TIME movies

Platoon: Viet Nam, the way it really was, on film

You are getting a free preview of a TIME Magazine article from our archive. Many of our articles are reserved for subscribers only. Want access to more subscriber-only content, click here to subscribe.

Oliver Stone sprang up in bed and found fear staining his sheets. A dream had startled him awake. He was 16 years out of Viet Nam, but in the dream, “they had shipped me back. Somehow they found me at the age of 38 and sent me back. I woke up in a sweat, in total terror.” That was two years ago. Now Stone, who earned a Bronze Star and a MASH unit’s worth of physical and emotional wounds in the jungles of Viet Nam, has transformed his war experience — the bad dream he lived through for 15 months in 1967-68 — into a film called Platoon. With craft, crackle, a little bombast and plenty of residual rage, he has created a time-capsule movie that explodes like a frag bomb in the consciousness of America, showing how it was back then, over there.

Begin with a birth: a baby-faced soldier, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), is delivered from the womb of a transport plane into the harsh light of Viet Nam. He will find death soon enough: four patrols in the film, four wrenching revelations. On Chris’ first night patrol he watches, paralyzed with fear, as the enemy approaches and another new boy dies. On a second patrol the platoon enters a village that might be My Lai; anger goads Chris to spit bullets at the feet of a petrified Vietnamese, and before the day is over the group’s leader, Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), has seen to the slaughtering of villagers before the entire place is torched. During a third battle, Barnes tracks down a woods-wise sergeant, Elias (Willem Dafoe), who had interrupted Barnes’ massacre, shoots him and leaves him for dead. On the final patrol Chris flips into heroism or psychosis, wipes out a nest of North Vietnamese and confronts the demon he has almost become. End with a murder — the last of too bloody many.

Welcome to the old nightmare — the one neither Stone nor the 2.7 million American soldiers who went to Viet Nam can shake. Welcome back to the war that, just 20 years ago, turned America schizophrenic. Suddenly we were a nation split between left and right, black and white, hip and square, mothers and fathers, parents and children. For a nation whose war history had read like a John Wayne war movie — where good guys finish first by being tough and playing fair — the polarization was soul-souring. Americans were fighting themselves, and both sides lost.

Platoon pushes the metaphor further, thousands of miles away from the “world,” into the combat zones of Nam. Platoon says that American soldiers — the young men we sent there to do our righteous dirty work — turned their frustrations toward fratricide. In Viet Nam, Stone suggests, G.I.s re-created the world back home, with its antagonisms of race, region and class. Finding no clear and honorable path to victory in the booby-trapped underbrush, some grunts focused their gunsights on their comrades. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army (NVA) were shadowy figures in this family tragedy; stage center, it was sibling riflery. Stone’s achievement is to pound and hack this theme into a ripping yarn about a good man, an evil man and an Everyman — a young, romanticized Oliver Stone — suspended between them with his life and ideals in the balance. In vivid imagery and incendiary action, Stone’s film asks of our soldiers, “Am I my brother’s killer?” The answer is an anguished yes.

And a resounding “you bet” to the question, Can a ferocious movie about an unpopular war, filmed on the cheap with no stars and turned down by every major studio, find success, controversy and the promise of an Oscar statuette at the end of the tunnel? In its early limited opening, Platoon is already a prestige hit, and the film shows signs of becoming a blockbuster as it opens across the country over the next three weeks. It has captivated intellectuals, movie buffs and urban grunts — astonishing, across-the-board appeal for a hellacious sermon. It has ignited a fire storm of debate, from political swamis and Viet vets, on its merits as art and history. It is the fountainhead for a freshet of Viet Nam exploration: We Can Keep You Forever, a BBC documentary about the mystery surrounding MIAs, will be aired Wednesday in 21 U.S. cities, and this spring will see two new movies set in Viet Nam, The Hanoi Hilton and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. In a movie season of Trekkies, Dundees and dentist-devouring houseplants, Oliver Stone has proved that a film can still roil the blood of the American body politic. Platoon the picture is now Platoon the phenomenon.

