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CASUALTIES OF WAR

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, Don Harvey, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Thuy Thu Le
Director: Brian De Palma
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, French, Spanish & Portugese Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 114 Minutes
Release Date: December 11, 2001

“You probably like the army, don’t you Eriksson? I hate the army.”

“This ain’t the army, Sarge…this ain’t the army.”

Film ****

Following the success of The Untouchables, Brian De Palma had become hot property with many studios. For his next film, De Palma would tackle something you’d never expect him to talk about; the war in Vietnam and the horrendous effect it had on the youthful soldiers who took part in it. 

De Palma at first wanted to stray as far away from making any film about Vietnam for numerous reasons. It was near the dawn of a new decade, the 90s, and it seemed that so many films had covered the subject. Having admired such a film like Oliver Stone’s Platoon, he didn’t feel as if he had the right vision to make such a movie. That was suddenly changed when he came across David Rabe’s screenplay for Casualties of War, which covers a horrific incident within the Vietnam War that was first reported in The New Yorker magazine in 1969. It’s a good thing De Palma considered directing the movie, because his stylish genius work with the camera enhances the tension of this riveting and powerful account. In the realm of the war movie, Casualties of War is indeed a lost classic.

The story is captured from the point of view of Pvt. Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), who is the only solider in his platoon that seems carry any morals. The leader of the platoon is the aggressively intense Sgt. Meserve, played by a ferociously brilliant Sean Penn who disappears completely into the role for which the actor acquires a rough New York-ish accent that is thoroughly convincing. The story is told in flashback, with Meserve rescuing Eriksson from a near death incident in the trenches of the war. The centerpiece of the story is when Meserve takes his squad and kidnaps a young Viet Cong girl, and later orders all of the soldiers to force themselves on her. Eriksson immediately stands up to Meserve and tells him that he will not participate in the raping. Meserve then accuses him of being both a queer and a VC lover. Eriksson does not participate, but Meserve and the other four men throw themselves eagerly into the rape act.

And the madness doesn’t stop there. In a very intense moment in the film, the platoon find themselves in a much compromised position with their prisoner. The girl, battered to a bloody pulp, is viciously killed by Meserve, as her consistent cries for help threaten to give away the squad’s position to enemy VC groups. Eriksson tries to stop him, but is unable to as Meserve beats him up and leaves him for dead, but he is then soon rescued by a medic chopper.

The rest of the movie plays as sort of a cat and mouse game, and a very effective one at that, between Eriksson and Meserve’s men, who try to silence the young private in fear that he might say something to a superior officer, and that’s just what he plans to do. Eriksson intends to bring this incident out into the open, and Meserve to justice, even though two commanding officers inform him, in a scene that is stunningly effective, that military court martials are very lenient in most cases, and this case wouldn’t look any different. Eriksson is also warned that if convicted, the men may not serve a lengthy sentence.

Casualties of War is one of Brian De Palma’s true masterpieces. To be precise, this would rank in the director’s top five best films, which also includes Carlito’s Way, The Untouchables, Blow Out, and Mission Impossible. The film has many different touches of brilliance, including De Palma’s knockout directing, the consistently realistic and convincing performances from Fox and Penn, the power of David Rabe’s screenplay, and Stephen H. Burum’s stunning cinematography. Though some may not agree with me, this film is certainly in ranks of one of the best movies to be made about the Vietnam War.

Video ***1/2

First off…I am entirely grateful to Columbia Tri Star for finally getting this film to DVD. This is one movie I have anticipated for a long time to arrive on DVD, and I’m glad it’s finally here.

Columbia Tri Star surprised me thoroughly with how well they handled the transfer of this film. Every time a Brian De Palma movie comes to DVD, I don’t always expect a grand transfer, and coming from the same studio that released a disappointing transfer to De Palma’s Obsession earlier this year, my expectations were a bit skeptic. That wasn’t the case with Casualties of War, which looks terrific in this stunning transfer. About 95 percent of the movie is shot in the jungles and outskirts of Vietnam, all of which look outstanding, and vibrant with knockout colors. The only low point of the presentation is the transfer of a few scenes that take place in night, which come off a bit soft. Other than that, this is by far one of the best transfers I’ve seen of a De Palma film.

Audio ****

No casualties here, either. CTS has issued a tremendously impressive audio mix to this war movie, which like many of its kind, is frequent with scenes of combat action. This audio mix is so impressive that it ranks with the best recent transfer of any war movie I’ve heard, Apocalypse Now Redux. On this 5.1 presentation, the scenes of war come to life in a manner and way I have rarely heard in this format. The rousing score by Ennio Morricone comes to searing life as well, enhancing the power and effect of the film to an even greater extent. A purely jaw dropping DVD experience.

Features ***

Columbia Tri Star has included some neat extras for a disc issued at an affordable price. Featured are two documentaries, one titled “Eriksson’s War: A Conversation with Michael J. Fox”, and a featurette on the making of the film. Also included are some deleted scenes, and trailers for this movie and two other CTS releases, Birdy and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Summary:

If you have it in you to reflect on the Vietnam war through film, Casualties of War remains one of the most powerful movies to date about the horrific effects of the war on soldiers, in addition to being one of Brian De Palma’s best films.