Casualties of War
Casualties of War is a 1989 American war drama film directed by Brian De Palma, with a screenplay by David Rabe, based on the events of the incident on Hill 192 in 1966 during the Vietnam War. The picture stars Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. An article written by Daniel Lang for The New Yorker in 1969 and a subsequent book were the movie's primary sources.
|Casualties of War|
|Directed by||Brian De Palma|
|Produced by||Art Linson|
|Screenplay by||David Rabe|
|Story by||Daniel Lang|
|Music by||Ennio Morricone|
|Cinematography||Stephen H. Burum|
|Edited by||Bill Pankow|
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
119 minutes (Extended)
Lt. Reilly leads his platoon of American soldiers on a nighttime patrol. They are attacked by the Viet Cong (VC) after a panicked soldier exposes their position. While guarding the platoon's flank, Eriksson falls as the top of a VC tunnel gives way beneath him. Eriksson's squad leader, Sergeant Tony Meserve, pulls Eriksson out of the hole and eventually, the platoon retreats out of the jungle.
The platoon takes a break outside a river village in the Central Highlands. While relaxing and joking around, one of Meserve's friends, Specialist 4 "Brownie" Brown, is killed when the Viet Cong ambushes them. Brownie's death has a major impact on Meserve. The platoon is sent back to their base. Private First Class Antonio Dìaz arrives as the replacement radio operator.
Frustrated because his squad has been denied leave for an extended period, Meserve orders the squad to kidnap a Vietnamese girl. Eriksson strenuously objects but Meserve, Cpl. Thomas E. Clark, and Private First Class Herbert Hatcher ignore Eriksson's objections. Before the five-man squad disembarks, Eriksson talks about his concerns to his closest friend, Rowan. At nightfall, the squad enters a village and kidnaps a Vietnamese girl, Than Thi Oanh.
As the squad treks through the mountains, Dìaz begins to reconsider raping Than and begs Eriksson to back him up. The squad and Than eventually take refuge in an abandoned hooch, where Eriksson is confronted and threatened by Meserve, Clark, and Hatcher. Diaz suddenly gives in to the pressure, leaving Eriksson alone in opposing the act. Meserve forces Eriksson to stand guard outside while the other men take turns raping Than.
At daybreak, Eriksson is ordered to guard Than while the rest of the squad takes up a position near a railroad bridge overlooking a Viet Cong river supply depot. Through his acts of kindness, Eriksson manages to earn Than's trust and prepares to go AWOL and return Than to her family. However, Meserve sends Clark to get Eriksson and Than to go to the bridge before Eriksson can carry out his plan.
Meserve has Dìaz order close air support for an assault on the depot and then orders Diaz to kill Than with a knife. Before Dìaz can kill her, Eriksson fires his rifle into the air, exposing them to the nearby Viet Cong. In the midst of the firefight, Than tries to escape. Eriksson tries to save her but is stopped by Meserve, who knocks Eriksson down with the butt of his gun. Eriksson watches helplessly as the entire squad shoots Than numerous times until she falls off of the bridge.
After the battle, Eriksson wakes up in a field hospital at the base. He eventually bumps into Rowan and tells him everything that happened. Rowan suggests that Eriksson sees Lt. Reilly and company commander Captain Hill. Reilly and Hill both prefer to bury the matter but Hill, infuriated at Eriksson's determination to press the issue, resolves to get rid of Eriksson and orders him transferred to a Tunnel Rat unit. The other men in Meserve's squad will all be reassigned as well.
After narrowly escaping an attempt to kill him in the latrine with a grenade (made by Clark), Eriksson storms into a tent and smacks Clark in the face with a shovel. He bluntly tells Meserve that killing him is unnecessary, because "I told everybody! I told 'em, and they don't CARE!" Meserve makes a shaky attempt at a joke, and Eriksson leaves.
Eriksson then meets an Army chaplain at a bar and tells him the story of what happened during the patrol. The chaplain in turn reports it, launching an investigation. The four men who participated in the rape and murder are court martialed: Meserve receives 10 years hard labor and a dishonorable discharge, Clark is sentenced to life in prison, Hatcher receives 15 years hard labor, and Dìaz receives eight years hard labor.
At the end of the film, Eriksson wakens from a nightmare to find himself on a J-Church transit line in San Francisco, just a few seats from a Vietnamese-American student who resembles Than. She disembarks at Dolores Park and forgets her scarf and Eriksson runs after her to return it. As she thanks him and turns away, he calls after her in Vietnamese. She surmises that she reminds him of someone, and adds that he has had a bad dream. They go their separate ways, and Eriksson is somewhat comforted.
- Michael J. Fox as Private First Class Max Eriksson
- Sean Penn as Sergeant Tony Meserve
- Don Patrick Harvey as Corporal Thomas E. Clark
- John C. Reilly as Private First Class Herbert Hatcher
- John Leguizamo as Private First Class Antonio Dìaz
- Thuy Thu Le as Than Thi Oanh/Asian student on the train
- Erik King as Specialist 4 "Brownie" Brown
- Jack Gwaltney as Rowan
- Ving Rhames as Lieutenant Reilly
- Dale Dye as Captain Hill
- Holt McCallany as Lieutenant Kramer
- Dan Martin as Hawthorne
- Wendell Pierce as MacIntire
- Sam Robards as Chaplain (Captain) Kirk
- Steve Larson as Agent
- Vyto Ruginis as Prosecutor
- Maris Valainis as Streibig
- Darren E. Burrows as Cherry
- Sherman Howard as Court Martial President
- John Marshall Jones as Military Policeman
- Amy Irving as voice of girl on the train (uncredited)
The film was based on the real-life incident on Hill 192, and on Daniel Lang's book of the same title, but all names and some details of the story were altered.
