Classic Movie Review: The Philadelphia Story(1940) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter Q

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

There is not a single movie I want to watch that starts with the letter “Q” so I’m just doing another “P” movie.  Of course, Philadelphia is “the Quaker City,” so there is your Q content if you need it.

Title: The Philadelphia Story
Release Date: December 26, 1940
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Cary Grant + Katharine Hepburn + James Stewart + lots of alcohol + witty repartee seems a perfect recipe for comedy gold.  The story is that mainline Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn) has divorced C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) and now plans to marry the new money George Kittredge (John Howard).  On the eve of the wedding Dexter returns with a reporter, Mike Connor (James Stewart) and a photographer Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) who – somewhat reluctantly – are there to cover the high society wedding.

All of this is mainly an excuse to get some of the best actors of all-time together for the aforementioned drinking and repartee.  But the plot doesn’t quite go where you think it might go either.  Well, the ending is totally predictable, but the winding path it takes to get their is not.  As an added bonus there are many scenes stolen by Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s little sister Dinah.

This is another movie that was a favorite of mine in my younger years that I failed to revisit for the past couple of decades.  I’m going to say that it’s a little bit less good than I remember.  There are a few too many domestic abuse jokes for my taste.  And there are some dead spots, especially early on in the film.  But put that aside, because even if this film was perfect in memory it is still an all-time classic in its less-than-perfect state.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter M

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Release Date: October 3, 1941
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros.

I watched The Maltese Falcon several years ago – maybe at The Brattle Theatre or maybe I just borrowed the DVD from the library – and I also read the Dashiell Hammett book it is based upon around the same time.  But I didn’t remember much about it, which is a good thing since it meant I could enjoy the mystery of it once again.  I also felt that I thought the movie was good but not great, so I was also surprised to find I was really enjoying it the second time around.

The Maltese Falcon is a detective story featuring Humphrey Bogart as the hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade.  The movie is considered to be one of the examples of the film noir genre, or at least a predecessor to film noir.  Spade is definitely a morally ambiguous character and it is unclear whether he is actually willing to go along with the criminals’ plans or if he is just playing them.  When he does the right thing at the end of the movie, it seems like he does it more out of spite than justice.

The story begins when a woman, Ruth Wonderly or Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) depending on which version of her life she’s telling, hires Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan).  When Archer is murdered, Spade finds himself drawn into a plot around finding the titular MacGuffin, a medieval figurine covered in valuable gemstones.  Also seeking the Maltese Falcon are conman Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and mobster Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

This was John Huston’s first film as a director, and despite the detective story, it is not really an action film.  In fact, I found it has a lot of unexpected parallels to Huston’s final film, The Dead, which is also a book adaptation about people who spend a lot of time talking but rarely speak the truth.  Subtext is key in the battle of wits among Spade, Brigid, Cairo, and Gutman.  The film succeeds because of the high quality acting of its cast.  Surprisingly, this was Greenstreet’s first film, while Lorre was just making his way into American films, and even Bogart was just becoming an A-list celebrity.  They’re firing on all cylinders in this film and the trio would reunite in Casablanca the following year, and Greenstreet and Lorre would make a total of nine movies together!

For whatever reason, this movie failed to make a big impression on my around 17 years ago.  But upon revisiting this movie I feel it has earned a spot among my favorite movies of all time.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Citizen Kane (1941) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter K

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Today is a bit of a cheat, as I technically post a third movie starting with the letter C, but you’ll excuse me because this is a great one!  Also, forgive me for publishing this a day late.

Title: Citizen Kane
Release Date: September 5, 1941
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: Mercury Productions

By the time I was a teenager, I was already aware that Citizen Kane was considered “one of the greatest films of all time!” and watching it for the first time back then did not elicit contrarian opinions.  I watched it a few more times, but somehow like a lot of classic films I saw in my younger days, I didn’t watch it again for decades.  So it was great to have an excuse to revisit this movie.  What’s harder is trying to find something to say about Citizen Kane that hasn’t been said before.  It is the number one movie on the AFI’s 100 Years list and the Cahiers du Cinéma list, and number two on the Sight and Sound list.

Perhaps we’ll start with a quick summary. The movie is a pseudo-biopic of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a wealthy, celebrity newspaper publisher based on real life figures like William Randolph Hearst. The story follows reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) as he tries to learn the meaning of the last word Kane uttered before his death, “Rosebud!”  We see several non-chronological scenes from Kane’s life told from the perspectives of people who knew him, none of whom are particularly reliable narrators.  In order we see an obituary newsreel, Thompson reading the personal diary of Kane’s childhood guardian and banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), Kane’s business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s lifelong “frenemy” Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten), and Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), and Kane’s butler Raymond (Paul Stewart).  In the final scene, the mystery of what Rosebud is revealed to the film viewers, but remains unknown to any of the characters.

