A Private’s Perspective: Oliver Stone & Vietnam

Charlie Sheen in "Platoon"
Platoon (1986) | MGM
In 1976—eight years after returning home from his tour in the Vietnam War, five years after graduating from film school at New York University, and two years before Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) would catapult the Vietnam War back into the spotlight of collective memory—Oliver Stone welded his profession to his past when he penned the screenplay for a Vietnam combat film that would become the Vietnam combat film.

Ten years, one career as a cab driver, seven screenplays, two directorial efforts, and one screenwriting Oscar later, Stone had accumulated enough clout and enough money ($6 million) to bring Platoon to the big screen.

It was a full-fledged, if minor, Hollywood production, initially opening in only six theaters on December 19, 1986. Over the course of two months, the film gained enough attention for distributors to grant it a wide release on February 6, 1987. By the 59th Annual Academy Awards on March 30, 1987, Stone’s autobiographical film had swept the country, was tied for the most Oscar nominations (eight) that night, and took home four awards (best editing, sound, director, and picture).

Prior to Platoon’s success, Stone had been a hardworking screenwriter who was glad to use his talents on gripping, gratifying action movies and horror flicks. Audiences had no reason to expect that, as a director, the writer of films like Midnight Express, The Hand, Conan the Barbarian, Scarface, and Year of the Dragon would be relentlessly political, polemical, and shockingly direct—that he would achieve mastery in the art of controversial films. Between 1986 and 1995, Stone wrote and directed 10 films (eight of which would get a wide release) that confronted corruption on Wall Street, drug use in the 1960s, government conspiracies to assassinate J.F.K., the glorification of murder by mass media coverage, and Richard Nixon’s provocative presidency. In those nine years, his films would collect a total of 33 Oscar nominations and 10 trophies, along with a flood of festival and critical awards. And it was during this same period that Stone created three films that arguably lie at the heart of his entire 47-year career: the Vietnam War trilogy.

It opens with Platoon. The film follows Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen)—a young, passionate patriot who dropped out of Yale to join the Army—as he treks miserably through the Vietnamese jungle with his fellow grunts. During the film, he wrestles with his private doubts about the morality of his two commanding officers and the messy war he volunteered for. After taking a short break from war stories to direct Wall Street, Stone ventured back into Vietnam with Born on the Fourth of July. It is, more or less, a biopic that dramatizes the true story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise). It tracks Kovic’s life from an inspired all-American boy, born on the Fourth of July, to an impassioned Marine sergeant in Vietnam, to a disabled veteran imploring his country to oppose the war.

Stone followed this second installment with films about The Doors and JFK (itself a kind of background document on Vietnam), before capping off the trilogy with Heaven & Earth in 1993. Heaven & Earth represents a drastic shift away from the perspective of American military men, focusing instead on the true story of Vietnamese village girl Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le). Unable to escape the violence, brutality, and chaos that the war wreaks on her family in the Central Vietnam countryside, Ly moves to Saigon in search of a peaceful life, only to fall in love with a troubled U.S. Marine.

Every main character in the trilogy experiences the war in a different way. Taylor’s entire experience is in combat, wrapped up in the ethics and morality of his American platoon’s war-time decisions. Kovic’s experience builds on Taylor’s by honing in on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the dimension of America’s ignorance of the war, and the concomitant maltreatment and exploitation of veterans. Ly’s experience is that of a somewhat neutral victim living in a village in central Vietnam, caught in the middle of warfare, periodically tortured by both the Vit Cng and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) as well as the U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), depending on who was passing through. Taken together, these stories present a relatively comprehensive portrait of the atrocity that was the Vietnam War.

But what many don’t know is that Oliver Stone made a Vietnam film before he ever put pen to paper on Platoon. Toward the end of his time at NYU film school, he made a short film called Last Year in Viet Nam, a neglected, nearly lost, and intriguingly early attempt to tell the story of Vietnam from a veteran’s perspective. Perhaps his most personal Vietnam film, it is an essential piece for understanding Stone’s thoughts on the war. His experimental short film is proof in subject alone that Stone had a strong undergirding motivation to bring his personal stories of the Vietnam War to the big screen from the beginning.