It is a picture first and foremost, a series of pictures that lodge in the mind with other indelible images of war. The prop wash from a landing helicopter blows the tarpaulins off three bodies, their shrouds torn off, their makeshift graves defiled. In the village, after the slaughter, the soldiers carry Vietnamese children on their shoulders — G.I. Joes, big brothers to the kids whose village they have just destroyed — and the soldier who bashed a man’s head takes a tourist snapshot of the holocaust. More than any other film, Platoon gives the sense — all five senses — of fighting in Viet Nam. You can wilt from the claustrophobic heat of this Rousseauvian jungle; feel the sting of the leeches as they snack on Chris’ flesh; hear all at once the chorus of insects, an enemy’s approaching footsteps on the green carpet and Chris’ heartbeat on night patrol. The film does not glamourize or trivialize death with grotesque special effects. But it jolts the viewer alive to the sensuousness of danger, fear and war lust. All senses must be alert when your life is at stake, and Oliver Stone is an artist-showman who can make movies seem a matter of life and death.

Until Dec. 19, though, when Platoon opened, Hollywood had thought the picture a matter of indifference. It had taken Stone ten hungry years to get the project going. “For two years in the late ’70s,” says Producer Martin Bregman, “I banged on every door in California to get it done, but at that time Viet Nam was still a no-no.” Tom Berenger, the film’s showcase psychopath, imagines that “it must have made Stone feel like an old man, carrying the project around for so long. He said it broke his heart.” Then something interesting happened: people went for Platoon. Most critics were impressed, many were impassioned, and even those who trashed the picture helped make it the season’s top conversation piece. Soon long lines were forming outside the movie’s Times Square flagship — at lunchtime, on weekdays, in the hawk bite of a January wind — and after midnight in early- to-bed Hollywood. In 74 theaters on the Jan. 9-11 weekend, Platoon averaged more than $22,000, the highest per-screen take of any new film.

In the industry, Stone’s old colleagues and fellow directors have laid on their benedictions. Woody Allen calls it a “fine movie, an excellent movie.” Says Steven Spielberg: “It is more than a movie; it’s like being in Viet Nam. Platoon makes you feel you’ve been there and never want to go back.” James Woods, who starred in Stone’s previous film, Salvador, calls him an “artist whose vision transcends politics. Everyone from the ex-hippie to the ex-grunt can be moved by Platoon. And his passion isn’t bogus — he doesn’t play Imagine at the end of the film to break people’s hearts.” Brian De Palma, who filmed Scarface from a Stone script, sees him achieving a volcanic maturity in Platoon: “He has now channeled his feeling and energy into a cohesive dramatic work. He’s an auteur making a movie about what he experienced and understands. Seeing Platoon get through the system makes the soul feel good.”

With its critical, popular and insider acclaim swelling, Platoon began to shoulder its way toward the front rank of Oscar favorites. By now it would have to be counted as the front runner, and Hollywood is furrowing its back with self-congratulatory pats for making this big bold message movie. To Stone, Hollywood’s claim of paternity for Platoon must seem a rich joke. He and Hollywood both know that Platoon — like The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, The Boys in Company C, The Killing Fields and nearly all the serious movies about the war in Southeast Asia — secured its major financing from foreign producers. “It was a picture we wanted to support,” says John Daly, chairman of Britain’s Hemdale Pictures, which also produced Salvador. “We respect Oliver’s passions. Besides, he spent only $6 million on Platoon” — about half the budget of a typical Hollywood film.

The typical film, though, does not provoke a political free-for-all. Many conservatives have taken up arms against Platoon. In the far-right Washington Times’ Insight magazine, John Podhoretz castigates it as “one of the most repellent movies ever made in this country.” The film, he says, “blackens the name and belittles the sacrifice of every man and woman who served the United States in the Viet Nam War (including Stone).” Politicians are eager to return the salvos. Former Senator Gary Hart, aware of the electorate’s fondness for presidential candidates with movie credentials, campaigns for the film by urging that “every teenager in America should see Platoon.”

