Casualties of War (1989) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Although this Vietnam film was directed by Brian De Palma, I didn't remember a damned thing about it, so I decided to have a look.

It's not exactly a cheery feel-good movie for the commercial audience, but it packs a helluva powerful emotional punch. Unlike most De Palma movies, which are made for entertainment, this is a serious film about a serious topic, and is based on a real incident. 


 Michael J Fox plays a wide-eyed innocent in 'nam. Early in the film his life is saved by his brave, savage sergeant, played by Sean Penn. But the sergeant and his platoon are becoming changed by the savagery of war and the uncertainty of the enemy. Penn, in particular, is starting to feel that genocide is the only way to deal with the Vietnamese, after watching his friends blown up by innocent-looking village children and similar incidents. One night, Penn is on his way into town to get a prostitute, when he finds out that the town is closed because of Vietcong action. Enraged by what he believes is simply the 'Cong beating him to the bordello, he kidnaps a local girl from her bed, and drags her along on the next day's forced march. At the end of the day, he and the other platoon members rape her and eventually kill her. 

Michael J. Fox does not play along, tries to help the girl escape, and eventually turns the other guys in for a court martial and eventual jail sentences. Various superiors in the chain of command advise Fox to shut up, and even offer to transfer him out of 'Nam, but he tells the truth and pursues what he believes is justice.

The rape is not really shown explicitly on camera, but the girl's screams and cries are horrifying. Fox's attempt to be kind to her in between the rape and the murder are genuinely touching. The acting, in general, is quite good, especially Penn and the girl.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • some deleted scenes

  • Making-of featurette

  • interview with Michael J Fox

De Palma attempted a different approach to the Vietnam pictorialization. Other filmmakers have pictured it as claustrophobic and always terrifying, with danger lurking in every tree, and from every child in every village. It is often pictured as overcast, muddy, and rainy. Typically we see men who are afraid to wander fifty feet from their base camp.

This film has a completely different approach. It pictures Vietnam as open, sunny, cheery and tropical, painted in pastels - Florida with an Asian accent. The platoon of five men goes on 20 mile hikes in open country, isolated from other forces, without seeming to fear anything in the countryside. Fox lets the local kids try on his helmet, and starts to eat some food they offer him. The platoon seemed like high school kids walking home from school, which ten years earlier or later is exactly what they would have been. The country seems beautiful except for the fighting. The inherent beauty of the countryside is contrasted with the badly mangled and bloody bodies which dot the countryside after every skirmish. 

If you based your mental picture of the war on this film, you'd think it was a beautiful country except for the Americans. There is some truth to that, but it surely is not the whole truth, and the subject requires a richer, more nuanced approach.

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.6 
  • With their dollars ... it wasn't a smash, hit, but it took in $18 million domestic 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. It is a powerful film, but not an especially interesting one. It makes its points with a sledgehammer, not with a scalpel. Its intentions are right on the money, but its execution is heavy-handed. It is a difficult film to watch, and will not appeal to a wide audience. 

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