Monday, November 17, 2008

War and Combat films I

Platoon (1986, Oliver Stone) will be the primary case study film focused in the war/combat film genre. This film shall be compared with a few other war films in the late 1980s and the changes if made to the generic conventions shall be identified and mentioned. The case study film, Platoon incorporated various incidents leading to a soldiers’ death while in a war which was a first of its kind. In addition, Platoon differentiated moral acts from blind revenge and exposed the varying morality within a platoon making it an anti-war film - unconventional. This essay shall discuss the narrative/plot conventions in war films and indicate its social and cultural impact during and after its time of release.

Narrative / Plot Conventions

Platoon unlike other films of the time reflected a fresh recruit’s experience of being part of the army. It was also the first Vietnam film which showed the difference between it and the World War II by the “aleatory explosions” which was a modern war (Corliss 1987, 5). In addition, the film renders a “moral and spiritual education” by showing the difference between “Christ-figure Elias” and “demonic Barnes”. Elias prevents the American soldiers from inhumanly raping and terrorising Vietnam villagers whereas Barnes encourages inhuman behaviour due to immense hatred against the enemies (Prince 1992, 138). Although the irrational perspective did make radical changes in the genre, the film was similar to the moral struggle between one messianic and one deranged officer in Attack! (1956, Robert Aldrich). The paradox of killing someone to become a hero is shown in both the films – Taylor kills Barnes who killed Elias. This urges one to contemplate that killing someone makes one a hero or not. These dehumanizing real occurring revealed via Platoon forced the audience to question themselves of calling the soldiers heroes or not ultimately making this a “non-heroic film” (Corliss 1987, 5; Connell, 2008).

The above mentioned factor therefore makes Platoon both a war and melodrama film. The unexpected death of soldiers in combat, Elias’s protective attitude towards the debut recruits and the overall sacrifice for the greater good for the country bears resemblances with The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton) (Steve Lipkin cited in Loukides and Fuller 1993, 175).

Along with Platoon, in Hamburger Hill (1987, John Irvin), Born on the fourth of July
(1989, Oliver Stone) and Casualties of War (1989, Brian De Palma), the Vietnam War was shown as if being “re-enacted” (Westwell 2006, 79). Burning of houses with Zippo lighters, shooting a Viet Cong suspect in the head and murdering the civilians in My Lai matched the photographs clicked and published by Ron Haeberle, a US Army photographer thereby maintain the authenticity of the war. These movies due to the truthiness began being seen as a documentary (Westwell 2006, 78).

In Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick), the narrative exposes the reason behind committing such inhuman behaviour revealed by the above mentioned films. The training sessions using such lines – “You will be a weapon, a minister of death” “I don’t want no teenage queen. I just want my M-14” “Blood, blood, blood” “Kill, kill, kill”. This curriculum moulds the recruits to become “misogynists and gook-haters”. Like Platoon, Kubrick via Full Metal Jacket reasons that the dark side of human nature is awakened by demonic characters such as Barnes in Platoon. He convinces the audience to look at the war in the enemies’ perspective where many innocents were killed for no reason and degrades the “national-chauvinistic assumption” of the American troops (Dittmar and Michaud 1990, 31).

All these Vietnam War films like other war films were conventional in trying to “discover or rediscover and redefine America or Americans” – Taylor tries to rediscover himself by taking a break and serving the army in Platoon (Steve Lipkin cited in Loukides and Fuller 1993, 176).

However, Vietnam War films before Platoon focused on large-scale deaths due to financial constraints rather than creating characters within the narrative and showing their individual death sequences. There was less personalisation. Each character shared his history and is killed in unusual ways – “self-inflicted wound or sniper’s bullet or friendly fire”; deaths vary/alternate momentarily between mass and individual deaths in the narrative of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket making them unconventional at the time (Torgovnick 2005, 31).

Apart from “masculinity, violence and good versus bad” being the plot conventions in war films, the “astonishingly harrowing impact” of Platoon is because of the depiction of the racist social behaviour among the US soldiers – the black soldiers distinctly standing aside while the whites celebrate. This symbolism overpowered realism making it a successfully “unconventional documentary-like film” (Kellner 1995, 120-121).

Iconic Conventions

The use of weapons such as “M-16 automatic rifles, M-60 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers” is the icons that distinctly make the war films Vietnam War films – subgenre (Steve Lipkin cited in Loukides and Fuller 1993, 178).

Social and Cultural impact

The visual environment and weapons that iconize Vietnam War films have an “emotional, psychological and social impact” because of the reality (mentioned earlier) revealed in them. Films such as Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola) arose “class-consciousness” – blacks made to do inferior jobs like cleaning the area and machinery in Platoon (Brian J. Woodman cited in Eberwein 2005, 91). Unlike any Vietnam War films, Platoon due to its popularity and realist portrayal of the war managed to stop the “cultural arrogance” and “lack of cultural affinity with Asian people” of an average American (Lewis 2007, 258).

Vietnam veterans suffered psychological problems and had a “social impact” due to films based on the War as they began having flashbacks which made it difficult for them to get adjusted to non-military life. It was films like Coming Home which made the audience realise of the soldiers’ experiences and feelings about the war (Scurfield 2004, 85; Hall 2005, 181-182).

The usage of drugs for humour or camaraderie culturally impacts the otherwise wide political narrative of films such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now and current war films. It depicts that the US Government had lost control over its army who consume drugs to “fill their isolated existence” (Blackman 2004, 65).

In conclusion, the realism in the case study film – Platoon influenced the later films to focus both on the war and the perspectives of both the nations at war making it unconventional. It carried a melodramatic element with the war genre by providing a moral education. There were elements that made it a war film with Vietnam as its sub-genre. It also arose class-consciousness and exposed the harsh truth of the war fields leaving a social and cultural impact.


Blackman, S. 2004. Chilling out. Maidenhead, Berkshire: McGraw-Hill International – Open University Press.

Collin, D. O. 2008. Platoon depicts true horror of war. The Daily Collegian online, December 2, 2004. (accessed September 10, 2008).

Corliss, R. 1987. Cover Story Platoon. TIME, January 26, 1987. (accessed September 8, 2008).

Dittmar, L. and G. Michaud. 1990. From Hanoi to Hollywood. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Hall, M. K. 2005. Crossroads. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kellner, D. 1995. Media Culture. Madison Avenue, New York: Taylor & Francis Group – Routledge.

Lewis, A. R. The American Culture of War. Madison Avenue, New York: Taylor & Francis Group – CRC Press.

Lipkin, S. 1993. The object realms of the Vietnam War. In Beyond the Stars, ed. P. Loukides and L. K. Fuller., 175-187, Chicago: Popular Press.

Prince, S. 1992. Visions of Empire. Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Scurfield, R. M. A Vietnam Trilogy. New York: Algora Publishing.

Torgovnick, M. 2005. The War Complex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Westwell, G. 2006. War Cinema. Market Place, London: Wallflower Press.
Woodman, B. J. 2005. Represented in the margins: Images of African-American soldiers in Vietnam War Combat Films. In The War Film, ed. R. T. Eberwein., 90-117, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Copyright © Ajey Padival 2008 (Brisbane, Australia; +61-434360675;

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