Movie Rehab: Fox vs. Penn in Brian De Palma’s overlooked ‘Casualties Of War’

It is the responsibility of the working film critic to not only offer opinion and context for the newest releases, but also to constantly champion and curate the films that matter, especially if they were misunderstood or poorly released or somehow handled badly the first time around.

Critics should take it upon themselves to rehabilitate the under-loved, to defend the wrongly-maligned, and rehab the films that need it; it is the only way film as a whole can be healthy.

Brian De Palma has had exactly two moments in his career when everything broke his way, commercially and artistically.

The first was early on, and “Carrie” was lightning in a bottle. It was a best-selling book that was written in this fevered language, as much a matter of the author’s immaturity as the actual urgency of the story, but it launched Stephen King’s career, deservedly, and the film version managed to tap into that same sense of momentum. De Palma turned out to be the perfect guy to give voice to that films mix of woozy revenge fantasy and bottomless angst.

It seemed like eons went by between that film and “The Untouchables,” culturally speaking, but it was actually just 11 years. Even so, “The Untouchables” is a totally different animal, burnished and bronze and manly through and through. A blockbuster designed specifically to make everybody’s dad stand up and yell “Hell, yes!” about 20 times, with the performance that launched Sean Connery to permanent superstar status after years in the wilderness.

Both films are unmistakably his work, so it’s not like he had to give up his identity to have a hit, but those films were such perfect fits for him that it seemed like they were just effortless. He cast them perfectly, he knew exactly how to play them, and he directed them like he was being chased.

One of the reasons De Palma didn’t always replicate that degree of commercial success is because he has a genuinely seedy streak to his work, and beyond that, he’s a subversive smart-ass. He doesn’t really take pop culture seriously, but he takes it super-seriously in some other ways. He always applies a high degree of gloss and finesse to everything he does, even if he’s flipping the middle finger to the establishment in the process.

I’m not sure how he ever talked anyone at Columbia to say yes to what must have been a difficult sell even when every studio was scrambling to make movies about Vietnam. I know this was a project he carried around for a while. Keep in mind, this was only 14 years after the fall of Saigon, a mere 20 years after the first report of the events that inspired the film. Vietnam feels like ancient history at this point, but the opening title card of this film read:

“This film is based on an actual incident that occurred during the Vietnam War. It was first reported by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker magazine in 1969.”

The thing that I didn’t really understand in 1989 was just how recent a wound this was. At this point, if you do a movie about 9/11, that happened longer ago than the events in this film did when the movie hit theaters. In the opening scene, the only real period detail is a newspaper in the bottom right hand corner of the frame with the headline “Nixon Resigns.” That puts a pretty definitive pin in a point in time, but the people and the setting was pretty much exactly as it would have been in 1989 anyway. De Palma didn’t push the costumes to a preposterous level.

That first push in on Fox, asleep, as he wakes up and sees a young student sitting on the subway across from him played by Thuy Thu Le, the same actress who we’ll see later in the movie in one of the most punishing film debuts of all time. He looks at her for a moment, registers the face, and then falls back into his troubled sleep. I think the script, by David Rabe, is beautifully structured, and far more than “just” another movie about Vietnam.

The first scene of the squad in the field begins at night, with Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) taking orders from Lt. Reilly (Ving Rhames) and Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn). Eriksson is paired with PFC Hatcher (John C. Reilly), and the two of them are supposed to set up claymores around the perimeter of their camp. Instead, as Hatch tries to plant one of the explosives, he worries about finding a tunnel. Explosions start to sound somewhere nearby, and we see that Reilly gets frantic quickly, while Meserve is almost too calm. Eriksson ends up dropping into a hole that’s opened up by a mortal strike, and ends up with his lower half dangling into one of the tunnels Hatcher was talking about.

Right away, this scene is better shot and staged and written than about 90% of all the films made about Vietnam during that ten year period where we were really cranking them out. We learn about the dynamics of this particular platoon, the way Meserve serves to make Reilly look good, the way the guys all look to Meserve, just how green Eriksson really is. This was the first time I saw John C. Reilly, and from the very first time we hear Hatcher speak, Reilly was already the John C. Reilly that we still know and love. He’s the last guy you want to get stuck with, dim and sort of sweet, looking for a leader he can follow.

