Is it just Shmoop, or does the jungle seem like the absolute worst place to fight a war?
Most of Platoon takes place in the jungle, and this richly symbolic landscape is full of surprises. If the NVA are the overall enemy, and the soldiers themselves the real enemy (Chris Taylor: "I can't believe we're fighting each other"), the jungle is a great candidate for other enemy. This exotic, humid place can be as unforgiving as a machine gun.
For starters, it's incredibly hot, humid, and wet. The filmmakers make sure we notice this: the guys are always sweating (their headbands are usually drenched) and it rains on several occasions (or looks like it's just gotten done raining). Fighting a war against an enemy you can't see is bad enough. Fighting that enemy in the rain (and hoping your gun doesn't get jammed from the water) is even worse.
The jungle is also dense, so dense that it often cannot be traversed without the help of a trusty machete (during Taylor's first romp in the jungle we see the guys using this tool to hack their way through the foliage). Such dense terrain makes finding and killing an almost invisible—and certainly better adapted enemy—doubly difficult.
In addition to being dense, the jungle is also full of surprises—dangerous snakes, booby traps, and hidden bunkers. The very fact that the jungle could unleash, so to speak, any number of terrifying things, makes is an especially scary place.
If you're wondering, "what ruined church?" we recommend a little rewind and a closer look.
The ruined church shows up a few times in the Platoon, most crucially as part of the battle in which Elias dies. Its significance? Not so difficult to divine. (Pun intended).
We first see it when the platoon is on patrol in the rain, about to reenter the bunker complex they discovered. Taylor is describing the civil war raging in the platoon, the divide between Barnes's and Elias's men. Right at the moment, a ruined church appears, as if to offer itself as the perfect for the platoon's own destroyed faith in itself, in any idea of harmony.
We see the church again when Elias is actually getting shot by NVA troops. In fact, he's not that far from it. It's almost like he's trying to get to it, to find some hope in God before he finally dies. The reappearance of the church also drives home the message: the platoon, and the ethos that formerly held it together—it's "religion"—is gone, given a final send-off in Barnes' murder of Elias.
We see the church one final time, when Taylor and the platoon are sent back out (it's not clear where). The destroyed church lends an ominous significance to the film's final movement, the suggests that the platoon may finally meet its very literal end (many of the guys end up dying).
While the church has a particular resonance in each of its three appearances, it also symbolizes or suggests something more general about the war. If a church normally symbolizes religion, faith, and god, a destroyed church suggests just the opposite: a godless wasteland, a place where all hope and faith has fled. That's not being too extreme, for that is exactly how Vietnam, and the war, appear to the men of the platoon, a losing effort where even the best of guys (Chris Taylor) find it hard to do the right thing.
They guys in the platoon are always smoking and drinking, and we don't mean cigarettes and Coca Cola.
Whenever these guys aren't on patrol, they're usually getting drunk and smoking pot. In fact, the division between the guys isn't just between the guys who are loyal to Barnes and the guys who are loyal to Elias, but also between the guys who only drink and the guys who both smoke pot (marijuana) and drink (the "heads," short for "potheads"). The guys who do both are in the Elias camp, the others are in Barnes' camp.
Drugs and alcohol are all over the film for a lot of reasons, and they signify different things. For one thing, drugs and alcohol abuse was rampant among U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. Stone's inclusion of this fact in the film is partly for reasons of historical accuracy. Like the soldiers in the actual war, the soldiers in Stone's film smoke and drink to deal with the horrors of the war. Barnes himself mockingly accuses the heads at one point of smoking marijuana to "escape from reality," and he seems to think that is a wimpy thing to do—Barnes himself embraces the reality of the war, so he claims, and yet he delivers this accusation in a drunken stupor. (Hint: that's irony.)