With that said, here are some stray thoughts I have on Citizen Kane:

  • Apart from Welles and Cotten, none of the main cast were particularly famous or became famous later despite starring in “the greatest movie of all time.”  Alland is essentially the main character of this movie but he doesn’t seem all that well remembered (not least because the movie never shows a close-up of his face).
  • The movie is known for its innovation and technical brilliance but it also is wildly entertaining and relevant to watch today, which sets it apart from some other movies regarded for their innovation such as Battleship Potemkin.
  • Speaking of relevance, it actually really sad that 80 years later we still as a culture continue to idolize and prioritize the opinions of disgustingly wealthy people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill Gates. And if Kane’s campaign speech where he promises to imprison his opponent and his claims of fraud when he loses the election don’t remind  you of a certain loathsome person, I don’t know what to say.
  • Watching it this time it really hit be just how cruelly Kane treats Susan and it hits really hard.
  • That being said, the scene where Kane entertains Susan to distract her from her toothache is really sweet and maybe the moment where Kane is depicted with the most humanity.
  • Someday I need to rewatch this film and explore it from an archivist’s perspective.  The scene in Thatcher’s library and Leland saving Kane’s “statement of principles” are particularly interesting depictions of people’s’ relationship with records.
  • If you’re interested in learning more about the aspects of Citizen Kane that make it “great,” I’d recommend reading Roger Ebert’s “A Viewer’s Companion to Citizen Kane.
  • Kane slow-clapping for Susan at the opera house is an oft-used GIF on Twitter, but really this movie could be mined for so many more GIFs.


Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter D

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

TitleThe Deer Hunter
Release Date: December 8, 1978
Director: Michael Cimino
Production Company: EMI

The Deer Hunter is a movie I’ve long been aware of but only had a vague idea that it was about Vietnam, involved Russian Roulette, and starred Christopher Walken.  I had no idea that the lead actor is actually Robert De Niro, who seems to be in every prestige film of this era, or that it is prominently set in a steel mill town of Western Pennsylvania.  I kind of figured that this movie fit in with films like Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon, which it kind of does, but it’s also very much its own thing.

The movie centers on a trio of young men who decide to enlist in the army to fight in the war in Vietnam – Mike (De Niro), Nick (Walken), and Steve (John Savage).  The cast also includes John Cazale in the last of his five films before dying of cancer (all of which were nominated for Best Picture) as their friend Stan, and Meryl Streep in one of her earliest films as Linda, a woman that Mike and Nick are both in love with.  The first part of the film focuses on the group of Russian-American friends who work together in the steel mill in a very busy 24-hour period where they work, go out for drinks, attend Steve’s wedding and reception, and then go hunting (except Steve, of course, who goes to his wedding night with his wife).  Like The Godfather, this film uses an extensive wedding reception setting to establish the characters and the culture they live in.

The first segment goes on so long, in fact, I thought maybe that the Vietnam War may be more of a theme of the movie than actually seeing them go to war. But suddenly the film transitions to battle scenes and we enter the second act.  I kind of wish the movie had focused entirely on that 24-hour period before Mike, Nick, and Steve left for Vietnam.  Not only is it the best part of the movie but it would also be considerably shorter than the 3+ hour slog Cimino gave us.  The movie descends into gratuitous violence, impossible leaks of logic, heavy-handed messaging, and a really racist depiction of Vietnamese as cruel and sadistic.  The Russian roulette sequences in this movie are not based on any reality of how the Vietnamese treated POWs nor were there Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon. For Cimino it’s supposed to be a metaphor but it really strains credulity.

The third act of the movie brings Mike home with considerable PTSD and a need to “save” his friends, Steve from a facility for wounded veterans and Nick from the aforementioned Russian roulette gambling dens in Saigon as the city falls in April 1975. This part could’ve have been an affective look at the way the trauma of war changes people, a la The Best Years of Our Lives, but the heavy-handedness and ludicrousness of the plot twists just makes it a slog.  I honestly wonder if the people who decided that this movie deserved a lot of awards and accolades only based it on the first hour or so.  Because it started off so good and I really thought it was going to be a very different film than it ended up being.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Title: Bonnie and Clyde
Release Date: August 13, 1967
Director: Arthur Penn
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures

I watched Bonnie and Clyde in my younger days, probably around 30+ years ago, and HATED it.  It seemed to me to just be glorified violence and gore.  Add to the fact that over the years Faye Dunaway has become one of my least favorite actors, and you can understand that I had little desire to revisit this movie.  Well, I’m happy to report that I enjoyed Bonnie and Clyde much more on this viewing.

