Casualties Of War Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 1 release of Casualties Of War. A fascinating film which has received a very nice DVD release from Columbia.

There are some films which are so elementally powerful that their flaws don’t really matter. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Mean Streets fall into this category and so does Brian De Palma’s (to date) only war film, Casualties Of War. As a film specifically about the Vietnam war it is somewhat limited in scope, but as a film about the insane absurdity of war and what it does to human beings, it’s right up there with the best work of the genre.

The film is based on a true incident which was related by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker magazine in October 1969. A group of soldiers on patrol in Vietnam kidnapped a young Vietnamese girl, gang-raped her and killed her. David Rabe’s script remains fairly true to Lang’s account but adds material before the kidnapping, to suggest reasons for the actions of the men, and devises scenes afterwards as the one man in the squad who refused to participate in the rape attempts to bring his fellow soldiers to justice. There is also a rather embarrassing framing device set in 1974 in which this one good man, Eriksson (Fox), sees an Asian girl on a train and has a flashback to the events in Vietnam.

There is a horrible inevitability to the film which is enhanced on subsequent viewings. The opening scenes, in which Eriksson is saved from a nasty death by his company leader Meserve (Penn), are as vivid and tense as anything in Platoon, but it soon becomes clear that De Palma is not remotely interested in making a straightforward war movie. When relaxing in an apparently friendly village, the company suddenly comes under fire and Eriksson’s closest friend Brownie (Erik King) is wounded. The sudden horror of this scene is abrupt and shocking, the images becoming increasingly intense as Brownie chokes on his blood while Meserve stands over him forbidding him to die. The pain and appalling pointlessness of this death is desperately poignant, a vital prelude to the kidnapping since it shows us how Meserve, up to this point a good soldier and amusing laddish type, is desensitised to the violence which surrounds him, the pain in his eyes replaced by a frightening nothing. Penn’s performance is extraordinary here, the slow spiritual death which Meserve undergoes showing in the stance and in the blank space behind the eyes as he shaves. If death can be as random as this, the film suggests, why worry about what you do when you’re alive ? This theme of the moral sense being numbed is at the heart of the film, embodied by Meserve. Penn makes him unpredictable and edgy, as dangerous a weapon as the rifle he waves around. Many other films have attempted to portray the pointless absurdity of death in combat, but few of them have been this damned moving in the process. De Palma’s technique is at its best here, with a particularly fine split-focus effect where Eriksson’s elation at hitting the enemy sniper is contrasted with Brownie’s slow death behind him. In a second, the film is saying, everything can change. It’s a familiar message, but this scene gives it new blood – literally, since no punches are pulled in the gore department.

The kidnapping plan begins in a pretty banal manner. Meserve, after detailing a routine assignment in Vietcong country, adds a postscript; “What we’re gonna do is requisition ourselves a girl, a little portable R and R, break up the boredom, keep up morale.” The language is so familiar from hundreds of war movies, and none of the squad think it’s actually going to happen. When it does, the reality behind the words is revealed. A girl, Oanh (Lee), is chosen – “She’s the best” – and carried off as she screams desperately to her mother and sister, neither of whom can do anything. The pathos of this moment is uncompromising but not milked for sentimental effect, and it’s hard to watch. What De Palma has tapped into here is something powerful and moving and that’s the culmination of a process which began in Obsession, was developed in Carrie and paid dividends in the extraordinary conclusion to Blow Out. He refuses to let the viewer off the hook and the first hour of the film is one emotional jolt after another, but the exciting development is that the jolts arise out of the narrative rather than through carefully designed set-pieces.

The rape scene, inexorable and repulsive, is restrained and shown in brief flashes rather than head-on, the true horror only revealed through Erikkson’s face and the later shot of Oanh hiding in a corner, her face scarred and bloodied. The film builds inexorably to the incredible sequence where Oanh is killed, perhaps the best single scene De Palma has ever shot. Staggering along a railway line – the original bridge on the river Kwai – she is like some gory spectre, a Banquo’s ghost, and Meserve stares incredulously as she refuses to die – you can almost hear him echoing Macbeth, “Do not shake thy gory locks at me”. A series of close-in shots establishes that she is about to be killed and then De Palma switches to a medium shot as she falls from the bridge, as if registering disgust at the event or perhaps trying to escape the sheer horror of the moment. It’s scary and intense and impossible to tear your eyes away from; the split-focus shot as Eriksson shoots at the VC while Oanh is being stabbed behind him; Meserve screaming “She’s getting away” as if this pathetic wreck has anywhere to go but into oblivion; Oanh rising again after her stabbing as if to torment her killers into madness. Her death is a release to the viewer but it’s not remotely comforting. She haunts the film after she’s dead and it’s no coincidence that the final third of the movie is something of a let-down.