Now ask a man who’s been there: David Halberstam, who covered the war for the New York Times and, in The Best and the Brightest, documented two Administrations’ slides into the Big Muddy. “Platoon is the first real Viet Nam film,” Halberstam proclaims, “and one of the great war movies of all time. The other Hollywood Viet Nam films have been a rape of history. But Platoon is historically and politically accurate. It understands something that the architects of the war never did: how the foliage, the thickness of the jungle, negated U.S. technological superiority. You can see how the forest sucks in American soldiers; they just disappear. I think the film will become an American classic. Thirty years from now, people will think of the Viet Nam War as Platoon.”

Neither Sly Stallone nor Oliver Stone can put the whole picture of Viet Nam on a movie screen. There were 2.7 million stories in the naked jungle. Each veteran has his own view of the war, and each will have his own vision of Platoon. More than a few are disturbed by its presentation of a military unit at war with itself. Says Bob Duncan, 39, who served in the 1st Infantry at the same time Stone was in the 25th: “He managed to take every cliche — the ‘baby killer’ and ‘dope addict’ — that we’ve lived with for the past 20 years and stick them in the movie about Viet Nam.” Says another veteran, Nick Nickelson, 43: “I hope this doesn’t bring back those old depictions. God help us, I don’t want to go back into a closet again.”

Other vets deny the prevalence of dope smoking and the depiction of military officers as either psychos or cowards. But John Wheeler, 42, a veteran who is president of the Center for the Study of the Viet Nam Generation in Washington and chairman of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Fund, argues that “there were drug cultures; there were green lieutenants. Stone / wanted to clean out the festering part of the wound. The next Viet Nam movie may be the one that tells the whole truth: that we were the best-equipped, best-trained army ever fielded, but against a dedicated foe in an impossible terrain. It was a state-of-the-art war on both sides. But Platoon is a new statement about Viet Nam veterans. Before, we were either objects of pity or objects that had to be defused to keep us at a distance. Platoon makes us real. The Viet Nam Memorial was one gate our country had to pass through; Platoon is another. It is part of the healing process. It speaks to our generation. Those guys are us.”

Listen to these guys, and you may suspect that Platoon is not so much a movie as a Rorschach blot. But that is part of the caginess of Stone’s approach. The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once wrote that when a good film is also a popular film, it is because of a misunderstanding. Platoon could very well be misunderstood into superhit status. The army of Rambomaniacs will love the picture because it delivers more bang for the buck; all those yellow folks blow up real good. Aging lefties can see the film as a demonstration of war’s inhuman futility. Graybeards on the right may call it a tribute to our fighting men, in whatever foreign adventure. The intelligentsia can credit Platoon with expressing, in bold cinematic strokes, Stone’s grand themes of comradeship and betrayal. And the average youthful moviegoer — too young to remember Viet Nam even as the living-room war — may discover where Dad went in the 1960s and why he came home changed or came home in a body bag.

“In any other war, they would have made movies about us too. Dateline: Hell!, Dispatch from Dong Ha, maybe even A Scrambler to the Front . . . But Viet Nam is awkward, everybody knows how awkward, and if people don’t even want to hear about it, you know they’re not going to pay money to sit there in the dark and have it brought up.” So wrote Michael Herr in Dispatches, published in 1977, a year before the first spate of Viet Nam dramas. (The mid-’60s had offered a couple of World War II wheezes disguised as topical films: A Yank in Viet-Nam, so poorly received that it changed its name to Year of the Tiger, and John Wayne’s hilariously wrongheaded The Green Berets, with its famous climax of the sun setting in the east.) 1978 brought three pictures — Coming Home, The Boys in Company C and The Deer Hunter — that touched on Viet Nam, and the following year Francis Coppola released Apocalypse Now.

Trouble was, most of these films were not about Viet Nam. Coming Home was a disabled-vet love story — The Best Years of Our Lives with Jon Voight in the Harold Russell role. The Deer Hunter was . . . well, what was it? An incoherent parable about male bonding through Russian roulette. Bats and beautiful, it stood like Ishmael on the prow of its pretensions and declared, “Call me masterpiece.” Apocalypse Now was fine as long as it accompanied its doomed, questing hero (played by Martin Sheen, Charlie’s father) upstream on the River Styx; then it fogged off into fantasyland with Marlon Buddha. Only Company C, a standard-issue war film about recruits betrayed by their incompetent officers, spent much time in a Nam combat zone. But it really resided, with The Green Berets, in the twilight zone of World War II gestures and bromides.

