Film-Made Man, Man-Made Film

An Analysis of Myth and Countermyth in John Wayne's The Green Berets and Oliver Stone's Platoon

Dan B. Butler

Since its emergence as a legitimate art form in the early 1920s, the motion picture has emerged as one of the most powerful forces for shaping public perception. Film not only reflects public opinion, but can also be a force for social change. Sergei Eisenstein's invention of the "montage of attractions" showed audiences that movies can be far more engaging and moving than any static medium. As technology developed and filmmakers became more sophisticated, movies soon created their own language of imagery. Genres began to materialize out of familiar mythological structures depicted in the new medium. One such genre that stands out in the American mythic landscape is the war film.

Until recently, the majority of American war films have depicted combat as glorious and soldiers as heroic. In World War II, the studios cranked out a glut of such films. In them, filmmakers typically demonize the enemy and the American soldiers overcome obstacles to form a unified front and destroy the enemy. Soldiers who do not conform or who act cowardly usually die during a moment of redemption. It was during this flood of films that a film icon emerged who would forever be remembered for his heroism on the silver screen.

John Wayne, who never actually served in uniform, is held by many Americans to be the quintessential war hero and patriot. This man of contradictions was a staple for young moviegoers in the 1940s and 1950s, and the images of him single-handedly winning World War II were inexorably burned into the minds of young Americans asked to serve in Korea and Vietnam. Wayne's image was so far-reaching that when Emperor Hirohito visited America in 1975, he asked to meet Wayne. (Wayne was heard to have remarked, "I must have killed off the entire Japanese army."1) Thus, John Wayne the actor transformed into John Wayne the myth. The larger-than-life screen persona of Wayne took on an almost ethereal quality, and the children of the generation that chastised him for not serving in World War II found it difficult to distinguish between the man and the heroes he portrayed. This myth, that John Wayne was the same war hero and ultrapatriot he portrayed in his films, was fully entrenched by the 1960s. Against this backdrop emerged The Green Berets, a justification for America's involvement in Indochina and a call to arms for all young men to fight in Vietnam.

The spate of war films produced after the Second World War was not reproduced after America's withdrawal from Vietnam. The few films that did deal with the war were highly stylistic and allegorical, campy, or simply inaccurate. It would remain that way until 1986, when a director named Oliver Stone released Platoon, a semiautobiographical account of his experiences as a combat infantryman in Vietnam. Platoon shattered the myths exemplified in The Green Berets and created a new mythic structure for war films in general. Oliver Stone's own experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam inform his mythology in Platoon. In Platoon, Stone confronts the viewer with grays to Wayne's black and white as he depicts the protagonist's struggle to "maintain not only my strength, but my sanity."2 Most critics lauded Platoon for being a definitive work on the Vietnam experience, but Stone himself was always careful to note that it was only "one reality."3 In that sense, Stone's reality in Platoon is as much a myth to Wayne as The Green Berets was to Stone.

This essay will analyze the origins of the John Wayne myth and examine how the myth is manifested in The Green Berets. It will present Platoon as Oliver Stone's countermyth to The Green Berets and contrast the films' major characters and thematic structures.

John Wayne is most often associated with the patriotic, all-American image he frequently portrayed in films. It is important to understand the difference between the "real life" John Wayne and the image (or myth) of John Wayne. The construct of John Wayne is far more compelling than the man who was born Marion Morrison. "Wayne was not born Wayne. He had to be invented," one scholar claims.4 By the time Wayne had established himself as a film star, his on-screen image had become the embodiment of his politics. What makes Wayne so enigmatic is that his "real life" was derived from his on-screen image.5 Viewers didn't flock to theaters to see Sergeant Stryker on Iwo Jima or Major Dan Kirby flying a Wildcat: they went to see John Wayne win World War II.

The John Wayne-as-war-hero mythos is a paradox in itself. Wayne did not serve in any war and actually worked to avoid being drafted into service in World War II. His filmic breakthrough year was 1948; his appearances in Howard Hawks' Red River and John Ford's Fort Apache and Three Godfathers marked Wayne's initial appearance on Hollywood's top ten moneymakers' list.6 He would remain on the list for the next twenty five years, a timespan that remains to be topped.

Wayne's most important role as a military man came in 1949's The Sands of Iwo Jima. His portrayal of the tough but enigmatic Sergeant Stryker garnered Wayne a Best Actor Oscar nomination and fostered the origins of his mythic persona. The John Wayne mythos transcends the characters he plays; indeed, many fans of Wayne find it difficult to distinguish the difference between the man and the myth. The perceptions and accepted truths about John Wayne are a mixture of fiction and reality. It is for this reason that it is important to deconstruct John Wayne's history and analyze the differences between the myth and the man.

