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USA 1989
Directed by
Brian De Palma
121 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Casualties Of War

Although Brian De Palma’s contribution to the Vietnam war picture catalogue does not have the in-your-face impact of Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) and is even flawed in realization at times (much as was the second half of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, 1987) it nevertheless is an emotionally forceful film.

Based on an article by Daniel Lang for The New Yorker about a squad of American soldiers court-martialled for the abduction, rape and murder of a young Vietnamese woman which later became a book, Casualties of War, it was adapted for the screen by playwright and Vietnam veteran, David Rabe.

An unlikely Michael J. Fox plays PFC Eriksson, a rookie who blows the whistle on his fellow grunts under the command of ringleader, Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn). Penn does an outstanding job of turning himself into a man consumed by rage and is ably assisted by Don Harvey, John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo in their respective typological roles. Fox, although working manfully with the character, is too boyishly squeaky-clean to be convincing as a grunt yet perhaps it is precisely his unshakeably middle class persona that is the secret to the film's success, allowing us to identify with him in a way we would not with a less appealing working class character. Equally, while at times the film feels unrealistic in describing the dynamics between the group, it is probably because De Palma refuses to allow the audience the cathartic thrills of the typical action film (of which he is himself a master) as Eriksson, anything but a conventional hero, wrestles with his conscience, that as a portrait of the madness of war, Casualities Of War ends up overcoming its formal limitations and carrying a significant emotional wallop.

The film was a commercial failure and does not have the reputation of contemporary efforts like Platoon (1986) or even Full Metal Jacket but it deserves to be better known.

FYI: There are 2 versions of the film doing the rounds, an "extended" version at 121m with a prologue and epilogue that show Eriksson years after his discharge and the soldiers he had helped to convict free, their sentences having been reduced, and a shorter 113m version that lacks these scenes and that ends on a far more reassuring note.




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