The story of the film – Erikkson’s refusal to participate, his attempts to save Oanh and his insistence on bringing the guilty men to judgement – is rather too familiar in some ways, especially in the final stretch of the film when events become rather too predictable. But there’s a great De Palma theme here; the impotence of good in the face of evil. Erikkson attempts to save Oanh but his momentary failure of nerve as he worries about becoming a deserter seals her fate on the bridge. Time and again, De Palma reveals a vision of the world which is deeply pessimistic; the well intentioned composer Winslow Leach, who only wanted a credit, was comprehensively done-over by Swan in Phantom of The Paradise; the nice PE teacher and Sue Snell couldn’t save Carrie from her fate; Peter Sanza couldn’t save his son in The Fury; most significantly, Jack’s technical ingenuity was powerless against unrelenting evil in Blow Out. Eriksson’s attempts to save Oanh are as pointless as they are brave – he keeps repeating “I’m sorry” to her as if that would make any difference to what has happened or the way things are bound to end. Eriksson’s moral responsibility for what he witnessed but did not act effectively to prevent is left somewhat open for us to decide. It’s very easy to judge him until we ask whether we would have behaved any differently ourselves in this company – and in that uncertainty lies the moral landscape of the film. De Palma and Rabe capture the horrible dark side of male behaviour with uncomfortable exactitude; the bullying of the weak, the misogynistic generalisations, the pack mentality, the inability to express emotions except through violence. The attitude of the new member of the squad, Diaz (Leguizamo), is central to this concept – right up until the rape he expresses disgust to Erikkson and claims he will refuse to take part, but once Meserve asks him if he is in, he capitulates. When asked why, he says that its either be one of them or an individual and its difficult not to see that his answer to this dilemma would be more common than we might like to think. The other soldiers are painted in with broad strokes. Meserve’s switch from good guy to bad is not entirely believable in some scenes – Penn overplays the bad guy rather too eagerly – but the character of Corporal Clark (Harvey) is all too realistic. Strutting around, a school bully let loose in the jungle with a gun and no restrictions, Clark is truly terrifying and totally recognisable; a petty sadist for whom raping a girl and shooting “gooks” are equivalent sensations to satisfy his jaded spirit.

The film is, on a technical level, just about flawless. Stephen H.Burum has worked as a cinematographer with De Palma on and off since Body Double, and his images are both gorgeously lustrous and awesomely bleak. Bill Pankow’s editing is razor sharp, particularly in the difficult rape scene which is evoked mostly through sideways glances and brief flashes of activity. Pain and cruelty are not abstracted in this film, they are placed upfront as the subject, and the intensity and speed of the images is a central part of this. Ennio Morricone’s music is equally impressive; the elegy for Brownie is beautiful in his traditional style and the use of the pan flute to represent the pain of Oanh is genuinely haunting.

There are problems with the film. The last third is somewhat halting and the climactic courtroom sequences seem strangely perfunctory and lead to a ridiculous conclusion which attempts (rather offensively) at some kind of redemption. Rabe’s dialogue is sometimes preachy as well, especially in the scene where Erikkson expresses how he feels about the possibility of being killed at any moment. There are also rough edges here which are surprising for De Palma, especially compared to the sleek efficiency of The Untouchables. But it’s still a superb achievement, giving dramatic life to the horror of war and what Sir Winston Churchill called “the agony of little nations”. In showing the madness and pointless brutality (not to say brutalisation) of war, it is at least as effective as Apocalypse Now and is certainly less self-indulgent. A flop at the time, it deserves full re-evaluation as one of De Palma’s most courageous and insightful films.

The Disc

This is not quite a fully fledged Special Edition but it is certainly not a bad DVD. Columbia has an enviable reputation as a consistently good DVD producer and this disc is generally well up to their usual standards.

The film is presented in Anamorphic 2.35:1. That’s the first bit of good news. Having watched the DVD I had a look at my pan and scan VHS and found it totally unwatchable. De Palma, whether you like his work or not, has a great eye for widescreen framing, It’s an excellent visual transfer. There is hardly any artifacting, little grain and superb colours – check out the dawn shot in chapter 13 which will take your breath away. The contrast is also fine. Some reviewers have complained that the night scenes are sometimes too dark but this seems to me to be part of the visual style of the film with sometimes harsh contrasts reflecting the theme of the scenes. Nor did I find the picture too soft, although Burum’s lush cinematography may not please everybody in places.

The soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 from the original Dolby Stereo track. It’s perfectly servicable but there is little surround involvement, save for the music score and the inevitable helicopters. Nor is the .1 channel used as effectively as you might expect. The music is the chief beneficiary overall but the dialogue is clear and often spread over the front left and right channels. There is also a Dolby Surround track included which isn’t really all that different apart from a few explosions which lack bass impact.

There are a number of extra materials. We get two documentaries, both made by the apparently inexhaustible Laurent Bouzereau. The first is a 20 minute interview with Michael J.Fox called “Erikkson’s War” which is interesting if rather unexciting. The second is a 30 minute feature called “The Making of Casualties Of War”. This is in the usual format, but for some reason there are only three interviewees; De Palma, producer Art Linson and editor Bill Pankow. This renders it considerably less interesting than the similar documentaries on the recent MGM Special Editions of De Palma’s work, although the man himself is as interesting as always.

There are five deleted scenes of variable interest and quality. The best is the lengthy scene of Erikkson’s interrogation which really does add to the film, but it’s presented in scratchy black and white which is presumably the best that could be found. The others are fairly ho-hum although the extended version of Clark’s cross-examination is interesting and there’s an affecting scene with Oahn’s sister in court. Each of the scenes is in non-anamorphic 2.35:1.

We get brief filmographies which are reasonably accurate if you discount the fact that Sean Penn’s excellent directing career is totally ignored. There are three trailers included; one for Casualties of War in anamorphic 1.85:1, one for Birdy in full screen and a non-anamorphic 2.35 trailer for The Bridge On The River Kwai.

There are static menus and 28 chapter stops.

Casualties Of War is a difficult film to watch but it is a highly accomplished one which makes its points with great power. I don’t think its De Palma’s best work but it is a superbly made study of men in war which deserves a better reputation. The DVD is very good and a worthy presentation of the film.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Dec 14, 2001

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