Study Guide

Platoon Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Oliver Stone

    Oliver, Oliver, Oliver—what hasn't this guy directed?

    While Stone first made his name as a screen writer (he won the 1979 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on Midnight Express), he has become known as one of the premier directors in Hollywood, if sometimes a little out there.

    The short list of his films includes the following:

    • Salvador (1986)
    • Platoon (1986)
    • Wall Street (1987)
    • Born on the Fourth of July(1989)
    • JFK (1991)
    • The Doors (1991)
    • Heaven and Earth (1993)
    • Natural Born Killers (1994)
    • World Trade Center (2006)
    • W (2008)
    • Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps(2010)

    As you can see, Oliver Stone definitely digs a controversial subject: the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth), terrorism and the Bush presidency (W, World Trade Center), atrocities in Latin America (Salvador), white collar crime (Wall Street, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). You could take things a step further and say that Stone loves to gravitate towards the sixties: his three films about Vietnam, his biopic about sixties rock legend Jim Morrison (The Doors), and his fascinating exploration of the Kennedy assassination are all forays into some of the most important events of the decade that has become Stone's muse.

    Common Links

    While at first Stone's film seem to explore a diverse array of subjects, there are definitely some spottable patterns. Stone's notorious for his male characters, many of whom become "tainted and disillusioned" by their experiences but eventually reach "self-knowledge of right and wrong" (source). This is as true of Chris Taylor in Platoon as it is of Bud Fox in Wall Street, as of characters in Salvador as in Talk Radio (1988).

    Put another way, Stone's characters often partake in a "hellish descent," a journey to the "darkest of pits": the corrupt world of American Finance (the Wall Street franchise) and American politics (JFK), the jungles of Vietnam, the horrors of Cold War Latin America (Salvador), drugs and alcohol (The Doors), and professional sports (Any Given Sunday). In Platoon Taylor descends both into Vietnam but also into the literal Underground of the army camp, with its drugs and booze creating a strange, supernatural atmosphere.

    Cinematic Habits

    If Stone has a distinct, male protagonist, he's also got a few distinct filmmaking techniques up his sleeve. He's known for his voiceovers (as in Platoon), for blending actual historical footage with really sleek looking recreations (especially in JFK), and for using "quick-cut editing" (source).

    The latter plays a very important role in Platoon, especially during the action sequences, where the camera keeps shifting in such a way that we really have no idea what is happening, or where anybody is in relation to each other. The technique mimes the chaos of war, and thus mimes reality, which is precisely the point. 

    War is chaos, and you've got no firm footing on which to plant your worn out combat boots.

  • Screenwriters

    You are about to hear a long, strange tale, full of myths, men, and… rewrites.

    The Weird Original

    The origins of the Platoon screenplay go back to 1969, when a young Oliver Stone first started to grapple with the horrors he experienced during his own 15-month service in Vietnam. The result? A strange, myth-laden screenplay simply titled Break.

    This early version describes a young soldier who goes off to Vietnam, dies, and then ends up in the Egyptian underworld. It was all very "mythic," according to Stone, a product of the fact that he wasn't ready to "deal with Vietnam […] in a completely realistic way." The title may have been inspired by The Doors' song "Break on Through." The early script incorporated lots of their music, and Stone even sent a copy to Jim Morrison, whom he wanted to star in the film (Morrison had the script in his apartment in Paris when he died [source]).

    Closer Now

    In 1976, Stone wrote another screenplay about Vietnam called The Platoon, borrowing some of the characters from Break (who were based on people Stone knew in Vietnam) but eliminating the whole Doors thing and the heavy mythology. The Egyptian underworld of Break was replaced by the more realistic underworlds of the camp—the underground cellar where the "heads" (the potheads) hang out and smoke pot—and Vietnam itself, which is presented to the audience as an underworld (Taylor's descent into Vietnam is a descent into the world of the dead, symbolized at the beginning by the body bags that greet him on the tarmac).

    While the script written in 1976 is less mystical, the mythological element was still there, if transmuted. For example, Stone has talked about how the rivalry between Elias and Barnes, in addition to being based on two guys he once knew, was also based on characters from Homer's Iliad. According to Stone, it was all about "The angry Achilles versus the conscience-stricken Hector fighting for a lost cause on the dusty plains of Troy" (source). In addition to this, ahem, Iliadic tinge, there are also Oedipal overtones. Near the end of the film, Taylor describes himself as a son of both Barnes and Elias. We already know at that point that Taylor has killed Barnes, which means he's killed one his fathers—just like Oedipus.

    Approaching Final Draft

    All of these elements are in the final film. The biggest, and most important difference, between the 1976 first draft of The Platoon and the revision Stone made in 1984 in preparation for the making of the film was not the name change (it was called just Platoon by then), but Taylor's killing of Barnes. In the early version from 1974 Taylor leaves Vietnam without killing Barnes, his moral compass still pointing "north," so to speak.

    By 1984, Stone had a change of heart. It's deeply important that Taylor leaves Vietnam tainted, that he is unable to avoid partaking in the very horrors his earlier, more naïve self, had vociferously fought against. The symbolic point is clear: war is bad for everyone, and there is no way to remain decent in war without dying (Elias stays decent, and he dies).

  • Production Studio

    Orion Pictures and Hemdale

    Consider this the little flick that could.

    For a movie that won so many awards, it's amazing Platoon was ever produced in the first place. The film's journey from Oliver Stone's earliest ideas in 1969 to filming in the Philippines in 1986 was a rocky one.

