What matters more: “Casualties of War” (1989)

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By Scott Ross

During the late 1980s I was writing so many newspaper movie reviews that, if I wasn’t assigned a picture by my editor, chances were good I’d miss seeing it. That was the case when Casualties of War was released, although I also recall being leery of it for another reason: Michael J. Fox.

I was always aware of Fox’s talent, but his perpetual smirk was annoying; it suggested an un-earned smugness that was there even to a degree in his otherwise pleasant performance in Back to the Future. And although he’d been quite good with Joan Jett in a middling Paul Schrader drama called Light of Day (1987) I still couldn’t take him terribly seriously, due in part to his choices: When Fox appeared in a How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying knock-off called The Secret of My Success (also 1987) the critic David Denby found him too immature to be considered a heavyweight, comparing him to something made from a chemical synthetic. Fox, he wrote, was “miscast as a movie star. Tiny, hairless and smooth, with an unnervingly placid face — the face of a wizened child — Fox looks like he’s been dipped in polyurethane. If you spilled something on him, he would wipe clean.” My college roommate was outraged by the Sunday New York Times ad for Casualties of War, reproducing the poster with its bold proclamation of the actors’ surnames over the title; he couldn’t believe Fox was being given that sort of billing, as if he was Brando.

Casualties of War - Michael J. Fox resized

I finally sat down with the picture, after first reading Daniel Lang’s October, 1969 account in The New Yorker of what later became known as the Hill 192 Incident. It’s in the form of a long interview with the young man Lang called “Sven Eriksson” (known as Max Eriksson in the movie, and played — as it turns out, splendidly — by Fox) and is a relatively straightforward narrative of the abduction, gang-rape and brutal murder by four American squad members of a 21-year old Vietnamese village girl named Phan Thi Mao and the guilt feelings of “Eriksson” (real name: Robert M. Storeby) who refused to participate in Mao’s brutalization, in not being able to save her. It’s a quietly devastating portrait, with no embellishment — the sort of investigative journalism now seemingly lost forever in the age of corporate news  with its deliberate obfuscation and government-sponsored lies about world events. This is entirely relevant to the movie, because what’s good in it is real and comes directly from Lang’s piece; what’s bad is what Brian De Palma and the screenwriter David Rabe made up, out of whole cloth and old movie clichés.

The poor things in Casualties of War don’t sink the movie, though — the basic material, and De Palma’s depiction of it, are too strong for that. The horror of what is done to Mao, and the hideous reality of Eriksson’s impotence, are so powerful that, coupled with the terrible intensity of the Vietnam experience itself, they buoy up and tide you over the weak spots. And by “weak” I don’t mean inert, merely overstated. Too much is done to “explain” why the soldiers are prepared to rape and torture Mao when a lack of reason is what made the incident so appalling.

Casualties - Brian DePalma and Thuy Thu Le resized

Brian DePalma and Thuy Thu Le

I don’t know how much Rabe was responsible for these lapses, how much was De Palma’s fault and how much blame can be laid on interference by the studio (Columbia) that produced the picture — and which has to be given credit for taking on, and financing, such difficult material — but the purely narrative missteps begin immediately, with a night-action in which Eriksson falls through the ground after an explosion and is stuck above a Viet Cong cave tunnel, his legs dangling helplessly as a V.C. soldier crawls toward him with a knife. The sequence itself is superbly crafted: De Palma built the open anthill-like cave below the ground on which he shot, and was able to move his camera from Fox down into the tunnel itself in one smooth, disorienting and frightening crane-shot, giving the sequence a visceral terror cutting alone probably couldn’t have accomplished. (Today it would have been accomplished with computers, and would be entirely unimpressive.) But when Penn as the young sergeant Meserve saves Ericksson’s life it unbalances the story; it makes Eriksson indebted to Meserve, adding an unnecessary inhibitor to Erikkson’s later inability to act for the girl. If this was fiction, I not only wouldn’t have minded, I would have responded wholeheartedly, because De Palma’s control of such material is magisterial. In any other movie, these sequences would be perfect. It’s only the deviation from reality that is offensive.

