On Screen: Whiz Kid Goes Straight

Casualties of War
Written by David Rabe
Directed by Brian DePalma
A Columbia Release

Trying to explain his distaste for stage director Max Reinhardt’s work, the Viennese poet-critic Karl Kraus wrote, “Formerly the sets were made of cardboard and the actors were genuine. Now the sets are indubitably real, and the actors are made of cardboard.”

That’s roughly the way I feel about Brian DePalma’s latest film, Casualties of War. Yet it is with this film, about an atrocity committed by some American soldiers in Vietnam, that DePalma makes his bid to be taken as something more than a purveyor of bloody shockers (Dressed to Kill, Carrie), gangster movies (Scarface, The Untouchables), and sophomoric counter-culture comedies (Hi, Morn; Greetings). Gone are the split-screen montages, the swirling camera pans, the leave-’em-gasping surprise endings (the hand from the grave in Carrie, etc.) with which he established himself as the supreme exemplar of film school whiz kid brattiness. Until now, DePalma has always been willing to kill off a character horribly whenever he needed a blotch of gore to fill out a particular composition or if he had to kick the wheels of his plot into forward motion. But Casualties of War asks us to take its subject matter seriously. In fact, the climactic speech of the film — delivered by Michael Fox to a fellow G.I. who has just reacted flippantly to the latest casualty in their platoon — is an outburst against the callousness bred by constant proximity to violent death. If we’re liable to die at any moment, reasons Fox, shouldn’t we consider every one of our actions seriously indeed?

I can only applaud that sentiment . . . and wish I had heard it in another movie. For while it’s true that DePalma can capture the steamy feel of a Vietnamese jungle, suggest the frictions of American-Vietnamese relations, and record (with the help of playwright-war veteran David Rabe) the obscene argot of bitter soldiers caught up in a war without clear perimeters, it’s equally certain that DePalma cannot use these verisimilitudes to delve, to examine, to evoke fascinating contrasts and contradictions, to make moral dilemmas clear or, better yet, to make us see that certain moral dilemmas are forever unclear. In short, the sets (i.e., the locales, photography, casting of extras, uniforms, flora and fauna, etc.) seem real. But the characters are as thin as cardboard. Or, since some cardboard is rather thick, as thin as tracing paper — and as transparent.

As if to let us see what we have gained — or lost —by his new seriousness, the director includes a scene early in this movie that is vintage pre-reformation DePalma in its slithery horror, crude cinematic dexterity, and basic unreality. Fox, playing Private Eriksson, a soldier new to the war, gets separated from the rest of his platoon during a brief battle. He falls halfway into a tunnel used by North Vietnamese guerrillas. With head and torso trapped above ground, he thrashes his legs helplessly about in the darkness below. The enemy soldiers are in subterranean retreat but one, hearing Eriksson screaming for help turns and, knife between his teeth, slowly crawls on his belly toward the helpless American with a project of disembowelment clearly in mind. Meanwhile, Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn), a veteran jungle fighter, also hears Eriksson’s cries and stealthily makes his way through foliage to aid his fellow soldier.

Of course, since DePalma knows how to cut with sufficient skill between the would-be eviscerator and the rescuer, we are too breathless to spot the absurdities in this scene while it is in progress, but they become patent in retrospect. Since the tunnel is high enough to accommodate standing (for we see that the retreating Viet Cong are on their feet), and since it obviously is quicker to run than to crawl, why is the guerrilla on his belly, thus forcing himself to hold the knife between his teeth? Well, because Brian DePalma is the guy staging this scene, and, God knows, this fellow has certain predilections.

On his belly and photographed in the glare of the single lantern lighting the tunnel, the guerrilla becomes a monster, a human shark, or a crocodile-man with a single long tooth in his jaws. In fact, we can almost hear the Jaws theme thud away on the soundtrack as the slimy menace closes in on his prey. And what happens when Meserve pulls Eriksson out of the trap? Well, we sigh with relief. And then? The guerrilla, still safely out of sight below ground and clearly aware that there are Americans overhead, simply skulks away. Right? Wrong. After a breath-restoring pause, the cheated Vietnamese jumps out of the pit screaming in disappointed rage (I’m not making this up. Honest!) and is blown away by Sergeant Meserve.

I dwell on this episode for two reasons. First, it is the last glimpse we have in this film of the old anything-for-a-thrill Brian DePalma. From then on, Casualties is sober, tolerably believable, at times compassionate, and not intentionally sensationalistic. Second, it is in the outcome of this scene that the seeds of the film’s possible complexity should be sown. Whatever his moral nature, Sergeant Meserve is clearly a brave, competent soldier. His talents for scouting and killing have saved Eriksson’s life. And whatever else subsequently transpires between the two men, one of them is in the other’s debt. This should be kept in mind as we review the rest of the story and try to discover whether DePalma attains real complexity or not.

