Platoon - The Horrors Of War

Thoughts On: Platoon (1986)

A young man drops out of university and into combat in Vietnam.

To say the words 'the horrors of war' when discussing war movies is a clichéd and rather empty attempt to convey the impact of a film. This is because the term itself is so both banal and ambiguous - and to the point that it is almost meaningless. This isn't to say that 'the horrors of war' should not be said or discussed in relation to war movies, just that the term needs a bit of clarification. So, by taking a look at 4 of the best war movies ever made, we can begin to categorise and distinguish the 4 modes or approaches to 'the horrors of war'. These movies are, of course...


... Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. Before we begin discussing these movies and their characteristics, it has to be clarified that we are looking at these films as anti-war movies. This means we are considering their aspects that mean to show us the chaos, terror and torment war can be to society and individuals. Other movies such as Top Gun, Patriot and 300...


... aren't explicitly pro-war to the extent of being propaganda, but they do not have the same characteristics as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now. So, when we discuss the modes of war films today, we are only talking about the kind of war film that means to demonstrate its 'horrors'. To keep this obvious, we will refer to these movies as, for a lack of a better term, 'horror-war' films.

Starting with Saving Private Ryan, we have the first class of horror-war film: the physical. The visceral impact of Saving Private Ryan is in the gory realism; the limbs blown of, soldiers drowned, friends murdered and bloodshed splayed. The gore is not there to make the movie fun, but, as should be obvious, convey the true danger and calamity inherent to a war zone. Saving Private Ryan then fits into the physical mode of the horror-war film because the horror is tangible and we see it occur to people.

The next mode is the conceptual. Apocalypse Now is a masterful example of this as it is not really about soldiers, guns, enemies and explosions, much rather, it is about the concepts of war; those being imperialism, power, murder, existentialism, solipsism, humanity, morality... etc. This is probably the rarest kind of war movie as capturing the concepts of battle is incredibly difficult. Coppola manages to do this with archetypal figures in Willard and Kurtz. With these individuals, he explores men as Gods and men as humans - a complex subject we've previously delved into. So, what makes this a conceptual horror-war film are the archetypal aspects that provide commentary on wider ideas of war.

The third mode of horror-war is psychological. We've discussed Full Metal Jacket twice already and so I won't drone on about it too much, but Kubrick conveys the horrors of war through the effects it has on an individual in this story. He does this with an appeal to Jungian theories of collective and personal unconsciousness and ultimately constructs a narrative around the concept of a mind under the pressure of war.

Before moving onto the final mode of horror-war, it has to be said that these modes rarely appear singularly in movies. For example, if we look to Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, we can see that they both hold conceptual and psychological elements to them with their appeal to wider ideas of war as well as the idea of a soldier. That noted, we can comfortably move onto the final mode...

The fourth mode of horror-war is emotional. We see this in movies like Platoon that don't just show blood and guts, that don't just use soldiers as archetypes or minds in heads, but reactionary humans that feel frustration, fear, doubt, melancholy and isolation. The key to this mode is said idea of 'reaction'. These movies aren't so much about war and violence, but what it reflects in people and the manner in which they express themselves.

As the title of this post should make obvious, this fourth mode and Platoon are our focus for today. This is because I find Platoon to be the most impactful experience of war on film for the way in which character is so central to the telling of the story. This isn't to say that it is the best war film in my opinion - in fact, I don't think I have an opinion on exactly which movie is the best - all I mean to suggest here is that Platoon is much more visceral and resonant than Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket because there is a distance at which we're held in these movies. And in comparison to Platoon, you even feel this in Saving Private Ryan; whilst there are glimpses of raw, complex emotion, there simply isn't that same sense of truth in Saving Private Ryan as there is in Platoon. This must be down to the directors because, whilst Spielberg, like Kubrick and Coppola, is an undeniable master of cinema who clearly has a great interest in war, he did not serve in the military like Stone did. And you feel this in their movies. Saving Private Ryan has an observational, recollective and distanced perspective on what it means to fight in war. Platoon has an immediacy and incite into the personal life and perception of a soldier that almost no other narrative war movie does. This, in regard to experiencing a movie, leaves Platoon as one of the most poignant horror-war films because 'horror' is an emotion. You can think of horror as a tank hurtling toward you...