It should come as no surprise that some of film history’s most honest, significant Vietnam films were directed by a Vietnam veteran, but it might strike some as strange to learn that that veteran is the same Oliver Stone that directed the belligerently controversial JFK and Natural Born KillersStone doesn’t typically get the benefit of the doubt these days. He is often misinterpreted due to his strong political stances, which are complex and idiosyncratic, but are often misread as a kind of blind and dogmatic leftism. He laments, “To be misunderstood constantly is hurtful to me. I’ve been characterized as an angry Vietnam veteran. I’ve been characterized as a conspiracy nut, a buff, which is insulting. I’ve been characterized constantly as a man who can’t get his head out of the ‘60s. These are simplifications, and they hurt me because it’s not me. I live in 3D and I’m passionate about so much. I hate to be simplified.” Matt Zoller Seitz, who repeatedly interviewed Stone for his book The Oliver Stone Experience, vouches for his openness and complexity: “Stone is more willing to listen to you than you are to listen to him.”

Stone takes such characterizations personally because his films are so personal to him—none more so than the Vietnam trilogy. Each film is a personal testament, not just a political statement; with each film, Stone set out to “complete what [he] had to say about Vietnam.” Each work captures certain aspects of his own horrific experience in the war, an experience that plunged him to the “bottom of the barrel,” as he says, in less than two years—an experience he actively sought out.

In 1964, Stone enrolled in Yale University, alongside sons of the American aristocracy and future dignitaries like John Kerry and George W. Bush. He disdained the preppy, privileged lifestyle of his classmates and felt a call to country rattling in his soul. Within a year, he dropped out and moved to Saigon, where he says he got a job “teaching Chinese students in high school” at the Catholic Free Pacific Institute. After nearly a year of teaching, he joined the Merchant Marines as a boiler wiper and returned home in 1966. He re-enrolled at Yale only to drop out a second time—like his on-screen equivalent Chris Taylor—this time with a self-described suicidal ambition to join his generation’s war in Vietnam. Stone gives a translucent explanation in an interview with Bill Moyers:

“I was going to go back to my given birth name of William Oliver. And I went back into the Army, and I joined as Bill Stone, William Stone. I wanted to be anonymous. I wanted to be, as I said in Platoon, I wanted to be like every other person. I didn’t want any special breaks. I wanted to be just infantry. I didn’t want to be an officer. I didn’t want to be a lieutenant. I wanted to be just a P.F.C. and get it from the bottom. And if God, at that time, if God had a meaning for my life, he’d sort it out. Otherwise, I’d be dead. That’s my approach in 1967…I had fantasies of war when I was young. A lot of them bred by movies and television and books. Hemingway had been—war defined a man. So, I was an adventurer and I desperately wanted to seek adventure, but I hadn’t experienced it, a war. And that was the last frontier for me…I went when I was 21, the second time. I went to find out what the bottom line was. To see how bad life could be…And [suicide] was much on my mind. And I had reached a place where I was burned out, as a young man, I suppose. And I said, “This is it. I have to go back and see the bottom—” in Platoon I said, “See the bottom of the barrel.”…I found the bottom, if you know what I’m trying to say. I’m tumbling out of Yale and I end up in an infantry unit as a nobody. P.F.C.—walking point on my first day. Nobody cares if I live or die. That’s kind of like the bottom, you know?”

Platoon’s Chris Taylor shares Stone’s privileged background, earnest patriotism, and exact age—like Taylor, Stone was 20 when he arrived in Vietnam in 1967. The life of Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July is based on Kovic’s autobiography of the same name, but in the film, Kovic’s childhood and teenage experiences have been altered to reflect Stone’s own adolescent development. He, like the fictionalized Kovic, grew up fantasizing about the glory of World War II veterans’ victories. He, like Kovic, valiantly accepted the torch that Kennedy passed to his generation “to ensure the survival and success of liberty.” He, like Kovic, criticized his contemporaries who avoided the draft by enrolling in college: “You don’t think you need to serve your country?”