A popular member of the platoon, nicknamed Brownie, is killed; all his friends, particularly Meserve, are enraged. Sexual frustration is added to anger when the platoon on leave is denied permission to visit the whore house in the nearest town because the Viet Cong have preceded them there. The sergeant rages: they work hard trying to kill us, and then they steal our only pleasure.

Meserve drafts Eriksson and three others into a patrol that is meant to scout for the enemy but which Meserve gives an added objective. They are to make a detour, kidnap a girl from her village, and have some “rest and recreation” with her. Trying not to believe that Meserve is serious but filled with trepidation, Eriksson goes along. The kidnapping does take place. A girl in her late teens is forced to trek with the men to an abandoned but in a jungle clearing. The sergeant insists that all the men take part in the rape so that they may all share in the crime. Hatcher, a numbskull, and Clark, a brute, are thrilled at the opportunity. Diaz is appalled but capitulates under pressure. Eriksson, though verbally abused and murderously threatened by the rest, firmly refuses. He is made to stand guard while the others ravish and beat the girl. At his first opportunity Eriksson tries to free the captive but is thwarted.

The girl is finally murdered by all her attackers. Back at camp, Eriksson vainly seeks justice from his superiors, who don’t want a scandal. Fearing exposure, Clark tries to kill Eriksson, but the latter saves himself. Finally, a chaplain intervenes, the victim’s body is recovered, and all her murderers are given long prison terms (much longer than the ones given to the actual offenders in the real case the movie is based on). Eriksson, though publicly vindicated, must live with the horror he has experienced.

Clearly, this story has great dramatic possibilities. But consider the way DePalma and Rabe have proportioned it. The film is 105 minutes long. The first 20 minutes encompass the introduction of all the main characters except the girl, the rescue of Eriksson, the killing of Brownie, the embitterment of the men. It’s possible to laud the script’s economy, but it is surely economy at the expense of characterization.

By the time that murderous scouting detail hits the trail, here is what we know of its members: Eriksson is your typical raw recruit and, as played by Michael Fox, no more than a collection of the usual cliches that signal inexperience: fumbling, stuttering, stumbling, and a lot of fresh-faced innocence. Hatcher is a semi-comic dope who mistakes cows for the enemy. Clark is a walking scowl. Diaz is a man with an Hispanic name. With Meserve, we are allowed a smidgen of complexity, mostly in the acting of Sean Penn, who now seems to me one of America’s best film performers.

We have seen Meserve’s intrepidness as a combatant and his genuine rage at Brownie’s death, subtly and unnervingly conveyed by Penn in a scene in which the actor makes the simple act of shaving with a straight razor a kind of ritual prologue to murder. Penn is able to show the emotions that often lurk within or beneath menace: fear, cruel curiosity, panic. But until Brownie’s death, Meserve is basically nothing more than a wise guy with a good aim and a flair for keeping cool in action. Penn doesn’t even get much of a chance to act until the script requires him to do his highly effective, macho sadist number. But the more energy and venom that Penn pours into his performance, the more we become aware that a talented actor is pounding away at one vivid trait.

After the patrol is over, we are shown, all in the last 20 minutes, Eriksson’s determination to report the crime, the cover-up by his superiors, the attempt on Eriksson’s life, the chaplain’s intervention, the trial, and an epilogue showing Eriksson back in civilian life. Some of these scenes work (the murder attempt is exciting); some don’t (the sergeant who initially blocks Eriksson’s report is given a speech that is so ostentatiously theatrical, so ponderously begun, and so hammily concluded, that it seems destined to wind up in one of those books called “Great Two-Minute Monologues for Auditioning Actors”).

And all of these scenes are at least somewhat muffled by two factors: Michael Fox’s squeaky-clean inexpressiveness as an actor, and an overwhelming predictability in the unfolding of the story. We know all too well why each scene exists almost the instant it begins. As soon as we see the sergeant’s dour, unreceptive face, we know he will block Eriksson. As soon as we hear the company’s commanding officer utter the jargon-ridden, “I am max-attentive to your situation,” we know what he stands for: the military’s obstructing bureaucracy.

The one scene that did surprise me was the chaplain’s interview with Eriksson. I thought this was going to be another demonstration of the futility of religion in the face of war. But, no. No sooner does Eriksson tell the chaplain what happened than we shift to the public revelation of the crime. Are chaplains really such movers and shakers within the military structure? Perhaps some are, but, as used here, the chaplain’s intervention seems like a device to get the movie over with. The trial is presented elliptically. We never see how confessions were extracted or what defenses were offered. The guilty men simply testify to their crimes, offer a few lame excuses for their behavior, and are sentenced.