As if that wasn’t enough, the filmmakers invent a hip black soldier called “Brownie” (Erik King) who is, in a moment that is simultaneously shocking — and, occurring as it does immediately after, relaxed and expansive, with his arm around Penn he’s just announced that he’s “an armor-plated motherfucker,” expected — is raked with machine-gun fire. A part of the shock is the suddenness of the violence; the other is the way blood from the squibs on the actor’s body explodes across the lens. But the moment you recover you realize you’ve been played, and in the worst, hack-movie tradition. Worse, Brownie’s death becomes the precipitating incident that turns Meserve into a calculating psychopath; the soldiers believe, not without reason, that the villagers have betrayed them to the Viet Cong. That they might have been forced to do so does not mitigate the collective guilt of the Vietnamese for Meserve, and the sequence as a whole rings false in a way the remainder of the picture, which hews more or less to the facts, largely doesn’t. Brownie’s shooting is the stuff of hack war movies. It’s dramatically anemic and utterly unnecessary: Meserve is 30 days from his service discharge, and everything he’s experienced, and done, however elliptical it might seem to a viewer, is what really motivates him, something an audience could have understood intuitively, without narrative prodding.

The filmmakers were in a lather to make Meserve’s acts explicable, when his incentives are entirely incidental to the later action. He doesn’t need the killing of his best friend in Vietnam as a motivating factor. Young men, and those not so young, commit atrocities in war, and showing a “last straw” event like Brownie’s shooting insults our intelligence as well as bringing dishonor to Eriksson’s story. The renaming, and (in some cases, re-ethnicizing) of the soldiers in the squad, whom Lang in his New Yorker piece had already anonymized, performs a further distancing, so that they become pretty much fictional. Maybe that’s what led Rabe and De Palma to treat them as characters rather than people, but I think it does a disservice to what happened, and diminishes Eriksson’s very real anguish. And this, like Eriksson being targeted by the most unhinged of the squad with a grenade in the latrine after he’s made his report, mitigates the indefinite terror of the real story; Eriksson had a near-miss soon after reporting the squad members for rape and murder, and it was just ambiguous enough it could have been accidental, although it almost certainly wasn’t. I find it interesting that Pauline Kael, who had been unforgiving about Oliver Stone’s Platoon a couple of years earlier, and who was familiar with Lang’s original New Yorker story, fell for the movie clichés in Casualties of War. “The movie crowds you,” she wrote of Platoon; “it doesn’t leave you room for an honest emotion.” What about honest execution? But then, De Palma was a pet of hers, Stone wasn’t, and she sometimes praised in her pets that which she, quite correctly, had no patience for in others.

Meserve (real name: David Edward Gervase) told his squad, in Eriksson’s words, “that we would get the woman for the purpose of boom-boom, or sexual intercourse, and at the end of five days we would kill her,” and that it would be “good for the morale of the squad.” Why Gervase/Meserve made his plan is almost irrelevant. What matters more is that, while none of the soldiers initially took him seriously, only Eriksson refused to go along. Of the rest only one, Steven Cabbot Thomas (known in the movie as Corporal Thomas Clark and played by Don Patrick Harvey with a glimpse of psychopathy chilling in its grinning obviousness) had as much time in-country as Gervase. What were the others’ excuses for succumbing to savagery? They didn’t all have their best friends shot right next to them… which, as I’ve pointed out, didn’t happen anyway; but if as a filmmaker you think you have to justify the actions, however mad, of one character, then you have to motivate the others too. The remaining two squad members were Latino, and cousins, and I suppose I can understand why the creative team made only one of them Hispanic, even if I disapprove of their obscuring the facts.