With the outbreak of World War II, support for America's war effort galvanized all sectors of society, and Hollywood was no different. Established stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (USN, Silver Star), Henry Fonda (USN, Bronze Star), and Clark Gable (USAAC), as well as emerging actors like Eddie Albert (USN, Bronze Star) and Tyrone Power (USMC), rushed to sign up for military service. As the majority of male leads left Hollywood to serve overseas, John Wayne saw an opportunity to vault into stardom. Despite enormous pressure from his inner circle of friends, he resisted.7 Wayne's fans have proffered a number of erroneous excuses over the years to explain away his lack of military service, but the facts are clear. The physical problems under "football injury" or "damaged hearing" were nonexistent; Wayne himself never mentioned them.8 Others claim that Wayne was exempted from service due to his age (34) and family status. It is true that at the outbreak of World War II, Wayne was classified as 3-A (family deferment), but many of his contemporaries who signed up (such as Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and Ronald Reagan) were older than him with families of their own. Gene Autry, who was also Wayne's age, gave an interview in 1942 that chastised Wayne for his refusal to enlist and provide an example for younger actors in Hollywood:
I think the He-men in the movies belong in the Army, Marine, Navy or Air Corps. All of these He-men in the movies realize that right now is the time to get into the service. Every movie cowboy ought to devote time to the Army winning, or to helping win, until the war is over-the same as any other American citizen. The Army needs all the young men it can get, and if I can set a good example for the young men I'll be mighty proud.9
As the war dragged on and Wayne's affair with Esperanza Baur alienated him from his family, Wayne's family deferment status appeared to be the first of many attempts to stave off the overwhelming pressure to enlist.10 During the early years of the war, his excuses ranged from mundane to ridiculous: he once claimed that Herb Yates (the head of Republic Pictures) threatened him with a lawsuit if he walked away from his contract, despite the fact that no such thing ever happened to any actor, director, or cameraman throughout the entire war.11 In 1944, Wayne was reclassified as 1-A (draft eligible), but his lawyers convinced the draft board to change his status to 2-A (deferred for reasons national interest). He remained 2-A until the war's end.

The war hero myth associated with John Wayne did not emerge until a period of time after the war. He did not land a leading role in a war movie until Sands of Iwo Jima, released five years after the war's end. Wayne had many run-ins with servicemen during the war over his failure to serve. One memorable occurrence was recounted in the New York Times Magazine by William Manchester, who was recovering from wounds in the Aiea Naval Hospital in Hawaii:
One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film, the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit-and 10-gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, 'Hi ya, guys!' He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing. This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren't going to listen to him.12
In some ways, John Wayne's ultrapatriotism during Korea and Vietnam is the ultimate of ironies: the same hero of the war movies who urged men to sign up and serve (and criticized them for being "soft" if they didn't) evaded military service for the entirety of World War II. Perhaps if Wayne had seen the carnage of war firsthand, he might not have been so quick to encourage young Americans to commit to Korea and Vietnam. As a new generation of moviegoers went to see Sands of Iwo Jima, Flying Leathernecks, and The Longest Day, the images of John Wayne winning World War II solidified the John Wayne myth. The "fake machismo" vilified by William Manchester's generation gave way to the venerated cowboy-soldier hero for the sons of World War II. In the wake of these films, the line between John Wayne the man and the heroes he portrayed became blurred.

The most poignant manifestation of the John Wayne myth appears in The Green Berets. Wayne codirected The Green Berets with Ray Kellogg, and his heavy influence can be seen throughout the film. The favorable public reception of the film, which was largely panned by critics, shows how insidious and pervasive the myth was at the time of the film's release in 1968.

Although the film was roundly dismissed by critics for its blind patriotism and campy dialogue, The Green Berets was Warner Brother's second highest grossing film of 1968 (its 21 million dollar box office take was eclipsed by Steve McQueen's 42 million dollar smash hit Bullitt).13 For the average viewer, the film's ridiculous elements took a backseat to the all-too-familiar image of John Wayne single-handedly winning the war, only this time the war was in Vietnam. As Garry Wills notes, "Wayne was fighting World War II again, the only way he ever did, in make-believe; and that make-believe was a memory of American greatness that many still wanted to live by."14

The Green Berets was the only Vietnam War film produced during the war. The highly charged political atmosphere surrounding the war coupled with the fact that no clear majority of Americans was either for or against the war risked alienating many potential moviegoers. Films like Oliver!, Bullitt, and The Odd Couple were far safer investments than a contemporary picture set in Vietnam. If the studios were going to make any film dealing with Vietnam, it would have to meet two criteria. First, it would require a star with enough box office power to bring in viewers. Second, it would have to make a definitive political statement about Vietnam.15 Neither pro- nor anti-war moviegoers would tolerate a film that appeared wishy-washy on the subject.

