Archive File | The Real Platoon(1)

1 02 2008

There is only one known picture showing Oliver Stone together with other soldiers. Each time I look at it I wonder if some of them is described in the movie. There is never a caption giving any details, no place, no time, no names.

Guys, who are you?


Even behind the Iron Curtain the first thing one got to know about Platoon was that it was a work of a Vietnam veteran, and that the movie was based on his experiences. But it was also the only thing you’d got to know. Oh, there were reviews, good and thoughtful ones, but any background information was rare, so in the end I haven’t known much more beside basic biographical facts about Stone (college dropout, worked in Saigon as teacher, tried to write a book, was rejected, so he threw the manuscript into the East River and enlisted, spent a year in Vietnam, was wounded, decorated, came home, was arrested for drug possession, studied film in N.Y. under Scorsese) and his political shift from someone who believed in the political goals of the Vietnam war into a disillusioned radical who wanted to bring down the government.

I always thought that “being based on experiences” shouldn’t be taken too exactly. I was wrong. The first hint proving it was in Richard Corliss’ article in Time Magazine I read after I moved to Germany.

Platoon: Viet Nam, the way it Really was, on film,9171,963314,00.html

Each of the three combat units he served in was divided into antagonistic groups, as in the film: “On one side were the lifers, the juicers (heavy drinkers) and the moron white element. Guys like Sergeant Barnes — and there really was a sergeant as scarred and obsessed as Barnes — were in this group. On the other side was a progressive, hippie, dope- smoking group: some blacks, some urban whites, Indians, random characters from odd places. Guys like Elias — and there really was an Elias, handsome, electric, the Cary Grant of the trenches. They were out to survive this bummer with some integrity and a sense of humor. I fell in with the progressives — a Yale boy who heard soul music and smoked dope for the first time in his life.” 

But it was the small remark on The 80s Movies Rewind website, that made me believe that Stone could mean it literally:

With most of the characters based on reality and actual individuals, Willem Dafoe was chosen as the basis for Juan Angel Elias, a black haired White Mountain Apache* who befriended Stone. Dafoe was perfect for the man… and after seeing To Live and Die…, the director thought he was right for the role owith his rugged features that presented a beauty emanating trought ugliness.

We were very privileged to have Anni Whitewolf Elias write to us herself to correct some information about her father, the real Juan Angel Elias: “I am writing this letter to you to correct a mistake that you have on your page. Yes, it is true that my father had black hair, green eyes and one hell of a temper to match. I take after him as well. Please correct your facts, my father was full blooded White Mountain Apache! He was not Hispanic!

So Elias was a real name, and the man was an Indian (like in the script). I was still sceptical, until I found his name at the Virtual Wall website

There were too many details which were the same. Name (and it finally set clear that Elias was his second name), the time frame of his service. And he served in the Air Cavalry which explained why he was wearing the unit’s patch.


In Barnes’ case I wasn’t so lucky.

First: I doubt Stone uses the right name. Even if it was — the name is so popular, that looking for it makes no sense at all. There is plenty of Robert Barnes-es or even Robert Lee Barnes-es (as Dale Dye calls him in his book). 

It’s hard to say why I always thought Stone met the Barnes prototype in the 25th Infantry Division. Probably because Stone always stated that “real Barnes” and “real Elias” never met. Elias was in the Air Cavalry, and because I’d never read about any other unit, I assumed the other one must be the Infantry unit described in the movie.

I took the book Platoon: Bravo Company by Robert Hemphill out of the box. (I’ve almost sold it on Ebay in a period when my interest in the whole Platoon thing grew weaker, thanks goodness nobody wanted it.) Reading it, I think, about 1997, I had massive problems to understand all that military talk and actually I thought I wouldn’t ever come back to it. Anyway, there is a kind of list with names and the company structure. In the command of 1. platoon were three lieutenants but 2. Platoon (Stone’s) had two lieutenants and a staff sergeant, which somehow seemed to confirm the theory.

