Views of Vietnam: `Platoon' vs. `Rambo'. Why did films with very different images of war and heroism both become hits?
Except for the studios that turned ``Platoon'' down for more than a decade - saying it wasn't a ``commercial'' project - nobody has been more amazed by the film's wildfire success than Oliver Stone, who wrote and directed it. ``We didn't expect anything like this,'' he told me in a recent phone conversation. Backed up by eight Academy Award nominations, the picture's popularity has become the season's hottest movie-news story. Behind the headlines, however, lies a deeper issue - the significance of ``Platoon'' as an answer to ``Rambo: First Blood Part II,'' the previous blockbuster about the Vietnam conflict.
To some extent, Hollywood movies constitute a dialogue with the public and each other. Sometimes the dialogue amounts to a debate, with box-office figures measuring the response of moviegoers to each argument.
Seen in this light, the flamboyant action of ``Rambo'' represented a radical turn away from the ambiguity and skepticism of earlier Vietnam films like ``The Deer Hunter'' and ``Apocalypse Now.''
In the same way, the success of ``Platoon'' can be seen as a strong and perhaps surprising reply to the ``Rambo'' world-view, which was thought by some to augur a new flowering of aggressive anti-Communism and conservatism.
``Platoon'' also appears to have opened up a more searching kind of introspection among moviegoers than ``Rambo'' did - focusing not just on Vietnam and the longing to ``win,'' but on the physical and psychological destructiveness of all combat.
``Students are constantly bringing up `Platoon' and asking about the war,'' says the director of a university film department in the New York area. ``And parents have come to me, wanting to talk about it with me and their children. They aren't just titillated by the violence. They're troubled by the film, and it's opening many doors to discussion.''
It would be simplistic to suggest that ``Platoon'' has abruptly changed the hearts and minds of avid ``Rambo'' fans. ``Platoon'' may be achieving its success by simply attracting a different audience to the theater. And some filmgoers may be equally enthralled by both pictures - taking ``Rambo'' as a heroic fantasy and ``Platoon'' as a truthful experience that occupies a separate movie universe. Differing and even contradictory attitudes (such as the wish for ``Rambo'' simplicities and the urge to recognize ``Platoon'' realities) can coexist within a society or even within an individual.
``Platoon'' has proved that ``Rambo'' doesn't constitute Hollywood's most resounding comment on Vietnam, however. Audience fascination with the relative complexities of ``Platoon'' and its characters - each driven by different motives, each working out different approaches to life and war - indicates that Sylvester Stallone's make-believe represented more of a bumpy detour than a lasting new direction in contemporary thought, as represented by popular films.
The most striking feature of ``Platoon'' is its insistence on a naturalistic and even nightmarish view of combat. Fighting near Vietnam's border with Cambodia, its soldiers work not as individual Rambo-style heroes, but as a tight and terrified unit that's torn by inner rivalries and hatreds as well as fear of enemy troops. Violence and death are everywhere, and the most well-meaning soldier may come psychologically unglued at any time.
The soldiers don't even share a common view of what they're facing. The character played by Charlie Sheen, who stands for filmmaker Stone in the movie, begins as an idealist but soon finds accustomed beliefs and behaviors sliding from beneath his feet. By contrast, the Willem Dafoe character has acquired a seasoned and skeptical perspective - not without its own idealism about the importance of maintaining some sense of humanity - while the Tom Berringer character is apparently led by little but his own traumatized cynicism.
The most striking feature of ``Rambo'' is its preference for heroics over realism and complexity. Played by Sylvester Stallone, who also wrote the film, the title character is a Vietnam veteran alienated by American society, which is seen as cold and uncaring toward those who fought an unpopular war.
The military asks him to rescue a group of soldiers listed as ``missing in action'' but really held prisoner by Vietnamese and Soviet forces. Rambo does the job pretty much alone, like the hero of an old-fashioned Hollywood western. Also recalling the western genre are his Indianlike costume and his most picturesque weapon, a bow-and-arrow device with an explosive instead of an arrowhead.
For all their differences, ``Platoon'' and ``Rambo'' both dwell on hard physical confrontation between ``free world'' and ``Communist world'' forces. This sets them apart from earlier Vietnam-related films, if one ignores minor-league action pictures like ``Missing in Action'' and a few others. ``The Deer Hunter'' shows only a few moments of battle, using Russian-roulette games as a symbol of wartime destruction and corruption. ``Coming Home'' deals entirely with war's effect on veterans who have returned from combat. ``Apocalypse Now'' stresses psychology and psychedelia in its metaphorical screenplay based on Joseph Conrad's novel ``Heart of Darkness.''
The huge popularity of ``Rambo'' was widely felt to reflect American impatience with intellectual views of the Southeast Asia war, and frustration with what some saw as indecisiveness and impotence on the part of the United States in the post-Vietnam period. The movie is a straightforward revenge fantasy. Its hero specifically sees his Vietnamese mission as a replay of the war, and asks if the good-guy side will ``get to win'' this time instead of being hampered by its own commanders.
Audiences flocked to see his single-handed victory over both the ``yellow peril'' and the ``Red menace,'' represented by evil Vietnamese soldiers and sadistic Soviet officers. And they embraced the film's brazen lack of realism, manifested by romanticized violence and an extravagantly idealized hero.
At the height of the ``Rambo'' phenomenon, it appeared that many Americans might well have rejected probing and complicated views of the Vietnam war in favor of direct emotions and patriotic cheerleading. Now that moviegoers are flocking in similar droves to the dark and unromantic images of ``Platoon,'' however, it seems clear that Americans were not deeply or seriously seduced by the ``Rambo'' idea of Vietnam as an exotic arena for thrilling victories over a bestial enemy.
This isn't to say flatly that the lust for victory and ``revenge'' has given way to unashamed loathing for war. But loathing for war is present in every frame of ``Platoon,'' which filmmaker Stone expressly designed as a cautionary statement - and moviegoers seem eager to absorb his message.
The triumph of ``Platoon'' realism over ``Rambo'' romanticism has a fascinating parallel in earlier film history. No sooner did the United States enter World War II than Hollywood, with a government mandate, started cranking out war-related movies intended to boost morale and support the war effort.
The first wave of this activity produced, in the words of film historian David A. Cook, ``a raft of fatuous, super-patriotic melodramas of the battlefield and homefront which glorified a kind of warfare that had never existed in the history of the human race, much less in the current upheaval.''
That sounds amazingly like ``Rambo'' in the present day. And like ``Rambo,'' those early-'40s pictures with titles like ``Captain of the Clouds'' and ``Blondie for Victory'' were routed from the screen when audiences got a glimpse of the real situation in battlefront newsreels and information films. The harsh realities of war quickly made their appearance in subsequent Hollywood fictions.
``Platoon'' isn't ``the real thing,'' only a simulation of it shot in the Philippines with professional actors. But testimony from Vietnam veterans has verified the truthfulness of Oliver Stone's depiction, which grew from a determination to get his own Vietnam experiences on the screen as accurately and vividly as possible.
The result isn't a pretty picture. It is serving a useful purpose, though - in reminding its public of wartime's horror, and in offering a corrective to the seductive fantasies of ``Rambo.''
David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.