A Correspondent's Criticisms of Scott's Review of Platoon Together With His Responses

[On April 3, 2002, a college student going by the name "Pip" sent me an email criticizing my rather negative review of Oliver Stone's 1986 movie, Platoon. (My review is posted at: http://www.massline.org/Politics/ScottH/platoon.htm) Here is my response to Pip, which incorporates his entire email. —Scott H.]

Hi "Pip"—

Thanks for your critical analysis of my review of "Platoon". I think there is partial validity to some of the points you raise, but also quite a lot of invalidity. So I'll respond to the specific points below.

>  Dear ScottH,
>     Allow me to begin this email by stating that I disagree with you on a
>  number of different fundamental beliefs, but I'd rather not get into
>  those for the sake of time.  Instead, I'd merely like to comment on the
>  review of Platoon that you included in your website.  I'm writing a film
>  analysis paper on Platoon for a college seminar class I'm taking, and
>  I'd like to point out some of the aspects of Platoon that you apparently
>  overlooked in your analysis.  I'm not trying to insult or degrade
>  anything that you asserted in your review; I'd like to try and offer an
>  alternative view to the one you have taken.

It is not necessary to apologize for criticizing anything I say, no matter how it is done! As a Marxist I believe in the importance of criticism and self-criticism and am therefore anxious to receive comments such as yours. Unfortunately, we live in a society that is generally pretty up-tight about giving or receiving criticism from others. This is one of the reasons that we, as a society, are unable to think about most issues very clearly. Truth itself is discovered through struggle, so where there is no struggle there is no truth.

>     Platoon has a number of socio-political levels.  Superficially, it
>  makes the statement that the US involvement in Vietnam was wrong.  While
>  you made the comment that the "implicit message of Platoon is not that
>  the US should not have been in Vietnam at all", I disagree.  Director
>  Oliver Stone was a Vietnam veteran, and his presentation of the war as
>  "Hell...the absence of all reason.  That what this is.  Hell." suggests
>  that he certainly didn't think the US was correct in having any sort of
>  presence in Vietnam.  There are other examples throughout the film of
>  this, but this one, being one of the earliest, is more poignant. 

In looking over my review I see that I did not explicitly say that the movie was an anti-war movie, that is, that it was opposed to the Vietnam war. I think I simply took that for granted, but I should have made it clearer. (Perhaps, in light of your letter, I should go back and add a comment or two at the end, or even add a link to this message which includes your criticisms and my responses.)

Probably Oliver Stone opposed the U.S. "involvement" in the "Vietnam War" (i.e., what really should be called the U.S. Imperialist War Against Vietnam) when it was going on, and even when he was himself over there, in that "hell". And he certainly opposed that war when he made this film. I have no doubt that the film is consciously meant to be opposed to the war.

But it is an interesting fact that the actual effect of things is not always quite what people intend. Probably most people will indeed understand the movie as being opposed to the war. But the point I was trying to raise is that they are being led to oppose it for somewhat shallow and inadequate reasons—reasons which themselves represent a distortion of reality (and suggest an acceptance of the liberal pro-imperialist viewpoint).

The movie focuses on the way the U.S. military carried on its war against the Vietnamese people (and the reactions of different U.S. soldiers to those means), the murders of civilians including children, burning down villages, rapes, and so forth. This is why I claimed that it implies that it would not have been wrong for the U.S. to "be there", or "oppose communism" there, if such a thing had been done in a "more civilized" way. (Even if Stone did not intend to imply this, it is implied in any case.)

Furthermore, the message of the movie was that it was wrong for the U.S. to be over there because of what "we" did over there, not because of what any imperialist army must necessarily do in order to try to put down a people's war. It did not bring out the imperialist nature of the war, nor the imperialist nature of the U.S. (It did not directly oppose U.S. imperialism itself.) As such the movie is still a lie; it doesn't truthfully reflect reality.

I can see that it is somewhat misleading to simply say that "the implicit message of 'Platoon' is not that the U.S. should not have been in Vietnam at all, but rather that there were awful 'excesses', and terrible things done in the course of the war which 'we' should not have done." Probably Oliver Stone would say, and meant to say in the film, that "we" should not have been over there at all. But I still say that the entire thrust of the film is nevertheless in support of an outlook which would justify the U.S. participation in such wars if it is done in a "clean" way. That is, Stone's ideology, and the ideology of the movie, is that of liberal pro-imperialism. (The fact that such a thing is impossible in practice is beside the point.)

