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Views of Vietnam: `Platoon' vs. `Rambo'. Why did films with very different images of war and heroism both become hits?

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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.

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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.