Kael was correct, however, to decry the way Eriksson, introspective and articulate in Lang’s account, was made in the movie to be so much less relatively literate. As an actor, Fox seems better equipped to play the Eriksson of Lang’s article than he does reciting the double negatives the movie saddles him with such as, “I ain’t gonna rape nobody!” But where Kael chalked this showy democratizing of the character up to Rabe, and to his being a playwright opting for theatrical stylization, I don’t see why we should assume it was the screenwriter’s doing; there are a whole lot of people in movies who stand between a script and a finished product, including not only the suits, and the directors, but the actors themselves.

Casualties of War - Fox, Thuy Thu Le and Penn

Fox, Thuy and Penn before the rape

Once the squad moves out into their deployment, and departs from its planned route, De Palma and Rabe seldom make a misstep — at least until the last 20 minutes or so, and setting Sean Penn’s bug-eyed-crazy performance aside (no easy task.) As Eriksson becomes more and more estranged from the others who, with the exception of Pfc Antonio Dìaz (John Leguizamo) are eager to begin brutalizing the girl, Pfc Hatcher (a young John C. Reilly) even crows that Merserve’s plan bears comparison to the more spontaneous atrocities of a Genghis Khan; to him, Eriksson is the “sick” one for not wanting to rape and pillage. And when Meserve taunts Eriksson, all too predictably, with macho allegations that he must be “a faggot” for not wanting to rape a girl it’s horribly like the junior high locker-room all over again, except that this time it’s a matter of life and death — of soundness of mind and insanity.

The abduction sequence, staged and enacted like a nighttime reconnaissance mission, has a creepiness that suggests a panty-raid gone wrong, as Meserve shines his infra-red light on the villagers asleep in their huts, searching for a likely candidate. When she’s located, the silence is exploded and the cold-bloodedness of the act, as the abductee’s mother weeps hysterically and the scarf she holds out for her is stuffed into the girl’s mouth as a gag, is far more devastating than the usual anonymous bombing scene. Earlier, Brownie has cynically instructed Eriksson to say, casually, to any native, for whatever is done, “Sorry about that.” Now Eriksson tries to apologize, to anguished people who cannot understand him, or what is happening, or why, and all he can manage is an ineffectual, “I’m sorry.” Brownie was right, but for the wrong reason: It doesn’t matter what Eriksson says at that moment; he can’t stop the abduction, so an apology, even if he’d rendered it in Vietnamese, wouldn’t be heard, or understood.

The rape of the girl, here called Than Thi Oanh and played by an extraordinary Vietnamese actress called Thuy Thu Le, is both stark and discreet, each of the four acts played out on the right side of the screen, the soldiers backs to us as the girls screams, her cries of pain and anguish and outrage almost more than is bearable, for us and for Eriksson, who watches, unblinking, almost as self-punishment for his inability to protect her, as each of the squad members takes his turn with the girl. (Naïvely, Dìaz removes his shirt and trousers, as if he’s preparing to make love; none of the others can be bothered even to drop their pants for what they see, not as a terrified and brutalized human being, but only as their “whore”; they’d have been kinder to an actual prostitute.) Although the sequence is horrific, it’s in no way exploitative, the very thing so many routinely accused De Palma of being. The systematic manner in which the girl is taken, over and over, is bloodless — without passion, only design, which makes it doubly repellent.

Casualties 3 - Thuy Thu Le and Michael J Fox

Eriksson is left the following morning to guard the girl while the others in the squad move off to observe a nearby Viet Cong encampment; shocked by her condition, he attempts to clean her up and to comfort her, and it is in her reaction that Thuy Thu Le breaks the heart. The daughter of refugees from our dirtiest and most cynical war since the Philippines and before Iraq and Syria, Thuy may or may not have heard stories of her people’s brutalization by U.S. forces and have used them to fuel her acting in the picture. That’s an intangible, almost incidental, and suggesting she might have been drawing on what she knew does her a disservice because her performance is so raw and agonized it transcends mere acting. Thuy had to play the role entirely on her nerve endings, because from the moment she’s grabbed by Merserve and Clark, Oanh/Mao is necessarily either terrified, hysterical or weepy and numbly hurting. Eriksson had a moment with the girl earlier, after the long hike following her abduction and after she was made to carry a heavy pack, in which he cleaned the cut on her back. But her body posture — Thuy never entirely turns her back on Fox — revealed that she was incapable of fully trusting him, and why would she be? Here, he finally breaks through their barriers and determines to help her escape but, when he realizes that if he goes with her he will be deserting, and hesitates long enough for Clark to return to the hut and find them leaving, it feels, despite Eriksson’s logic, like the worst betrayal of all.

