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Casualties of War (Brian DePalma) 1989
I believe it was Francois Truffaut that claimed it’s impossible to make a truly anti-war film because in showing combat the director automatically glamorizes it when he attempts to make it exciting for your audience. I’m not certain that there’s any truth to that statement, but Brian DePalma’s extraordinary Vietnam-set morality drama Casualties of War is one of several films (along with Shame, The Red and the White, Come and See, and a few others) that I would offer as a counterargument to that assertion. After a proclamation that the events in the film are based in reality and a brief sequence that sets up an extended flashback Casualties opens with a battle sequence that initially feels miscalculated. In it, still-green Pvt. Eriksson (Michael J. Fox, in a superb performance) and his platoon are ambushed by some unseen Vietcong troops. Instead of focusing on the dynamics of the group as most war movies would, DePalma chooses to point his attention squarely on the plight of Eriksson, embroiling him in a suspense situation that feels as if it could have been drawn from one of the director’s many Hitchcock-influenced thrillers. This sort of suspense places the audience’s focus squarely with the protagonist. DePalma cuts occasionally to the other troops, but mostly the effect of those cuts is to only establish the danger that Eriksson is in and to show the audience how unlikely his rescue seems. The effect of this approach is off-putting at first because it confounds audience expectation of how such a scene “should” play out. It’s only in retrospect that it becomes apparent that the director’s intention was to establish that his film was a subjective look from his protagonist’s mind.
Because the source material that Casualties of War is based on is a biased account, DePalma’s technique makes a lot of sense. Using his camera to create non-naturalistic shots at key emotional moments throughout the film, the director acknowledges the inherent bias of his tale. We frequently see a close-up of Eriksson that stands almost outside of the action, which unfolds in the rest of the widescreen composition. Before long it becomes apparent that the movie is functioning as an emotionally controlled melodrama, with the sort of techniques most commonly attributed to directors like Douglas Sirk. Moments are heightened emotionally, but that’s because they would be heightened for the character. The ending seems almost absurdly overblown, until you consider its impact on Eriksson, and then, if anything, it seems underdone. The affecting way that the film demonstrates the innocent Eriksson carries more guilt than any of the guilty might be skewed, but it is not dishonest if it’s recognized as a sentiment coming from a slanted perspective. Because this brand of filmmaking is more common in Sirk’s or Bergman’s work than in Vietnam War flicks, it’s understandable that complaints would arise from viewers who haven’t keyed into what DePalma was doing, but there’s are no rules that say the camera cannot expressively reflect complex emotions in a war flick. Frankly, the attempt seems more admirable to me than the sensationalistic, and glorifying, alternative.
The incidents that lie at the center of Casualties clearly warp the psyche of Eriksson, and DePalma’s serious treatment of his predicament is one of the most compassionate moves in his career. Because of the narrow scope of this story, the movie’s statements about Vietnam feel a bit less all encompassing than they might have otherwise. That’s fortunate, perhaps, because the frustrated thesis offered up (summed up best when an exasperated Eriksson says, “I thought we were here to help these people.”) doesn’t seem as if could be easily applied to a national level, as evidenced by the inadequacy of the headline announcing President Nixon’s resignation featured in the first shot in the film. When that frustration is applied to Eriksson’s predicament, in which he continually is forced to contend with the dark side masculine intimidation, it becomes more convincing. The primal impulses of both man and war are what are being contested here, and in challenging them, DePalma makes his best case. The equation of sanctioned and unsanctioned barbarism in the climactic moments of Casualties is about as damning an indictment of the way that humanity justifies immoral acts during war as I’ve seen.
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