Atrocities and coverups: Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War”

At both ends of the 1980s  Brian De Palma produced masterpieces that not everyone liked. Well, they are so heartbreaking that one could justifiable say that no one “liked” them. In both “Blow Out” (1981) and “Casualties of War” the not especially heroic but determined male protagonist cannot save the female victim: Nancy Allen in “Blow Out”, Thuy Thu Le in “Casualties of War.” Both movies involve cover-ups, one successful, the second one ultimately not. As De Palma himself says in the making-of featurette to “Casualties of War,” the helplessness of characters to stop horror/evil is the leitmotif of his cinema.

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Both movies also had career-high performances by popular actors who got their start in television series: John Travolta and Michael J. Fox.

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De Palma wanted to film the story by Daniel Lang when he read it in The New Yorker in 1969. De Palma only had the clout to do so after the success of “The Untouchables,” which was also after “Platoon” and “Full-Metal Jacket” and “Good Morning Vietnam” (a set from which he used) and long after it could have any effect on the US military adventure in Vietnam (, Cambodia, and Laos). The half-hour DVD making-of featurette was made in 2001, before another catastrophically ill-advised military adventure of another Texan president (De Palma took that one on in his less accomplished but certainly not uninteresting 2007 “Redacted”).

There is not the slightest doubt that De Palma (who had made sardonic anti-draft movies during the Vietnam adventure: “Greetings” in 1968 and “Hi, Mom!” in 1970) opposed the US deployment and continued (in 1989 and 2001) to consider it wrongful. The movie is not about “Should the US be/have been in Vietnam?” The answer to that is unequivocally no for De Palma, but is not at issue.

To some degree “Casualties of War: shows the coruscating effects of counterinsurgency pursued by soldiers who know nothing and care less about the local culture and society and do not speak the local language. Early on, the movie shows the buzzing easily lethal confusion that has made Sergeant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn) impervious to regarding Vietnamese as human beings who may not be enemies. On nighttime patrol his platoon comes under mortar fire and Sgt. Meserve saves the life of the latest replacement cannon fodder, Pfc. Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) a married soldier with a young daughter, twice (from the same Vietcong soldier in a tunnel into which Eriksson half falls: this is the only enemy combatant in the movie with a face and none has even a line of dialogue). The next day, Meserve’s buddy, SPC 4 “Brownie” Brown (Erik King), is fatally shot while Meserve has his arm around him. Eriksson had just been detailed with Brownie and is only yards away when the ambush commences with the shot that fells Brownie.

The platoon has one night back at its base, Camp Wolf. Sgt. Meserve is furious that their passes are cancelled and he cannot go into the brothel servicing GIs as he planned. He says that he is going to requisition a girl the next day, and — with the eager participation of Corporal Thomas E. Clarke (Don Harvey) — does so. Eriksson objects and Meserve puts him on point (not only ending the conversation but increasing the danger for Eriksson).

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From my introductory social psychology course once upon a time, I know that the difference between one person dissenting and two is multiplicative, not additive (it’s hard to stand up for what is right alone, while two — particularly two out of five! — can have more impact). The American tragedy of the movie (in my reckoning, less than that of the Vietnamese girl who is kidnapped, raped, and eventually knifed and shot) is that Brownie’s replacement Private Antonio Diaz (John Leguizamo), who says he is not going to rape anyone and will support Eriksson, feels that he cannot take a stand and disobey the illegal order of Sgt. Meserve (who gives him first dibs) to rape the girl.

Sgt. Meserve is quite consciously committing crimes (including, eventually ordering Diaz to kill the girl so that the crimes of kidnapping and rape will not come out), but is not totally a villain. There is one, the sadistic, authority-abusing bully Corporal Thomas E. Clarke (Don Harvey). It seems to me that Sgt. Meserve has contempt for Cpl. Clarke, though it may only be that Meserve is calculating the need to have Diaz and PFC Herbert Hatcher (John C. Reilly) on board in committing and covering up the crimes Meserve has planned and executed.

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Eriksson spoke up and continued to try to protect the girl, knowing how easily his own life could be snuffed out in the field. (One of the most electrifying moments in the movie comes later when an officer attempting to discredit the story says he does not believe it, showing full awareness that US soldiers killed other US soldiers: “fragging”.)

The diminutive Fox does not posture or sermonize. He is quiet but firm in the face first of the histrionics of Sean Penn’s Meserve in the field, and then as the commanders, Lieutenant Reilly (Ving Rhames, who has a showy story of his own to tell) and Captain Hill (Dale Dye, the Vietnam veteran military advisor who also played a captain for Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” and was promoted to colonel for Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July”) refuse to launch an investigation (though he does break up the platoon and sit back as other officers attempt to discredit Eriksson and his story. Maybe because I’d never seen “Family Ties” (though I had seen “Back to the Future”), I did not balk at Fox’s casting as the innocent who refuses to go along with what he knows is wrong (and a war crime). This is the performance for which Fox will be remembered 50 years from now.