In the end, the only film that met the two criteria was The Green Berets. The movie was made for the explicit purpose of demonstrating the reasons for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.16 And although most critics rejected the message of the film, moviegoers were drawn to it by John Wayne's screen persona.17 Wayne's hyperpatriotism permeates The Green Berets, and the film's rejection of reality in its plot and portrayal of various characters further illustrates the John Wayne myth.

The Green Berets opens with a press conference at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. During the sequence, one sergeant defines the rationale behind U.S. involvement in Vietnam:
As soldiers we can understand killing in the military. But the extermination of the civilian leadership, the intentional murder of innocent women and children-if this same thing happened here in the United States, every mayor in every city would be murdered, every teacher that you've ever known would be tortured and killed . . . every professor you ever heard of . . . would be tortured and killed. They need us and they want us.18
The reporter, George Beckworth, argues that the Vietnam War is a civil war, and the Vietnamese should fight their own fight. Sergeant Muldoon responds by displaying a "Communist Chinese K-50," a "Communist Soviet SKS," and "Communist Czechoslovakian ammunition" to the crowd of reporters. Vietnam, Muldoon argues, is about Communist domination of the world. Here John Wayne provides one of the biggest myths proffered by the film: that the United States has a vested interest in Vietnam as a battleground in the Cold War fight against communism. In this respect, The Green Berets was little more than a throwback to the ideologically driven war films that John Wayne made throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The John Wayne myth is merely extended to the geography of Vietnam; the politics and ideology of the war remain the same.

The film does little in the way of character development for any of the officers. The officers in The Green Berets are competent decision-makers. To a man, they are loved and respected by their men. The non-commissioned officers are gruff but have a soft spot for their men. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in Sergeant Muldoon, a stock "Sarge" easily ripped from any World War II film. Although Muldoon is constantly bickering with Peterson, he retains a kinship with the scavenger and respects his abilities.

Similarly, the cast of infantrymen is seemingly lifted from any of Wayne's earlier war pictures. The soldiers are professional, courteous, respect the officers, and have no vices (in stark contrast to the gambling, womanizing, alcohol-guzzling North Vietmanese Army soldiers depicted in the film). The enlisted men seem strangely homogenous, from the Nordic übermensch lecturers at the beginning of the film to the medic who gives aid to the civilian population. (As we will observe, Stone presents the viewer with a far different image of a platoon. In a tracking shot through the barracks, the viewer sees his platoon as comprised of different men from all walks of life.)

Wayne thus continues the myth from his earlier war films of a competent officer corps with no friction among the officers, non-commissioned officers, or the enlisted men. This myth seems all the more ridiculous when one considers the number of 'fragging' incidents in Vietnam and the morale level when The Green Berets was released in 1968. Fragging (the intentional killing or wounding of an officer by his men) was officially cited in a 1971 report for 585 American deaths in Vietnam, although some believe the number is four times higher.19 Similarly, the depiction of every enlisted man as professional, obedient, and almost pious seems more a throwback to the World War II film than a realistic attempt to portray the struggles faced by the infantryman in Vietnam.

The Green Berets presents a number of inaccuracies with the intent to bolster the myth of John Wayne or portray Vietnam in an unrealistic way. Many critics have written about the historical inaccuracies of The Green Berets, but the academic questions of realistic equipment or accurate terrain are outside the realm of this discussion. What is important are the intentional inaccuracies that feed John Wayne's politics and the John Wayne myth. The Green Berets makes Vietnam appear to be a Gunga Din-esque adventure, a far cry from the realities of war. The John Wayne myth presented a clear-cut battle between good and evil, Western Democracy versus Eastern Communism. Vietnam was World War II all over again, and young men everywhere had an obligation to join the fight. The fact that John Wayne had never been in combat no longer registered with the throng of fans that flocked to see The Green Berets, for many of them were too young to remember World War II at all. John Wayne presented Vietnam as World War II by extension, and once again he was the man to single-handedly win the war.

One person who grew up watching John Wayne movies was Oliver Stone. Like so many other young men, Stone was heavily influenced by war movies and the familiar mythologies manifested in them. The John Wayne myth was particularly appealing. "I believed in the John Wayne image of America," he said in a 1988 interview.20 It is not surprising, then, that Stone decided to enlist in the infantry in 1967:
My father was a Republican, and he taught me that it was a good war because the Communists were the bad guys and we had to fight them. And then there was the romanticism of the Second World War as it appeared in the films we mentioned. Obviously, the reality was very different.21
As Stone explains, the romanticism of the John Wayne myth was one factor that compelled him to serve. The other factor was ideology. As this essay has discussed, Wayne's political ideology fed back into his on-screen image and was intimately intertwined with the John Wayne myth. The reality that Stone experienced in Vietnam was far different than any John Wayne movie he saw, and he struggled for years to make his reality into a film. When he finally did, Platoon presented a countermyth to The Green Berets and inexorably altered the landscape of the American war movie.