In addition, it's important that the drug use in the film takes place in a subterranean bunker of sorts, nicknamed the Underground. It's essentially a speakeasy, Vietnam style. The guys enter it through a semi-hidden entrance, it's dimly lit (there are lamps and Christmas lights), and there's paraphernalia and alcohol bottles all over the place. The guys do drugs, drink, and dance to popular 60's hits in their off time.
The fact that this place is underground, also gives it a somewhat ominous significance. Stone was obsessed with mythology when he conceived Platoon, and in a lot of ways this "underworld" recalls the realms of the dead in any number of ancient mythologies (in the early drafts of the script, Taylor visited the Egyptian underworld after dying in the second act).
The underworld-esque feel to the soldiers' opium den turned dance club is the film's way of casting some judgment on the guys. They are as good as "dead" when they're doing drugs, even if they're motives are understandable. They're hiding, semi-buried, in a place that, for all its deathlike resonances, is preferable to what is happening above ground.
Lots of bad stuff lurks underground in the Vietnam of Platoon. Lots.
You get the idea. There's a lot of danger underneath the jungle floor, and the guys are always justifiably wary of what may be there. While historically accurate, the portrayal of the underground in Platoon is also richly symbolic (go figure): all those surprises underground make us think of savage, underground layers, the home of dangerous beasts that feed on human flesh.
Alongside the more savage underground of NVA troops and Vietnamese villagers is the Underground where the "heads" (the guys who smoke pot) congregate. Now you're supposed to think of all those bad undergrounds when you see the Underground. The point is, despite how much the guys are having, this place is less than peachy. It doesn't help that it's dimly lit, and the guys getting stoned and drinking so they can escape reality (or become dead to it) if only temporarily. It's also eerily appropriate that King jokingly says Taylor has been "resurrected."
Besides the enemy underground bunkers and the platoon's drug den, the whole war itself is like one big underworld. Consider this: Taylor arrives in a plane that descends into the country, and the second Chris deplanes… he sees body bags. Vietnam is the realm of the dead, and Taylor may or may not get out alive.
You'll have to pardon Shmoop while we go take a shower. We got sweaty just watching Platoon.
When aren't the guys in Platoon sweating? In nearly every scene, somebody (usually everybody) is sweating profusely. The reasons for this are clear: the humid jungles of Vietnam, or of the Philippines (which are comparable and where the film was made) were a veritable swamp, a horrible place to be if you wanted to stay dry and cool.
The sweatiness of the soldiers gives the film a realistic feel, but also recalls the copious evacuation of that other, more important bodily fluid: blood. Sweating is the body's way of cooling itself down, but it's also a slow act of dehydration. The profuse sweating of the soldiers quietly implies that these guys are being slowly, slowly dehydrated, sucked of the life-giving "water" of their lives the deeper they go into the jungle, and into the war itself (remember during his first "hump" Taylor passes out from dehydration and heat exhaustion).
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Taylor's ordinary world is the nice comfortable life of a college in the United States. By the time we meet Taylor he has already left this world behind in order to serve his country in Vietnam.
Fed up with the fact that only the poor kids were suffering, and the rich were getting away with everything, Taylor enlists in the army. He tells his grandmother in one of his letters that he enlisted because he wanted to serve his country just like his grandfather and father did in the world wars.
During his first night patrol, Chris Taylor is about as incompetent as it gets. He forgets to turn the safety off on his Claymore mine and is thus unable to help initially. In a way, this is his unintentional refusal to kill people in battle, to participate in the adventure he signed up for.
After his first patrol running point, Taylor passes out from heat exhaustion and fatigues. Elias comes over and gives him some coaching—Taylor is carrying too much stuff. Thus begins a short but important relationship for Chris Taylor.
By the time the platoon gets to the village, Taylor is a convert. He has no problem screaming at a villager and making him "dance" around the bullets of his machine gun. Taylor is starting to act like other veterans.
Taylor alienates some of his fellow soldiers when he rescues the girl they are raping. Once he figures out Barnes killed Elias, and tries to beat the tar out of Barnes, he makes an enemy out of him too.