    First, the back-story. Oliver Stone had tried to get financing for Platoon in the mid seventies, but was repeatedly turned down (the realism of the film was too much for an industry—and a country—not ready to come to grips with the horrors of the war). Stone's talented writing, however, got him in through the back door, so to speak. He would go on to win an Oscar for his work on the screenplay for Midnight Express in 1979 and pen such memorable scripts as Scarface.

    Stone's screen writing skills caught the attention of mega producer Dino DeLaurentiis, who solicited Stone's help on a film called Year of the Dragon. Stone agreed to help, but not without a little something for him. He made DeLaurentiis promise that he would secure funding for Platoon. Stone fulfilled his end of the bargain, but when de Laurentiis couldn't find somebody to pony up the dough for Platoon, he backed out, and tried to take the script with him (this was after Stone had already made plans to shoot in the Philippines and put together a makeshift cast). Oliver Stone would have none of it, and eventually had to threaten a lawsuit to get his screenplay back.

    Now We're Getting Somewhere

    Stone, meanwhile, had gotten a British production company—Hemdale—to finance another film he was making in the jungle: Salvador. At the time Hemdale was best known for a slew of independent films (mostly in Britain) as well as Terminator (1984) Before ultimately declaring bankruptcy in 1991, Hemdale would helm the production of a number of big films, including The Last Emperor (1987), winner of 9 Oscars, Hoosiers (1986), and The Return of the Living Dead (1985), among many other less successful releases.

    Now during the filming of Salvador, director and Hemdale co-founder John Daly visited Oliver Stone on set and perused the Platoon script. He was so impressed that he handed it off to Arnold Kopelson. Kopelson was deeply moved by the script, and Hemdale wanted to produce the film. They also wanted Stone to make some edits to Salvador. Kopelson brokered a deal between Stone and Hemdale, and the latter agreed to cough up the cash to make the film.

    While the story mostly ends there, there's one other little production tidbit to discuss: the involvement of Orion Pictures. While Kopelson hired Orion mostly for distribution purposes, the company did contribute some cash. Orion has been involved with several hundred films, but some of the highlights include: Amadeus (1984), Hoosiers (1986), Mississippi Burning (1988), Dances with Wolves (1990), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

  • Production Design

    Film

    Nothin' to see here, folks. Platoon was filmed and produced in 1986. There was no digital yet, so this bad boy was shot entirely on film in the jungles of the Philippines (the Philippine government even allowed Oliver Stone and co. to use some of their old military equipment).

    Now even though this film utilizes a very traditional mode of production, it does its best with special effects. There are lots and lots of explosions, fires, bombings and all that stuff. While it's easy to tell sometimes that the explosions are props (sometimes the grenades resemble high-grade firecrackers rather than real explosions), the film does a great job of blowing things up without the assistance of digital, which these days can make things look even more real.

  • Music (Score)

    You can summarize the score of this one in three words: "Adagio for Strings."

    This piece, written by Samuel Barber in 1936, is arguably one of the saddest, most depressing, and yet most hauntingly beautiful pieces of music on the planet. It's pretty much the theme of the film, and it's played on numerous occasions. We hear as the soldiers march away from the burning village, we hear the troops are heading back towards the bunker complex, where Elias is eventually killed. We also hear as the helicopters are leaving and Elias is being chased by enemy troops, again near the end of the film as mountains of dead bodies are buried in mass graves.

    The music is cued whenever something really crummy is about to happen, or has just happened, and it's the perfect accompaniment. While there isn't much else by way of music to counteract this very sad tune, there are some snippets of 60's classics that help a little bit. During his first visit to the Underground, the boys are smoking pot and listening to "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane, a dreamy song that is perfect for the dimly sit surroundings and the overall mood.

    Sounds of the Sixties

    While Chris Taylor is learning about marijuana, Bunny and Junior are listening to this Merle Haggard song ("Okie from Muskogee"). This is a perfect song for Bunny and represents a certain type of  southern guy who loves his Budweiser. It's also perfect because one of the lines in the song is "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee." The point of the scene is to draw a contrast between the pot smokers (the "heads"), and the others (among which are Junior and Bunny).

    Later on, during the same visit to the Underground, the guys are jamming a Smokey Robinson tune—"The Tracks of my Tears"—as they continue to get high and drunk. The use of songs from the 60s is a trademark of Oliver Stone's, and he always does it with aplomb.

  • Fandoms

    Platoon isn't like Harry Potter, with a huge, ginormous, massive fan club apparatus. It's a very sobering and bloody war film, and those kinds of things don't usually make people want to don costumes and reenact scenes. With that said, there is plenty of Internet buzz about the film, even three decades later. The film definitely made a splash, and really reminded the people of the U.S. about all the bad stuff that went down in Vietnam.

    Like lots of movies, Platoon does have its own wiki, complete with character bios and other assorted factoids. Aside from a few scattered oddities, such as this trio of dolls based on the film's three main characters there's not much out there.

    Most of the fan-atical energy out there is dedicated to the individual actors and, of course, to director Oliver Stone. If you want to check out what some of the avid Stone-ites have to say, check out this site. If you want more, try this one.

    For Charlie Sheen, you've got a ton of options. There's this Official Fan Club, sure, but also other assorted sites like this and this. For Johnny Depp, you can go here.

    While some of the film's less flashy, but still great actors, stars (Tom Berenger, John C. McGinley, Willem Dafoe) don't have super cool sites devoted to them, you can still find scattered discussions and aborted fanpop pages if you really look hard.