Hollywood (and not just Hollywood) refused to see that Viet Nam was different. All the old givens — beau geste, military master plans, unswerving belief in the officer class — were fatally irrelevant to a guerrilla war. Forget the World War II narrative line of tanks and tactics, which moved with the ponderous sweep of a Golden Age Hollywood plot. Viet Nam, set in jungles without beginning or end, was a flash of episodic, aleatory explosions; it was modernism brought to war. And a new kind of war demanded a new look at the war-movie genre. Platoon fills the bill. It is a huge black slab of remembrance, chiseled in sorrow and anger — the first Viet Nam Memorial movie.

Though Platoon is a breakthrough, it is not a breakaway. The film is traditional enough to connect with a mass audience. In its story line it holds echoes of Attack!, Robert Aldrich’s 1956 psychodrama, in which a World War II infantry company is torn by a mortal struggle between two officers — one messianic, the other deranged — while a young man’s loyalty hangs in the balance. Platoon‘s narration, in the form of Chris’ letters to his grandmother, is often as stilted and redundant as silent-movie title cards. When a naive new boy shows Chris a photo of his sweetheart, you just know that, in the best ’40s-movie fashion, the guy’s a goner.

There are darker currents, too, of a passive racism. The black soldiers are occasionally patronized and sentimentalized; they stand to the side while the white soldiers grab all the big emotions. And the Vietnamese are either pathetic victims or the invisible, inhuman enemy. In the scheme of Platoon (and not just Platoon) they do not matter. The nearly 1 million Vietnamese casualties are deemed trivial compared with America’s loss of innocence, of allies, of geopolitical face. And the tragedy of Viet Nam is seen as this: not that they died, but that we debased ourselves by killing them.

Of course, Platoon need not be every possible Viet Nam film to be the best one so far. It is enough that Stone has devised a drama of palpable realism that is also a metaphor for the uncivil war that raged in the U.S. and can flare up anytime in any family. Indeed, at the film’s molten core is the tug of wills between two strong men, outsize figures of shameless strutting charisma, for parentage of their platoon and for their new recruit, Chris. Barnes, the staff sergeant, could be Chris’ legal father; Elias, the romantic renegade, could be a spiritual father, even after his death. They are like Claudius and the Ghost wrestling for Hamlet’s allegiance.

Both men are legendary soldiers who have survived long years in Viet Nam — Elias by a kind of supernal sylvan grace, Barnes by simply refusing to die. Elias is Jesus crossed with Jim Morrison. He will literally take a load off Chris’ shoulders, or share a fraternal toke with Chris through the barrel of a rifle, or moon over the night stars, or smile ingenuously at his killer. He is hard to know and harder to destroy, a creature of Stone’s wild literary sentiment. Barnes, who says of some fresh corpses, “Tag ’em and bag ’em,” has no sentiment at all. When he pulls a steaming metal shard out of a wounded G.I.’s side, it seems as much to display his expertise as to relieve the man’s pain. He will do anything to achieve his objective: lead a suicide mission or send his rival on one; murder a village woman in cold blood or taunt his men toward murdering him. Chris, who feels an irresistible kinship to both men, says they were “fighting for possession of my soul.” The film’s most controversial question is, Who won?

At this point, readers who have not seen Platoon are excused for the next two paragraphs. The others, the grizzled vets, can ponder Chris’ motives and actions at the film’s climax. He believes (and we know) that Barnes has killed Elias in the jungle. He has already considered taking murderous revenge and been told, “The only thing that can kill Barnes is Barnes.” On his last patrol, Chris’ suicidal resolve turns him into a mean, obscene fighting machine — a rifle with a body attached, as reckless as Barnes, as resourceful as Elias — and he leaves half a dozen NVA in his wake. Now Barnes finds Chris and is ready to kill him when a blast knocks them unconscious. Later Chris revives and finds the injured Barnes ordering him to get a medic. The young man lifts his weapon and, when Barnes says, “Do it,” does the bastard in.