Oliver Stone is one of the most admired and hated filmmakers in the history of American cinema. Throughout his prolific career, Stone has challenged audiences and critics with violent images and controversial stories. His films are often imbued with a sense of countermyth, in which Stone depicts an alternative to a generally accepted viewpoint of a particular occasion.22 It is important to note that Stone has rarely advocated a Rashomon-style interpretation of a particular event; rather, his deconstruction often complements or modifies the predominant perspective. This factor often makes Stone's films uncomfortable to watch: he acknowledges the viewer's perceptions and attempts to destroy those perceptions by shifting focus to an alternative frame of reference. Although the most obvious instances of this aspect of Stone's films can be seen in JFK, Nixon, and Salvador, he uses the same techniques in his Vietnam films Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth.

Oliver Stone was born in 1946 to an investment adviser and a French war bride. He had a privileged upbringing, going to a top prep school and spending summers in France with his mother's family.23 He dropped out of Yale University after only one semester and went to Saigon to teach English. He soon became bored and joined the merchant marines before making his way back to New York. Urged by his father, Stone went back to Yale. He dropped out midsemester to enlist in the United States Army in 1967.24 He was assigned to the Air Cavalry, where he spent the first part of his time in a Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon. It was during this time that he met the sergeant who would become Elias in Platoon. After receiving a Bronze Star, Stone was transferred to another outfit where he would meet the Barnes character. Stone ended his Vietnam tour at the end of 1968 and came home a different man. He no longer accepted the blind patriotism of his father or the word of the government that sent him to Vietnam. He rejected his elite upbringing and embraced the drugs and music of popular culture. He realized that "combat is totally random. Life is a matter of luck or destiny, take your pick…I was saved for a reason…to write about the experience, maybe. To make a movie about it."25

After returning from Vietnam, Stone had a brush with the law in Mexico. He returned to New York and enrolled at New York University under the G.I. Bill. Under the tutelage of Martin Scorcese, Stone blossomed as a filmmaker. He penned the screenplay for Platoon after graduation. Even though Stone won an Academy Award for writing Midnight Express in 1978, his script for Platoon sat on the shelf until Stone was able to secure funding from a British company in 1985. The story of his combat experiences in Vietnam, Platoon would be his most personal film.

Stone's Vietnam experiences were the most significant of his life, and the influence of Vietnam can be seen in virtually all of his films. The young man that grew up watching John Wayne win World War II was disillusioned by his time in Vietnam. His lead characters are often similarly idealistic but disillusioned by a reality that does not live up to their hopes. This idea is reflected in Platoon's Chris Taylor, who is Stone's alter ego in the film. Some critics maintain that the "lost innocence" motif is flawed and that America was never innocent. Stone's argument would be that Americans perceived they were innocent, and in his case, that innocence was destroyed by Vietnam.

Stone had a vested interested in making Platoon: he was disappointed with the lack of films that dealt with the average infantrymen's experience in Vietnam. The few films that did deal with the subject were woefully inadequate, as Stone noted in a 1981 interview:
They're doing the mythic stuff about the war-Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter-but they haven't done a reality movie. Go Tell The Spartans was awful, a complete lie, worse than any of John Wayne's war movies. And A Rumor of War! They ought to execute the guy who made that one. I spent sixteen months in the jungle, and when I see crap like that on TV passed off as the truth to the American public I get enraged.26
Platoon redefined the war movie genre in general, and the Vietnam War movie in particular. It discarded the ever-present sense of patriotism in previous war films. Self-sacrifice for ideals such as freedom or liberty is a common motif in World War II films, and Stone destroyed that idea entirely. In Platoon, Stone tells the audience that the only thing the average grunt is willing to die for is the buddy next to him. This concept has been illustrated in scores of war films since Platoon,27 but Stone takes it one step farther: heroism for Stone is a momentary lapse of good judgment. Platoon's view of courage under fire is a far cry from the flag-raising heroics of Mike Kirby as depicted in The Green Berets.

