Press, pp. 24-29
- Quote paper
- Magister Artium Steffen Blatt (Author), 2000, To what extent does Oliver Stone's Vietnam Trilogy represent the truth about the realities of the war?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/10039