Casualties of War

Quandry
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1989
Director: 
Brian De Palma
Starring: 
Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, Don Harvey, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Thuy Thu Lee
The Setup: 
Guy is in serious moral quandary when his Vietnam unit decides to gang-rape a local.
Discussion: 

Made just after The Untouchables and just before The Bonfire of the Vanities, the word I heard is that this was to be De Palma’s big personal statement. What I vaguely recall is based on Julie Salamon’s book The Devil’s Candy, which covers the making of Bonfire, and provides an excellent and detailed case study of the million little wrong decisions that go into making a well-regarded book into a massive cinematic dud. Anyway, what she says is that De Palma wanted to use the capital he had earned with his Untouchables hit and make this downbeat movie that he felt a great personal connection to, and that he was really disappointed with the critical and popular lack of interest it generated. One also imagines that he wanted to shift into more “serious” fare and give his directorial career more of a sheen of Oscar-type respectability. So that’s the context here.

We open with a title that says this is a true story, based on an article that appeared in The New Yorker in 1969. Then we join Michael J. Fox on a subway. He sees a Vietnamese woman and stares at her for a while, then we go into a flashback. Fox and his troupe are in the Vietnamese jungle when they get attacked. Fox falls halfway into an underground tunnel, and Penn comes back at great risk to himself and gets him out. There is a little bit of signature De Palma style in these opening sequences, as there is throughout the movie, but he wisely knows when to pull back and not let his presence interfere with the seriousness of the story.

So Fox is an admirer of Penn’s, and we can tell he is very moved by Penn’s grief when a member of their group is suddenly shot. Meanwhile he has been pushing buffalo and bonding with the Vietnamese peoples, while it’s becoming more and more apparent that the other members of his group are quite rascist and grow ever more toward considering their enemy to be sub-human. The rest of their group, by the way, comprises John C. Reilly, in his first movie, as a dumb soldier, joined by John Leguizamo as the replacement for the one that got shot and Don Harvey, who is good but who I have never heard of.

The guys are given shore leave, then denied it at the last minute, which mightily pisses them off, and this in turn comes out in further racism for the Vietnamese. Penn pretty much comes out and tells them that they are free to kill any Vietnamese they feel like. Then Penn says what they’re going to do is kidnap a young girl and they can all take turns with her. Fox isn’t sure that Penn isn’t kidding [and his growing unease with his fellows’ racism if telegraphed well], but finds out when Penn and co. go out and abduct a young girl. The girl’s mother chases after her, only to give her a scarf to shove in her mouth, presumably to stifle her screams, which is one of the more eerie effects of the film—that she knows preventing the rape is impossible, she can only help the girl get through it and retain some dignity. One of the soldiers tells the hysterical mother, whose daughter has just been kidnapped, “Get some rest. You’re upset.”

SPOILERS > > > Most of the troops are entirely behind the rape, and think Penn is an awesome commander for arranging such a thing. “It’s fantastic!” Reilly says. There is a long sequence of them forcing the girl to march with them through the jungle, Penn making her carry his rucksack, which in turn inspires Harvey’s character to pull rank on another of the guys and make him carry his rucksack. Fox tries to gather the support of the other fellows, but all but Leguizamo are behind the program. When he finally approaches Penn about it, Penn says “when I finish humping her maybe I’ll come hump you.” When Fox makes his objections known to the group it is not long before they accuse him of being gay. The homoerotic content here is handled well, with a very canny sense of how homosexuality is perceived as weakness, and how frustration with lack of power can be transformed into homoerotic intimidation, as with the rucksack thing. It is not a main focus of the movie, but what elements are there are handled with a solid grasp of psychology.

They rape the girl, Penn first. Fox has tried to stop it, but been overruled, and as he looks on helplessly, Penn barks “You gonna watch?” He is then ostracized from the rest of the group, and Penn makes dark hints that they might actually kill him “by accident.” Fox tries to comfort the girl and befriend her, which in me led to question why he wouldn’t just untie her and set her free while the others are away. This stuff wouldn’t stand out so much in the film if it didn’t bring up uncomfortable questions based on the rest of De Palma’s oeuvre. Since so much of his suspense work is based on sexualized voyeurism, one has very mixed feelings about what is going on when Penn asks Fox if he’s “gonna watch,” and later, as we see the girl bloody, crying and vulnerable, it becomes a little uncomfortable as to whether someone [i.e. De Palma] is actually getting some kind of jollies out of this. When Fox tries to befriend and possibly form a relationship with the girl, one is a little unsure if he is imagining romantic feelings for her, also uncomfortable. Again, most of this is actually not raised by THIS movie, but more by considering it within the scope De Palma’s stock obsessions—sexual voyeurism, helpless women in agony—that are so prevalent in his other work.