Platoon can be logically deconstructed into two distinct but interwoven elements. First, the film is a realistic portrayal of the American G.I.'s experience during Vietnam, a portrayal often cited for its realism and attention to detail in terms of period vernacular, music, costumes, and military hardware. Many critics and viewers have considered it to be a definitive look at the difficulties faced by American infantrymen in Vietnam. Second, Platoon is a melodrama that centers on the mythic struggle between Chris Taylor, Sergeant Barnes, and Sergeant Elias. Stone's films are often informed by a sense of the mythological, and this can be seen in the "two fathers" motif in Platoon. Stone uses the civil war element in Platoon to create a more significant mythic struggle between Barnes and Elias. In an interview, Stone likens the two characters to actual mythological figures:
I was thrown into a war, just a kid from New York, and suddenly everything I had read in Homer was coming true. I was literally with warriors. Barnes was Achilles, a truly great warrior, Elias was Hector, and I was with them in another world. What I wanted to convey to Charlie was my sense of innocence that changes as the movie develops. That's the key to the movie.28
Stone's comment illustrates the rationale behind the Barnes-Elias storyline. In essence, Stone uses traditional mythology (Achilles and Hector) to give the viewer a frame of reference to understand an otherworldly setting (a U.S. combat platoon in Vietnam). The most significant element in the film is Chris Taylor's loss of innocence, and Oliver Stone uses the struggle between two mythological figures to illustrate his disillusionment. Peripheral characters and storylines are far more subtle, but the underlying mythological structure is still there. Instead of applying ancient mythologies as in the Barnes-Elias plot, Stone attacks contemporary myths established in the war film genre. In doing so, he creates a countermyth, or alternate reality.

Since its release in 1986, Platoon has been attacked by some critics for its heavy-handed treatment of the conflict between Barnes and Elias.29 The critics argue that Platoon is essentially a rehash of The Green Berets, with "good" Elias substituting for America and "bad" Barnes for the enemy. In the end, the clear-cut battle oversimplifies and consequently adds nothing to the understanding of the war in Vietnam.30 This analysis is incorrect. The characters of Barnes and Elias are more complex than the "good" and "bad" labels that are sometimes attached to them, and the revenge-killing resolution of the film is far more ambiguous. Both men are professional soldiers, and both men want to win the war. Stone describes the real Barnes as being a "good soldier who had his men's trust" but was obsessed with the war.31 Barnes is more of a tragic figure than an evil one; this is even expressed by Chris before the platoon decimates a village:
The village, which had stood for maybe a thousand years, didn't know we were coming that day. If they had they would have run . . . Barnes was at the eye of our rage-and through him, our Captain Ahab-we would set things right again. That day we loved him.
Their Captain Ahab is a man that, as Rhah explains to the others, "ain't meant to die . . . the only one that can kill Barnes is Barnes." In the end, the rifle is in Chris' hands, but Barnes tells him to pull the trigger. The revenge-killing, as many critics call it, seems more like a mercy killing. Taylor releases Barnes' tortured soul and frees him from himself. The "two fathers" motif therefore loses its good-versus-evil interpretation for a more tragic outcome. Good does not triumph over evil, for Chris loses both of his fathers. The struggles within the platoon, between Barnes and Elias, and inside Chris further illustrate the lost innocence of the young men who went to Vietnam expecting a different reality.

Most war films, and The Green Berets specifically, capitalize on the theme of comradeship. John Wayne's mythic portrayal of Vietnam can be considered a ground-level film in the same vein as The Longest Day or any of a host of World War II films: an ensemble cast of soldiers finds that victory is possible through teamwork and friendship. The unity that emerges between soldiers under fire has been studied extensively and is defined by one scholar as "the feeling of belonging that permits the soldier to identify his life with the lives of his fellow soldiers . . . it is comradeship, perhaps more than anything else, that fills the emptiness that war often creates."32

On the subject of comradeship, Oliver Stone presents a far different picture in Platoon than is seen in The Green Berets. The oft-invoked images of a young soldier being taken under the wing of a caring sergeant and taught how to survive are shattered by Stone's reality of isolation as a replacement grunt. Stone's perceptions can be seen on two levels. First, when Chris Taylor arrives in Vietnam he finds it very difficult to make friends. He reflects on his predicament in the film's opening voiceover:
It's scary 'cause nobody tells me how to do anything 'cause I'm new and nobody cares about the new guys, they don't even want to know your name. The unwritten rule is a new guy's life isn't worth as much 'cause he hasn't put his time in yet-and they say if you're gonna get killed in the Nam it's better to get it in the first few weeks, the logic being: you don't suffer that much.33
This mirrors the experiences of many replacements in Vietnam who arrived to fill the spots vacated by soldiers rotating back or killed. Stone was no different, as he described in a 1987 interview:
We were all shipped in at different times as replacement troops. It was not like the old war movies. I arrived in September of 1967 and when I left in January of 1968, out of the original 120 men in the company, I recognized maybe 10 faces. Some of them were dead; some of them were wounded; some had been shipped back or replaced.34
Chris Taylor eventually does make friends, and only then does Stone present the viewer with arguably the most important theme in Platoon. Contrary to the images so often portrayed in war films, Chris sees that there are deep fissures within the outfit. Although he has fit in with a particular group, the platoon itself is fragmented and infighting is rampant. The sense that the outfit is split in two comes directly after Chris is initially accepted into Elias' group: the so-called 'heads are all in an underground bunker smoking weed while the other half of the platoon drinks in a hootch.35

