Casualties Of War Review
What is so interesting about Vietnam War movies is that they are as much about America and its own characteristics as they are about the conflict itself. It's almost as if Vietnam has served to be a new location, in which familial dramas are replaced by GI dramas. Oliver Stone has served the genre well, giving audiences three films that inter-linked and yet dealt with different personal issues. Platoon was a ferocious rites-of-passage journey by a young soldier struggling to choose between two contrasting ideologies. Born On The Fourth Of July dealt more with a soldier's own guilt in accidentally killing a fellow GI, and also with having to deal with America's hypocritical change of heart when it came to embracing its veterans. Heaven And Earth concentrate more intensely on a relationship between a Vietnamese woman and an American GI, and paralleled man's relationship with women. Other films also have extracted personal issues from the Vietnam conflict - Michael Cimino's classic The Deer Hunter effectively illustrated how a conflict such as Vietnam can affect the community at home just as much as it affects the soldiers' lives. Coming Home, an intelligent love story without any heavy dose of romanticism, attempts to illustrate the neglect suffered by injured soldiers on their return to America.
These examples are just a handful, and suggest that as a genre in itself, the Vietnam War movie is rich in possibilities for excellent movies. Brian De Palma, a man who needs no introduction after an excellent string of adult hits such as Carrie, Body Double, Sisters, Dressed To Kill, decided to make his first war film after finding success with producer Art Linson with the 1987 blockbuster The Untouchables. De Palma chose as his movie's basis a 1969 article and later novel by Daniel Lang that documented a real incident in Vietnam, in which a group of soldiers kidnapped, raped and murdered a Vietnamese girl. Already, the notion of who are the good characters and who are the enemy has already been turned on its head, and as De Palma's film Casualties Of War suggests, the only enemy is within.
Michael J. Fox is Eriksson, a 'cherry' soldier fresh in to fight America's cause. Eriksson is assigned to a unit of veterans who are very young in age. The unit is headed by the immensely headstrong Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn), a man whose personality forever borders on the dangerously psychotic even when he is attempting to be nice. Clark (Don Harvey) is a corporal and bloodthirsty; he fancies himself as an elite killing machine and has almost convinced himself that this is the case. Hatcher (John C. Reilly) is dumb-witted and relies upon the two stronger individuals Meserve and Clark for guidance. It's almost as if Hatcher has no personality and borrows one from his two superiors in the unit. Brown (Erik King) is a charismatic and likeable soldier heavily equipped with experience. However, early on in the film, Brown is wounded, and replaced by Diaz (John Leguizamo), a soldier eager to fit in. The unit function effectively under Meserve's support; at one point he rescues Eriksson from falling into a Vietcong tunnel, and when Brown is wounded Meserve courageously forces him to keep on living. However, without Brown's inner-convictions, the unit becomes a one way movement lead autocratically by Meserve, and this is where the trouble starts. After being refused permission to enter a Vietnamese village (for the purpose of 'getting laid'), Meserve has other ideas. He informs the rest of the unit that they will sneak into the village, kidnap a young girl and then she can service their sexual needs whilst on the mission. The unit back this idea, except for Eriksson, who merely thinks Meserve is joking. It isn't long before Meserve has marched in; picked the girl he wants and simply carried her off with the unit. Eriksson voices his initial disapproval, but is ordered down by Meserve. Soon, the treatment of the Vietnamese girl goes from bad to worse, and in an attempt to try and justify his actions, Meserve orders every soldier in the unit to rape the girl. Eriksson refuses, and thus places himself on the exterior of the unit, which suggests that the Vietcong might not be his only enemy.
Although set in the Vietnam war, Casualties Of War could have been set in any conflict. De Palma directs the film fluidly and powerfully, and yet manages to say little or nothing at all about the conflict itself. He is purely concerned with the inner tussle of a man's soul, and whether his principals will still guide him amongst times of horror. Because De Palma refuses to enter the Vietnam debate, his film has arguably stood the test of time much more effectively than any other Vietnam film. Casualties Of War is De Palma's best film in the last twenty years, and although The Untouchables was an enjoyable blockbuster it was nowhere near as worthy.