The "cave" in this one is almost a real cave—it's an underground drug den and hangout where all sorts of illicit activities take place. It is here that Taylor realizes the truth about Elias' death, and also decides he wants to kill Barnes. He even attacks Barnes, unsuccessfully.
In the second half of the film, Taylor faces two, major ordeals: survival and Barnes. He must figure what to do about Barnes (and avenge Elias' death) before Barnes figures out what to do with him, and he has to stay alive so he can get home, so he can undo his "mistake."
Instead of a sword it's a gun, and Chris Taylor picks one up after he miraculously survives a near death experience (the aerial bombardment). A wounded Barnes is nearby and Taylor is able to avenge Elias' death by killing Barnes and making it out of the war.
After killing Barnes, it's all downhill for Taylor ("all gravy," as King might say). He can go back and wait to get picked up and shipped home because the war is over him. That second wound he during the aerial bombardment is his ticket home.
Taylor survives the aerial bombardment, and he defeats Barnes. In the process, he's wounded, which means he gets to leave Vietnam, having successfully negotiated both "ordeals."
At the end of the film, Chris leaves Vietnam on a chopper, never to return (having been wounded twice, he has earned his ticket home). The war has changed him, and he knows he will carry its lessons and responsibilities with him forever. So much for the happy ending.
Most of Platoon takes place in the jungles of Vietnam. Okay, technically it's the Philippines where the film was shot, but it's supposed to be Vietnam. The only respite from all that sweaty foliage and underground darkness is when the boys head up in a helicopter—and even that's scary.
The soldiers in the film spend 90% of their time trekking through dense, wet, mosquito-ridden jungles replete with hidden enemy bunkers and equally dangerous jungle creatures (in one scene, Taylor notices a very eerie-looking snake slithering between his legs). While the jungles of Vietnam are where American troops conducted most of their campaigns in the late 60s and early 70s, the jungle isn't only important for reasons of historical accuracy.
The wet, dense foliage that the soldiers have such a difficult time navigating is richly symbolic as well. The fact that the soldiers often can't see more than a few feet in front of them, and the fact that dangerous jungle animals occasionally appear with little nor no warning (Taylor and the snake, for example) is not only a fitting metaphor for the whole Vietnam War (a sly, secretive, and seemingly invisible enemy), but for the larger international political problems that led to the war in the first place. Hindsight is always 20/20, but back in the mid 60's, U.S. politicians, generals, and policy makers really couldn't see too far ahead, just like the soldiers on the front lines.
The spread of communism (the domino effect) was frightening enough to demand military action...at least, according to the higher ups in Washington in the 60s. Just as the soldiers don't really know what's in front of them in the jungle, or what kind of enemy will pop up in front of them in a well-hidden bunker, it was pretty tricky for the decision-makers to "see" the bigger picture. Like the soldiers in the film, they had to do their best to anticipate threats and neutralize them—without a ton of knowledge or know-how.
They neutralized—or attempted to neutralize—those threats by deploying a massive armed force in South Vietnam in the mid 60s. The ensuing conflict, which only escalated as the 60s wore on, became known as the Vietnam War, and it is this "war" that is the larger setting of Platoon. We say "war" because technically the whole Vietnam thing wasn't technically a war. Congress never actually formally declared war, so the whole thing was, strictly speaking, a "conflict" or "police action."
Whatever the case, Vietnam changed just about everything.
Unlike previous wars, in which there was a clearly defined front line, and clearly defined territorial goals, Vietnam was a war of attrition, a race to see who could kill the most enemy troops or shed the most enemy blood.
And a bloody, bloody mess it was.
U.S. troops spent most of their time trekking through the jungle, fighting an enemy that was safely ensconced in elaborate bunker complexes (like the one the platoon finds about halfway through the film) and that, for all intents and purposes, had the upper hand: better knowledge of the terrain, the ability to tap into a large network of rural sympathizers (like the village the platoon torches), and a more powerful motivation to fight.