The horror doesn’t end there, of course; dragged back to the others, who are observing a surreptitious ammunitions exchange and reporting it in and who must now deal with the fact of Oanh’s existence. Although De Palma and Rabe made Eriksson more heroic (and, perhaps, foolhardy) at this moment than he was in reality, what’s blood-curdling about the action is the way Merserve orders the others to kill their victim. While it’s true that he’s the squad’s senior officer, his turning from one soldier to another to another and demanding each perform the act of murder, Merserve (as Gervase did during the actual event) is both shunting the final responsibility for death onto the others, perhaps for the sake of deniability, and, sadistically, forcing them to degrade themselves in committing the worst act one human being can enact against another. Yet even as Eriksson is attempting to subvert Oanh’s murder, Clark, behind him, is stabbing her repeatedly. And even then the atrocity goes on. Leaving Oanh for dead, Clark rejoins the squad, and behind them on the raised railway track on which they’re perched, she rises like (in Kael’s apt phrase) a “wounded apparition,” a bloody, silent, dying accusation. De Palma makes her death an act of violation far worse than the squad’s gang-rape of her, and her fall from the bridge becomes a hideous metaphor for the xenophobic genocide America visited on the Vietnamese, Northern and Southern, in a war that was set in motion, cynically, as early as 1945.* This climactic sequence (filmed in Thailand; the bridge was actually part of the River Kwai construction famously depicted in the David Lean movie) is, in a way, the flip-side of the earlier anthill scene, elevated where the tunnel sequence was subterranean, yet it feels completely organic; the symmetry is the furthest thing from studied.

Casualties 5 - Bridge

While I resent the filmmakers’ cluttering up of Eriksson’s history with invention, and (as Kael showed in her review) their translating the words he spoke to Lang with slow deliberation into sub-literacy, Rabe and De Palma kept the shape and central idea behind Eriksson’s words when, transplanting them to the theatre of war they have Fox say, “Everybody’s acting like we can do anything and it don’t matter what we do. Maybe we gotta be extra careful because maybe it matters more than we even know.” While, again, the “don’t”s and “gotta”s diminish Eriksson’s articulation, his essential thoughtfulness and decency shine through as brightly as his determination, in the face of official indifference, to pursue justice for Mao. Yet even here the filmmakers fluff things by having Eriksson made vulnerable (Storeby was transferred immediately), by presenting the courts martial of all four squad members as a single trial and letting Penn get close enough to Fox to whisper a threat into his ear.†

One the other hand, although I think the scene at the end, with the girl Fox sees on the bus at the beginning of the movie and which sends him into his sleeping reverie, is too neat, too symmetrical, I disagree entirely with Kael that it suggests a healing beginning to take place in Eriksson. The young woman (Thuy Thu Le in prosthetics, and dubbed by Amy Irving) asks him if he’s had a bad dream, and when he answers in the affirmative she adds, “It’s over now, I think.”

The dialogue may suggest a conventional, ameliorating finish. The lost look on Fox’s face, however, says otherwise. Eriksson’s bad dream not only isn’t over, it’s never going to be.


*See L. Fletcher Proutry’s superb book JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy for the single best, and most accurate and honest, short history of the war in Vietnam and the stark opportunism of the OSS (later, CIA) that built and implemented it.

†As Eriksson was warned by superior officers and Army prosecutors beforehand, the men in the squad received severe sentences, which were then whittled away at until they became insultingly minor. Worse, Mao’s mother, desperate to recover her, was later taken by the Viet Cong as a traitor, as was her other daughter. As Storeby remarked to Lang, “we destroyed that family.”

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

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