A few rare films stun the senses. They send you reeling from the theatre. They set you brooding about them for days.
This is how it is with Casualties of War, Brian DePalma's tale of an atrocity in the Vietnam War. All at once it is stunning, frightening, depressing--and a mesmerizing and unforgettable piece of moviemaking. For more than two hours you are unwillingly drawn to the awful events unfolding on the screen.
It is a picture so powerful that having seen it once, you may never dare to view it again.
But the larger story about Casualties of War--which DePalma ignores--is even more disturbing. DePalma spares us the real-life ending, possibly because it would make the film much too depressing to survive as a commercial venture.
The film's story is simple. It is the straightforward account of the gang rape and murder of an eighteen-year-old Vietnamese woman by American soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Sean Penn portrays the sergeant who runs the platoon. He is the evil energy that makes the film work. Penn's Sergeant Meserve is mad, cruel, cynical and terrifying. What's worse is that he's totally believable.
At the outset of a search for enemy caves, Meserve tells his men he intends to commandeer a village woman and bring her along. They will all amuse themselves by raping her at will. When the mission is over, they will kill her, thus destroying the evidence. It's as simple and brutal as that.
Meserve's plan shocks Private Eriksson, a rookie who won't take part in the gang rape or the murder. Michael J. Fox is cast as Eriksson. Despite his own terror of Meserve, Eriksson even toys with the idea of helping the young woman escape.
Fortunately, I have never been exposed to any of Fox's previous screen work. For that reason, I find him convincing in this role.
Eriksson is, of course, unable to stand up to Meserve and the rest of the crazed group. The woman is raped repeatedly over several days and then brutally and sloppily murdered according to Meserve's plan. After the mission, Eriksson tries to report the crime to officers in his unit. They treat him as though he's crazy. They try to dissuade him. They want no part of this business.
And because he seeks to expose the crime, Eriksson himself becomes a target for murder by his former combat buddies.
Eriksson finally finds a chaplain who will listen to his story. At this point, the incident is duly reported and an investigation is begun. Four men are brought to trial. They are all given dishonorable discharges and stiff prison sentences.
That, at least, is the way DePalma ends his film.
Pauline Kael is an eccentric critic. She compares Casualties of War with Grand Illusion, Shoeshine, and The Godfather.
Vincent Canby, a more mainline critic, compares it to On the Waterfront, Prince of the City, and Serpico, all tales of men who stood up to testify against wrong even thought it made them appear to be stool pigeons. If this were a fictional account of the Vietnam War, there would be no reason to discuss the ending or any other aspect.
But Casualties of War is based on a true story that was reported for New Yorker magazine by Daniel Lang on October 18, 1969.
Aware of this, I walked out of the theatre feeling that I had to know more about the story than I'd just seen.
I went to the Phoenix Public Library and read Lang's piece, which is also called Casualties of War.
It was so astonishing that I didn't take notes. I never can get the library copying machines to work properly and so several days later, I had to go back to the library stacks in the basement and read the article again.
This isn't the context in which one wants to make bad jokes about Paul Harvey but Casualties of War cries out for the rest of the story. We really need to know what happened after the four men were sentenced.
From Kael and Canby we know that movie people have wanted to make this Lang story into a film for years.
They were afraid to make it while the war was still going on because the subject matter was too controversial. There was, of course, the additional problem of filming on location while a war was in progress. Now that the war is over, this story may still be too controversial for some.
Vietnam veterans, who are now becoming an obnoxious lobby of their own, are protesting. They say Casualties of War paints too bloody a picture of the American soldier. They even accuse DePalma of trying to make soldiers look bad because DePalma himself did not serve in the war.