Although the division seems fairly innocuous at first, it soon becomes apparent that the rift in the platoon runs much deeper. It is centralized around loyalties to Barnes and Elias. Both men are professional soldiers but utilize different approaches to warfare. The situation reaches a boiling point in the village. Barnes executes a Vietnamese civilian, and a fight with Elias quickly ensues. The subsequent scenes show what Chris calls "a civil war in the platoon. Half of the men with Elias, half with Barnes." The sense of comradeship that Chris gains with the 'heads quickly gives way to a far more divisive break within the platoon itself. In this way, Oliver Stone breaks the conventions displayed in The Green Berets and presents his view of comradeship among infantrymen in Vietnam as being cliquish and isolated.

Platoon similarly shatters the concept of bravery, another genre staple presented in The Green Berets. Once again, Stone's personal experiences and views on the subject are shown in the film. Stone was awarded the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Clusters in 1967 for an act of valor performed after a morning of smoking dope.36 He cavalierly dismisses his actions as "no big deal," a sentiment echoed in Platoon by King: "Just 'member take it easy now, don't think too much, don't be a fool, no such thing as a coward out here; it don't mean nuthin'."37 In Platoon, the long-standing images of heroism in combat give way to replacements whose only concern is going home. The absence of comradeship discussed above implies that "sacrifice, which author Grey imbeds in comradeship, becomes a meaningless and useless act. It is foolhardy rather than life giving."38

Stone has echoed this sentiment on a number of occasions, as he did in 1988: "Everybody was counting days. I remember arriving-and I had exactly 360 days to go. I was the last guy on the totem pole. Survival, period. Forget about military heroism and all that stuff you saw in the movies."39

Whereas The Green Berets depicts noncommissioned officers as professional leaders who care for their men, Platoon provided a distinct dichotomy. Sergeant Elias, the "good" sergeant, is given an almost ethereal quality, whereas Sergeant Barnes is much more self-serving. Although Barnes and Elias take on almost mythic qualities in Platoon, their characters are based in reality, an important element in the film. Oliver Stone described the two men in 1987:
I knew the two sergeants in the different units. Sergeant Barnes was wounded in the face. He was a good soldier who had his men's trust. But he had one huge failing: his murderous obsession with the Vietnamese. He hated them all, men, women, and children. Sergeant Elias was almost exactly the opposite: he was an anti-racist who looked like the rock star, Jim Morrison-a handsome man, well-dressed, loved by his troops.40
It is apparent from watching the film that both Barnes and Elias contain qualities that are not present in the average "Sarge" character from any World War II film, and they are a far cry from Sergeant Muldoon in The Green Berets. Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe deliver stunning Oscar-nominated portrayals of Barnes and Elias, and their performances are rooted in the reality of Oliver Stone's experiences in Vietnam. This lends an air of authenticity to the film that makes the "two fathers" motif more powerful.

It is tempting to view Barnes and Elias in terms of good and bad, but enough complexities exist within the characters to create Stone's countermyth to the traditional depiction of Sergeant Muldoon. Both men are professional soldiers but are motivated by different rationales. In essence, Barnes and Elias are two sides of the same coin.

Platoon echoes a number of elements present in The Green Berets. Through these elements Stone constructs a peripheral response to the John Wayne myth. Consider the arrival of the outfit in Vietnam. Colonel Kirby and his men step off their C-130 onto a clean tarmac to meet the grinning Colonel Morgan, who greets them with a "Welcome to Da Nang!" This is a far cry from the experiences of Oliver Stone depicts in Platoon: there, Chris Taylor leaves the C-130 onto a dusty landing strip. He and his fellow recruits see bodybags lined up waiting to go home and are met by a master sergeant with "All right you cheese-dicks, welcome to the Nam! Get moving!" Chris Taylor (and Oliver Stone, by extension), who grew up watching John Wayne win World War II, quickly learned that the John Wayne myth was just that-a myth.

Another memorable image from The Green Berets is that of the destroyed Montagnard village. The U.S. soldiers arrive at the village to meet with the chief, only to find the Viet Cong have raped and murdered its inhabitants and burned the village down. At this point Beckworth, who had befriended one of the murdered village children, sees a reason for the United States to be involved in Vietnam. Kirby echoes his sentiments by saying that it is "pretty hard to talk to people about this country until they've come over here and seen it." Oliver Stone would probably agree and ask Wayne how long he spent in country before making The Green Berets.

