(This post has been published previously at PassionforCinema, as part of my series on Brian De Palmna).
Quite often when i go through some of the best anti war movies that have been made, i can’t help noticing one thing, in a vast majority of the cases, the anti war movies come out after the actual war is over. I take a look at some of the more well known anti Vietnam war flicks, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and then i see that all these movies have been released after the end of the war, post 1975. Even when anti Vietnam war protests were raging across the US, and many Hollywood stars voiced their opposition to the war, there were actually no significant anti Vietnam war dramas comming out from Hollywood. The only Vietnam war drama released around the time was John Wayne’s propagandist The Green Berets, which tried to drum up public support in favor of the war. Is it due to the fact that Hollywood was afraid of adverse audience reactions, some kinda backlash? Then again i see the slew of movies about Iraq in recent times,In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, Jarhead, Redacted this while the war in Iraq still shows no signs of an end. Was it that Hollywood finally took up the courage to take a stand? Were the stridently anti war postures of Sean Penn, George Clooney, Jane Fonda, Nick Nolte having an effect? Would want to think so, but a catch here, most of these movies started to come, only in the later half when the war went horribly wrong, the American public’s mood turned against it, more against the Bush Govt’s mishandling of the situation. One more interesting thing i notice is that most of Hollywood’s anti war dramas center around Vietnam and now Iraq, rather than WW2, barring some like Catch 22. Again i feel its cause Vietnam and Iraq, make it easier, both of them wars in which the US has lost badly, not too popular with the public, so easier to weave an anti war message around them. Just some thoughts in the head, as i started to draft out my take on Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War.
The movie starts off with the opening credits proclaiming it to be a true story based on an account by reporter Daniel Lang for the New Yorker in 1969, incidentally the period when the Vietnam war was it’s peak. The factual story was about a group of American soldiers taking a teen Vietnamese girl as captive and then subjecting her to gang rape and murder. Now even considering that what we will be watching would be based on real events, and the ending would be tragic, and even as we prepare ourselves mentally to handle it, what follows on the screen, for the next couple of hours, is shattering and shocking. De Palma’s movie is not just about the war, soldiers breaking down, but also raises uncomfortable questions on masculinity, helplessness and cowardice. It is very rarely that you see strong male characters in Brian De Palma movies, most of them time they are either conflicted internally( Raising Cain, Dressed to Kill) or wimpish( Body Double) or just helpless to prevent tragedy. It was there in Blow Out, where John Travolta is not able to save the woman he loves, and its here in Casualties of War too, where the newbie private PFC Erikkson( Michael J Fox) finds himself a helpless witness to the horrifying tragedy unfolding before his eyes. A tragedy that comes to him in a flashback when he chances on a young Vietnamese woman in the subway, who reminds him of the central figure in the tragedy.
That is where we get to the villian of the piece, Sgt. Tony Meserve( Sean Penn), whose character in fact actually starts out on a heroic note. In a highly charged up combat scene, that is somewhat typically De Palma, with explosions, graphic violence, tracking shots, Meserve comes back and saves Erikkson who falls halfway into an underground tunnel. Actually this is where the ambiguity starts, Meserve seems the typical war hero, the kind who would put his life on the line to save his fellow soldiers, and Erikkson is actually grateful to him. When one of Meserve’s squad members ”Brownie” is shot dead in a Viet Cong attack , Private Antonio Diaz( John Leguizamo) comes in as the replacement. The difference in the characters is established, with Erikkson trying to win over the natives, while his colleagues consider them as ”sub human” pests to be exterminated. So far the movie moves in a standard war movie pattern, enemy attacks, lots of yelling around, bombs falling, soldiers getting hit, and De Palma upping the ante with his camera tracking, and some stunning photography of the Vietnam jungles.
The turn around comes when the squad learns that their leave has been cut short, and they have been asked to look at a village that harbors suspected Viet Cong soldiers. And this is where the so far “heroic” Meserve actually breaks down. In recent times there have been news reports about how soldiers in the Indian army quite often frustrated with the hard working conditions, and denial of leave, were either committing suicide or taking it out on their superior officers. The fact is that war even at the best of times is hardly pretty, i mean living with bombs falling all around you, seeing your best friend or mate blown to pieces, finding yourself cut off from family for months on is frustrating. While De Palma’s intention is not to justify what happens from here on, the fact that some one like Meserve, could break down in a manner, that is horrific, is frightening, something about how the beast comes out of a human being.
The victims in a war are more often than not the most vulnerable- the elderly, the women, the children, people who basically can’t fend for themselves. Meserve takes his frustration out here, by kidnapping a young, teenage Vietnamese girl Than Thi Oanh( Thuy Thuy Lee), and wants to use her as their sex slave, another practice during wars, when local girls were often picked up by soldiers for their own pleasure. What is horrifying though is how Meserve just treats this as fun, some kind of recreation. In reality the hapless girl had nothing to do with the VC, she was unfortunate in becomming the target of Meserve’s deranged thinking. Erikkson protests but is helpless.
Eriksson: Give me a minute on this thing we’re doing. I mean, what we’re doing. What are we doing, sarge?