The difficult terrain, the new objectives of warfare (bodies, not territory), and a whole host of other problems made Vietnam a bloody mess. The fact that Vietnam was the first war to feature a substantial media presence (Source) meant that all the folks stateside were better informed about the horrors of war, and thus better equipped to protest the ridiculousness of the whole thing.
The fact that Vietnam took place during the social and cultural upheaval of the 60's (Source) didn't help matters, either. Many of those issues (especially race relations) found their way to Vietnam, which hinted at in the film in the fact that the African American characters (Junior, King, Big Harold) tend to stick together, and in Junior's frequent comments about race relations ("y'all been trying to keep the black man down, and string him out on that shit [marijuana]").
The horrors of war, coupled with the seeming purposelessness of Vietnam, ramped up tensions among the troops themselves as well and made lots of guys do lots of things they might not otherwise have done. Incompetent leadership and frustration among troops made fragging a serious concern. Elias' and Barnes' death are both examples of this as was the very real fear that seemingly innocuous farmers would turn out to be communist sympathizers led to countless atrocities.
So yeah, when you think of Platoon's setting, if you think "all around nightmare," you're pretty much on the right track.
When you've got a story as morally complex and tricky to navigate as Platoon, you want to get back to the basics.
Which is just what this movie does. Platoon is a pretty straightforward, linear narrative. It begins with Chris Taylor's arrival in Vietnam, his early growing pains (during his first mission he forgets to turn off the safety on his Claymore Mine), his acclimation to the rigors of the jungle, and the final destruction of his innocence. He's in most of the scenes of the film, although occasionally we see what the other guys are up to during some of the chaotic action sequences.
The one little narrative device that deserves some comment is the voice-over technique. These voice overs are technically snippets from letters Taylor is sending home to his grandma that tell her (and us) what is going on. While the film usually reinforces these updates with written explanations that tell us things like the platoon's location, the time of year, etc., Taylor's voice personalizes what are otherwise lifeless words.
Taylor's narrations also spell out the film's themes quite clearly so we don't miss them: war, death, loss of innocence. As the film progresses, Taylor transforms from a naïve college kid into a battle-hardened, disillusioned veteran, and it is largely through what he tells us that we learn about the transformation (although his killing of Barnes makes it clear that his soul, too, has been taken by the Nam).
It is also through his narrations that his character is given an interiority and depth it might not have had. We learn that his relationship with his parents is either severely strained, or non-existent, for example, hence the fact that he's writing to his grandmother. In one memorable moment he finishes his letter by saying "Tell mom and dad I… well, just tell them." He doesn't even know what to say to them. We also learn that he's gradually losing his sanity, something we might not necessarily pick up on given how focused he seems in some of the battle scenes.
While war films are often also action films, they don't have to be. Lots of great war films are about the psychological effects of war, or about the effects of war on the population back home. With Platoon, war is front and center, even when, strictly speaking, there's no action.
The scenes that take place at camp in the drug den, for example, depict war just as much as the actual battle sequences do. Good war films show that the "war" among the troops of the platoon, and the battles, psychological and otherwise, they individually fight (with fear, drugs, alcohol, etc.), are just as important as the explosions and shooing more typical of the battles against the enemy.
Like most war movies, Platoon is definitely an action film. There are several huge firefights, explosions, fires, helicopters, and all the other bells and whistles we associate with war films, and with action films more generally. Many of the film's major turning points take place during battles (Elias' death, for example, or Taylor's killing of Barnes).
Unlike lots of action movies, however, the action sequences in Platoon are designed to induce horror, not excitement. They show us how awful "real" action can be, and to dramatize its psychological effect on the participants.
The bickering between Elias and Barnes over how to conduct the war in Vietnam, the "civil war" among the troops of the platoon, and the politics of leadership are the hallmark of great drama.