In the movie theaters, this illegal shooting usually gets a big hand. Righteous vengeance. Good guy kills bad guy. It is the kind of movie catharsis that may make Platoon a megahit. But can Chris or the audience take moral satisfaction in this deed? Which “father” has he followed? Has Chris become like Elias, back from the grave to avenge his own murder? “You have to fight evil if you are going to be a good man,” Stone says. “That’s why Chris killed Barnes. Because Barnes deserved killing.” Or has he emulated his enemy? Has he become Barnes in order to kill him? Stone has another answer: “I also wanted to show that Chris came out of the war stained and soiled — all of us, every vet. I want vets to face up to it and be proud they came back. So what if there was some bad in us? That’s the price you pay. Chris pays a big price. He becomes a murderer.” A good man, and a murderer? It is a tribute to Platoon‘s cunning that it can sell this dilemma both ways, and a mark of Stone’s complexity that he can argue either side and believe both.

The dichotomy was bred in him. Stone was born in 1946, the only child of a Jewish stockbroker and the French Catholic girl he met just after V-E day while serving as a colonel on Eisenhower’s staff. Lou Stone wrote a monthly newsletter about economics and politics; his son describes the style as “right-wing Walter Lippmann, a view of the world every month. My father believed that life was hard. The important thing was to make a living.” Jacqueline Stone was just the opposite: inexhaustibly sociable, the original bete de fete. “My mother loved movies,” Stone says, “and every Monday I’d play hooky, and we’d go see two or three movies. From the start, I had the contradiction in me: my mother’s outgoing, optimistic, French side and the dark, pessimistic, Jewish side of my father.”

The Stones lived in Manhattan town houses and Stamford, Conn., homes; Oliver went to Manhattan’s tony Trinity School and the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa.; he summered with his maternal grandparents and spoke French before he learned English. (From Viet Nam, Oliver would write his grandmother versions of the letters that Chris reads in Platoon.) At five he composed skits for a marionette show, casting his French cousins in the parts. At seven he wrote stories. To earn a quarter for a Classic comic book, he would write a theme each week for his father. And at nine he started work on a book, 900 pages about his family and his life.

Oliver stopped writing the book when he was twelve; the family stopped when Oliver was 16. “The news of their divorce came as a total shock,” Stone recalls. “The Hill School headmaster was the one who told me. And when they were divorced, my father gave me the facts of life. He told me that he was heavily in debt. He said, ‘I’ll give you a college education, and then you’re on your own. There’s literally no money.’ ”

Lou Stone never recovered financially. “And yet,” his son says, “I think his reversal helped push me to leave my privileged childhood behind. I finished Hill and spent a year at Yale, but I saw myself as a product — an East Coast socioeconomic product — and I wanted to break out of the mold. Then I read Lord Jim. Conrad’s world was exotic and lush; it exercised a tremendous allure for me.” It also propelled Oliver into a teaching job at a Chinese Catholic school in a Saigon suburb. It was 1965, the year a half million Yank soldiers landed in Viet Nam, and Stone was 18 years old. “I woke up in Asia,” he says, “and it became an orphan home for me. It was everything I thought it would be: the heat, the green seas, the bloodred sunsets. In Saigon, the G.I.s from the 1st Infantry Division were just arriving. There were guys walking around with pistols, no curfews, shoot-outs in the streets. The place was like Dodge City.”

Itinerary for a young wanderluster: on a merchant marine ship from Saigon to Oregon; in Guadalajara, Mexico, writing 400 pages of a novel; back to Yale, then dropping out a second and last time to concentrate on his writing. The book was now 1,400 pages. “It started out as a boy’s suicide note — not that I was going to commit suicide, but I was very depressed. It was Jack London- type experiences in a Joycean style. Totally insane, with great passages of lyricism here and there. I thought it was the best thing since Rimbaud. And when Simon & Schuster rejected it, I gave up. I threw half the manuscript in the East River and said, ‘My father is right. I’m a bum.’ I felt the solution was total anonymity. I had to atone. So I joined the Army. They’d cut my hair, and I’d be a number. To me the American involvement was correct. My dad was a cold warrior, and I was a cold-war baby. I knew that Viet Nam was going to be the war of my generation, and I didn’t want to miss it. I must say, my timing was impeccable.” If the young man had failed as Rimbaud, he might make it as Rambo.