It's a credit to De Palma that he can command fantastic performances from his cast. Michael J. Fox, on a break from sitcom Family Ties and famous for playing cute roles in Back To The Future and Teen Wolf is more than capable of handling a serious role, and you believe Eriksson's nicety / naivete almost instantly. Having said that, it's very hard to believe someone like Eriksson would ever find himself embroiled in Vietnam at all. There is one particular scene however, in which Eriksson is spouting a righteous speech, which is so hilarious it would seem more in place as one of Nick Lang's films in Fox's The Hard Way. Sean Penn's Meserve is much more interesting as a character study. You can almost sense Meserve deliberately employing a psychotic unpredictability to his persona in order to quell his inner fears, as everyone else will fear him more. John C. Reilly, an actor who has made a name for himself in Paul Thomas Anderson films, gives a required dumbness to Hatcher in what is merely a two dimensional character. Don Harvey is more menacing as Clark, even if we still fear Meserve more. As Diaz, John Leguizamo effectively presents him as a cowardly man content to sacrifice his principles so that he isn't regarded as an outcast. Dale Dye, a man who served as technical advisor on Platoon also provides an excellent performance as Captain Hill, a man more in turn with army politics as opposed to dishing out justice. Ving Rhames also has a nice supporting turn as Lt. Reilly, a charismatic man prepared to turn the other cheek because of his past experiences.
Production wise, the film is first-rate. Ennio Morricone delivers another splendid and sprawling music score (it's possible that the decade of the eighties was his best) that perfectly sets the tone of the film. The lush cinematography by Stephen H. Burum is magnificent, and his portrait of Vietnam (although shot in Thailand) is much more convincing than Platoon's. The editing by Bill Pankow concentrates more on the actors than the action, further reinforcing the idea that Casualties Of War is first and foremost a human drama as opposed to a war drama.
Although the film doesn't match De Palma's seventies/early eighties efforts, Casualties Of War is arguably the last 'good' film he has made, and is a fantastic and compelling study of man's inner demons and lack of morality when displaced from a natural environment into a hellhole.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the transfer is very beautiful in terms of visual colouring and tone and is relatively blemish free. Casualties Of War benefits greatly when experienced in its full widescreen splendour, and the Region 2 PAL transfer is slightly sharper than the Region 1 version.
Remixed in 5.1 as opposed to the film's original 2.0 surround track, the sound department of the Casualties Of War DVD is extremely atmospheric, even if the film is virtually a 2.0 mix with a few surround elements in the more action-orientated sequences. The .1 LFE channel is under-used for the most part but very effective when utilised. Overall, this is still the best sound presentation of the film, even if Columbia Tristar have again omitted the original 2.0 sound track that is included on the Region 1 version.
Menu: An uninspired and static menu that is silent and contains a few dull images from the film.
Packaging: The usual Columbia Tristar template, with black amaray casing and a six-page fold out insert with brief production notes and chapter listings.
Eriksson's War: This is a seventeen-minute interview with Michael J. Fox, produced by DVD veteran Laurent Bouzereau. Fox talks about how much the film meant to him in his bid to have his career taken seriously, and how him and co-star Sean Penn refuse to socialise off-camera in a bid to aid their characters' lack of regard for each other.
The Making Of Casualties Of War: This 'making of' lasts for twenty-seven minutes and is quite interesting even if it only contains footage from a few crewmembers. De Palma is the most interesting to watch, mentioning how he deliberately did all he could to avoid the Vietnam draft, and also mentioning some of the physical problems they crew faced during the film's shoot. This documentary is decent enough, being that it is produced by Laurent Bouzereau, but doesn't ultimately make up for the lack of a commentary track.
Deleted Scenes: Five deleted sequences are presented, and are much more interesting to watch compared to the usual script padding, in that the majority of them are extensions of the courtroom sequences, in particular Eriksson's own interrogation which was never shown in the film. The quality of the scenes varies dramatically, but are still watchable and excellent nonetheless.
Theatrical Trailers: A trailer for Casualties Of War is included, along with trailers for In The Line Of Fire, The Caine Mutiny and A Few Good Men.
Filmographies: Filmographies are presented, but only for De Palma, Fox and Penn.
A very good Vietnam War thriller dealing with the inner-barbarisms of a man's soul, Casualties Of War is a fine Brian De Palma effort, with a very good DVD package. The extras could have been better, but make do with the few superior features that they are equipped with. The picture and sound departments of the DVD are also very good, ensuring the DVD package of Casualties Of War to ultimately be a superior one.