To write and direct the combat scenes in the Vietnam trilogy, Stone referred back to his own experiences on long range patrols. Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July obviously contain more autobiographical material than Heaven & Earth—but Stone’s own memories inform the scenes where U.S. soldiers grossly mistreat Vietnamese civilians. Stone claims he never participated in the most heinous war crimes, but he does not let himself off the hook when it comes to the violent mistreatment of villagers, stating, “I certainly saw American soldiers abuse villagers. Hit them, torture them, in some cases rape them, burn down their hooches. I mean, we [italics mine] treated them badly.” Stone has admitted that a scene in Platoon, where an enraged Taylor fires at villagers’ feet, directly mirrors one of his own more manic moments: “I got angry. These people could be very obtuse. I felt like I wanted to kill someone, but I shot at the feet instead. I lost my mind. But I didn’t kill anyone in cold blood.”

The friendly fire scene in Born on the Fourth of July—in which Kovic accidentally shoots his own comrade in a confused flurry of crossfire—was a situation that Stone says was incredibly common around him. “I think 20 percent of our casualties were killed by ourselves because mistakes happen…It happened all the time. It was very dangerous in combat, ‘cause you don’t know where [gunfire]’s coming from. Sometimes it would be the guy behind you would lose it and fire off,” he explains. The fragging (the intentional killing of a fellow soldier) that takes place in Platoon—in which Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) kills Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe), and Taylor kills Sgt. Barnes—also echoes Stone’s traumatic experience, though he never fragged anyone himself.

Kovic’s PTSD narrative has even more similarities to Stone’s life story. Though Stone did not lose the use of his legs like Kovic, both men were awarded Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts for their valor and injuries on the battlefield. Of course, military medals were not enough to heal the veterans’ sequestered psyches. As we see in Kovic’s disastrous attempt to reintegrate into family life, there was no simple way for soldiers to return to civil society after such a cruel, violent, and corrupt tour of duty.

Not only were they stricken by their experience, but they were abandoned by government assistance and treated like pariahs by their fellow citizens. In a bone-chilling speech to the National Press Club in 1987, Stone capped off his brief summary of his Vietnam experience with a reference to his struggle to reintegrate into society: “Well I walked away from that war, 21 and benumbed and something of an anarchist in my thinking. It took me several years to recover some form of social identification.”

Last Year in Viet Nam offers an ephemeral glance into a day in the life of the rocky recovery he references. The avant-garde student short film—itself a product of Stone’s time spent studying under Martin Scorsese at NYU—follows Stone as a Vietnam veteran (presumably himself) as he limps and lingers around New York City, unable to hold onto any semblance of reality without drifting back to the war in his mind. He lives in a hotel, clearly depicting the soldier’s lack of grounding and community. He drinks and smokes heavily. He cannot sleep. He is inundated with visions of the Vietnamese jungle. Throughout the film, he sheds some of his Vietnam War memorabilia—a medal, some photos. He takes a ferry trip to throw his military duffel bag into the sea, only to have flashbacks of arriving at or departing from the coast of Vietnam. The last we see of him, he is slowly ascending the steps of a highway overpass bridge.

Given the context, we might assume that he has decided to kill himself. But perhaps it is a signal that he will try to cross the bridge instead, now that he has jettisoned his mementos. Whatever the intention, Stone eventually crossed the treacherous bridge of social reintegration in his real life. And Last Year in Viet Nam foreshadowed the next years of Stone’s career, years driven by the churning desire to push audiences toward a grave reckoning with the memory of the Vietnam War.

The trilogy carries a tone of genuine disappointment and abandonment, like that of a child let down by a lifelong hero. In this, Stone is trying to help us understand the plight of the soldiers in Vietnam, whether they were drafted because they lived in poverty or volunteered because they still believed in the lore of a morally upright America. Regardless of how or why they ended up in the jungles of Vietnam, they were brutalized, dehumanized, and traumatized, and the country was wrong to neglect them and ignore what they had learned.

Stone condemns the government and the military, but he certainly does not condemn the soldier. On the contrary, he forgivingly embraces the soldier who went to Vietnam drunk on the myth of honorable jingoism—just like he had—and tries to redirect blame for the war from the soldier to the government. Dr. D. Melissa Hilbish claims that “if anything, Platoon’s presentation obfuscated any real historical/political perspective, and the personal cloaked the political.” Hilbish is dead-on. Platoon has a strong political stance, but the overt focus on the personal aspect of the soldiers keeps it from coming across that way. It invites the attention of those who would normally be deterred by its politics and strategically delivers the political message under the surface.

