Open main menu

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.[3]

Casualties of War
Casualties of War poster.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed byBrian De Palma
Produced byArt Linson
Screenplay byDavid Rabe
Story byDaniel Lang
Music byEnnio Morricone
CinematographyStephen H. Burum
Edited byBill Pankow
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • August 18, 1989 (1989-08-18)
Running time
113 minutes
119 minutes (Extended)
CountryUnited States
Budget$22.5 million[1]
Box office$18,671,317[2]



The story is presented as a flashback of Max Eriksson, a Vietnam veteran.

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.




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.[4] Film rights were bought by David Susskind who was to produce the film for Warner Bros.[5] Pete Hamill wrote a script and Jack Clayton was to direct.[6] However the film was not made. In the late 1970s Susskind announced he would make the film for ABC-TV.[7] 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.[1][8][9]

"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."[1]


The film was shot in April-May 1988, mostly on location in Thailand, with some filming in San Francisco.[10] 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."[10]


The movie debuted at number four. It was criticised by Vietnam Veteran Groups.[11]

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.


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. Most of the reviews were positive, and it garnered an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 44 reviews.

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."[12] Quentin Tarantino has hailed the film as "the greatest film about the Vietnam War."[13]




See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c COOL HEAD, HOT IMAGES By Bruce Weber. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 21 May 1989: SM24.
  2. ^ "Casualties of War (1989)". Box Office Mojo. 26 September 1989. Retrieved 15 January 2014.
  3. ^ Canby, Vincent (18 August 1989). "Review/Film; In 'Casualties Of War,' Group Loyalty Vs. Individual Conscience". The New York Times.
  4. ^ Incident on Hill 192 By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 14 Nov 1969: 45.
  5. ^ Second Phase Will Begin in Warners Revamping Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 21 Jan 1970: d10.
  6. ^ KINNEY DEFENDS WARNER ACTIONS: Holders Are Told of Major Filming Activities By LEONARD SLOANE. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 18 Feb 1970: 69.
  7. ^ David Susskind: Growing Up in TV By MITCH BRODER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 19 Feb 1978: D31.
  8. ^ At the Movies: A Linson-De Palma Vietnam film The man who makes Merchant-Ivory music The woman who made Day-Lewis sound like a Czechoslovak. Lawrence Van Gelder. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 26 Feb 1988: C8.
  9. ^ It's Back to Vietnam for Hollywood: Columbia's Dawn Steel has a lot riding on a brutal Brian DePalma war movie. The tale behind her commitment to 'Casualties of War.' Rosenfield, Paul. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 13 Aug 1989: R1.
  10. ^ a b An Actor Who Insists on Being Serious By ALJEAN HARMETZ Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 10 Aug 1989: C13.
  11. ^ Vets Join List of 'Casualties' Critics: De Palma's Film Draws Protest of Soldier's Image De Palma Assailed Kastor, Elizabeth. The Washington Post (1974-Current file) [Washington, D.C] 24 Aug 1989: C1.
  12. ^
  13. ^

External linksEdit