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07-29-2005, 09:44 AM
-Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

In keeping with my "Vietnam Film Festival" trilogy I have been running the last couple of nights, first with the Platoon - Special Edition DVD and then the Full Metal Jacket DVD, last night I concluded by re-visiting Brian DePalma's vision of the war based on a true incident known as Casualties of War.

This picture just has a different "feel" than the aforementioned titles, having most to do with the fact that it centers around a real incident that was first reported in The New Yorker in the late '60s rather than the war itself as the other films attempt to zero in on. DePalma's screen adaptation of this article that revolved around the rape of a Vietmenese girl during the war --- quite brutally --- at the hands of a group of American soldiers delves into questions of loyalty, honor, duty.....you name it. From first seeing this film theatrically during junior high school, I was hooked on it and have sat through multiple cable-taped VHS copies until I finally got my paws on the DVD version once being bitten by this home theater bug and the obsession known as DVD collecting. I used to rattle off lines of dialogue from this film with friends like it was nobody's business.....and I can still do it today.

I am not, however, in a sharp turn of typical events, going to give too many spoilers away on this one INCASE someone didnt see this and decides to rent it; while there are other Vietnam oriented films out there --- including Apocolypse Now and Born on the Fourth of July, I have always held a soft spot for three films exploring this military blunder and by now you should know what those are (hint: the already-reviewed titles and the one you're about to gaze upon now....)

DePalma was immediately interested in doing a motion picture adaptation of this article he read in The New Yorker which chronicled a most brutal rape which occured during the war, and the subsequent court martial and conviction of the men in the platoon responsible. The character which Michael J Fox portrays, "Erickson," was an actual real life character from the Marines who reported this mess first to military authorities. What followed was an investigation and prosecution ---- all in the midst of the chaos which was Vietnam. Let me explain a little better.

The film opens (after a brief onscreen explanation after the title credits that this was based on a true incident first reported in the magazine) with Michael J Fox on a train, drifting in and out of sleep.....when he notices an Asian girl sitting across from him a couple of rows down on the train. Her appearance reminds him very much of someone he knew from his past, and we get drawn into this immediately......as he drifts back to sleep and the film becomes a big dream of his character's experiences in Vietnam. As the "cherry" of his platoon, Erickson is exposed to brutal tactics used by his commanding officer Tony Maserve (Sean Penn) as well as the other men in his squad. This is made even more evident when the mens' sex glands go into overdrive as they are desperate to "get laid in town" one night they are off duty but because their access to prostitution is denied by the US government, Penn decides to take matters into his own hands and change the situation. His plan: to kidnap a girl from a village on one of their "humps" (hikes on foot patrol) and use her for a little "portable R&R" (as Penn calls it). While his whole platoon is in for it and up for it, Fox's character is not, and this is a struggle we see throughout the entire film.

Hence is the backbone for DePalma's Casualties of War; Fox is caught in a horrendous trap of being stuck with men who wish to brutally rape this young girl that's kindnapped, yet he does not want to participate, nor does he want to be looked at as a deserter.....as the tension builds, Penn's character becomes more and more hostile towards Fox as being the only one in the platoon who doesnt want to go along with the rape. Complicating matters even worse is the fact that early on in the film, Fox's life is saved by Penn when he gets stuck in a VC tunnel and Penn pulls him out.....now, his loyalty must be tested as he is warned by commanding officer Dale Dye once he reported this incident to authorities to consider the fact that Penn saved HIS life, and now Fox wants to RUIN Penn's by ratting him and the platoon out about the rape. And Fox is also warned by Dye (a military film staple) that the chances are good that these guys wont get convicted nor get any real time to serve even if the trial does happen and that Fox should consider this given the fact that he has a wife and baby daughter waiting back home.

As I said, this film shows less of the war itself and instead concentrates on this fact-based incident, and in this way, makes it feel just so much different from other Vietnam oriented motion pictures. This is more a study of these characters and this particular incident and makes Vietnam more of a secondary backdrop story in which a rape just happens to take place; at least thats how I saw it. There are graphic, brutalizing scenes for sure, some which contribute to the fact that this is NOT a film well-liked by many women, as most rape-oriented pictures are not. But Penn, after watching him in material like Dead Man Walking and Mystic River seems to be at the top of his game here as a psychotic control freak of a Sergeant determined to go through with this rape and have all his men participate, seemingly no matter what the cost. Some of the acting on his behalf gets a bit hammy during the more intense scenes as he seems like he is trying too hard to play this out of control tough guy leading the squad, but Fox is pretty decent in this, while at times getting too mushy and ridiculous with regard to trying to save this girl they have kidnapped (but this was supposedly based on real activities of these men AND Fox's character in particular, Erickson) but at the same time becoming very believable as the soldier desperate to stop these men at any cost and bring them to justice no matter who he has to go through. And the sequences where he slips in and out of dreams of the war (well, there are really just two) are pretty brilliant too as we are drawn into his Erickson character and the moral struggles he battled in this horrendous rape incident. There are some other great backup performances by the likes of Ving Rhames and the aforementioned Dale Dye. I NEEDED Casualties of War for MY personal collection, as I have been a fan for years now, but if anything, you should consider the disc as a rental if you feel like you're in the mood for something not that new and to perhaps get a different perspective on the Vietnam war.


Forget the horrendously dirty opening Columbia logo print and the somewhat dirty opening title sequence which can fool you --- once the film starts, this will be one of the best DVDs you will ever lay your eyes on. No kidding. Columbia has done a TREMENDOUS job of bringing this film to DVD, as the lush greens and hues of the Vietnam jungle are rendered so cleanly on this transfer, they sometimes appear to get downright three dimensional at times; okay, perhaps that was over doing it.....but the transfer IS gorgeous; I detected no problems throughout its run --- colors jump off the screen and its just a very applaudable job by Columbia/Tri Star. Letterboxing for the 2:35:1 scope appeared accurate.


The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix didnt wow as much as the video on this disc did; while clear and punchy with great left/right stereo separation across the front soundfield, thats exactly where the entire presentation sits: in the front soundstage. I detected, as in Full Metal Jacket, no surround usage at all, really and honestly.....save for PERHAPS some mild score support, nothing reaches the surrounds, which is surprising for a war genre film. Even scenes with raindrops remain in the front channels; this made for a dissapointing audio transfer that didnt really draw you into the scenes aurally. There is also a distinct lack of LFE on the track, save for a scene where Fox's character is almost killed when a grenade explodes inside the latrine he is standing in. Other than that, there was little surround usage and little for your sub to do during this presentation.

But, what we do get is rendered nicely in the front; score is rich, dialogue is mainly rich and, as mentioned, there is some very good left to right panning across the entire three channels of the front soundstage during some scenes; the mix makes use of the front stage rather well, but why call this a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix? I know not EVERY channel must be used in a Dolby Digital presentation, but when a studio proclaims there is a "surround mix" on a disc, we should be getting some surround experience at home when playing these discs back. Casulaties of War fell short in this regard.

There were some pretty awesome extras on this single disc release from Columbia, including:

-ERICKSON'S WAR: A Conversation with Michael J Fox