Meserve: We have a VC suspect. Is that what you mean? She’s a VC whore and we’re gonna have fun with her.
Eriksson: She’s just a farm girl.
Meserve: You’re the cherry here, right? So lighten up.
Clark: -Let me carry the weight. -What’s the problem, sarge?
Meserve: He don’t think our VC whore is a VC whore.
Again one moment during the girl’s abduction stands out, her mother running after her and giving her a scarf, so that she could stuff it in her mouth and not scream. And then one of the soldiers casually telling the girl’s mother to get some rest. The men out there, have become beasts, they don’t really care about what they are doing, and what is worse they take it as fun. In fact they are thankful to Meserve for arranging this ”fun” of having their turns with a young nubile female, Erikkson finding himself the odd man out, his bravery and even his masculinity comming into question. Again the tendency to show off one’s sexual prowess as signs of manhood, to the group Erikkson’s objections make him look like a wet blanket, what is more worse, they begin to doubt his sexuality itself. The only person who supports Erikksson is Diaz, who whoever gives into his own weak moments.
Well maybe when I’m through with her, I’m gonna come after you. Maybe when I’m done humping her, I’m gonna come hump you!
Meserve feels Erikkson’s objections is maybe because he is gay. It never occurs to him that Erikkson was objecting on ethical grounds. Also the prevalent feeling during the time of equating homosexuality with a loss of manhood, sign of weakness. And this is where De Palma excels, holding back his tendency to go over top, he treats these scenes with restraint, not being too much in the face. In fact for me after Carlito’s Way, i would say this was one of De Palma’s more restrained movies, going ballistic in the action scenes, but at the same time operating with a sense of dignity and restraint in the more dramatic scenes. The actual rape scene is harrowing, not very graphic, but we feel the horror of it, as the men take turns raping her. One of the more horrifying moments is when a particuarly sadistic member of the group, Clark( Don Harvey), threatens the girl with a knife just to get an erection. Actually barring Erikkson, none of the other group members even treat her like a human being, she is just a plaything for them, some one to be abused at will, a human punching bag for their frustrations. Or as Meserve puts it in an earlier scene
What we are gonna do is requisition ourselves a girl, a little portable R & R, It’ll break up the boredom, keep up the morale
Its however the members behavior during the rape that is really unsettling. They take its as some kind of fun, laughing, joking, wishing for ”beers”, as Erikkson becomes a helpless bystander to the entire tragedy, unable to prevent it. By now Meserve has become a raging maniac, caring nothing about ethics or conscience, the beast has been fully unleashed, as he keeps taunting Erikkson for his ”cowardice” and ”lack of manliness”.
Yea, I walk through the Valley of Evil, ….. I shall fear no death, cause I’m the meanest motherfucker in the entire valley.
After Oanh is gang raped, left bloodied, battered mentally and physically, Erikkson tries to comfort her, trying to help her out of the mess. He is found out trying to help her escape, and a scuffle between Erikkson and his team members, after his refusal to kill her, leads to him giving away their location. Again Oanh’s death scene on the bridge is harrowing, bloodied, stabbed, as she struggles to escape, it hits you hard. For me however what really prevented this movie from becomming a true classic, is in the post Vietnam scenes. Erikkson’s attempts to convict Meserve and co, the resistance he faces from the system, all of it is like ”seen it before”, and even the final court scenes. Most of it goes down to heavy handed moralizing, preaching, and a Hollywood style court room drama. Good in itself, but then you consider what you have seen before that, and it some what appears contrived. For me Casualties of War was like a movie in 2 parts, for a major part, realistic, gritty, not pulling back, at the same time treating the subject with respect, and then in the post Vietnam scenes, becomming heavy handed and melodramatic.
Still i would recommend this movie, for the issues it brings up, the way war turns seemingly normal human beings into beasts, of how nice guys like Erikkson find themselves helpless to prevent tragedies around them, the rather twisted definitions of ”manhood” and finally how in a war, the real ”Casualties of War” are the innocent people who are actually caught up in the conflict, people like Oanh, who are not really connected with any ideology, but have to bear the brunt of some one’s frustration or ”twisted” definition of R&R. It is this feeling of helplessness that you carry long after the movie is over.
And then some exceptional performances, notably from Sean Penn, as the pyschotic Meserve. Penn does seem to excel in these kind of roles, and though he does have a De Niro hangover in his performance, his transition from a seemingly heroic soldier to a pyschotic, bullying maniac is excellent. This was one of the rare serious, dramatic kind of roles which Michael.J.Fox had done in his career, unfortunately the movie’s failure meant that Fox could not break out of his “Teen Idol” image. I say it as unfortunate, coz Fox’s performance as the conscientious objector Erikkson, is effective, low key, without ending up as a caricature, showing there is much more to him than just rom coms or light comedies. Somehow unlike Johnny Depp or Leo, Fox could never make that transition from a “Teen Idol” to an adult, matured actor. Thuy Thuy Lee who plays Oanh is first rate, as she wonderfully captures the agony and helplessness of a young girl, subjected to abuse, rape for no fault of hers, i believe this was her only screen role.