But then, I came upon an interview from Playboy and read:

STONE: (…) I was in the 25th Infantry First, which was where I saw most of my combat. [this must be the time between September 67, when Stone flew to Nam, to some time in February 68, as the final battle in the movie is based on the actual battle for the fire base Burt which took place  during the Tet Offensive.]

Then, when I got wounded the second time, they shipped me to another unit, because if you had two wounds, you could get out. I went to a rear-echelon unit in Saigon. Auxiliary military police. But I was gonna get an Article 15, insubordination, because I had a fight with a sergeant. So I made a deal, essentially. I said, “Send me back to the field and drop the charges.” I couldn’t stand this rear echelon bullshit. They put me in this long range recon patrol, and that’s where I met the basis for the Elias character in Platoon.

PLAYBOY: What was Elias’ real name?

STONE: Elias. I don’t know if it was his last name or his first name, but it was always Elias. A sergeant. Apache. A black-haired kid, very handsome. He looked like Jimmy Morrison; he truly was a jimmy Morrison of the soldiers. Very charismatic. The leader of the group. He was killed.

PLAYBOY: What happened to you there?

STONE: I got this horrible grease-bag lifer sergeant, one of these guys who were raking off the beer concession. He had a waxed mustache; I’ll never forget that. He didn’t like my attitude, and I told him to go fuck himself. Laughs So they sent me across the road to a regular combat unit, which was the First or the Ninth Armored Cav, or whatever the f*** they called it. Basically, it was infantry. And there was the Sergeant Barnes character. My squad sergeant.

Uh-huh. So the “Barnes character” was in the third combat unit Stone was with. For some reason I cannot find anything about 9th Armored Cavalry which would make sense. Is “Armored Cavalry” the same as “Air Cavalry”? I think the “whatever the f*** they called it” might be the problem — it was some other unit… 


Another snippets describing the “real Barnes”:

David M. Hars’s Guide To War Films: (Barnes was) Also based an real soldier OS knew in VN. OS carried his radio for him. OS feared and respected him as best soldier he ever knew. Feared him because B sick inside because he wanted to kill too much. Received multiple wounds (6-7 times) including bulletin right eye which caused horrible scar.

From some place I cannot track back: It is interesting to note that, in Oliver Stone’s experience of the war, there really was a platoon sergeant as scarred and bloodthirsty as Barnes, a sergeant as noble and caring as Elias…

This kind of statements circulate in the net, it’s hard to say who is copying from whom…


From the Platoon Commentary (which it much more trustworthy): “Barnes was based on a guy I knew from (???), Montana in one of my units and he actually has been shot. (pause) Barnes was shot in the head and had miraculous recovery. Went to Japan for several months for face surgery, married a japanese girl and came to the Nam. Been wounded 6-7 times and he volunteered again, wanted to get out there – killing.”

Stone was his radio man, but he didn’t say in which unit. Beside, with Stone’s mumbling it’s hard to tell what he means with the first “shot”: does it mean “was killed”, or was it the shot Barnes recovered from later? Again, you often wonder if he speaks of the real person or the character… which makes the impression of real people existing in the characters even stronger.

In the book and the script he Barnes from Tennessee not Montana… hmmm. The place Stone mentioned sounded like Tahoo, but it’s a name on the lake and it’s in Nevada, so I surely misheard it.


If you ask me for opinion about Barnes:

– He existed, he was a real person, not an idea, even if some of his features might be borrowed from other people. 

– I also think that very likely was shot in the face

– He was wounded several times, came back for more (I think it was mentioned in the DVD commentary) 

– He was in the same squad as Stone, maybe Stone was his RTO. 

– It’s arguable if he survived, but he must have been still alive in the first months of 1968.

– He was a staff sergeant (SSGT, or E-6)


At least one thing is obvious — Chris Taylor is Stone’s alter ego. It starts from the background (even if Stone was probably more right-wing than his film counterpart) and ends with letters to his grandmother. Sometimes in the commentary Stone talks about Chris in first person and I think it says it all. 

There are also hints to other character prototypes. One day I will deal with them too.

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