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.

The Real Platoon Leader in Platoon

30 01 2008

An article by Bob Johnson

QUOTE: Although flawed with dramatic license, [Platoon] was based on Stone’s actual experiences with 2nd platoon, B Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, of the 25th Infantry Division. Leading that platoon was Second Lieutenant Steve Wilder.(…)

After a few months at Polk, Wilder came down on orders for Vietnam, arriving there in September 1967. He took over 2nd platoon of Bravo Company, 3/22 and was on his first trip to the field when his company commander stepped on a mine and was replaced by Captain Bob Hemphill. Hemphill later wrote the book Platoon, Bravo Company partly to dispel the literary license taken by Stone in Platoon.

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

read the whole article

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] the 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 übermensch 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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