Later while alone with the girl, Fox attempts to help her escape, but is caught, further straining relations with the others. Soon Fox is being ordered to kill the girl, but he refuses, finally getting to the point where he alerts the enemy to their position rather than do it, leading to a massive shootout. During this time Harvey, the most sadistic of the bunch, volunteers to kill her. He stabs her, but she is still alive, and comes walking out along this bridge toward Penn. She is a powerful sight, this wounded woman covered in blood, and certainly evokes Sissy Spacek from Carrie. Penn, who never wants to actually kill her himself, orders his other men to shoot her, and finally one of them does. Soon after this they are rescued, and sent back to camp.

Once there, Fox tells the second in command [played by Ving Rhames] about what happened. Ving gets a major Oscar speech as he tells how his wife and child were killed, and he tried to seek justice, but ultimately had to accept that nothing would be done. He advises Fox that things like this happen, and just to accept it. Fox then goes to Rhames’ superior, played by Dale Dye, who also advises him to just drop it. Fox refuses. He later gets two big Oscar clips, one in which he is drunk and confronts Penn, saying he tried to get him in trouble, but “no one cares.” The second, more heavy-handed one, features Fox theorizing that in situations where one could die at any moment, and everyone’s moral level has dropped to zero, maybe then it’s more important then even to strive to be good. Anyway, Fox finally pushes through his investigation, and the four other guys are court-martialed.

We then go back to Fox on the subway. He wakes up and follows the Vietnamese woman he saw. Finally calling out to her. The woman turns and says “did you think I was someone else?” She then asks, “Did you have a bad dream?” Fox nods. “It’s over now, I think.” During this time, based on my previous note about seeing Fox’s possible attraction to their victim and what I said about this movie in relation to the rest of De Palma’s work, I was sitting there thinking “Oh God, PLEASE don’t ask her out. PLEASE don’t ask her out. PLEASE don’t let this end with them getting together and him loving the Vietnamese girl in the way he couldn’t when he was there,” and it was with a great rush of relief that I saw he did not. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END

I was actually a little wary of watching this movie because I knew it was De Palma’s big statement, and we all know how wrong a director can go when they’re trying to make a big statement or create “the movie they’ve always wanted to make.” Luckily De Palma avoids most of the common pitfalls, and he does have a great story to tell. Yes, it’s a bit grueling, but the psychological dynamic of the unit, with Fox owing his life to Penn, and the way Fox would like to get away from these people but also needs them for his survival, is quite strong and intriguing. The mounting danger Fox faces from his friends and various other situations also lend themselves quite nicely to De Palma’s suspense style, which he gets to use in parts here without seeming too dischordant.

The main problem for me, which keeps the film from moving from very good into great, is how heavy-handed it can be at times. There are quite a few times—for example, when the beloved member of the troupe is killed toward the beginning—where Ennio Morricone’s score heads over the top on the pathos, and it took me out of the movie. I could have also done without the slow-motion at this time. I have read other reviews that describe the music here as “one of Morricone’s most sensitive scores,” so take that as you may. Certain of Fox’s big speeches, such as the “it’s important to be good” one mentioned above, get into clumsily pedantic territory for me, and that strikes me as a weakness as well. Also, Fox himself does a good job with the acting, but is so small and cute and high-voiced that it’s difficult to accept him in this role. I like the idea that everyone was sent to Vietnam, even cute little youngsters like Fox, but for some reason HE in particular just never overcame that. Probably because he IS Michael J. Fox, and we all have an established history of him in these lighthearted roles, but I also think the film as a whole would have been stronger with someone else in that role. John C. Reilly, however, is quite impressive, even back then.

Overall, a very good, thoughtful movie with a very compelling moral situation, excellent direction, and good performances. All that said, however, I don’t really think you need to see it. There are better Vietnam movies, there are better De Palma movies, and there are better moral quandary movies. This is a good one of them, but it is ultimately just another one of them.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re super in De Palma, of course. If you’re very into Vietnam movies, yes. Otherwise, it’s a well-made movie, but it doesn’t strike me as essential.

RELATED MOVIES:
REDACTED is a sort of re-do of this movie, taking place during the Iraq war, but using radically different techniques.