The way De Palma ratchets up the tension during the sequence, with the Vietcong soldier crawling toward Eriksson, who has no idea what’s happening below him, even as Meserve tries to comfort one of the other soldiers who’s been messed up pretty badly, is masterful. Meserve finally reaches Eriksson and rescues him, neither of them aware just how close the Vietcong got to Eriksson. They’re pinned down by a guy in a tree, and Meserve barks some orders to Eriksson. They work together, take out the guy in the tree, and we can see how natural this is to Meserve and how hard Eriksson is working in that moment to be like him. He swears to sound more like Meserve, but it just doesn’t sound right coming out of him. Eriksson lets his guard down too early and, for the second time, Meserve has to save him from the guy from the tunnel.

One of the main reactions I heard from people who dismissed “Casualties Of War” during its theatrical run in August of 1989 was that they didn’t want to watch Michael J. Fox in a Vietnam film, that they simply didn’t believe he was right to be a soldier. Even then, I didn’t buy that as a legitimate gripe. First, Fox is a good actor, and always has been. Second, Vietnam wasn’t a particularly picky war in terms of who the Army was willing to send over, and if a guy like Fox had enlisted or been drafted, they would have sent him happily. I think De Palma and Rabe get the racial balance right in the film, and beyond that, I think it’s a nice cross-section of types so that when things go south… and they do… it’s not just an either/or situation between Eriksson and Meserve. The acting styles of Sean Penn circa-1989 and Michael J. Fox circa ever couldn’t be more different, and I like that friction that seems to exist between them. There’s this huge macho swinging dick energy that Penn gives off where he basically tries to annihilate Fox through sheer force of personality alone. The Fox casting not only is not a problem for me, it’s one of the things I love about the film the most. I was thrilled that he decided to try and stretch and ended up working with one of my favorite filmmakers at the time, and I thought it paid off in a genuine tension onscreen.

The next major sequence is the one when Brownie (Erik King) watches Eriksson goofing around with one of the farmers in a small village. Eriksson is just enjoying himself, and Brownie pulls him aside to explain how things really work. He tells Eriksson that the only person who is going to pull him through things is Meserve and he needs to listen to him and learn from him. They walk back over to join the rest of their platoon and all hell breaks loose, with Brownie taking several shots to the chest. Again, the way De Palma stages the individual beats of the scene, even amidst chaos, is just dazzling. There’s one VC who throws a grenade, and Eriksson manages to shoot it out of the air. He’s so excited when he turns back to tell Meserves that he misses the VC hurrying into a hidden tunnel entrance behind him, a moment we see as a split diopter shot, one of De Palma’s trademarks.

As Brownie dies slowly, bleeding out between Meserve’s fingers, the Ennio Morricone score swells, and you can’t discuss this film without discussing Morricone’s score. Big, beautiful, mournful, this is as grand as anything he ever recorded for Sergio Leone. It gives the film a sense of scale and importance, and it isn’t remotely subtle. De Palma made a huge choice by putting a score like this on the film, and I think it’s one of the best of the composer’s career. Brownie’s final moments as he fades away on the helicopter are brutal, and one of my favorite moments in the whole film for Penn is that look on his face as he watches the helicopter leaving, knowing full well that Brownie’s not going to make it, already getting orders for where they have to go next.

Little by little, De Palma and Rabe start to establish the tensions that are bearing down on these guys. They are denied their pass into the town where the whorehouse is, and they’re still furious over the ambush that led to Brownie’s death, so they’re worked up and looking for a release. The filmmakers are not looking to excuse any of the actions we see these guys take, but they are determined to explain just how wrong the situation was in general. The casual way Meserve mentions his plan to his squad is chilling. “We’re gonna detour 2000 meters to the south. We’re going to requisition ourselves a girl for a little portable R&R. Break up the boredom. Keep up morale.”

Eriksson has a crisis right away. He goes to see his friend Rowan (Jack Gwaltney) to tell him what Meserve said, and Rowan laughs it off. He reassures Eriksson that it’s too crazy for Meserve to have been serious. But the very next shot is a POV search through a village, looking in windows before they finally lay eyes on Oanh (Thuy Thu Le), a teenage girl sleeping beside her sister. As the abduction is still in progress, Eriksson paces, nervous, starting to freak out. Other villagers come out to see what’s happening, but no one’s willing to engage the Americans or try to stop them. Diaz (John Leguizamo) is the new member of the squad, and he’s just as nervous as Eriksson. Clark (Don Harvey) is completely onboard, and is in fact the one who picks the girl. Hatch seems like he’s not sure, but he wants to be part of whatever Meserve says they should do.

