"This ain't the army, Sarge."
J from NY | New York | 06/17/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Brian De Palma's "Casualties of War" is not easy to watch, even for the most seasoned of "cineastes". Under the influence of war and the warmakers human beings are capable of behavior that defies comprehension. And the behavior of these men, with the mysterious exception of Pvt Errikson (Michael J. Fox), is indeed beyond comprehension.
How any decent veteran or man could object to this film also defies comprehension. It is not anti-military or anything of that kind. On the contrary, one would have to say after a thorough review of the actual story behind the rape, torture and murder of this Vietnamese girl (she was between the ages of 16 and 18), Pvt Errikson (whoever he really is) is an example of the greatest and most courageous form of patriotism: an attempt, even in the deadliest of situations, to uphold the Constituion and military law under the most dire of circumstances. Sean Penn plays Sgt. Meserve, a terrifying Platoon leader who, after suffering a loss in his unit, becomes a bloodthirsty monster and submits to Moloch: he proposes that the 5 men kidnap a "VC whore" from her village for some "portable rest and relaxation." Clarke (Don Harvey) who seems lacking in any conscience at all, is all for it. Diaz (John Leguizamo in his first role) knows what the platoon is doing is wrong, but is unwilling to witness to this , too afraid or too indifferent to take a stand. Hatcher (John C. Reilly) is none too bright puppet who comments to Errikson that he "feels like a viking" engaging in this activity.
This leaves Pvt. Erikkson completely alone. This really is one of the worst situations a person can be put in and I cannot believe he managed to survive. His attempts to stop the repeated rapes upon the girl (played wonderfully in a demanding role by Thuy Thu Le Oanh) are foiled under threat of death. Still he tries, and still he fails, and there is no blaming him--how could he have? A priest whom the real Errikson met with lamented this, but the only option here would have been him killing the entire platoon or throwing himself in front of the bullets that killed her, in which case there would have been no one around to bring these "soldiers" to justice. Dale Dye and Ving Rhames do ominously good jobs as Errikson's military superiors who tell him to keep his mouth shut, even promising to get him out of Vietnam if he'll just get over what an unfortunate incident this brutal rape and murder of an innocent was. This movie is, to my mind, as good as "Serpico", "On the Waterfront", or any film about one man who maintains his basic moral integrity in horrendous situations.
This whole story emerged from an article that journalist Daniel Lang wrote in 1969, which is also a book. Errikson met with him at some point and recounted the events. In reality, unlike in the film, Sgt. Meserve did not save Errikson's life and had not recently lost a bunch of men. That's to make him more human in the movie. Also, these guys received stiff sentences in the tribunal and sentenced to the stockade in Fort Leavenworth: however, their sentences were commuted to almost nothing. Clarke, the man who joked about gutting the girl three times, was let out after 8 years so he could "pursue a career in literature and philosophy". The real Errikson will never know this kind of freedom or be given credit for his unbelievable courage because he has to live in fear of these guys until he's dead.
I am not saying that this is typical behavior for Vietnam veterans. There were men I've talked to who would have shot soldiers the minute they began behaving like this. Unfortunately, though, that doesn't make these kind of things irrelevant. Recommended to anyone who wants to understand what makes a man of conscience what he is, or see what war can do to human beings.