Thus, the final portion of the movie is no more complex than the exposition. So, if anything is to be added to our understanding of men at war or at least these particular men in this particular war, it will have to be found in the long middle section of the movie which deals with the patrol.

It is here that we must be grateful for DePalma’s new restraint. The rape scene offers no prurient thrills. The girl’s body isn’t exploited, yet her pain is conveyed. Although the actress, Thuy Thu Le, can’t finally create a complete character, it’s only because the victim’s situation doesn’t allow her full humanity to surface. But Ms. Le does at least suggest a dignity that her tormentors can’t destroy.

What DePalma really zeroes in on is the brutishness of the rapists. And here I have to say something that I hope won’t be misinterpreted, since I regard rape as possibly the most abysmal of crimes, in some cases worse than murder.

Nonetheless, it must be said that, if dramatists should not exploit the bodies of the portrayed rape victims, they also should not exploit for salacious effect the repugnancy of the victimizers. Men act monstrously, but remain men, not monsters or emblems. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the rapists are even more stupid and just as brutal as Casualties‘s soldiers. But they remain men, i.e., moral agents, who horrify us by their moral abdication. Nauseated, we must acknowledge whatever there is of them in us. Bergman shows us the pauses, the hitches, the split-second repentances, the equally swift smotherings of repentance, the terror and sadism, and all of the emotions experienced by those performing this, the most dehumanizing of crimes.

But all DePalma does with his rapists is to invent more and more ways of showing off their meanness. This may be excusable in the case of the brutish Clark and the stupid Hatcher (but how vilely fascinating Bergman made his brutes in The Virgin Spring!). But what about Diaz? If we could have seen the moment when his better intentions are crushed by mob evil, we might all know a little more about machismo at its worst. But his capitulation takes place off screen. As dramatists, as psychological explorers, DePalma and Rabe make things too easy for themselves.

And what about Meserve and Eriksson? Recall that rescue at the beginning of the movie. Why does it exist? To remind us that brave men under wartime conditions can become rapists? For whom over the age of 18 can that be a revelation? I thought that the rescue was going to be a factor in Eriksson’s decision to report or not report the crime. Or, failing that, I expected to see Eriksson’s feelings of gratitude engulfed by his revulsion at his rescuer’s baseness. But no, the rescue never becomes a matter of much importance (though late in the movie the commanding officer charges the private with ingratitude in the hopes of getting him to drop his charges).

In fact, Eriksson remains unwaveringly virtuous throughout the movie. Where does his virtue come from? The fact that he’s a family man? A better education? We aren’t told anything about that. From his upbringing within a particular class? Although his dialogue is as coarse as everyone else’s in the film, Michael Fox’s demeanor suggests a middle-class upbringing as strongly as the mannerisms of the rapists suggest the working class. What are we to conclude from this? But asking these questions is futile because all of the characters are as flat as cardboard. Because of this, Casualties of War is, finally, a cheap melodrama of war, not a searing tragedy.

The last few minutes of the film confirm this. This new, kinder, gentler DePalma is so solicitous of the audience’s feelings that he contrives a coda that lets us see our hero purged of his bitter memories. Most of Casualties is a flashback experienced by the now discharged Eriksson on board a train after he notices a Vietnamese college student who vaguely reminds him of the rape victim. And no wonder, since she’s played by Thuy Thu Le. The camera reverts to the train at the end of the movie. Arriving at what looks like a college campus, the girl gets off, forgetting her scarf. (Nice touch: the kidnapped girl’s mother tried to bribe her daughter’s captors with a scarf.) Eriksson chases after the girl and returns the article. She thanks him and has started to leave when Eriksson calls after her a phrase in Vietnamese. She turns, looks deep into our hero’s eyes, comprehends all, forgives all, and tells him that his bad dream is over. She goes. Michael J. Fox turns full front to the camera, smiles, looks up at the heavens, and walks off screen. A heavenly chorus sings. In Vietnamese, naturally. No, I’m not making this up.

In fact, it was at this moment that I felt belated hope for the movie. I thought that the camera might return to the girl, follow her through campus to a school of architecture, stay on her as she walks to a drafting room where she seats herself and unrolls the blueprints for her latest project. Some dialogue with a fellow student: “Is that what you’re entering in the big contest, Maya?” “Sure is, Steve.” The camera tilts over her shoulder and we see what she is drafting: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial! (Of course, I realize that the gifted Maya Ying Lin is Chinese-American and not Vietnamese, but when was the pre-reformation DePalma ever deterred from a socko finale by mere factuality?)

No such luck. The film did indeed conclude with that celestial glee club. At this stage of his career, DePalma apparently has no use for lunacy but is satisfied by schmaltz.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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