George Beckworth is the only character in The Green Berets with a character arc, whose sole purpose is showing America why it should be in Vietnam. In many ways, he is an excellent foil for Platoon's Chris Taylor. At the beginning of the film, Beckworth tells Kirby that he doesn't think the United States should be involved in Vietnam. By the end of the film, he has decided to join the Army and serve in Vietnam. Chris Taylor, by contrast, goes to Vietnam an idealist and leaves disillusioned.

In the end, Platoon presents the viewer with one reality of the Vietnam War. As Stone once said, it is "a white infantry boy's view of the war."41 Like Oliver Stone, Chris Taylor is a man who grew up watching John Wayne movies and believing in the John Wayne myth exemplified by The Green Berets. In essence, the gung-ho patriotism in The Green Berets is Oliver Stone before going to Vietnam, Platoon presents us with the disillusionment he experienced after the war.

The images presented in The Green Berets are the embodiment of the John Wayne myth. The John Wayne construct that had been carefully created in earlier films emerged again on the screen to fight for American ideals. As Katherine Kinney notes,
The Green Berets can be seen as the final act in Wayne's personal audition to play the mythic embodiment of the American ideologies that went to Vietnam: anticommunism, racism, and imperialism masked by the rhetoric of manifest destiny and mission.42
In 1986, nearly two decades later, Oliver Stone responded to the mythology of The Green Berets with Platoon, an autobiographical account of his experiences as an American G.I. in Vietnam. Stone took familiar images from previous war films and twisted them to illustrate the realities he faced in Vietnam. In doing so, Platoon creates its own myths:
Certainly the millions of people who made Platoon an extraordinarily popular film prefer the reconciliation of history with myth. The film transforms memory into myth.43
The Green Berets presented Americans with a mythic image that was familiar and comforting: John Wayne won the Vietnam War just as he had won World War II. Platoon confronted Americans with a twisted mythic landscape; it was the Vietnam War that only a combat infantryman who had been in Vietnam could convey. Both films testify to the realities and myths behind them. In The Green Berets, we see a man created by the myths of war films. Platoon responds with a complex interweaving of its own countermyths with the harsh realities of war. In the final analysis, two constructs are left: a man of action created by a film, and a film created by a man of action.

Works Cited

Cardullo, Bert. "Viet Nam Revisited." The Hudson Review 40, no. 3 (Fall 1987): pp. 458-464.

Carlson, Michael. Oliver Stone. North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2002.

Ciment, Michael. "Interview With Oliver Stone." In Oliver Stone Interviews, ed. Charles L. P. Silet, pp. 39-49. Jackson: University Press, 2001.

Cooper, Marc. "Playboy Interviews Oliver Stone." In Oliver Stone Interviews, ed. Charles L. P. Silet, pp. 60-90. Jackson: University Press, 2001.

Crowdus, Gary. "Platoon," Cineaste 21, no. 4 (Fall 1995), pp. 52-53.

Denisoff, R. Serge. "Fighting Prophesy with Napalm: 'The Ballad of the Green Berets'." Journal of American Culture 13, no. 1 (Spring 1990): pp. 81-94.

Kinney, Judy Lee. "Gardens of Stone, Platoon, and Hamburger Hill: Rituals of Remembrance." In Inventing Vietnam, ed. Michael Anderegg, pp. 153-165. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Kinney, Katherine. Friendly Fire: American Images of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Large, Ron. "Platoon: Fear, Loathing, and Salvation in Vietnam." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 1, no. 2 (March 1990): pp. 116-123.

Lichty, Lawrence, and Raymond Carroll. "Fragments of War: Platoon." Chapter in American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, eds. John E. O'Connor, and Martin A. Jackson, pp. 273-287. New York: Continuum, 1988.

Manchester, William, "The Bloodiest Battle of All." New York Times Magazine, 14 June 1987, p. 84.

Martin, Bob. "Oliver Stone and The Hand." In Oliver Stone Interviews, ed. Charles L. P. Silet, pp. 3-9. Jackson: University Press, 2001.

McGilligan, Pat. "Point Man." In Oliver Stone Interviews, ed. Charles L. P. Silet, pp. 14-38. Jackson: University Press, 2001.

The Numbers: Movies Released in 1968. Available from <>. [10 Nov 2002].

Ringnalda, Donald. "Unlearning to Remember Vietnam." Chapter in America Rediscovered, eds. Owen W Gilman, Jr., and Lorrie Smith, pp. 64-73. New York: Garland, 1990.