Penn (who is one year older than Fox) had turned in some impressive intense performances already and now has a substantial body of work that includes two best actor Oscars (and De Palma’s “Carlito’s Way”). He was very good (though certainly not restrained!) in making Meserve a complex character. Leguizamo and Reilly were unknown at the time and Rhames had made an impression only in Paul Shrader’s all-but-unseen “Patty Hearst” (as the leader of her captors). Harvey had been in De Palma’s “The Untouchables” (and John Sayles’s ensemble “Eight Men Out”) but reached the highpoint of his career early on herein. (Berkeley graduate Thuy Thu Le did not pursue an acting career, perhaps being another Falconetti or Bjork, who suffered so vividly in one movie role that she did not want to take any others).

(Though set in Vietnam, perhaps the movie to which to compare “Casualties of War” is not “Platoon” or “Full-Metal Jacket,” but “The Accused.” Or “On the Waterfront” or “Serpico”).

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De Palma was served very well, here and in other movies (The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way) by Stephen H. Burum’s cinematography. De Palma trusted Burum to capture the images he envisioned and storyboarded. Much as I adore soundtracks by Ennio Morricone (especially for Sergio Leone (including “Once Upon a Time in America” as well as the “man with no name” trilogy and “Once Upon a Time in the West”), Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, Malèna, Baaria), and Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, Burn!), his music can sometimes overwhelm scenes, and IMHO sometimes did in “Casualties.” It is certainly very effective in the suspenseful set pieces herein (and in “The Untouchables”), but swells a bit much in others (including a heavenly chorus at the very end as a Vietnamese student also played by Thuy Thu Le (but dubbed by Amy Irving) walks away in San Francisco’s Dolores Park after riding on the same streetcar (a J-Church) as Eriksson. Neither De Palma nor Morricone is invariably constrained by Good Taste. (That said, De Palma did not shoot the rape with even the slightest appeal to prurient involvement of viewers. Indeed, he mostly shot the rain-drenched face of Pvt. Eriksson instead of the rape itself.)

I don’t think the movie is perfect, and am aware that some didn’t/don’t like the casting of Michael J. Fox or the pacing or the music, while others don’t want US war crimes shown. I think that the casting of Fox (which was essential to the greenlighting of the project) was perfect in part because he is diminutive and would not be credible standing up to Sean Penn in a fight (without a weapon) and is credible in neither taking decisive action (shooting the rest of his platoon or deserting) nor doing what he knows is wrong (raping or covering up the kidnapping, rape, and murder).

I think that “Casualties of War” is a great movie, with a lot of great work (under adverse conditions, including a trestle of the railroad along the River Kwai in Thailand (yes the setting of the totally false British-constructed wooden bridge in David Lean’s meretricious, multiple-award-winning 1957 racist claptrap of a movie). The retrospects by Michael J. Fox (“Private Eriksson’s War”, 20 minutes) and Brian De Palma , producer Art Linsonand editor editor Bill Pankow (the half-hour making-of featurette), plus filmographies, trailers, and a superlative transfer make this a five-star DVD. (I’d have liked to hear from David Rabe (author of “Streamers” etc.) whom De Palma says did not like the ending, though he wrote it, but De Palma both wanted a measure of putting the traumas behind Eriksson decades later and to avoid repeating Elia Kazan’s (1972) “The Visitors” that also spun off from Lang’s reportage to an imagined backdraft.)

(The original Lang article was published as a book and  is reprinted in the Library of America’s Reporting Vietnam: 1957-1969, and was published in book form back in 1969. Follow-up for the originals of the characters is provided at http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/1989-08-30/news/there-is-yet-more-to-casualties-of-war/3/. That Meserve was acquitted of rape mystifies me, btw. He was found guilty of murder. And his real-life model had not saved Eriksson’s life.)

California Senator Hiram Johnson famously said (in 1918) that truth is the first casualty of war. In that the story of the abduction/rape/murder came out, “Casulaties of War” is more optimistic than that. Pvt. Eriksson says “This is not the Army” and with whatever reluctance, a military court ruled that murder is still murder in the field in wartime, and Eriksson (barely) survived being murdered (by Col. Clark) back on the base, and the ending of the movie is not the bleak despair with which “Blow Out” ends, but I doubt anyone would consider “Casualties of War” an upbeat movie!

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

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3 thoughts on “Atrocities and coverups: Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War””

  1. A deeply disturbing film and the impact of it was increased with the casting of Fox who remains such a likable actor. It does has enough flaws keeping it perhaps from being a great film… and it’s not an easy one to watch-nor should it be. Great review as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

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