The Boys In Company C and Casualties Of War bookend a ten year period during which American cinema made a serious attempt to come to terms with the war in Vietnam. Hollywood would return to patriotism and propaganda. Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, and Forrest Gump would replace The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. But in the decade before Operation Desert Storm ended the “Vietnam Syndrome,” American filmmakers did have a brief window where they could at least attempt to tell the truth instead of “supporting the troops.”
The Boys In Company C may be a jumbled mess, but it also set the template for everything that came after. Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is really just a remake, and, truth be told, not even as good. Indeed, while great “auteurs” have their place in cinema, there are actually times when a B-movie, a rougher, less finished product works better. The Boys In Company C is a great B-movie. That it fails — and it does — has less to do with a lack of artistic merit then it does with sincerity and artistic integrity.
1978 saw a sudden burst of films about the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Go Tell The Spartans. Before that, the only movie that dramatized combat in Vietnam was The Green Berets, John Wayne’s ludicrous attempt to pen the American occupation of Vietnam into a framework set by World War II propaganda films. The Boys In Company C first follows, then breaks with the World War II paradigm. It begins with a group of American “everymen” arriving at Marine Boot Camp in San Diego. There’s Tyrone Washington, a drug dealer and pimp from Chicago, who, not incidentally, is also a natural soldier. There’s Dave Brisbee, a long haired hippie from Seattle who couldn’t get out of the draft. He arrives in handcuffs. There are Billy Ray Pike, a “good old boy” from Texas, Vinnie Fazio, from Brooklyn of course, and Alvin Foster,a would be writer from the Midwest. The first half of the movie tells the usual story. They get to basic training as a clumsy, self-centered group of kids, and leave as a team, as marines. But then they get to Vietnam.
If director Sydney J. Furie picks up what he finds lying around leftover from World War II and Korea, he breaks the mould when he confronts reality. Washington isn’t going to Vietnam to fight for his country. He enlisted in the Marines only so he could ship heroin home to Chicago in body bags, the contents of which are never examined.
Note: Ridley Scott would go on to flesh out the story of the “cadaver connection” in American Gangster, but The Boys in Company C tells it better, and with a lot less narrative baggage.
The executive officer of Company C, Lieutenant Archer, is a good soldier who looks out for his men. But the company commander, Captain Collins, is a war criminal who cares only about his “body count.” Not only does he hand an innocent 14-year-old boy over to a corrupt police official to be executed, he abandons Washington to his fate after he steps on a mine and activates the trigger. “That man is a dead man,” he says, turning his back on his fellow marine who, frozen in place, will be blown to bits if he steps off and releases the switch. Washington lives only because Billy Ray Pike, a white man from Texas, is willing to risk his life to save a black man from Chicago. Pike’s show of solidarity, in turn, shames Washington out of his plan to smuggle heroin.
The Vietnamese are not the enemy, Washington says to Collins. “You’re the enemy.”
But The Boys in Company C is not a radical, anti-war, or anti-imperialist film. In the end, it’s a film about a group of soldiers betrayed by their officers and their government. Washington, Pike, Brisbee, Fazio, and Foster are, for all their faults, a decent group of men who genuinely care about the people of Vietnam. Foster dies when he jumps on a grenade to save a group of children. After a sniper kills a teenage girl he had befriended, Brisbee changes from a peacenik and a reluctant soldier to a gung ho killer. Sydney J. Furie isn’t quite sure what his message is. Was the Vietnam War wrong? Or was it winnable and only lost because the politicians and bureaucrats wouldn’t let the soldiers do their job? Was the mission itself doomed from the very beginning? Or was it simply the execution? What about Tyrone Washington? Was his character an angry black nationalist who brought an anti-imperialist perspective to his fellow marines? Or was he an angry black nationalist who learned to be a patriot? In the end, he’s both. The film is neither right nor left, but leans right. It’s patriotic in spite of itself.
You can’t say the same thing for Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War. If it took The Boys in Company C to break open the model of patriotism and propaganda that had framed American war movies ever since 1941, then by the time we get to 1988, American filmmakers, if not openly anti-imperialist, were beginning to get the history right. Casualties of War is a brutal, horrifying film, a Gothic horror story, but, if books like Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves are to be believed, dead on accurate. The “good war” and the “greatest generation” are long gone. The United States army isn’t fighting to end slavery or to liberate France from the Nazis. It’s fighting for empire, pure and simple. De Palma’s soldiers aren’t a likeable group of American everymen. They’re monsters, abominations, no different from Spielberg’s Nazis in Schindler’s List. The director of Carrie and Dressed to Kill has buried American exceptionalism once and for all, ripped the mask off of the genocidal war in Vietnam and showed it for what it was.
Casualties of War is a meditation on toxic masculinity, on “rape culture,” on what turns ordinary men into war criminals. You might call it “Johnson’s Willing Executioners.” It is 1966. Five American soldiers are on patrol in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. They’re angry and cynical, sexually frustrated and paranoid. Their squad leader Sergeant Meserve, played by Sean Penn, decides to kidnap a 16-year Vietnamese farm girl for “mobile R and R,” as an object they can use sexually then kill when she’s no longer needed. Max Erickson, Michael J. Fox, thinks he’s kidding, but he’s not. Meserve, and his fellow war criminals, a Corporal Clark played by a very scary actor named Don Patrick Harvey, and a Private Hatcher played by a dough faced John C. Reilly, do indeed kidnap an innocent Vietnamese farm girl, gang rape her for 2 days, then stab her and throw her off a bridge. Their racial attitudes are no different from any Klansman in Alabama, American soldier at Wounded Knee, or Nazi in occupied Poland. The Vietnamese are subhuman. Any random 16-year-old farm girl is no different from a North Vietnamese guerrilla. “Nits make lice.”
“I thought we were here to help these people,” Erickson says, horrified that what he thought was a joke is deadly serious. Even though his naivete makes us groan, Michael J. Fox’s Max Erickson was quite real. Casualties of War is based on a historical event in Vietnam, Incident on Hill 192, where a Pfc Robert M. Storeby did indeed manage to bring 4 other soldiers up on charges of rape and murder and get them long prison terms. But as Nick Turse would later prove conclusively in his book Kill Anything That Moves, My Lai and Incident on Hill 192 were the exceptions. The army got caught. Every platoon in Vietnam had its My Lai and Hill 192, and very few of the soldiers involved faced any consequences. Lieutenant Calley, the butcher of My Lai, did no jail time at all. Colin Powell, who helped with the initial whitewash, later became Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. John Kerry, who protested the War in Vietnam, would lose an election in 2004 because he tried to tell the truth back in 1972. I suppose he learned his lesson because he hasn’t told the truth since, but one line from his testimony in front of Congress in the 1970s made it into Casualties of War.
“Hey this is awesome,” Pfc Hatcher says during the kidnapping. “We’re just like Genghis Khan.”
I suppose Hollywood, like John Kerry, learned its lesson since they’ve studiously avoided telling the truth about the war in Iraq. The Boys in Company C was released only 3 years after the last American helicopter took off from the roof of the United States embassy in Saigon. The United States military has officially been out of Iraq for several years now, but, except for a few forgotten liberal films like Robert Redford’s Redacted and some random jingoistic dreck like The Hurt Locker, the war is nowhere to be seen. One would think that George W. Bush’s folly, which wound up destroying a whole country in the Middle East, would have already gotten its own Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino, its own Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. But who am I kidding? As flawed as both those films were, neither could be made after 9/11. It would probably be career suicide for anybody who even tried.