One of the grim ironies of the film is just how beautiful it is. The shot of them carrying the girl across a sunrise-painted landscape or the shot of them marching up the side of a hill as the morning mist burns off… those are stunning images, and it might be one of the most gorgeous films that Stephen H. Burum ever shot.

Meserve knows early on that he’s got a problem with Eriksson. The moment Eriksson challenges Meserve about what they’re doing, Meserve puts Eriksson on the point, Meserve doesn’t want to hear someone discussing a crisis of conscience.  De Palma frequently puts us in the scene as Eriksson’s point-of-view, especially in moments where people are pushing him to choose a side. When Diaz asks if he has to take a turn if he doesn’t want to, he’s speaking directly to us. The film is asking us to examine our own ideas about how this sort of group madness takes over in a situation like this, daring us to hold strong to our convictions even as everyone around us transgresses.

Long before the actual rape occurs, we see how Meserve and Clark dehumanize Oanh. First they call her a VC whore, manufacturing a reason for them to have grabbed her in case they ever have to justify their decision. They force her to carry equipment even though she’s barefoot, and they don’t care what sort of terrain they’re moving over. She’s obviously sick, and they try to keep her just healthy enough. When they finally reach a place they can spend a few days holed up, Diaz knows what’s coming, and he begs Eriksson to stand with him, to back him up when he says he won’t participate. Eriksson tries to be kind to Oanh, but she’s so terrified that even his attempts at concern read like aggression to her. Her performance is so upsetting, so raw, such a naked display of fear and horror that it’s hard to watch. I can’t imagine the emotional state she had to reach every single day as they were shooting.

45 minutes into the film comes what I consider one of the pivotal moments in the movie, where Meserve and Eriksson finally lay their cards on the table, each seeing the other for what he really is. I think every single one of the young actors that De Palma hired gets their chance to shine here, and I love the clash between the various schools of acting that you see here. Michael J. Fox is a guy with old fashioned studio chops, a guy who has a particular cadence that he applies to everything. You can tell it’s Fox by the way he punctuates dialogue with his special sort of breathless delivery. Meanwhile, Penn seems like he’s going for some sort of Brando/Dean/Clift thing with marbles in his mouth and an accent so thick you could choke on it. His Meserve delivers lines with this crazy musical over-the-top animal aggression. It’s one of my favorite performances by Penn, precisely because he seems determined to see how far out there he can push Meserve.

The scene begins with Meserve trying to win Eriksson over. He’s used to being able to get his guys to go along with things. He knows that he has to get Eriksson to rape the girl so that they’re all bound by the secret. Quickly, it escalates to a confrontation, and they’re not going to let him off the hook. Eriksson looks at Diaz in the middle of things and Diaz rolls over right away.

“How are we going to count on you?” That’s the question that everything hinges on. If Eriksson doesn’t do the same things they do, then he’s able to stand apart from them. He’s a threat to them. By the time the scene reaches its breaking point, everyone’s got a weapon drawn. “Anybody can blow anybody away at any time,” Meserve tells Eriksson, “which is the way it oughta be. Always.” And when Meserve gives up on Eriksson, when he walks into the cabin with the girl, when he initiates the rape, Penn doesn’t play it with any confusion or artifice. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Just like he knows what he’s doing when he has Diaz go second. Meserve hasn’t lived as long as he has in country by missing something like the looks that Eriksson kept throwing at Diaz.

“When was the last time you had a real woman, Sarge?”
“She was real.”

David Rabe has disowned the finished film because he wasn’t happy with decisions that De Palma made in the shooting of his script, but that’s a shame. Rabe’s script shines through in the film, both in terms of structure and character construction. I remember being shaken by the film the first time I saw it, and I took my father back to the theater to see it with me. He was a paratrooper in Vietnam, and during the ’80s, when the subject was suddenly omnipresent, we talked about Vietnam for the first and last times. The various films we went to see together would kick off conversations about his own experiences. Sometimes he was more forthcoming than other times. He was pretty firm about having not really seen any significant misbehavior by American troops, but he was there in the early days of the war, not one things spiraled out of control. Rabe was a Vietnam veteran himself, and he’s a great gifted writer with an amazing ear for character.