I think the main thing I took away from this movie is that it is not a history lesson but a depiction of American myth.  The over-the-top nature of the film actually accents the mythological aspect of the movie where the real story of Bonnie & Clyde is shadowed by newspaper reports of their fictional exploits.  Dunaway’s Texas accent sounds as fake as her blonde wig, but she does bring a lot of nuance to her performance of Bonnie Parker who is perpetually yearning for more. For all the scandal this movie caused for being open about sexuality it seems like a good joke that Warren Beaty’s Clyde Barrow is essentially impotent.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the film debut of Gene Wilder as a young man briefly abducted by the Barrow Gang.  Wilder shows a wide-eyed excitement in the experience and adds some levity to the film that deliberately shifts it’s tonality.  It’s easy to see how this movie was in many ways a movie more about 1960s counterculture than it was about 1930s bank robbers.  It also shows a lot of influence of French New Wave films, and François Truffaut was even involved early in production.

I still see Bonnie and Clyde as an incredibly gory film, especially for its time, but I no longer see it as glamorizing violence, but as a commentary on glamorizing violence.  It’s a subtle thing but it makes a difference.  Anyhow, I still don’t think of Bonnie and Clyde as one of the greatest films of all time but I have greater respect for what the film was trying to do and the influence it had on Hollywood cinema.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)

Title: 12 Angry Men
Release Date: April 10, 1957
Director: Sidney Lumet
Production Company: Orion-Nova Productions

This is another movie I remember watching in high school, having read the play in English class.

Set almost entirely in the jury room of a New York City courthouse, 12 Angry Men is a compelling drama about the deliberations on a murder case.  Henry Fonda is the only big-name star in the movie, playing Juror #8, the only juror who feels that there may be reasonable doubt about whether the defendant, and 18 year old Latin American boy, actually murdered his father.  But there are excellent performances all around, including Lee J. Cobb as the angry man who is tough on crime, Jack Klugman as a man who grew up in similar conditions to the defendant, Jack Warden as the wiseass who is apathetic about the case, and George Voskovec as a naturalized American citizen who has a deep faith in democracy.

The movie is well-filmed, taking advantage of the confined space to build a feeling of claustrophobia.  There is also a slow transition of shots from above to close-up shots of characters’ faces over the course of the film. Keeping the camera on a character who is listening rather than talking is also an effective cinematic technique. Partway through the film a summer shower begins outside the windows and reflects the stormy mood in the chamber while also dramatically affecting the lighting.

The movie does his flaws.  Juror #8 visits the neighborhood where the defendant lived and buys a switchblade knife.  Not only are switchblades illegal but as a juror he’s doing research which is prohibited (and he somehow brought the illegal knife into the courthouse which would be harder to do today with security screening).  No less an authority than Sonia Sotomayor has declared that the jurors actions in this film is exactly what jurors should not do, and the Juror #8’s actions probably would’ve lead to a mistrial.  I also feel that it rings hollow that Juror #3’s intransigence is due to his failed relationship with his son.

I found that my experience watching this film changed significantly over 30-some-odd-years.  My teenage self saw this as a demonstration of how the American justice system works for good, or at least an idealistic presentation of such.  Nowadays, I feel the opposite.  The prosecution in this case clearly failed to make a credible case, the defense did even less to protect the defendant, and even the judge seems bored by the case.  11 jurors were ready to send a person to their death and call it a day.  In the real world, people like Juror #8 are few and far between and we’ve seen again and again that we can’t count on them to be around to protect justice and democracy when needed

  • One of the effects of the COVID pandemic is that it was very unsettling to watch dozen men together in a confined space, especially since at least one of them kept coughing.  The amount of second-hand smoke in the room also looked unpleasant.
  • I feel this movie would make a good double feature with Do the Right Thing.  Both movies are said to take place on the hottest day of the year (and thus have very sweaty actors) and deal with very heated arguments regarding race and justice.
  • All through the movie, I felt that Lee J. Cobb reminded me of George C. Scott.  It turns out that Scott played the role  of Juror # 3 in the 1997 remake.  Not only that but Scott took over the role of Lieutenant Kinderman in Exorcist III, which Cobb originated in The Exorcist!
  • I also appreciate that two actors ended up associated with The Odd Couple franchise: John Fiedler, who appeared in the movie, and Jack Klugman, who stared in the tv show.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Shane (1953)

Release Date: April 23, 1953
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review: I was under the mistaken impression that this movie was a Western about a boy and his dog, like Old Yeller. In fact, Shane (Alan Ladd) is a human, a drifter who arrives on the homestead of Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur) Starrett and takes up work as their hired hand. The Starrett’s young son Joey grows attached to Shane looking up to him with hero worship.