... you can think of horror as the confrontation of an immense moral and philosophical structure...

... or you can even think of horror as a tyrant screaming at you...

... but, horror is best thought of as a face:

What lies beneath these features is a multi-faceted feeling of torment, one that we have, by this point, seen beaten into Chris for months on end. There are two primary means by which this has built within him. The first is socially and the second is personally, and we see this represented by the two men that Chris ends up considering his fathers, Elias and Barnes...

Many see these two figures as Jesus and Satan, and this iconic image certainly enforces this idea:

However, this would leave you to consider this movie as a singularly moral look at a soldier's position in war. There are certainly elements of moral questioning when considering the massacre and constant fight to do the right thing throughout this film, but when considering the emotional horrors of war, seeing these two figures in another light will leave us with a more nuanced view of this film's themes.

So, starting with Elias, we see a figure that attempts to nurture and care for Chris. It's from him that camaraderie finds its way into this narrative, but quickly turns poisoned. As is said by Chris, this movie is not so much about a fight between armies, but a 'civil war' in a platoon of men. This is what encapsulates the social contortion and pressure Chris is put under throughout the film; he came to Vietnam to become 'anonymous' and be like his father and grandfather before him who fought in their own wars. However, sat in the bush, Chris is continually forced to question the purpose of war as a collective endeavour. After all, to him, it seems that no one wants to be helped and no one really wants to help others either...

This of course implies the immense political underbelly of the Cold and Vietnam War, but, more simply, the lack of society, community or togetherness in war. And this is certainly the element of Platoon that has it be so poignant; there are no true sides in this war, there is no escape, there is no anonymity. This simpler idea of war as 'us and them' dies with Elias and is never restored for Chris.

With the murder of Elias, Chris is then left, primarily, under the pressure of Barnes - he begins to define war and battle to him. And in such, there is a narrative shift towards an overwhelmingly isolated and individual perspective of battle. Like Barnes, everyone eventually takes an every-man-for-himself stance and this makes war crushingly formidable.

There is no better way to demonstrate this than this look of complete loss that we see on O'Neill's face in the end of the movie. In fact, this is the single most impactful shot of the movie to me as the hell that O'Neill has only just escaped - cowardly/sensibly so - is seemingly never going to end. What I see in O'Neill's eyes here is then his perceived future. He knows this war will be the death of him - if not literally then certainly spiritually. O'Neill, like Chris, will never be the same after this war and this is because he's made to see the blind enormity of the collective human existence and endeavour.

It's realising that you are alone in a war zone, as each and every man seems to be in the final battle, that you recognise just how weak you are and how overwhelmingly chaotic a body of hundreds, thousands, even millions and billions, of people are. There is very little that groups of hundreds and thousands can do to profoundly effect the world - yet this is what war is. War is small pockets of people trying to change the world, and such explains its devastating and hugely confounding effect on people.

Seeing war in this manner, try to imagine what it means to be an isolated cog in this network. Again, the only way to truly paint this picture would be with a face...

But, what we cannot forget at this point is the catalyst for this situation: the archetypal Sargent Barnes.

The heartlessness and self-centric inhumanity that Barnes represents exposes war as truly terrifying for the fact that you have to rely on the men 'on your side' in face of those who oppose you. What we then see, through Chris, is war as a struggle between societal collectivism and personal individuality. Ultimately, the pressure and pain of this battle is concluded with the pseudo-catharsis that Chris feels having destroyed the poison that initially corrupted his platoon.

This is the final thematic note of Platoon; escape and catharsis. From the very beginning men hate their situation and just want out, but, for most, this is granted far too late.

It's here, in the very end, that Chris realises that there is no real escape from war and that his fight between societal collectivism and personal individuality is never going to be over. He will carry his experience of war and people as isolated cogs in a system they do not understand, only resent, with him for the rest of his life - including when he has to serve in the army again as a commander or Sargent of sorts. This is the emotional horror of war; it is to face this future and question your purpose and position as a person.

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