Schneider, Tassilo. "From Cynisism to Self-Pity: Apocalypse Now and Platoon." Cinefocus 1, no. 2 (Fall 1990): pp. 49-59.

Smith, Gavin. "The Dark Side." In Oliver Stone Interviews, ed. Charles L. P. Silet, pp. 158-171. Jackson: University Press, 2001.

Spark, Asasdair, "The Soldier at the Heart of the War: The Myth of the Green Beret in the Popular Culture of the Vietnam Era," Journal of American Studies 18, no. 1 (April 1984), p. 29-48.

Stone, Oliver. Platoon. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1986.

Wayne, John. The Green Berets. Warner Brothers, 1968.

Wills, Garry. John Wayne's America. New York: Touchstone, 1998.

End Notes

[1] Garry Wills, John Wayne's America (New York: Touchstone, 1998), 109.

[2] Oliver Stone, Platoon, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 120 min., 1986.

[3] Lawrence Lichty and Raymond Carroll, “Fragments of War: Platoon,” in American History/American Film, eds. John O'Connor and Martin Jackson (Continuum: New York, 1988), 284.

[4] Wills, 15.

[5] Ibid., 31.

[6] Ibid., 129.

[7] Ibid., 107.

[8] Ibid., 107.

[9] Ray Merlock, “Gene Autry and the Coming of Civilization,” Chapter in Shooting Stars, ed. McDonald, Archie (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 102-103.

[10] Wills, 108.

[11] Ibid., 109.

[12] William Manchester, “The Bloodiest Battle of All,” New York Times Magazine (14 June 1987), 84.

[13] “The Numbers: Movies Released in 1968,”, accessed 10 Nov. 2002.

[14] Wills, 223.

[15] Asasdair Spark, “The Soldier at the Heart of the War: The Myth of the Green Beret in the Popular Culture of the Vietnam Era,” Journal of American Studies, v. 18, no. 1 (April 1984), 36.

[16] Ibid., 36.

[17] Ibid., 36.

[18] John Wayne and Ray Kellogg, The Green Berets, Warner Brothers, 141 min., 1968.

[19] Michael Ciment, “Interview with Oliver Stone,” 1987 Interview in Oliver Stone Interviews (Jackson: University Press, 2001), 43.

[20] Marc Cooper, “Playboy Interview: Oliver Stone,” 1988 Interview in Oliver Stone Interviews (Jackson: University Press, 2001), 61.

[21] Ciment, 41.

[22] Gavin Smith, “The Dark Side,” 1991 Interview in Oliver Stone Interviews (Jackson: University Press, 2001), 164.

[23] Michael Carlson, Oliver Stone (Trafalgar Square: North Pomfret, 2002), 24.

[24] Ibid., 25.

[25] Ibid., 26.

[26] Bob Martin, “Oliver Stone and The Hand,” 1981 Interview in Oliver Stone Interviews (Jackson: University Press, 2001), 6.

[27] A contemporary example that explicitly makes this connection is Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (2001), in which 'Hoot' tells another character that “it's about the men next to you.”

[28] Pat McGilligan, “Point Man,” 1987 Interview in Oliver Stone Interviews (Jackson: University Press, 2001), 36.

[29] Bert Cardullo argues that the melodramatic aspects of the Barnes versus Elias conflict oversimplify the complexities of Vietnam and devalue Platoon as a film in “Viet Nam Revisited,” The Hudson Review, v. 40 no. 3 (1987), 459.

[30] Tasilo Schneider provides a more contemporary view that says the film ultimately says nothing about the Vietnam experience in “From Cynicism to Self-Pity: Apocalypse Now and Platoon,” Cinefocus, v. 1, no. 2, (Fall 1990), 52.

[31] Ciment, 43.

[32] Ron Large, “Platoon: Fear, Loathing, and Salvation in Vietnam,” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, v. 1, no. 2 (March 1990), 118.

[33] Platoon.

[34] McGilligan, 35.

[35] Ron Large argued that the initial difficulties for Chris are centered on his socioeconomic and educational background, but the film itself portrays them as a generic experience for replacement grunts (116-123).

[36] Cooper, 73.

[37] Platoon.

[38] Large, 119.

[39] Cooper, 67.

[40] Ciment, 43.

[41] Gary Crowdus, “Platoon,” Cineaste, v. 21, no. 4 (Fall 1995), 52.

[42] Katherine Kinney, Friendly Fire: American Images of the Vietnam War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 15.

[43] Judy Lee Kinney, “Gardens of Stone, Platoon, and Hamburger Hill: Rituals of Remembrance,” in Inventing Vietnam, ed. Michael Anderegg (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 163-164.