Casualties of War (1989)


Brian De Palma has up to this point in his career directed a wide variety of genres. Although being mostly at home within the confines of a Hitchcockian thriller he has shown that he is also able to deliver very good crime and horror films in the case of Scarface and Carrie respectively. And now he tries his hand at a war film.

De Palma has shown that he can be a very stylish, opulent director, but it seems he knows that his usual sly camerawork is out of place in a film about the horrors of war. This is De Palma at his most restrained, filming the characters and action from a distance, seeming to prefer longer takes of character interactions in a manner pioneered by the great John Ford. He doesn’t have the same eye for proper blocking and staging of sets that makes John Ford’s style work so well. The result is a disappointment from a fan of De Palma’s who wanted to see him do something interesting stylistically with a different sort of material. De Palma indulges in one gratuitous POV scene that could’ve been ripped right out of Body Double or Dressed to Kill, and it feels totally out of place in this movie.

The movie centers around on Pvt Eriksson (Michael J Fox) who is a newby, or a cherry as the soldiers refer to them, to the Vietnam war. He seems to empathize with the local Vietnamese that his compatriots trounce upon. In an early scene we see him playing with a group of village children, establishing Eriksson’s humanistic qualities that the film will focus on.

His squad consists of Harvey (John C. Reilly), Clark (Don Harvey), Diaz (John Leguizamo), and Sgt Meserve (Sean Penn), who begin a long patrol by kidnapping a local woman (Thuy Thu Le) to use as a sex slave and living punching bag as they make their arduous journey. This sets up the main conflict of the movie, as our hero, Pvt Eriksson, seeks to keep this woman from harm and, as a result, ends up an outcast from his own unit.

It seems that whatever conscience these men may have once had has been ground out of them by the countless horrors inherent to the war they’ve been enlisted to fight. The level of complicity of the local population with the enemy is typically unclear until it’s too late, and as a result they’ve grown to view the Vietnamese citizenry as vermin. Too many friends have died because of these people so their well of trust has run dry. Their natural borne moral guidelines I believe to be the titular casualties of war.

This isn’t a bad story necessarily. The themes aren’t entirely dissimilar from those of Platoon, yet that film’s script does a far better job digging into the psyche of the men who’s morals have been wiped clean by near constant trauma, whereas Casualties of War gives us one death scene and some decent acting, mainly from Sean Penn. The dialogue between Meserve and Eriksson in their clashes over the morality of their undertaking leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than comprehensive examinations of their conflicting ideologies it essentially boils down to Meserve calling Eriksson a pussy and threatening him menacingly.

The acting by Sean Penn provides the most depth you’re likely to get out of these encounters as his character’s sociopathy is well displayed. Michael J Fox also does a good job of portraying his character’s frustration at the futility of his attempts to impose morality on his comrades. What’s interesting here is the utter inevitability of the rape and murder. Eriksson hasn’t any recourse in his situation and is forced to stand by while the brutalities are inflicted. It seems the film means to say that sometimes there isn’t anything the good guys can do to stop the bad guys. These are the film’s strongest points.

The second half of the film takes a Kafkaesque turn, as Pvt Eriksson attempts to seek justice for what transpired in the jungle. Of course his superiors take on a “boys will be boys” attitude about the event and he is reasonably disheartened by the experience. The scenes in the jungle are far more compelling by comparison which makes the film feel a bit uneven. The murder of the kidnapped woman feels like the natural climax and it happens a bit more than halfway through the movie.

I’m aware that this is a true story, and although I haven’t read the entire New Yorker article I have read about what happened. The film seems to have stuck to the true story for the most part, which is admirable in its own way. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that I have to give it a pass for being paced inconsistently. True stories rarely occur in the proper three act structure that works so well in movies.

The framing device is half baked at best. Rather than ending the film on the heart wrenching and depressing note the story deserves, the screenwriters choose to try and give the tale a more positive spin. It doesn’t work. Had they allowed the atrocity to occur and simply had the audience deal with the cruel reality of the horrors of war the film would’ve been far more effective. As it stands this is an ok movie that could have been great had it been structured differently. It stands apart from De Palma’s other works as something a bit more mature, but it fails to exceed anything else I’ve seen by him.


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