Many of the Vietnam films that were made seemed to be about nothing more than “Boy, wasn’t Vietnam crazy?” Rabe’s script narrows the focus to this incident, not as a way of indicting the larger war, but as a way of commenting about personal character, about holding on to some sense of personal morality even when firmly entrenched in some truly shaky moral ground. This isn’t meant to say anything like, “All soldiers are bad,” but instead, “What is it about war that creates an atmosphere where this sort of thing can happen?” Not everyone transgressed. Not even close to everyone. Not even a majority. But when we do have moments in war where we lose control of ourselves, when the men we send into an extraordinarily hostile environment crack and respond with a savagery that horrifies us, that scares us, we still have to ask what it is that makes these young men feel like they are off the leash, able to cross lines so primal that even the conversation makes us recoil.

As awful as the images of the rape are, I am far more upset by the scene afterwards where Eriksson tries to help her, tries to clean her, and she cowers, cringing away from him, weeping and battered. By using no subtitles, by giving her no English dialogue, he renders Eriksson even more helpless. He can’t help her. He can’t reach her. All the kindness in the world doesn’t matter after how brutalized she’s been. She’s broken, permanently and traumatically broken. They have landed on her world and shattered it, and Eriksson tries to help her, knowing it’s going to be a lost cause.

At the same time, De Palma stages the actual mission that Meserve was given, the observation and ambush of a group of VC weapons smugglers on the river below them. He’s got Meserve and the guys watching the pirates, and Eriksson trying to talk Oanh into leaving. Clark is sent to retrieve Eriksson, and it’s a rotten gut-sick ticking clock, an exercise in futility, and De Palma never seriously lets you believe they’re going to get away. It’s knowing that it’s too late, that it just isn’t going to work, that makes the scene so awful.

And then they raise the stakes even more, and as they try to prepare for the ambush, Oanh can’t stop coughing. She’s sick. And the sound of her coughing is too much, so Meserve orders Eriksson to kill her. Don Harvey pretty much condemned himself to a career of playing creeps with his work here as Clark. He’s the one who is always wiling to volunteer for whatever fresh level of awful Meserves pushes them towards. He’s ready and willing. Meserve sees this as his last chance to get Eriksson onboard with everyone else. He orders Hatcher to do it, then Diaz. It’s quite revealing that Meserve doesn’t want to do it himself. He wants to give the order. It’s a matter of strength. John Leguizamo wrote in his autobiography about getting slapped over and over by Sean Penn at full strength while shooting this scene, and that’s just one of the many stories I’ve heard and read about how far Penn pushed the other guys on the set. He tortured Fox, evidently, and I believe it. There is a serious tension between these guys and Penn comes across as unhinged by this point. Brownie’s death pushed him one step too far. He was so close to leaving, to feeling like he got out with something intact. When he lost Brownie, he lost direction. He couldn’t see his approaching departure anymore. All he could see was Brownie laying there on the ground, bleeding out between Meserve’s fingers. When Eriksson makes the mistake of mentioning Brownie during his fight with Meserve, the effect is immediate. Meserve gets crazy at the mention of Brownie’s name.

The firefight that follows is amazingly shot and staged, and De Palma drops the first stage of Oanh’s murder into the background of some other shots, Eriksson’s attention pulled away at the last moment he could have helped her. The moment there’s a firefight to focus on, Meserve is in his element. Suddenly, he’s a good soldier again. He knows how to do this. Instinct takes over. It’s only once there’s a pause in things that the girl once again draws his attention and they finally, horribly put her down, just before hell erupts out of the forest and the river below thanks to a helicopter strike on their location. Eriksson is left behind to witness the massive loss of life, the bodies everywhere, and, at the base of the bridge, almost beyond recognition, Oanh.

