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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: The 30th Anniversary – Casualties Of War

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: The 30th Anniversary Celebration Of Director Brian De Palma’s “Casualties Of War”. It Has Everything That’s Great About A De Palma Film. It’s Tough, Compelling, Visceral & Powerful. Michael J Fox Gives A Tour De Force Performance & The Best Of His Career. De Palma Looks At Vietnam Through A Different Perspective & It’s One Of His Finest Hours.

Brian De Palma is a filmmaker known for following his own dark muse. Over the course of his four-decade filmmaking career, De Palma has turned out some of the industry’s most remembered, stylish and graphic films. De Palma’s films are populated with mind-boggling characters and twisty plots that leave moviegoers feeling slightly unhinged. De Palma has made a reputation for himself as a controversial filmmaker and his 1989 Vietnam war drama, “Casualties Of War” is one of his most controversial. Not for it’s depiction to the war itself, but what happens within a group of soldiers in the war. 

“Casualties Of War” is based on the Daniel Lang book of the same name, published in 1969 that is based on the real-life incident on Hill 192. After the book was published, Hollywood came knocking and set out to make a film adaptation. The film rights were bought by producer David Susskind (“A Raisin In The Sun”) who was going to bring the film to Warner Bros. Journalist Pete Hamill had written a script and British director Jack Clayton (Robert Redford’s “The Great Gatsby”) was set to direct. However the film was scrapped and in the late 1970s Susskind announced he would make the film for ABC-TV, which never happened. 

In 1979 screenwriter David Rabe (“The Firm”) mentioned the project to Brian De Palma, that it was being pushed around once again to being adapted into a feature film. Rabe who later had disassociated himself from the film, saying that De Palma was not faithful to his work, but actually his screenplay is one of the best things about the movie. De Palma, who was always interested in making the film since the books release in 1969, wanted to direct it but was unable to raise the money to finance it. 

Unable to make the film, De Palma went on to make not just one of his best, but one of the greatest films of all time “The Untouchables”which was a big success; producer Dawn Steel was impressed by “The Untouchables”, that when she became head of production at Columbia Pictures, “Casualties of War” became a reality and was the first film she green-lit for the studio.

Up until the production start of “Casualties Of War”, Vietnam War movies had been very profitable, from: “Platoon”, “Full Metal Jacket”, “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter”De Palma’s “Casualties Of War” which was his 19th film, wasn’t just a regular Vietnam war film. It carried a heavy subject matter, which is said to be the cause of it’s poor box office draw. 

Lang’s book and De Palma’s film revolves around a brutally shocking 1966 incident in which the leader of a five-man reconnaissance squad, Sgt. Tony Meserve tells his men, ‘We’re going to requisition a girl for a little portable R&R’. Three of the men laugh as it sounds like a joke, but Private Eriksson, who has been in Vietnam a month, knows it’s no joke and is bewildered at the idea. The men are leaving on a five-day reconnaissance patrol in search of Vietcong bunkers, trenches, caves and arms caches. The mission is dangerous but it’s also a chance for them to get away from authority.

Before dawn under Sgt. Meserve’s instructions, they kidnap a young Vietnamese woman from a nearby village, gag her, bind her hands and take her with them into the highlands. In the course of the first two days, the entire squad, except for Private Eriksson rape her. When they are threatened with exposure, the men plan to murder her and bury her somewhere, leaving no trace that they were involved. When Eriksson gets back to the base, for reasons he cannot easily articulate and against the advice of his commissioned officers, Eriksson turns in his comrades. This is the bleeding heart of Brian De Palma’s earnest and hard to stomach plot of ”Casualties of War”. 

The cast here is terrific, including  John C. Reilly (“Step Brothers”) and John Leguizamo (“The Pest”) who make their screen debuts in the film. Sean Penn plays Sgt. Meserve who gives another definitive Sean Penn performance. He plays Meserve with such raw, focused power that it is easy to see how a weak person would be intimidated by him. Meserve is foul mouthed and vile as the mastermind behind the rape of the young Vietnam girl. Sean Penn would tell Michael J Fox that he was just a little television actor and nothing more, to get a genuine reaction out of him in scenes. 

Michael J. Fox was already a household name by the time “Casualties Of War” had been released. Starring in his hit tv series “Family Ties” and lighter comedy fares like “Back To The Future”, “The Secret Of My Success” and “Teen Wolf”. Fox tried his hand in two dramas “Light Of Day” opposite Joan Jett and “Bright Lights Big City” playing a cocaine addict. His role as Eriksson in “Casualties Of War” is his edgiest and certainly his best dramatic performance. While most had associated him as the young republican with the snappy retorts on “Family Ties”. The role is a difficult one and to his credit, Fox remains firmly in character. It’s not easy to dramatize this degree of moral righteousness and Fox gives his best performance. 

When the actual moment of the gang rape arrives and Eriksson (Michael J Fox) refuses to go along. He tries, in a tentative and agonizing way, to argue that “this isn’t what it’s supposed to be about, over here”. Meserve (Sean Penn) lashes him verbally: He is not loyal to the group, he loves the Cong, he’s probably a queer, and so on.

The whole stomach-churning sequence of scenes is harrowing because it makes it so clear how impotent Eriksson’s moral values are in the face of a rifle barrel. The other men either never had any qualms about what they are doing, or have lost them in the brutalizing process of combat. They will do exactly what they want to do, and Eriksson is essentially powerless to stop them. The movie makes it clear that when a group dynamic of this sort is at work, there is perhaps literally nothing that a “good” person can do to interrupt it. And its examination of the realities of the situation is one of the best things about the movie.

The film was shot in April-May Of 1988, mostly on location in Thailand, with some filming in San Francisco. The railroad trestle bridge utilized in the firefight near the end of the film (located in Kanchanaburi, Thailand) is part of the Japanese transportation system as portrayed in the David Lean film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957). This particular bridge was constructed by prisoners of war who were held captive by the Japanese when Thailand was under Japanese occupation during World War II.

Because of filming in the jungle, there were a few obstacles as the sets were over run by snakes and Michael J. Fox would often buy gifts for the snake beaters who would beat the cobras out of the set. Also during filming many of the actors became sick, because their immune systems were not used to the food in Thailand. Michael J. Fox had later said that after recovering, his stomach was then strong enough to eat anything.

Casualties of War” opened in 1,487 theatres, and ranked number 4 in box office for the first week of its release. It went on to gross $18,671,317, making it a box office loss.

The theatrical cut of the film was released on DVD in 2001. This version has the original 113 minute running time. An extended cut of the film was released on DVD in 2006, that contains two scenes cut from the original release. One has Eriksson being interrogated by the two investigators, and the other is the defense attorney (played by an uncredited Gregg Henry) trying to discredit Eriksson during the trial. This extended version has a running time of 119 minutes.

“Casualties of War” has everything that’s great about a Brian De Palma film. It’s tough, compelling, visceral, powerful and a tour de force performance from both Michael J Fox and Sean Penn. DePalma looks at Vietnam through a different persepective than an audience is used to and it’s superb. One of De Palma’s finest hours. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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