The novel was published in 1969. Film rights were bought by David Susskind who was to produce the film for Warner Bros. Pete Hamill wrote a script and Jack Clayton was to direct. However the film was not made. In the late 1970s Susskind announced he would make the film for ABC-TV. This did not happen.
In 1979 David Rabe mentioned the project to Brian De Palma, who was interested but was unable to raise the money to finance it. Some years later Rabe had written a script, and De Palma attached Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn as actors. They almost succeeded in getting the film financed at Paramount, but ultimately decided not to proceed when the budget went from $17 million to $20 million. De Palma then went on to make The Untouchables which was a big hit; Dawn Steel had liked the project at Paramount, and when she became head of production at Columbia Studios, Casualties of War was the first film she green-lit.
"Historically Vietnam War movies have been very profitable," said Steel. "All of them. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter. You're looking at movies that have never been not pretty successful, but very successful. The foreign numbers have been extraordinary."
The film was shot in April–May 1988, mostly on location in Thailand, with some filming in San Francisco. The bridge location was filmed in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, which was the same as the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.
This film was Fox's third major dramatic role. He had previously starred in Light of Day and Bright Lights, Big City. John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo make their screen debuts in the film, and the latter would again star with Penn in another picture by De Palma, 1993's Carlito's Way.
"Let's be honest," said Fox at the time. "If this movie makes a buck and a half it's going to be things like Bikini's Away for me. But to fail doing something unexpected is no disgrace. To fail doing the ordinary is a disaster. This movie is about how much you will risk if you have nothing to gain."
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Casualties of War opened in 1,487 theatres, and ranked number 4 in box office for the first week of its release. It went on to gross $18,671,317, making it a box office loss.
The theatrical cut of the film was released on DVD in 2001. This version has the original 113 minute running time. An extended cut of the film was released on DVD in 2006, that contains two scenes cut from the original release. One has Eriksson being interrogated by the two investigators, and the other is the defense attorney (played by uncredited Gregg Henry) trying to discredit Eriksson during the trial. This extended version has a running time of 119 minutes.
Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four and wrote, "More than most films, it depends on the strength of its performances for its effect - and especially on Penn's performance. If he is not able to convince us of his power, his rage and his contempt for the life of the girl, the movie would not work. He does, in a performance of overwhelming, brutal power." Vincent Canby of The New York Times stated, "'Casualties of War' moves toward its climax so inevitably and surely that the courts-martial, which are the film's penultimate sequence, are no less riveting for the theatrical way in which they have been compressed." He also called Penn's performance "extremely fine" and wrote of Fox that he "remains firmly in character" in a "difficult" role. Todd McCarthy of Variety wrote, "A powerful metaphor of the national shame that was America's orgy of destruction in Vietnam, Brian DePalma's film is flawed by some punch-pulling but is sure to rouse strong audience interest, even if the Columbia release will be a bitter pill for many." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three stars out of four and called it "a major effort in a minor key because of the limitations of the simple story." Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "'Casualties of War' is DePalma's 19th movie and easily his best. His detractors saw his Hitchcock-pastiche thrillers as manipulative and sadistic, but here he's not dealing with stylish slashers or bloody set-pieces. He doesn't have to reach for a shock. He's dredging up a deeper horror: the hell that lies beneath every man's skin, waiting to erupt." Hal Hinson of The Washington Post praised it as "a film of great emotional power" and "one of the most punishing, morally complex movies about men at war ever made."
De Palma invited Steven Spielberg to a private screening of the film, and after the screening ended, Spielberg said to Columbia Pictures executive Dawn Steel, "You'll be thinking about this for a week." David Rabe disassociated himself from the film, saying that De Palma had not been faithful to his script. It was also criticized by Vietnam Veteran Groups. Quentin Tarantino has hailed the film as "the greatest film about the Vietnam War." As of August 2019, the film holds an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 44 reviews.
- Political Film Society: PFS Award; Peace; 1990.
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- Siskel, Gene (August 18, 1989). "'Casualties of War' story worthy of contemplating". Chicago Tribune. 7A.
- Wilmington, Michael (August 18, 1989). "DePalma's Dark Victory". Los Angeles Times. Part VI, p. 1, 21.
- Hinson, Hal (August 18, 1989). "The Explosive Power of 'Casualties of War'". The Washington Post. D1.
- Kastor, Elizabeth (24 August 1989). "Vets Join List of 'Casualties' Critics: De Palma's Film Draws Protest of Soldier's Image De Palma Assailed". The Washington Post. p. C1.
- "Tarantino on Casualties of War". De Palma a la Mod. 29 August 2009.
- "Casualties of War". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 1 August 2019.