De Palma brings Eriksson back through a series of horrible shocking transitions, from a helicopter to a triage ward, and Eriksson runs out to find his friend Rowan. There’s a great moment as Eriksson tells Rowan what happened where we see Clark running towards them through a crowd, then turning and fading away before Eriksson can see him. We’re still forty-five minutes out from the end of the film at this point. Now the question shifts from “What would you do?” to “How do you try to make things right?” Eriksson failed the girl. It’s that simple. He failed her completely. He may have refused to rape her, but he didn’t save her, either. Rowan tells him that he needs to talk to someone because they both know he won’t survive another trip out into the bush under Meserve’s command. This leads Eriksson to reach out to Lt. Reilly, who we see at the start of the film in the field with Meserve. Reilly is played by Ving Rhames, and I’m going to guess that Tarantino is a fan of this movie because there’s a great moment where we’re re-introduced to him as he delivers a long monologue to a bewildered Eriksson, and he makes a pretty powerful point about how being right isn’t really enough. He wants Eriksson to let it go. The most he’s willing to do is break up the squad and send Eriksson somewhere else.

Darren Burrows, who went on to play Ed on “Northern Exposure,” has a short but fascinating role as Cherry, a kid who keeps intruding on Rowan and Eriksson as they discuss what Eriksson might have done differently during a march out of the smoking remains of a village, surrounded by Vietnamese nationals and other soldiers. They get more and more annoyed with him, even though at the start of the film, Eriksson was this kid, basically. If they’d just ended the scene with the shot of Burrows in the ditch, it would be a perfect sequence, but the dialogue Fox delivers afterwards is probably the most embarrassing in the film, a button that just doesn’t work. The next scene with Dale Dye is great, and it’s one of the best overall scenes Dye has ever played in his long career as the authentic voice of the military in Hollywood. He tells Eriksson in no uncertain terms that he’s making himself a target if he pushes the issue any further up the chain of command.

The next sequence is shot like a horror film, using the language of slasher movies to show an attempt on Eriksson’s life. I love the fact that De Palma can’t resist taking a scene like that and playing it in the most movie terms possible. From the first POV shot to the conclusion of the scene with Don Harvey laying on the floor, bleeding from a horrifying wound to the forehead, it’s the last big scene in the film, winding down with a drunken scene in a bar where Eriksson finally finds someone to listen, someone to understand just what happened. The rest of the movie feels anti-climactic, honestly, including an interrogation scene with two guys questioning Eriksson exhaustively, trying to pick holes in his story that was added to the director’s cut of the film that is the only DVD currently available. The courtroom scenes at the end are necessary, but it’s the least interesting stretch of the film. The one great beat is watching the four of them march out of the court martial, and Meserve leans in to whisper something to Eriksson and then —

— and then comes the unfortunate coda, where De Palma reaches for some profound beat between Eriksson waking up on the train and following the girl out to return a scarf to her. It’s supposed to offer him some sort of closure, but it doesn’t work as a moment at all. I think sometimes an ending like this can deflate a film, and in the case of “Casualties,” it’s hard to deny that things end with a fizzle. There’s something very odd about the way De Palma dubbed Amy Irving’s voice over the English dialogue by Thuy Thu Le, and the dialogue she has is corn of an almost preposterous degree.

But before that ending, and for most of its running time, this is De Palma at his most controlled, illuminating an awful moment of moral failure, struggling to make some sort of sense of it. Knowing this is how he spent the clout he had after making “The Untouchables” makes me like De Palma even more. He could have done a big franchise film or something more commercially convenient. After all, he had already had a few years where he was on a downward swing. “The Untouchables” was his unlikely rebound after “Wise Guys,” and it would have been smarter to try to lock down a few big sequels or safe bets. Instead, he made this film, then “The Bonfire Of The Vanities,” and then “Raising Cain,” a hat trick of commercial death that almost knocked him out of the game again. De Palma’s never been one to play it safe, and in this particular case, I wish more people would have given this a fair shot instead of dismissing it because it didn’t fit in with the films Fox had made up to that moment or because of Vietnam fatigue or because of how dark the subject matter is. De Palma has spent his career looking into the shadows that other people try to avoid, and this is one of the moments where he found something genuinely significant there. Fox may have followed this immediately with the huge success of the “Back To The Future” sequels, and Penn obviously went on to enormous acclaim and success over the years, but I wish that this film had been better received, because the two of them brought something special out in one another, and I think these are among their finest performances.

“Casualties Of War” is currently only available as a letterboxed director’s cut DVD.

MOVIE REHAB: “Gladiator”
MOVIE REHAB: “Fearless”

When we return, the next film will be Peter Weir’s 1986 film “The Mosquito Coast.”