"Platoon" does indeed have a number of socio-political levels; more so than even Oliver Stone himself realizes. It has implications which he himself may be unaware of, and may or may not have intended.

>     On a deeper level, Platoon contains frequent Marxist references, and
>  ultimately denounces capitalism in favor of a more Marxist approach.
>  Given the serious penchant you seem to have for Marxism, I'm surprised
>  you failed to notice this in the film.  For starters, the platoon is
>  composed of the "bottom of the barrel", or truthfully, Marx's
>  proletariat.  Furthermore, the "heads" led by Sgt. Elias seem to follow
>  a philosophy that believes that all there is to life is "feeling
>  good"(not an exact quote, pardon my lack of a copy of the film with
>  me).  Again, a mirror to the belief that religion is the opiate of the
>  masses, whereas Elias is a religious icon in the film.  The character
>  "King"(ironically named) is constantly commenting on how the rich always
>  keep the poor down, and how it never changes, how it's a fact of history
>  -> Marxism. [sic] Finally, though not conclusively, near the end of the film
>  Charlie Sheen's character sports a "red" bandanna, and, well, that's
>  fairly obvious.

What counts as a "Marxist reference" depends on your point of view. To reactionaries like Newt Gingrich, anything mildly liberal is tainted with "socialism" or "Marxism". We actual Marxists laugh at that sort of simple-minded inter-ruling class red-baiting.

I saw little (if anything) in the movie that could be taken as "anti-capitalist", and certainly nothing at all that could really be considered to be distinctively "Marxist".

You say that the character "King" is constantly commenting on how the rich always keep the poor down. This, I suppose, is a very crude and primitive expression of class consciousness, since it recognizes that there are such things as the rich and the poor. (But who in the world is ignorant of that?) However, this is hardly Marxism, or even anti-capitalism in any real sense. It's more on a par with Jesus's comment that the poor will always be with you.

Real class consciousness is a matter of recognizing not just different degrees of wealth, but different relationships of various groups of people to the means of production. Recognizing that the class of people who own all the factories also control the government, and that bourgeois "democracy" is totally fradulent—now that's some basic class consciousness. But there was nothing like that in the movie that I can recall.

Portraying American soldiers as being from the working class accurately reflects reality, but few war movies have ever tried to hide that obvious fact. I see no special emphasis on it in "Platoon" (and even if there had been, it wouldn't mean that much).

Perhaps with the "heads" and the philosophy that all there is to life is "feeling good" Oliver Stone did intend a reference to Marx's famous comment about religion being the opium of the masses. So what? This is the sort of thing that amounts to an intellectual's "in joke". It is certainly no serious assault on religion, nor anything that might be considered a revolutionary position here.

You know, artists—including movie makers—often imagine that their subtle references and insinuations are very important, but they seldom are. For example the leftist Carl Foreman wrote the screenplay for "High Noon" on the theme of one man's courage to stand up against danger, because he viewed this as a way of promoting resistance to the McCarthy inquisition. But who among those who saw this movie were able to draw such a conclusion (at least on their own)? Probably nobody.

In the same way, Charlie Sheen's character sporting a "red" bandanna really has little or no importance, no matter what Stone intended it to mean (if anything). Perhaps Stone did mean to subtly suggest that some soldiers were becoming so alienated by this awful war that they were on the verge of waving the red flag, or some such thing. But I doubt that more than a handful of sophisticated viewers drew any such conclusion. (And even they may well have been reading things into the movie that were not really there.)

Things that are so subtle that they have little or no effect might as well not be there at all. The real effect of movies (or anything else) is what is important, not what its creators intend the effects to be. (In philosophy, this point of view is often called "consequentialism". I uphold it even though in today's "postmodern" climate it is often attacked.)

You may be right in suggesting that there were some subtle clues in the movie that I missed. In that case it shows my Philistinism, I suppose. Or I may be right in suspecting that you and other film and art critics have an unwarranted tendency to read things into movies and art which are not really there at all. In either case, the actual effect of such works on the public is the same as if those subtleties were not there at all. And that is what really counts.

>     I'd choose not to waste your time with anything more on the subject.
>  I'd like to hear your thoughts on this, and I'm always open to criticism
>  of my analyses.  Thanks for slogging through this email.
>  Sincerely,
>  Pip

Well, my time is not all that valuable! (I'm not a capitalist, like Bill Gates!) I was glad to hear your comments, and will welcome any further discussion on these or related matters.

—Scott Harrison

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