The trilogy also has an angry, retributive tone, as if it seeks reparations for all 58,000 American deaths and 2 million Vietnamese civilian deaths. Unlike the divisive and fantastical tone of JFK, the tone in the Vietnam War trilogy is grounded in an austere anger that the general public was able to relate to and wrestle with. Moreover, Stone’s conspiracy thriller does not claim the same degree of historicity as his Vietnam War trilogy. Stone has the well-documented history of anti-Vietnam protests, the five congressional movements against the war (e.g. McGovern-Hatfield amendment, Cooper-Church amendment, etc.), and the Pentagon Papers, among other things, on his side.

The combination of Stone’s accusatory tone and disappointed tone culminates in a mode of self-reflection—one that begs its viewers to interrogate the circumstances of America’s involvement in Vietnam with unrelenting honesty. In an interview with Dan Rather, he explains that he wants viewers to “really see [Vietnam] and believe and remember it because it is forgotten and it will be forgotten again.” Ultimately, he seeks to recount Vietnam publicly, to call film viewers to witness, so that none of us will allow its atrocities to be repeated in any fashion—so that no one is ever again sent to die as a worthless, warring pawn for, in his words, a “government run by people with gangster morals who have totally forgotten truth, who have totally forgotten the meaning of our own revolution.” In his final courtroom diatribe at the end of JFK, district attorney Jim Garrison quotes, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government.”

As Dr. Robert Brent Toplin suggests, Stone’s approach to filmmaking makes him a kind of honorary “historian.” In the same interview with Rather, Stone rejects the historian label, but he does not reject the historical significance of his films. He identifies himself as a “dramatist.” He believes storytellers have an important role in collecting, remembering, and mining the tough questions of history, and he sees his work as parallel to the kind of work done by dramatists in Ancient Greek society. But in the same interview, he seems to implicitly embrace the title of historian, saying, “I’m so in disagreement with the way the media and the government tells our history in America. So in disagreement with it…I think we’re so distorted.”

In Born on the Fourth of July, at the end of the sequence showing Kovic’s childhood, right before Stone propels us into the teenage Tom Cruise phase, Mrs. Kovic (Caroline Kava) prophesies over her son while they watch JFK’s Inaugural Address in the living room. “I had a dream, Ronnie. The other night. And you were speaking to a large crowd, just like him. Just like him. And you were saying great things.” Little Ronnie marvels at her words, mouth agape, just as Kennedy chimes in with the crest of his speech, “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

As viewers know, Mrs. Kovic’s dream comes true. The film ends four years after an angry, disheveled Kovic and company storm the 1972 Republican National Convention in protest of the war. In the final scene, a glowing and tidy Kovic sits backstage in preparation of his address to the 1976 Democratic National Convention. By November of the same year, Kovic would be featured on the front page of the New York Times book section as the author of a national bestseller. It’s important not just because Mrs. Kovic’s prophesy came true about her son—the prophesy came true, in an important way, for Stone as well, in the very making of the film.

It is safe to assume that both Kovic and Stone internalized Kennedy’s words as young patriots. They needed not ask what they could do for their country, because it was already spelled out for them: by socially-constructed gender roles, childhood fantasies of gallantry, and nationalistic Republican parents. Join the military. Go to war. Defend your country. But Born on the Fourth of July flips Kennedy’s famous exhortation on its head. Stone and Kovic’s impassioned enlistments in the military were attempts to live into the meaning they felt they were born into. In joining, they were asking their country to validate their bravery and patriotism. After their awful experiences in Vietnam, both would come home lost, mortified, and bitter, only to reconsider Kennedy’s words. What they had to offer their country was the true memory of Vietnam.

Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy shaped America’s collective memory of the Vietnam War at a crucial moment. If we understand Mrs. Kovic’s words as a forecast about Stone himself, the film becomes a meta-narrative experience. The same fearlessness that drove Stone to volunteer for the service landed him a career in which he can call out the government for their lack of transparency and integrity on an international stage. Stone wraps it up neatly: “America has, somewhere in this Vietnamese conflict, lost its compassion. It’s lost its ability to make up, to forgive, to reach across this gulf and shake the hand of an enemy and say, ‘Let’s be friends again.’ If we could do that, it would be great for America’s soul. This would be a better country.”

Perhaps it’s time we offer Stone the same hand.