Jarhead contends that Marines fresh to the Corps watch the most famous fictional Vietnam movies and clap where civilians are appalled. In the picture's liveliest scene, grunts whoop it up during the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now and bellow out Wagner at the top of their lungs as the choppers do their Ride of the Valkyries and wreak havoc on a Vietnamese village.
What's sad is that you can see how that reaction is possible. Vietnam movies from Apocalypse Now to Platoon presented the war in Southeast Asia as the American recruits' entrance into the Heart of Darkness, where the horrors are so overwhelming that they suck ethics and morality into an abyss.
That's not the case with Hollywood's forgotten Vietnam epic - emotionally and analytically, the most sophisticated treatment of that war, and for my money the last great American war movie. Brian De Palma's Casualties of War, now available on DVD at the fire-sale price of $9.99, makes the Heart of Darkness route look like an easy way out. It takes you on one soldier's journey into moral responsibility. It refuses to leave you with vague alibis for American excesses in and out of combat.
Jumping off from an actual incident that occurred in 1966 (first told by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker, Oct. 18, 1969, and later reprinted as a book), De Palma shapes the material as a full-scale personal tragedy, operatic and intimate, rather than some generalized dirge for American youth and the Vietnamese war dead. Yet by following the pilgrim's progress of Pfc. Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), a green grunt in a squad that embarks on the kidnap and rape (and eventual murder) of a Vietnamese girl (Thuy Thu Le), De Palma illuminates the ethical catastrophes of war. Placing a Vietnamese girl at the very center of the action, De Palma never stops asking: Why were we in Vietnam?
At first, Eriksson gets drawn into the squad's gung-ho feeling. In the cunningly deceptive opening scenes, Meserve (Sean Penn), the tough sergeant who saves this private's life, emerges as a traditional hero. When a sniper wounds Meserve's best friend, Meserve immediately stanches the blood with the flesh of his palm. It's screenwriter David Rabe's most original invention - the best piece of action he doesn't take from Lang's book. Meserve's move is part prayer, and the blade of the rescue helicopter beats like an angel's wings. The scene takes the pure willpower behind soldiering into an unexpected realm of absurdity and poignancy.
At the start, Fox's Eriksson, not Penn's Meserve, is the one who provokes nervousness because his naivete and wholesomeness make him vulnerable. But then the unthinkable happens. Piled-up agony and frustration chip away at Meserve's core. Upset when a Vietnamese whorehouse is declared off-limits, Meserve tells his men that they'll abduct a Vietnamese girl and use her as "portable R&R."
Penn conveys an extraordinary spooked tension as Meserve, and Fox's face takes on a deepening, discombobulating maturity as Eriksson - he becomes our representative in the action, the one focus of humanity and sanity in a lunatic enterprise.
In the long, detailed midsection, the squad uses the native beauty, Oahn (Le), as a pack animal before raping and murdering her. Yet De Palma's treatment of this atrocity is a triumph of nuance and sensitivity. He turns conventional movie rhetoric upside down. He dazzles you with the splendorous image of men moving in profile against a blood-red sunrise - until you see that one of them is carrying Oahn, her head and limbs thrashing wildly.
A lesser director might have used Le's Oahn abstractly, as a nightmarish human sculpture on the theme of defilement. Under De Palma's guidance, Le transforms Oahn into a haunting personage. Eriksson isn't able to save this innocent, and his personal defeat will torment him the rest of his days. The pitiful "I'm sorry" that he offers up to Oahn can't help the situation. No words can.
De Palma allows you to identify with one sympathetic American, yet refuses to flinch from his failures. That may make the movie's greatest scenes - in which Eriksson struggles to communicate with Oahn - too much for some audiences to bear. (The movie was a commercial flop.)
After the inevitable killing takes place, and Eriksson tries to bring the other men to trial, the events keep growing in your mind. They come to encompass the crazy extremes of the military's dependence on hierarchy and the dangers of moral relativity.
Casualties of War is a transcendent American movie: a flesh-and-blood Vietnam War memorial that also includes scarred American survivors and the Vietnamese. The Marines of Jarhead could never look at this film and cheer.
Listen to Michael Sragow talk about war movies at baltimoresun.com/sragow.