IN a surprise development, a grunt's-eye view of the Vietnam war called ``Platoon'' has become one of the season's most talked-about movies. Some spectators have decried the horrific details that writer/director Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran, injects into one wrenching scene after another. Some of these deal directly with combat, while others expose racism and murderous rivalries among the American troops themselves.
Yet other moviegoers praise its deliberately stark view of war and welcome its unflinching realism - calling this more clear-eyed than the romantic idiocy of ``Rambo'' and more hard-hitting than the metaphorical meanderings of ``The Deer Hunter'' and ``Apocalypse Now.''
Ironically, the maker of ``Platoon'' once had his own romantic notions of war. He got them largely from his father and grandfather, who were veterans of the two world wars.
``My father was a noncombatant,'' Stone recalls, ``and for him the war was the high point of his life. My grandfather had been wounded ... but that didn't bother me, somehow. I felt that wouldn't happen to me. I just knew the war was something I didn't want to miss.''
Motivated partly by this family background, Stone did exactly what the autobiographical hero of ``Platoon'' does: He dropped out of college and enlisted in the Army, actively seeking a combat assignment. Other factors in his decision were sincere patriotism and ``a bit of rebellion'' against the quiet life he'd lived so far.
As just about every scene of ``Platoon'' reveals, Stone lost his romantic ideas fast. ``It took about a day,'' he said in a recent telephone conversation from California, where he now lives and works.
Stone's purpose in making ``Platoon'' was to display the horror of combat to a wide and diverse audience, allowing no Hollywood-style evasion of war's physical and moral destructiveness. To convey the evil of war, he included deliberately gruesome and shocking events. Yet to avoid scaring off a broad range of spectators, he claims he actually toned down the violence of his vision - sparing his audience ``things we could have shown, that really happened in Vietnam, but that many [moviegoers] wouldn't be able to take.''
Why tackle such a project in the first place? Stone feels that society needs a reminder of what war is really like - not as it's experienced by ``the ideologues, the people who cause war,'' but as it affects the young men who are actually sent into the nightmarish filth and terror of combat.
If enough ``caring people'' were to absorb the message of ``Platoon,'' he asserts, it could actually make a difference in current thinking about a situation like, say, today's Central America power struggles.
``It's up to the mothers and the Vietnam veterans,'' he says.
Many of the cinema strategies in ``Platoon'' have precedents in past movies, such as the gritty war pictures of Samuel Fuller, another veteran turned filmmaker. Yet the divisive Vietnam conflict has resisted movie treatment more stubbornly than past wars have.
Stone says his ``Platoon'' screenplay hung in limbo for years before he could finance the movie.
Although a few serious Vietnam films have been made before now, he adds that most didn't follow the usual Hollywood route.
``The Deer Hunter'' came from an English company, he says, while ``Apocalypse Now'' rode the coattails of Francis Coppola's huge ``Godfather'' success, and ``Coming Home'' did poorly at the box office after squeaking onto the screen with a low budget.
His own projects have often shown a fascination with violent action, but Stone says the realization of ``Platoon'' has finally unburdened him of his Vietnam traumas and enabled him to ``turn a corner'' in his career. His next film will deal with Wall Street and ``people who use words instead of weapons to destroy.''