Discretion and Valor: Prince Hal’s Platoon

10 10 2007

from: Literature Film Quarterly,  2005  
by Keller, James R
read the entire article 

Long but really interesting essay about Platoon and its connections to Shakespeare. Finally some fresh perspective! 🙂

QUOTE: the realism of the script and film is also supplemented by Stone’s efforts to mythologize and allegorize his experience. Critics have observed the filmmaker’s literary appropriations of sources as diverse as The Iliad, Moby Dick, and The Sun Also Rises (Schechter and Semeiks 19). Moreover, I recently listened to a conference presentation in which the film was convincingly related to the medieval French epic Song of Roland.(…)

In the tradition of ferreting out the canonical sources for Stone’s script, I hope to contribute one more yet unobserved reference, this one to Shakespeare’s second Henriad and particularly to Henry the Fourth, Part I. (…)

Perhaps the most persuasive feature of the Shakespearean appropriation is the correspondence between the principal protagonists of the two works-Prince Hal and Chris Taylor. Shakespeare’s Hal has forsaken responsibility and his father’s good opinion in order to fraternize with those who are his social inferiors while drinking in an Eastcheap pub. (…)

Chris Taylor, the protagonist of Stone’s Platoon, shares Hal’s idealism and youthful exuberance. (…)

Like Shakespeare, Stone blurs the distinction between right and wrong in his portrait of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. The chaos of the battlefield becomes a metaphor for the conflict at home as well(…) Taylor is suspended between America’s compulsion to immerse itself in war, to win by any means necessary, and the desire to demonstrate its moral superiority to its enemies. The complexity of Stone’s portrait of the conflict at home is parallel to Shakespeare’s propensity for demonstrating the respective values in contrary points of view. America despised Sgt. Barnes and embraced Sgt. Elias, yet America also knew that if it wanted to win, it needed an entire army of Sgt. Barnes’s without moral scruples and without compunction. It is upon this conflict that the machine broke down: our actions at war with our self-image. (…)

As with Prince Hal, Taylor’s education is dialectical; he must learn to negotiate the antithetical personalities of Sgts. Barnes and Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe). Critic John Stone has recognized the director’s appropriation of the medieval morality structure in this portion of the film, the figure of everyman torn between the good and the bad angels (…)

Taylor remarks that Americans in Vietnam did not fight the Vietcong, but each other; there was a civil war within the platoon. One of the more obvious representations of the differences between the competing factions of the platoon is revealed in the way they spend their leisure time. Taylor is invited to join Elias’s group that occupies a bunker referred to as the underworld. In keeping with the allegory of location, Rhah (Francesco Quinn), whose name suggests the mythical Rhadamanth, lord of the underworld (Bates 112), presides over the festivities. (…) The heads, as they refer to themselves, are smoking pot and listening to acid rock and Motown. There is a sense of comradery and even sensuality as Elias literally and figuratively offers Taylor a “shotgun,” blowing pot smoke into the neophyte’s mouth through the barrel of a rifle (Bates 113). Later, the stoned group dances together, revealing fellowship, trust, goodwill, and abandon. The denizens of the underworld have effectively escaped from the concerns of service in Vietnam.

The parallel editing in this portion of the film next reveals the converse activities within the barracks where the remainder of the platoon pass their time. The darkness of the bunker is contrasted with the bright light in the barracks. The scene is defined by the country music that plays in the background, and the ensuing conversation between Bunny (Kevin Dillon) and Junior (Reggie Johnson) demonstrates hostility and mistrust. (…) Nearby, other members of the platoon, including Barnes, Lt. Wolfe (Mark Moses), and O’Neill (John C. McGinley), are playing cards, a fitting metaphor for their competitiveness. While the soldiers in the underworld have escaped from their concerns, the individuals in the barracks seem hyper-conscious of their predicament. (…) The scene emphasizes isolation, brooding, suspicion, and competition.

As in Stone’s Platoon, Shakespeare demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining one’s decency and composure in the face of danger, fatigue, and loss; yet while he is recognizing that “lenity” is preferable to “cruelty,” he also is acknowledging that the practical reality of war frequently requires less compassionate solutions. (…)


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