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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.