All is not well in the valley though. The Starrets and other homesteaders are routinely harassed by cattle rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men who want to keep the range free of farmers.  Shane, who is suspected to have a past as a gunfighter, must chose between fighting Ryker’s gang and his newfound domestic bliss. Things come to a head when Ryker brings a gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), to do his dirty work.

On the surface, this movie appears to be aiming for a wholesome, All-American Western, but it has a lot of subtlety and nuance.  Shane never speaks of his past but we learn something of his character through his mannerisms.  There’s a definite attraction between Shane and Marian that is also never spoken aloud.  And the movie comes down against violence and guns, with only the child Joey buying into the myth of the Old West. When a saloon brawl occurs mid-film and a gunfight at his conclusion they pack a wallop because of all the tension building to these outpourings of violence.

This is a scenic film, with the jagged peaks of the Teton Range in the background of almost every outdoors scene. Having visited Grand Tetons National Park in the past year, it was fun to see it used as a film set. I also liked the scene set at a funeral which not only was a rare moment of grief in a Western, but the camera wanders around to children and animals on the edge of the crowd for a very naturalistic moment. I also appreciate that the 52-year-old Jean Arthur can look like a mother of a 9-year-old in her thirties. This is a big change from Sunset Boulevard a few years earlier, which depicted 49-year-old Gloria Swanson as impossibly aged.

Shane is an honest and nuanced film that does justice to the traditions of the Western genre without fall for its tropes and needless violence. It also would be great if it was retold in The Mandalorian.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Title: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Release Date: 19 December 2001
Director: Peter Jackson
Production Company: New Line Cinema | WingNut Films

I revisited this movie for the first time since it was in the theaters which was really too long to wait because I’ve always loved The Lord of the Rings. I watched with my kids who were not quite sold on Tolkien, alas.  There’s a lot to love of about this movie, mostly in that you can’t deny the imagination that went into adapting Tolkien’s work. It may not be what YOU imagined when reading the books, but you can’t deny that that it is a possible recreation of Middle Earth.  The cast is chosen well, and Elijah Wood does an excellent job at expressing Frodo’s emotion despite not having a lot of dialogue for a lead character.

The movie does have some flaws.  For example, it relies way too much on slow motion.  And like the book it based on it is overwhelmingly male. Jackson attempted to address this by giving Arwen (Liv Tyler) a bigger role although it feels like an attempt to force in a romance story without any effort to write romance well.  I do appreciate Cate Blanchett’s work as Galadriel since she appears to be really an ethereal and eerie elf in real life.

The changes this movie makes from it’s source material are largely beneficial to the story’s pacing and character development.  Tom Bombadil’s story is rightly ditched because it would be a too ponderous side trip.  And the ending is actually improved by using the climactic battle and dissolution of the Fellowship from the beginning of The Two Towers as a cliffhanger.  It’s really an excellent example of adaptation that the ensuing two movies did not live up to.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave the Best Picture to Return of the King and AFI included Fellowship on the 100 Years list.  I think they both intended to reward the entire trilogy, but it is my belief that Fellowship is the best film of the three.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Intolerance (1916)

Title: Intolerance
Release Date: September 5, 1916
Director: D. W. Griffith
Production Company: Triangle Film Corporation

This 105-year-old epic officially becomes the oldest feature film I’ve watched in its entirety, replacing Broken Blossoms (by the same director), which I watched in a high school film class. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the movie-going public at a time when feature length films had existed only for a decade. Movies were as likely to be shown in storefronts as in theaters with many shorts running continuously as viewers wandered in and out. Now audiences were being asked to commit 3-1/2 hours to watching four different stories cut together in a single narrative.

Of course, Intolerance only made the “AFI 100 Years … 100 Movies” list because D.W. Griffith’s preceding film from 1915, The Birth of a Nation, recognized for its innovation in filmmaking was rightly also deemed to be racist a.f.  Intolerance was not an apology from D.W. Griffith for his depiction of leering Black men and inspiring the Ku Klux Klan to reform, but instead he felt that the criticism of his film and NAACP-lead protests were intolerant of him!  So, it appears that Griffith was not only a pioneer in filming techniques and creating feature length films, but he also may have invented the “You’re the real racist” trope used by white supremacists to this very day. 

