Study Guide

Platoon

Platoon Introduction


Release Year: 1986

Genre: Action, Drama, War

Director: Oliver Stone

Writer: Oliver Stone

Stars: Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen


And the Academy Award for Best Director goes to… Oliver Stone, Platoon.

And the Academy Award for Best Picture goes to… Platoon.

The Academy Award for Best Film Editing goes to… Platoon.

The Academy Award for Best Sound goes to… Platoon.

That's how it all went down in 1987 folks. Oliver Stone's sobering 1986 film about a fictional platoon in the Vietnam War took home all kinds of awards, and not just those four Oscars. It also won a Golden Globe for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, as well as a slew of others.

What was it about this little film and its $6 million dollar budget that so captivated viewers (the film went on to gross over $137 million dollars), and the Academy?

We think Oliver Stone said it best in his acceptance speech:

I think what you're saying [by presenting me with this award] is that for the first time you really understand what happened over there, and I think that what you're saying is that it should never ever in our lifetimes happen again.

While there had a number of movies about the Vietnam War before Platoon, such as The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and The Green Berets (1968), none had really captured all of the horrors of Vietnam: civilian murders, inter platoon fighting, brutal jungle combat, drugs, alcohol, and all the rest. More than its predecessors in the Vietnam War sub-genre, Platoon gave audiences an authentic picture of the reality of Vietnam, rather than using it (the war) as a metaphor for something else.

In addition to its tragic vision of war, however, Platoon also jumpstarted a few careers. While Oliver Stone was already a veteran screenplay writer (he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 1979 for his work on Midnight Express [1978]), Platoon was really his coming out party as far as directing.

Platoon was also a watershed moment for Charlie Sheen. Platoon was his first big role, and he would go on to star in Stone's next film, Wall Street. In addition to Sheen, a number of other young actors with established careers now appeared in the film as still relative unknowns. That list includes Willem Dafoe, Kevin Dillon (a.k.a. Johnny Drama from Entourage), Johnny Depp, Mark Moses, John C. McGinley, and of course Forest Whitaker. The film was also a big moment in Tom Berenger's career. He was nominated for an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for his role as Sergeant Barnes, and won the Golden Globe in the same category.

The long and short of it, folks, is that Platoon was a winner all around, for Oliver Stone, for the cast, and even for the peeps who worked tirelessly behind the scenes on things like sound and editing. You could say all the pieces came together perfectly.

What is Platoon About and Why Should I Care?

This iconic photo was taken in April, 1975. 

It shows people scrambling towards a helicopter, anxious to get out of Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam that had recently been renamed Ho Chi Minh City). The hasty exit of all remaining U.S. citizens and personnel marked the final end to what had once seemed destined to be an interminable presence in Southeast Asia. By the time Saigon fell in 1975, nearly 60,000 U.S. troops had died in Vietnam, most of them between the ages of 18-20.

The Vietnam War was a straight up mess. While the United States was justifiably freaked out about the spread of communism, given the powerful influence of the Soviet Union, the war quickly became an unwinnable bloodbath. Troops faced just about every problem imaginable:

  • faulty weapons
  • bad leadership
  • low morale
  • difficult terrain
  • an increasingly unsupportive citizenry
  • an enemy that was vicious, fearless, and better equipped to fight in the humid, dense jungles of Vietnam than the inexperienced U.S. soldiers.

So, understandably, in retrospect, Vietnam is now considered one of the biggest bad moves in United States history—one of the most costly, one of the most deadly, and one of the most tragic.

It is this tragedy that makes Platoon so relevant. Oliver Stone, who directed the film, wrote the early drafts of the screenplay shortly after his return from active duty in an effort to inscribe for posterity a very personal and very real experience of the war. He knew what it was really like over there.

Which is maybe why Platoon is an ultimately hopeless film. Nobody really wins and most of the major characters we get to know over the course of the film are dead by the end. While the main character, Chris Taylor, makes it out, he's also more or less "dead." He returns to civilian life disillusioned, changed, troubled, destroyed, and guilty of things he never would have dreamed of when he enlisted.

But Platoon is about more than simply its depiction of the now well-documented atrocities that occurred in the Vietnamese countryside. It's also all about the psychological effects of war (one of the film's marketing slogans was "The first casualty of war is innocence") and of the deep divisions within the U.S. military itself. The central feuding the movie epitomizes one of the biggest problems of the war: the very serious divisions among the soldiers themselves—and between the men on the ground and the suits back in Washington, who kept sending soldiers over there, despite an ever more unsupportive populace. In Vietnam—and in Platoon—no one wins.

Trivia

Platoon has always been very near and dear to Oliver Stone's heart. This is because the script was based on his experiences in Vietnam, Chris Taylor a cinematic version of the young Oliver himself. (Source)

By the time the shooting of Platoon wrapped, all of the actors were trained killers. Well, sort of. In order to make things a little bit more realistic, Stone had all of the actors go through an actual 2-week boot camp. Yikes. Maybe that's why they're so skinny. (Source)

Elias' death really happened. Okay, not really, but sort of really. The famous Christ-like, arms-out pose we see when he dies (and that is the film's unofficial logo), was based on this famous photograph from the war. (Source)

Dig this: Oliver Stone was the first Vietnam veteran to win an Oscar. (Source)

Platoon Resources

Websites

Shmoop. It. Up.
We've got your history needs covered with Shmoop's module about the Vietnam War.

Keep Tabs on Ollie…
… with this link to Oliver Stone's official website.

The Real Story
Here's a site dedicated to veterans of the Vietnam War. It contains links to pictures, testimonials, and other materials—so you can learn the truth about what went on over there.

Book or TV Adaptations

More Oliver?
If you dug Platoon, check out this book about all about Oliver Stone's films.

The Latest
Here's a popular new book about one of the earliest units in Vietnam, a unit that went over in the same year (1967) as Chris Taylor.

War Films: A History
This book discusses the history of combat films since 1945. Prepare to go down the rabbit hole.

A Radical, For Sure
This book, co-written by Oliver Stone, tells the "untold" history of the United States

Articles and Interviews

A Different Perspective
This article talks about the North Vietnamese perception of the Vietnam War.

Sounds Like a Thumbs Up
Never doubt the master. Here's Roger Ebert's review of Platoon.

NYT Dug Platoon, Too
Here's review of Platoon from the New York Times from 1986.

Video

Thanking the Academy
In this clip Oliver Stone accepts the Best Director Oscar in 1987 for his work on Platoon.

#Winning
A clip of Oliver Stone winning his second Oscar for directing (Born on the Forth of July).

We Guess He Was Busy?
Here's video of Tom Berenger winning the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. He wasn't at the ceremony.

Deleted Scenes
These scenes that didn't the final cut of the film include an alternate ending. Score.

Audio

The Song
Here's a slightly different version of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," which is pretty much the theme song of Platoon.

Images

Weirdest Dolls Ever
For all you collectors out there, allow Shmoop to present a set of three G.I. Joe-looking dolls based on characters from Platoon (Elias, Barnes, and Taylor).

Was This Staged or What?
Check out this photo of Oliver Stoned flanked by a smiling Willem Dafoe and Charlie Sheen.

Vets or Actors?
In this photo of the cast of Platoon, they're all looking pretty grizzled and haggard.

In Memoriam
A visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. is definitely worth the trip.

Oliver in 'Nam
The real Oliver Stone, in the real Vietnam.