An Analysis of Myth and Countermyth in The Green Berets and Platoon

21 11 2007

Film-Made Man, Man-Made Film
An Analysis of Myth and Countermyth in John Wayne’s The Green Berets and Oliver Stone’s Platoon

by Dan B. Butler

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QUOTE: In some ways, John Wayne’s ultrapatriotism during Korea and Vietnam is the ultimate of ironies: the same hero of the war movies who urged men to sign up and serve (and criticized them for being “soft” if they didn’t) evaded military service for the entirety of World War II. Perhaps if Wayne had seen the carnage of war firsthand, he might not have been so quick to encourage young Americans to commit to Korea and Vietnam. (…)

[in The Green Berets]┬áthe cast of infantrymen is seemingly lifted from any of Wayne’s earlier war pictures. The soldiers are professional, courteous, respect the officers, and have no vices (in stark contrast to the gambling, womanizing, alcohol-guzzling North Vietmanese Army soldiers depicted in the film). The enlisted men seem strangely homogenous, from the Nordic ├╝bermensch lecturers at the beginning of the film to the medic who gives aid to the civilian population. (As we will observe, Stone presents the viewer with a far different image of a platoon. In a tracking shot through the barracks, the viewer sees his platoon as comprised of different men from all walks of life.) (…)

The John Wayne myth presented a clear-cut battle between good and evil, Western Democracy versus Eastern Communism. Vietnam was World War II all over again, and young men everywhere had an obligation to join the fight. (…)

One person who grew up watching John Wayne movies was Oliver Stone. Like so many other young men, Stone was heavily influenced by war movies and the familiar mythologies manifested in them. The John Wayne myth was particularly appealing. “I believed in the John Wayne image of America,” he said in a 1988 interview. It is not surprising, then, that Stone decided to enlist in the infantry in 1967:

My father was a Republican, and he taught me that it was a good war because the Communists were the bad guys and we had to fight them. And then there was the romanticism of the Second World War as it appeared in the films we mentioned. Obviously, the reality was very different.(…)

Stone’s films [are] uncomfortable to watch: he acknowledges the viewer’s perceptions and attempts to destroy those perceptions by shifting focus to an alternative frame of reference. Although the most obvious instances of this aspect of Stone’s films can be seen in JFK, Nixon, and Salvador, he uses the same techniques in his Vietnam films Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth. (…)

Platoon can be logically deconstructed into two distinct but interwoven elements. First, the film is a realistic portrayal of the American G.I.’s experience during Vietnam (…) Second, Platoon is a melodrama that centers on the mythic struggle between Chris Taylor, Sergeant Barnes, and Sergeant Elias. Stone’s films are often informed by a sense of the mythological, and this can be seen in the “two fathers” motif in Platoon.

Since its release in 1986, Platoon has been attacked by some critics for its heavy-handed treatment of the conflict between Barnes and Elias. The critics argue that [in] the end, the clear-cut battle oversimplifies and consequently adds nothing to the understanding of the war in Vietnam. This analysis is incorrect. The characters of Barnes and Elias are more complex than the “good” and “bad” labels that are sometimes attached to them, and the revenge-killing resolution of the film is far more ambiguous. Both men are professional soldiers, and both men want to win the war*. Stone describes the real Barnes as being a “good soldier who had his men’s trust” but was obsessed with the war. Barnes is more of a tragic figure than an evil one; this is even expressed by Chris before the platoon decimates a village:

(…)Barnes was at the eye of our rage-and through him, our Captain Ahab-we would set things right again. That day we loved him.

Their Captain Ahab is a man that, as Rhah explains to the others, “ain’t meant to die . . . the only one that can kill Barnes is Barnes.” In the end, the rifle is in Chris’ hands, but Barnes tells him to pull the trigger. The revenge-killing, as many critics call it, seems more like a mercy killing. (…)

Although Barnes and Elias take on almost mythic qualities in Platoon, their characters are based in reality, an important element in the film. Oliver Stone described the two men in 1987:

I knew the two sergeants in the different units. Sergeant Barnes was wounded in the face. He was a good soldier who had his men’s trust. But he had one huge failing: his murderous obsession with the Vietnamese. He hated them all, men, women, and children. Sergeant Elias was almost exactly the opposite: he was an anti-racist who looked like the rock star, Jim Morrison-a handsome man, well-dressed, loved by his troops.

Platoon echoes a number of elements present in The Green Berets. Through these elements Stone constructs a peripheral response to the John Wayne myth. Consider the arrival of the outfit in Vietnam. Colonel Kirby and his men step off their C-130 onto a clean tarmac to meet the grinning Colonel Morgan, who greets them with a “Welcome to Da Nang!” This is a far cry from the experiences of Oliver Stone depicts inPlatoon: there, Chris Taylor leaves the C-130 onto a dusty landing strip. He and his fellow recruits see bodybags lined up waiting to go home and are met by a master sergeant with “All right you cheese-dicks, welcome to the Nam! Get moving!” (…)

George Beckworth is the only character in The Green Berets with a character arc, whose sole purpose is showing America why it should be in Vietnam. In many ways, he is an excellent foil for Platoon’s Chris Taylor. At the beginning of the film, Beckworth tells Kirby that he doesn’t think the United States should be involved in Vietnam. By the end of the film, he has decided to join the Army and serve in Vietnam. Chris Taylor, by contrast, goes to Vietnam an idealist and leaves disillusioned.

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