What could possibly make the police action in Vietnam more unpalatable? How about the kidnap, repeated rape, and eventual murder of an innocent Vietnamese girl? Inspired by “the incident on hill 192,” Brian De Palma’s great film Casualties of War dramatizes one such stomach-churning story.

PFC Erikkson (Michael J. Fox) is a bright-eyed rookie under the command of Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn), a quietly deranged Captain Queeg type who seems all well and good until he discovers his squad can’t go into town to take advantage of the abundant prostitutes because it’s the V.C.’s turn. Enraged, Meserve gathers the squad (which includes well-known faces like John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo in early roles) and announces his plans to kidnap a villager girl to use as their life-sized sex doll. This makes Erikkson extremely uncomfortable, especially when he realizes Hatcher (Reilly) and Clark (Don Harvey) are not just willing to obey Meserve’s directive — they’re sort of excited by it.

Diaz (Leguizamo) confesses his fears about this plan to Erikkson, and they agree to back each other, but when push comes to shove, he would rather be accepted by the group than be an outcast. Erikkson stands up for what’s right and makes the bold decision not to rape the girl when it’s not his “turn.” De Palma builds his legendary suspense out of Erikkson’s isolation from this group. When they’re forced to work together, it’s hard to tell if Erikkson can trust the others in the squad. In an especially harrowing sequence, he gets time alone with the girl and immediately frees her. Like a confused puppy, she keeps running back to him instead of fleeing — and, of course, Clark catches him. Unwilling to let her out of his sight, Clark drags her to a combat zone. However, she’s taken ill and can’t stop coughing. Afraid she’ll let the V.C. get the drop on them, Meserve orders Diaz to slit her throat.

When they get back to base camp, Erikkson tells everyone he possibly can about what happened, but nobody cares. Nobody wants to create an international incident, and nobody wants to take responsibility for Meserve’s increasing instability. The best Erikkson can get is a transfer to a different company. The second half of the film chronicles Erikkson’s dogged search for justice amid apathetic officers and a squad that literally wants him dead. Although it gets a tad too hung up on the procedural aspects of the story (especially in the third act), the film manages to remain surprising and suspenseful even in its quietest moments.

Although the film capitalizes on Fox’s youthful appearance and nice-guy persona, Fox doesn’t play Erikkson as a Dudley Do-Right type. He’s a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, moderately inept soldier. It just happens that he’s thrown into the sort of situation where there’s an obvious distinction between right and wrong, and Erikkson has the guts to stand up for the right side, no matter the consequences. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to know kidnapping, rape, and murder are wrong.

Whereas Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter attempt to portray the psychological tolls of war using their characters and situations to imply a broader context, De Palma attempts to portray those same tolls while sticking closely to the characters as actual people. They don’t exist as metaphoric constructs designed to symbolize personality archetypes. It’s not strictly an anti-war film, because unlike the other two films mentioned, it makes no effort to imply that war made Meserve and Clark what they are. The point, it seems, is that bad apples exist everywhere. The chaos of war just gives them an excuse to do the things they can’t get away with in times of peace. De Palma targets a certain personality type and insinuates that the military infrastructure does allow for these bad apples to remain hidden or ignored, but only because of badder apples that have risen through the ranks. When Erikkson confronts the relentlessly unpleasant Captain Hill (Dale Dye), he’s told to transfer to another company. When Erikkson refuses to give up, the military court metes out appropriate punishments. It all comes back to a few bad people, not a big bad military or a devastating war.

Great though they may be, a strong undercurrent of hyperbole runs through most Vietnam movies. Not this one. Here, we have characters who feel like real people. Nothing’s black-and-white, and the war (for once) is just a setting, not a playground for heady symbolism rooted more in artful fantasy than grim reality. Casualties of War may not be realistic, either, but its characters feel human-sized, full of idiosyncrasies and contradictions. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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