Coppola's `Gardens of Stone' on screen. Army's Old Guard duties at the core of war story

``Gardens of Stone,'' the new movie by Francis Coppola, is a different kind of Vietnam war film. It's unlike ``Platoon'' and Coppola's own ``Apocalypse Now'' because it doesn't plunge into the war itself. It's unlike ``Coming Home'' and ``The Deer Hunter'' because it doesn't concentrate on problems of veterans after combat. It's unlike ``Rambo: First Blood Part II'' and ``Missing in Action'' because it doesn't try to refight the war on postwar terms. It's also different from these movies in its concern with soldiers from two generations. Most films on the war have focused on relationships between men of similar ages. ``Gardens of Stone'' takes a broader view of human nature, studying a young soldier's deep and complex friendship with another who's old enough to be his father.

``Gardens of Stone'' is released by Tri-Star Pictures and has an R rating, reflecting a good deal of what used to be called barracks language.

The story takes place mostly in Virginia, at the Arlington National Cemetery and a nearby United States Army base. It focuses on a subject that rarely gets attention in the movies: the life and work of the Old Guard, a carefully trained Army unit that keeps up military tradition and morale by performing a never-ending series of ceremonies and rituals.

One character calls this the Army's show-business branch, and he'd be right except for the grim nature of its chief task: holding funerals for the dead in the nation's most stately burial ground. This became a full-time occupation during the Vietnam war, when a daily round of slaughter in Southeast Asia translated into a tragically full round of activities for the Old Guard back home.

According to Ronald Bass's screenplay, based on a Nicholas Proffitt novel, some members of the Old Guard are deeply ambivalent about their place in the military world. They feel this ambivalence sharply when many of their fellow soldiers are risking their lives in combat.

Jackie Willow, played by D.B. Sweeney, is one such man. An idealistic young private from an Army family, he feels a nagging sense of guilt at being safe in Arlington while a war is raging overseas. He insists that a soldier's place is at the front, fighting to win military honor and personal pride. His friends keep touting the honor and pride of the Old Guard, but his conscience and his background (his father was a distinguished soldier) keep him from buying the argument. He won't stop bucking for a transfer. And the officers in charge of him - who respected his father and treat him like a son - won't stop making sure he stays high and dry in Virginia.

Those sergeants, the other heroes of the film, also have ambivalent feelings to deal with.

Clell Hazard, played by James Caan, is passionately convinced that the whole Vietnam war is a disastrous mistake. ``There's nothing to win and no way to win it,'' he says. Even as he gets in trouble for shooting off his mouth on the subject, though, he's bucking for a transfer of his own - to a setting where he can teach combat skills to young soldiers, so they'll have some chance of surviving the misbegotten battles the Army has in store for them. ``Goody'' Nelson, played by James Earl Jones, has seen enough of military life - and life in general - to sympathize with Clell, his best friend. But he's more mellow in his personality and more tempered in his views. Looking out for his pals, including young Jackie, is enough of a job to make him feel he's doing his share. But that doesn't stop him from feeling their uncertainties and anxieties almost as deeply as they do.

This is dramatic material for a film, and Coppola treats it seriously and sincerely. He never hurries the story or shies away from the characters' deeper emotions. He hasn't quite shaped ``Gardens of Stone'' into a commanding screen experience, though. One problem is Mr. Bass's screenplay, which isn't woven tightly enough. Heavy exposition prepares us for predictable moments - the off-screen death of Jackie's father, for instance. Some subplots, such as the love affairs, are handled as if they were afterthoughts. Scenes involving a recruit named Wildman, who has no talent for the Old Guard, are carelessly stitched into the main action. Jackie's rise in the Army seems abrupt and arbitrary. And it's hard to dodge the film's clich'es, including such standbys as the barroom brawl and the tongue-lashing from a shouting, squinting sergeant who hasn't taken nice-guy lessons like Clell and Goody.

The acting is uneven, too. Coppola worked hard casting the picture, and even small roles are filled with the likes of Anjelica Huston and Dean Stockwell, among others. Jones has some powerful moments, and while Caan seems droopy much of the time, he avoids the most obvious pitfalls of his potentially hackneyed part. But engaging performers like Mary Stuart Masterson and Lonette McKee are given little chance to shine, and no less a screen-grabber than Miss Huston makes a meager impression until a radiant moment in her very last scene.

Even with these flaws, however, ``Gardens of Stone'' shows a new maturity regarding the Vietnam war on film. It never sinks into sensationalism, and its feelings have the ring of conviction even when Coppola plays them too hard or too long. Its interest in comradely affection across the generation gap extends the emotional resonance of the Vietnam-war genre into new territory. And its sympathy for the warrior who's not at war - the soldier who anxiously stands and waits - is thoroughly compassionate.

``Gardens of Stone'' doesn't make a major contribution to our understanding of the Vietnam-war era. But it points the way to promising new areas that future movies - some by Coppola himself, perhaps - can study and explore.

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