Nope. “My first day in Viet Nam,” Stone says, “I realized, like Chris in Platoon, that I’d made a terrible mistake. It was on-the-job training: Here’s your machete, kid; you cut point. You learn if you can, and if not you’re dead. Nobody was motivated, except to get out. Survival was the key. It wasn’t very romantic.” Each of the three combat units he served in was divided into antagonistic groups, as in the film: “On one side were the lifers, the juicers ((heavy drinkers)) and the moron white element. Guys like Sergeant Barnes — and there really was a sergeant as scarred and obsessed as Barnes — were in this group. On the other side was a progressive, hippie, dope- smoking group: some blacks, some urban whites, Indians, random characters from odd places. Guys like Elias — and there really was an Elias, handsome, electric, the Cary Grant of the trenches. They were out to survive this bummer with some integrity and a sense of humor. I fell in with the progressives — a Yale boy who heard soul music and smoked dope for the first time in his life.”

Most of Platoon‘s starkest events come from Stone’s backpack of Viet Nam memories. “I saw the enemy for the first time on my first night ambush,” he recalls, “and I froze completely. Thank God the guy in the next position saw them and opened up. The ensuing fire fight was very messy. I was wounded in the back of the neck — an inch to the right and I’d have been dead — and the guy next to me had his arm blown off.” He emptied his rifle clip at a man’s feet, as Charlie does in the movie. “He wouldn’t stop smiling,” says Stone, “and I just got pissed off and lost it. But I did save a girl who was being raped by two of the guys; I think they would’ve killed her. I went over and broke it up. Another kid — he’s like Bunny ((Kevin Dillon)) in the movie — clubbed this old lady to death and then kind of boasted about it. We killed a lot of innocents.”

The battle at the end of the film was based on a New Year’s Day skirmish less than a mile from the Cambodian border. “They hit us with about 5,000 troops that night. They laid bombs right on top of us; we dropped bombs right on them. It’s possible that our high command was using us as bait to draw the ! Viet Cong out so we could inflict heavy casualties. We lost about 25 dead and 175 wounded; we killed about 500 of them. Their bodies were scraped up by bulldozers, just like in the movie. For that battle our platoon was on the inner perimeter, but two weeks later we went back into the same area and got hit by an ambush, like the one that gets Elias. We took about 30 casualties, and I don’t think we got one of them.”

For all the horrors of his season in hell, Stone admits he got what he went for, as a budding artist ravenous for material in the raw: “I saw combat at the ground level. I saw people die. I killed. I almost was killed. Almost immediately I realized that combat is totally random. It has nothing to do with heroism. Cowardice and heroism are the same emotion — fear — expressed differently. And life is a matter of luck. Two soldiers are standing two feet apart. One gets killed, the other lives. I was never a religious person — I was raised Protestant, the great compromise — but I became religious in Viet Nam. Possibly I was saved for a reason. To do some work. Write about it. Make a movie about it.”

It would take Stone almost a decade, until 1976, before he could write the script of Platoon, and another decade to put it on the screen. But first he had to take his high, wired act on the road. The same month he arrived back from Viet Nam, he was busted for carrying an ounce of marijuana across the Mexico-U.S. border, and called his father, saying, “The good news is that I’m out of Viet Nam. The bad news is that I’m in a California jail, facing five to 20.” Stone says his father helped get the charges dropped. “That was my homecoming,” he says. “I got a true picture of the States. I hated America. I would have joined the Black Panthers if they’d asked me. I was a radical, ready to kill.” Back home his mother noticed the change: “As a little boy he was impeccable. He had his valet; his closet was immaculate. But when he returned he was a mess, always leaving things on the floor. He was a different boy.”