On top of all that heavy drama, there's Chris Taylor's emotional journey over the course of the film. He starts out as a green, innocent, naïve soldier, a guy who voluntarily dropped out of college and enlisted. After witnessing all the horrors of war—illegal killings of civilians, fragging, torture—he's had enough. By the end, he's a hardened soldier, one willing to frag one of his superiors (Barnes) because he knows he can get away it. Drama all the way.
Platoon wasn't always called Platoon.
The very first version of what became Platoon was called Break, and it was a whole different type of story (much more mystical, more confusing, etc.). When Stone sat down to deal with Vietnam again (in the mid-seventies), he took some of the characters from Break and called the new film The Platoon. By the time he sat down to revise the script around 1984ish, he changed the title again to just Platoon.
So, why change the title so many times? Or rather, why just call the movie Platoon?
Well, for one thing the movie is about a platoon—an army unit usually comprised of about 40 guys. Okay, but the film just follows one specific platoon, right, so why not keep the title The Platoon?
Even though the film follows just one platoon, by making the title a little generic so that it doesn't name any specific platoon (as in "the platoon with Elias, Barnes, Taylor, Bunny," etc.), Stone was able to suggest that the events that happen in the film could have happened, and did in fact happen, to many platoons. The platoon we see is the vehicle for the film's themes, yes, but the title makes it clear that the experiences in the film were typical for any and every platoon.
There are two parts to the ending of Platoon, and they both matter. Big. Time.
First, and most importantly, Taylor kills Barnes. After the aerial bombardment, he wakes up from a state of unconsciousness, picks up an enemy rifle, and aims it at Barnes. Barnes, severely wounded himself, says, "Do it." Taylor obliges and kills him.
For most of the movie, Taylor has remained above the fray, so to speak. He doesn't kill any civilians during the raid on the village, he doesn't rape any women, and even though he wants to kill Barnes, he settles for starting a fight with him in the Underground.
This all changes at the eleventh hour, when Taylor goes from being a morally upright fella to its opposite: a guy who is just as tainted as Barnes, Bunny, and all the rest of the "bad" guys. The symbolism is clear: even the morally upright, levelheaded Chris Taylor is not immune to plagues of a terrible war. When Taylor frags Barnes, he becomes like Barnes (Barnes fragged Elias). Earlier in the film, Rhah mentions that Barnes can't be killed, "the only one who can kill Barnes… is Barnes." Barnes is dead, and Taylor has killed him, which suggests, quite clearly, that Taylor is Barnes, so to speak.
Taylor's killing of Barnes is kind of egregious on another level, too, which brings us to the second part of the ending: Taylor's departure from the battlefield and from Vietnam in a helicopter. In his final narration, he describes himself as a son of two "fathers," Barnes and Elias. If Barnes is one of Taylor's fathers, then Taylor has just killed his father in what amounts to a 20th-century Oedipal conflict.
Sure, this is all very figurative, but it adds another layer to Taylor's final act.
Now, as for Taylor's departure in a helicopter. This, too, is richly symbolic. If Taylor's descent into Vietnam is, essentially, a descent into an updated version of the classical underworld (the realm of the dead). Recall that what greets him on the tarmac: body bags.
Taylor's departure from Vietnam is symbolic departure from the underworld, a small miracle of sorts (he journeys through the realms of death and returns to tell the tale). But even though he returns, he returns a changed, tainted, and haunted man, one aware of his responsibility, to tell his tale and teach others.
Platoon is rated "R," and with good reason. The biggest shocker in this film is the violence. A lot of people die in this film (some meet their end in a very disturbing fashion, such as the Vietnamese woman Barnes kills and Manny who is tortured and tied to a tree).
Alongside the graphic violence is the language. While Platoon isn't as bad as some newer movies, the guys in this film drop plenty of F-bombs, and repeatedly refer to their Vietnamese enemies in less than flattering terms.
In short, leave the kids at home for this one.