Before it won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1986, Platoon made waves simply by doing something new: showing the Vietnam War from the perspective of someone who fought in it. Oliver Stone was an infantryman for 14 months in 1967 and 1968, and he was determined to portray the experience accurately in what would be the first Vietnam film made by a Vietnam veteran. Coming 11 years after the official end of the war, Platoon opened a conversation between veterans and civilians that had previously been too painful to have. It’s also a fine piece of filmmaking. Here are a dozen facts to shed some light on it.
1. OLIVER STONE WAS SO TIRED ON THE SET THAT HE STARTED MAKING CRAZY ACCUSATIONS.
Stone has been described as difficult to work with even under the best of circumstances, and the grueling Platoon shoot—10 weeks in the miserable Philippine jungle—was in another category. He later recalled getting so sleep-deprived and paranoid that when he couldn’t find the footage from a particular scene, he accused his film editor, Claire Simpson, of hiding it. Simpson gently reassured him that no, she wasn’t deceiving him, and the reason he couldn’t find the footage was that he hadn’t shot it yet.
2. THEY USED IMPORTED DIRT.
Platoon was shot in the Philippines, which had the advantage of looking a lot like Vietnam without actually being in Vietnam. There was just one discrepancy: the Philippines lacked the red soil that Stone remembered from his days in ‘Nam. So dirt of the proper hue was trucked in for authenticity’s sake.
3. THAT SCENE WHERE EVERYBODY’S REALLY HIGH? EVERYBODY WAS REALLY HIGH.
Willem Dafoe said that to get into character for the sequence where the soldiers are lounging around the tent, smoking and drinking whatever they can get their hands on, he and the other actors got stoned ahead of time. They didn’t think their plan through very carefully, though. By the time they actually shot the scene, a few hours had passed, and everyone had come down. “They were just tired and useless,” Dafoe said.
4. THE SHOOT ALMOST GOT CANCELLED ON ACCOUNT OF REVOLUTION.
Sure, they thought. It’ll be easier to make a movie in the Philippines than in Vietnam, they thought. They would have been right if it weren’t for the fact that when they arrived, kleptocratic President Ferdinand Marcos was in the process of being tossed out of office. The country’s political instability threatened the production, but ended up only delaying it a week. Filming began two days after Marcos and his family vacated the premises. Stone said, “When the change came, we had to make new deals with the new military. You had to get a lot of permissions and bribe a new set of people.”
5. IT WAS THE FIRST TIME JOHNNY DEPP HAD EVER BEEN OUT OF THE COUNTRY.
He’s a world traveler who lives in France a lot of the time now, but in early 1986, the 22-year-old Depp had never left the U.S.
6. IT TOOK MORE THAN A DECADE TO GET THE FILM PRODUCED.
Stone wrote a screenplay based on his experiences in Vietnam as soon as he got back from the war, in 1969. (He sent a copy of it to Jim Morrison, hoping the Doors frontman would star in it.) By 1976, that draft morphed into what he was then calling The Platoon. Stone couldn’t find anyone willing to make the movie, though. The war was still too fresh in people’s minds; it would be another few years before films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter addressed it. And after that, studios had another excuse not to make Platoon: why bother, when Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter had already covered it?
7. SIDNEY LUMET ALMOST MADE THE MOVIE WITH AL PACINO.
Back in 1976, when Stone was trying to get his screenplay produced, he almost found a taker in Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network), who was going to cast Al Pacino in the Charlie Sheen role.
8. IT CHANGED THE WAY HOLLYWOOD LOOKED AT WAR.
A much-decorated retired Marine named Dale Dye, who loved war movies but was disappointed by their failure to convey the mental and emotional realities of combat, offered Stone his services as an advisor. Dye had been turned down by other filmmakers, who felt the way Hollywood had been doing it—you hire a consultant to make sure the medals, guns, and uniforms are accurate, and you don’t worry about the less tangible details—seemed to be working just fine. (Dye said: “They had been making zillions of dollars making war films for decades, and here was some clown coming in to tell them they had a better mousetrap? Go away.”) But Dye’s vision matched Stone’s, and the psychological authenticity they created together was a major factor in Platoon’s success. For the first time, Vietnam veterans were seeing their experiences portrayed realistically. Dye has since become the foremost military consultant in Hollywood, advising (and occasionally acting in) everything from Saving Private Ryan to the Medal of Honor video games.
9. THE CAST SPENT TWO WEEKS IN A SIMULATED BOOT CAMP.
One of Dye’s ideas was to put the actors through the closest thing to a real boot camp that he could without killing them. They spent two weeks as soldiers in the Philippine jungle, digging holes to live in, eating from ration cans, carrying real weight, and staying in character. There were no showers or toilets, and everyone had to rotate on night watch. “It’s usually around day two or day three [the actors] realize playtime is over and that this guy is serious,” he recalled.
10. STONE WAS SO SURPRISED BY THE FILM’S SUCCESS THAT HE DROVE PAST THEATERS WHERE IT WAS PLAYING TO SEE FOR HIMSELF.
Though he’d been lauded as a screenwriter for Midnight Express and Scarface, Stone’s previous directorial efforts—The Hand (1981) and Salvador (1986, 10 months before Platoon)—had been flops. That Platoon, which he’d been trying to make for a decade and which seemed cursed, should be a hit caught him totally off-guard. Elizabeth Cox, his wife at the time, told an interviewer that when they’d drive around L.A., Stone would go out of his way to see it with his own eyes. “He’ll stand outside the theater, listen to remarks,” she said. “He’s amazed that people like it. He’s cute.”
11. CHARLIE SHEEN ALMOST LOST THE LEAD ROLE TO HIS OWN BROTHER.
Sheen auditioned during one of Stone’s earlier, unsuccessful attempts to get the movie made, and didn’t impress him. The guy Stone really liked was Sheen’s older brother, Emilio Estevez. But financing fell through and the film was shelved. By the time Sheen auditioned again a few years later, he had grown into the role. “This time I knew in 10 minutes he was right,” said Stone.
12. IT WAS BANNED IN VIETNAM (BUT PEOPLE SAW IT ANYWAY).
Unsurprisingly, the government didn’t care for the film’s unflattering portrayal of the Viet Cong, and wouldn’t let it play there. But in March 1988, the Vietnam News Agency reported that “tens of thousands” of people were watching it on video in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), without noting how the film had been obtained. It was the first American film about the Vietnam War to play in that city.
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