And now an unsolicited testimonial: “I know it sounds corny, but I was saved by film school.” He enrolled at New York University on the G.I. Bill. “To be able to study movies in college, it was any movie buff’s dream. It was cool too, like studying to be an astronaut. Martin Scorsese was my first teacher. He was like a mad scientist, with hair down to here. He was someone on an equal wave of nuttiness. And he helped channel the rage in me.” Stone made a short film for Scorsese’s class called Last Year in Viet Nam, about a vet wandering the New York streets; in another, Michael and Marie, Oliver’s father played the victim. “Oliver was alienated, sarcastic and brooding,” says his film-school friend Stanley Weiser, who is collaborating with Stone on a script about Wall Street crime. “A real macho man who carried the torture of Viet Nam with him but never talked about it.”

In 1971 Stone graduated and married a Lebanese woman working at the Moroccan delegation to the United Nations; they divorced five years later. He wrote eleven scripts in his spare time, directed a low-budget Canadian thriller called Seizure, and in 1975 got an agent through the graces of Screenwriter Robert Bolt. A year later, as the tall ships clogged New York harbor, Stone sat down and wrote Platoon. “Essentially what I wanted to say was, Remember. Just remember what that war was. Remember what war is. This is it. I wanted to make a document of this forgotten pocket of time. I felt Viet Nam was omitted from history books. Like a battle I fought in during the war: a lot of people got hurt that day, and it wasn’t even listed as a battle by the Army, as if they didn’t want to admit the casualties we suffered. The script I wrote is pretty much the one I shot ten years later. But no studio wanted to make it; it was too ‘depressing’ and ‘grim.’ So I buried it again, figuring that the truth of that war would never come out because America was blind, a trasher of history.”

A wild man who becomes a witness: that was Oliver Stone reborn. As he scythed his way through the Hollywood jungle, Stone earned the rep of a specialist with a social agenda. Four of the scripts that bear his name — Midnight Express, Scarface, Year of the Dragon and 8 Million Ways to Die — cataloged the seductive evils of the drug trade. Stone’s third feature as writer-director (after Seizure and, in 1981, The Hand) laced his usual hip rants on pharmacology with a smart, anguished newsphoto montage of one more Third World nation torn by civil war and shadowed by the looming hulk of American weaponry. This was the gallivanting political melodrama Salvador. Stone dedicated the film to his recently deceased father. “I remember one conversation we had right before he died. He said, ‘You’ll do all right. There’ll always be a demand for great stories and great storytellers.’ So finally he forgave me for going into the film business.”

In Salvador, Stone was learning to wind the cinematic mechanism until it coiled with productive tension, both on the screen and on the set. “Working with Stone was like being caught in a Cuisinart with a madman,” James Woods opines. “And he felt the same about me. It was two Tasmanian devils wrestling under a blanket. But he’s a sharp director. He starts with a great idea, delegates authority well, scraps like a street fighter, then takes the best of what comes out of the fracas.” Says Dale Dye, the Marine captain who hazed Platoon‘s actors to firm them up for filming: “Oliver thrives on chaos, throwing together a crew of such diverse backgrounds and ideologies that there’s constant friction. It’s the kind of energy he thrives on.” Platoon‘s star, Charlie Sheen, 21, found the director “brutally honest. Which is why we clicked. After a scene he’d say, ‘You sucked’ or ‘You nailed it.’ That’s just my style.”

Right now Stone is Hollywood’s hot new guy. He is even entertaining the improbable idea of a Platoon TV series. But don’t expect Stone to direct Indiana Jones III. Says Stanley Weiser: “Oliver’s been around the block ten times and won’t be seduced by money. He’s not an easy lay.” Stone and his second wife, Elizabeth, 37, look the family-album picture of swank domesticity in their Santa Monica home. They swore off drugs a few years ago, and now seem addicted only to each other and their little son Sean. “Success and Sean have made Oliver much mellower,” Elizabeth notes. “But he’s still a compulsive worker. Always reading or writing, he simply loves ideas. He’s filled with them, and he’s thrilled with them.”

One suspects that the old troublemaker will find new trouble spots in the political landscape; the soapbox spieler will continue his spellbinding harangues. His mind and moral sense are too restless to relax in the glow of celebrity and the promise of statuettes. But for the moment, Oliver Stone has found for himself the one plot twist he would never have put in Platoon: a happy ending to his Viet Nam nightmare.

Tap to read full story

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com