FF81 - Casualties of War

Intro by John Roderick

Did you ever think: ”Man, that rape scene from Platoon should have been its own full length movie!” No? Well that sounds reasonable! I agree. No one wants that! Let me ask you another: Have you at any point thought: ”I wish Michael J. Fox had been given more opportunity as a dramatic actor because his trademark reaction shot of dumbfounded exasperation would work just as well in a movie about wartime atrocity as it does when he plays a teenage werewolf!” I bet you never thought that either. So right off the bat: Casualties of War answered a lot of questions no one asked.

But it didn't stop there: Why didn't Jeff Spicoli and Alex P. Keaton ever appear on a special episode of L.A. Law? Why doesn't Dale Dye get more speaking parts? Did John C. Reilly look 54 when he was 24 or does he still look 24 now that he is 54? The real challenge here is that nobody wants to watch a movie about this. It is based on the true story of what became known as the Incident on Hill 192, which was the subject of four court-martials during the war and it really illustrates how the Hollywood process of getting a film made can slowly go off the rails without anyone noticing before it is too late.

You can easily picture the scene: A long conference table with ten white guys in their 30s all wearing double-breasted grey suits with yellow paisley ties, the air redolent of hair gel, CK One and last night's Bartles & Jaymes. They need a Vietnam pick because those are hot hot hot right now! Somebody read a New Yorker article about the sadistic rape and murder of an innocent Vietnamese girl and the subsequent wartime cover-up that led to a handful of indictments and some slap-on-the-wrist-convictions, and that appeals to their vanity as movie executives. They are serious artists, not just making schlock! Hell, they are at least as smart as some dumb New Yorker writer!

Brian De Palma is attached, Anthony Michael Hall is cast as the sadistic sergeant and Ricky Schroder as the kid with a conscience, but both drop out at the last minute. They try for Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr., but they are already making a buddy-pic about the Secret War in Laos, so get Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox! Stat! This is a brutal film, but not in a way that is good. It is made by and for that school of smarty-pantses who think that movies that make us feel bad are doing us some kind of service. They don't trust us to watch a war movie and piece together that people sustain wounds and die horribly, and to reflect on that as we wrestle with it in context.

It used to be that the movies that made us think actually left some of the thinking to us. Brutality wasn't graphically depicted not because filmmakers were timid or censored or had ran out of corn-syrup gore, but because there was enough damn brutality in the world already! Moviegoers were trusted to understand as the camera panned away from the gruesome horror that the gruesome horror continued off screen, but Casualties of War sort of ushered in this new era, where a carefully blocked and rehearsed long and harrowing rape and murder scene, filmed partly in slow motion, was some medicine we were supposed to swallow, and lingering over the violence was a sign of intelligence rather than sociopathy.

Hollywood auteurs like to say their brutal film is here to make us think, but then they show us everything and there is no room for us to think! What this movie made me think is: ”I don't need this movie!” Now, this was Tarantino's favorite Vietnam movie, so he claims. Roger Ebert said it was a difficult watch and we should take our medicine. I'm paraphrasing. Columbia Pictures thought it would be a big hit. They were drafting off De Palma’s The Untouchables, which is an actual great movie and makes no pretense about not being a comic book and everyone should go watch it again right now.

The burgeoning market for Vietnam-films during this Rambo-driven late 1980s cultural reappraisal made all the studios think that they couldn't lose, but audiences did not exactly come out in droves for this. What is the opposite of a drove? A drivel? Can you imagine the unlucky few who chose to see this movie at the drive-in on a first date, based on the lead actors alone? That would be one long quiet ride home and all anyone would be thinking is: ”Let this date be over!”

You can see how desperately Casualties of War aspired to join the ranks of Apocalypse Now and Platoon and The Deer Hunter. It is similarly shot, similarly anti-war, it is deeply critical of the military way of doing things and it points an accusing finger at a system that turns thousands of heavily armed 20-year-old men loose on an ungoverned country, led into battle by 22-year-old Sergeants and Junior Officers in service of a foreign policy no one believes or understands, while the upper echelons congregate in the rear with no clear objectives and zero investment in the outcome. In that sense it is similar. It is also earnest and an even poignant movie and it doesn't shy away from naming rape as an instrument of war and subjugation.

But in the end you just want it to be over so you can go read The New Yorker article. Some magazine articles have already reached their final form. When asked at the time about the possibility that this movie could fail, Michael J Fox characterized the film as being about how much you will risk if you have nothing to gain. We are about to find out! ”This ain’t the Army, Sarge!” Today on Friendly Fire: Casualties of War.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License