Brian De Palma Week: Casualties Of War is a haunted portrait of Vietnam
It seems that throughout the late 70's and 80's, every prestige director had their Vietnam film. Coppola had Apocalypse Now. Kubrick did Full Metal Jacket. Oliver Stone had both Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July. America was coming to terms with its defeat and share of the blame in this epic, decade spanning quagmire that claimed the lives of more than 55,000 Americans, and countless more Vietnamese. But one of the most powerful films about the dark night of the American soul in Vietnam is the underrated, underdiscussed, and underseen Casualties Of War, one of Brian De Palma's finest films. Even Quentin Tarantino said it was "the greatest film about the Vietnam War." Perhaps it is so underseen because it is a film that, understandably, very few have the stomach to truly endure.
Casualties Of War is based on a true story, inspired by a 1968 New Yorker article by Daniel Lang in which a small squad of American soldiers kidnapped a Vietnamese girl in 1966, tortured, raped, and murdered her while out on a mission. It became known as the "Incident On Hill 192." With names changed and dramatic license taken, the squad of Casualties Of War is made up of Private Max Erikkson (Michael J. Fox), Seargant Tony Meserve (Sean Penn), Corporal Thomas Clark (Don Harvey), Private Herbert Hatcher (John C. Reilly in his film debut) and Private Antonio Diaz (John Leguizamo). After surviving a fall in an enemy tunnel, Erikkson is saved by Meserve, who seems to truly come alive in moments of bloodlust, shooting enemy combatants like he's playing a video game. It's the first sign that this young Seargant might have found an all too perfect home in the jungles of Vietnam, where the Vietnamese are all the enemy–and you can do with the enemy what you want.
After being denied an R&R trip into town to visit a brothel, Meserve decides that he is going to fold the need to blow off steam into a reconnaissance mission. They are going to kidnap a girl from a local village, force march her with them, and "have a little fun." At first, Erikkson doesn't believe that Meserve is for real, and neither can the still wet behind the ears Diaz. The two make a pact not to follow through on raping the girl, even if Meserve insists. They will have each other's backs. When they awaken the girl (played by one-and-done actress Thuy Thu Le) from her slumber and steal her away, the situation suddenly and quickly spins out of control. The nightmarish possibilities of violence and trauma soon become reality, as Meserve and Clark barrel towards committing an unspeakable crime that they have all too easily rationalized in the midst of wartime.
Until 1989, De Palma was a director who had been often criticized for his depiction of women. 1976's Carrie opens with a romanticized, slow motion shot of a teenage girl's locker room, where the girls are getting changed and showering. Body Double ends with a final shot of a woman's breasts getting covered in blood after her throat is slit (in a movie within the movie). Dressed To Kill features a twist ending that would be deemed by today's standards as fairly transphobic. In the end, his films are often blends of his favorite things: naked women, sex, voyeurism, and violence. Yet no one can say that he doesn't make these films with a deft hand, and his tendency towards elevating the content with an operatic style, re-contextualizes what could be pulpy sleaze into something epic and prestige.
The content of Casualties of War raised the bar for De Palma, appropriately. He was more than able to meet the challenge, knowing full well the serious tone that such a story demanded. But to make it watchable, and something that goes beyond the torture-for-torture's-sake cinematic experience that it could be, he leaned deep into melodrama. This was aided greatly by Ennio Morricone's mournful, yet astoundingly beautiful score- his specialty. Another genius move was casting Michael J. Fox as Erikkson, who ends up being the one soldier who refuses to take part in the rape and torture of the young girl. The 1980's knew no one more innocent and likable than Fox, who in 1989 was only four years removed from Marty McFly (and Back To The Future II was released a few months after this). He becomes the audience surrogate in more ways than one.
When we finally arrive at the act itself, it becomes a ritual of establishing power, manhood and control, as Meserve threatens his subordinates with retribution if they do not participate. Maybe to him, it is all a part of war, but it is clear that he will rationalize anything to arrive at his violent ends. Sean Penn turns in a career performance as the terrifying Meserve, complete with a New York accent that might seem cartoonish if he wasn't so remorseless and convincing.
After severely threatening him, Meserve allows Erikkson to avoid taking part in the rape by standing guard on the perimeter of their camp. But rather than looking into the jungle for any moving figures, the camera keeps its point of view on the decrepit shack that serves as the scene of the crime. We, the viewers, watch in horror as each of the other four soldiers take their turn with the young girl. As hard as it is to watch, it is handled with taste and respect. De Palma, who never shied away from eroticism before, put none of it in the sequence.
It turns out not to just be the camera that is watching, but Erikkson himself. What is so rewarding about loving De Palma's filmography is seeing the auteuristic marks he always manages to insert–whether it be a studio for hire job or a passion project–and this moment of "seeing" falls right into his obsession with being a voyeur. Erikkson is made to be a witness to the crime, as is the viewer. It's as if we could be called to the stand to testify when everything is over. So many characters in De Palma films get themselves into trouble by finding something, or someone, from which they can’t look away. Where as in the past, it was perhaps a source of arousal, here, it is a horrible truth that can't be unseen.
De Palma has always been an interpreter of Alfred Hitchcock, often taking films like Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho and stripping them for parts where he can remix them and add his own flourishes. The beginning and final scenes of the film are a flash forward, where Erikkson, wracked with guilt over what he witnessed in Vietnam, sees a woman who looks exactly like the rape victim he could not save. It echoes the doppelgänger double of Vertigo- where as Jimmy Stewart in that film was haunted by the double of the woman that he loved and lost, Erikkson is haunted by the double of the woman who he failed to protect.
His guilt and shame is palpable: even if he did the right thing, did he do enough, or was it meaningless and simply another case of too little, too late? It's fascinating to watch this sequence, and see it used not so much for an exercise in suspense and mystery, but as a mournful cry, a rage at not being able to change the past, and having no choice but to continue into an uncertain future. I imagine that Erikkson is somewhat reflective of the American consciousness in a post-Vietnam world; How naive we were going in, what shortcomings came of our good intentions, and how haunted we were afterwards. Even so, there’s the undeniable sense that, no matter the demons that haunt Erikkson, there is still the body of a young girl buried back in Vietnam, who should be alive and with her family instead. She is only one of many such stories in wartime.
Casualties Of War was released thirty years ago last month, and it remains unequaled as a brutally honest assessment of the American soldier's mentality during Vietnam, and perhaps, all wars since.