Intolerance features four intertwined stories about “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages.” A recurring motif features a woman (film superstar Lillian Gish in what’s basically a cameo) rocking a baby in a cradle who symbolizes The Eternal Motherhood

  1. The main story is set in the present day and tells of the travails of a working class woman known as The Dear One (a fantastic performance by Mae Marsh). Her life is turned upside down by the forces of Puritanical moral reformers (misogynistically described in a title card as woman who go into philanthropy because men no longer consider them attractive). She and her husband, The Boy (Robert Harron), lose their jobs, have their baby taken away, and The Boy is wrongly convicted for murder, among other trials. There are some surprisingly progressive aspects to this segment as well, such as a depiction of National Guard troops firing on unarmed striking laborers (a criticism of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914) and appeal to abolish prisons.
  2. The modern American story is the only one with a cohesive storyline, but the Ancient Babylon story is the one that Griffith lavished money and attention on. Massive sets were built in central Hollywood (later recreated as a shopping center called Hollywood & Hollywood that I wandered through on my visit to Los Angeles in 2007) and cast thousands of extras for elaborate dance and battle scenes. The theme is the religious divide that lead to the fall of Babylon to Cyrus of Persia in 539 BCE, but really it’s all about the spectacle.  Kudos to The Mountain Girl (Constance Talmadge) for being another strong female character and a great performance in this segment.
  3. Significantly less screen time is given to the French Renaissance story which depicts the French monarchy’s massacre of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572.  I had trouble following the story here but scenes were few and far between.
  4. The shortest segment is the story of Jesus of Nazareth (Howard Gaye) that incorporates only a small number of Gospel stories, such as the miracle at the wedding at Cana, Jesus forgiving the woman for adultery, and a brief glimpse of the crucifixion.

The movie does have an amazing amount of spectacle, especially when you consider that it was made 105 years ago, and is worth a watch for that alone.  But Intolerance is also a bit of a slog, and not very coherent. Compared with other silent films I’ve watched, this one is way over-reliant on title cards (some of them even have footnotes!!!) and great acting performances by the likes of Marsh and Talmadge are lost in the shuffle. I’d say that mostly this is a movie to watch if you’re interested in film history, but I doubt it will entertain anyone otherwise.

Classic Movie Review: Platoon

Title: Platoon
Release Date: December 19, 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Production Company: Hemdale Film Corporation

Back in the 1980s, there were a lot of Vietnam War films that all came out around the same time, and I couldn’t remember if I’d watched this one. Upon reflection, I had not. The film focuses on the war-time experiences of Chris (Charlie Sheen), a volunteer from a more privileged background than his conscripted cohort in his platoon. The movie is filmed deliberately to make it hard to know what is going on, recreating for the viewer Chris’ experience of the “fog of war.” I think this movie was innovative in that effect although it has been repeated in ensuing films. I’ve read that veterans of the Vietnam War said that Platoon was the most accurate depiction of the war on film.

The large ensemble cast includes many actors who went on to greater fame including Forest Whitaker, Kevin Dillon, Mark Moses, and Johnny Depp. Outside of Chris, who narrates his thoughts in letters to his grandmother, we don’t get to know the members of the platoon personally (although this movie also avoids the war movie trope of having all the characters represent a stereotype of the regions that they come from). Instead, the platoon is divided into two ideological camps. On one side, the compassionate Sgt Elias (Willem Dafoe) leads the men who just want to get through the war and relax by smoking pot during down time (knowing what we know of Sheen’s real-life habits, it unintentionally funny that he portrays an innocent being drawn into the drug culture). On the other side are the more hard edge soldiers who revel in machismo and racist dehumanizing of their Vietnam rivals. They are lead by the scarred and sadistic Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The movie follows several months of conflict where Chris goes from idealistic to frightened to disillusioned. While clearly an anti-war film and one that dramatizes the traumatic affect of war on the soldiers, it does seem to want to have it both ways by also being an exciting action film with a certain amount of jingoism. This includes a disturbing sequence where the platoon attacks a village with many parallels to the Mỹ Lai massacre. The Vietnam War was very unpopular in the 1970s and early 1980s with many veterans leading the anti-war movement. And yet by 2004, John Kerry could be swift-boated for his opposition to the war as a veteran, partially because the slew of 1980s Vietnam War movies like this one recontextualized the war from an unjustifiable quagmire into a time of great valor.

Platoon is a well-made film and is an influential pioneer in the war movie genre. But I don’t feel the movie holds the courage of its convictions and thus doesn’t hold up all to well over the decades.

Rating: ***