Casualties of War (1989)

R | 113 mins | Drama | 18 August 1989

Director:

Brian De Palma

Writer:

David Rabe

Producer:

Art Linson

Cinematographer:

Stephen H. Burum

Editor:

Bill Pankow

Production Designer:

Wolf Kroeger

Production Company:

Columbia Pictures
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HISTORY


       On 18 Oct 1969, New Yorker magazine published journalist Daniel Lang’s exposé of a 1966 Vietnam War crime, in which four American soldiers raped and murdered a Vietnamese girl. The men’s actions were revealed by their fellow platoon member, whose “religious and spiritual beliefs would not allow him to keep quiet,” according to a 10 Aug 1989 NYT article. Lang preserved the anonymity of the soldier, referring to him with the pseudonym “Sven Eriksson.”
       When the article was reprinted as a book by McGraw-Hill in 1969, its screen rights were immediately coveted by Hollywood studios, as stated in a 21 May 1989 NYT article. Director Brian De Palma was one of the filmmakers who tried to option the property in 1970, but he told the 21 May 1989 NYT that it was impossible at that time because he had only directed several theatrically released feature films, including Greetings (1968, see entry), an X-rated, anti-Vietnam War picture about draft dodging, and Hi, Mom!, both starring Robert De Niro as a Vietnam veteran. According to NYT, De Palma dodged the draft himself, taking various drugs to induce asthma.
       In an 18 Aug 1989 HR column, De Palma stated that Warner Bros. first purchased screen rights to Casualties of War in 1970 and Jack Clayton was set to direct with James Woods cast as “Eriksson.” On 14 Jan 1970 and 4 Feb 1970, Var listed David Susskind as the film’s producer, and reported that journalist Pete Hamill had completed a ... More Less


       On 18 Oct 1969, New Yorker magazine published journalist Daniel Lang’s exposé of a 1966 Vietnam War crime, in which four American soldiers raped and murdered a Vietnamese girl. The men’s actions were revealed by their fellow platoon member, whose “religious and spiritual beliefs would not allow him to keep quiet,” according to a 10 Aug 1989 NYT article. Lang preserved the anonymity of the soldier, referring to him with the pseudonym “Sven Eriksson.”
       When the article was reprinted as a book by McGraw-Hill in 1969, its screen rights were immediately coveted by Hollywood studios, as stated in a 21 May 1989 NYT article. Director Brian De Palma was one of the filmmakers who tried to option the property in 1970, but he told the 21 May 1989 NYT that it was impossible at that time because he had only directed several theatrically released feature films, including Greetings (1968, see entry), an X-rated, anti-Vietnam War picture about draft dodging, and Hi, Mom!, both starring Robert De Niro as a Vietnam veteran. According to NYT, De Palma dodged the draft himself, taking various drugs to induce asthma.
       In an 18 Aug 1989 HR column, De Palma stated that Warner Bros. first purchased screen rights to Casualties of War in 1970 and Jack Clayton was set to direct with James Woods cast as “Eriksson.” On 14 Jan 1970 and 4 Feb 1970, Var listed David Susskind as the film’s producer, and reported that journalist Pete Hamill had completed a screen adaptation. By 22 Jul 1970, Var noted that Jack Clayton had replaced Hamill as screenwriter, and Warner Bros. was preparing the film for production. At that time, however, Warner executives learned of a German feature film release titled O.K. that shared similar plot lines and character names. The studio sought court injunctions in both Denmark and Germany to prevent a commercial release of the picture. Although the O.K. producers claimed their film was derived from accounts of the Vietnam War murder-rape in German newspapers, Warner Bros. argued that the German character names were too similar to Daniel Lang’s aliases to be coincidental. International court injunctions were reportedly difficult to secure, and Warner Bros. was concerned that O.K. might find a U.S. distributor before Casualties of War was filmed and released. On 16 Sep 1970, Var announced that locations were currently being selected and principal photography was scheduled to begin in “approximately three to four months,” but an 11 Nov 1970 Var article reported that production was “extensively delayed.”
       While controversy and setbacks ensued at Warner Bros., a “sequel” to Casualties of War was independently released in 1972, as noted in an 11 Aug 1989 DV review of Casualties of War (1989). Elia Kazan’s The Visitors (1972, see entry) does not acknowledge Daniel Lang as a literary source and credits Kazan’s son, Chris, as the film’s producer and original screenwriter. However, Elia Kazan’s 1988 autobiography revealed that the filmmaker gave his son the 1969 New Yorker article as a vehicle for the young man to write and produce his first feature film. The Visitors was released seventeen years before Casualties of War, but holds up as a “sequel” because the narrative begins long after the military trial, and focuses on the soldiers’ recollections of the incident.
       In 1979, Vietnam veteran and Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe approached De Palma, hoping to resurrect the Casualties of War project and try his hand at a screen adaptation. Still, the production remained dormant for approximately eight years until De Palma’s career was catapulted by the box-office success of Paramount Pictures The Untouchables (1987, see entry). The film grossed nearly $80 million domestically and garnered three Academy Award nominations, as well as one win for Sean Connery as Actor in a Supporting Role. Leveraging his new status as a blockbuster filmmaker, De Palma pushed Paramount to make Casualties of War his next project, and secured a “package” deal with screenwriter David Rabe, Sean Penn, and Michael J. Fox.
       Although Paramount consented to move forward with the production, studio executives doubted casting Michael J. Fox in a leading dramatic role and lost confidence. At that time, the actor was mainly known for his “fresh-faced teen-ager” comedic performances in Back to the Future (1985, see entry), as well as the television series Family Ties, (NBC, 22 Sep 1982—14 May 1989). Meanwhile, Paramount’s president of production, Dawn Steel, left the studio to form an independent film partnership with Michael J. Fox. In a 13 Aug 1989 LAT article, Steel mentioned that the picture was “fully developed and cast” at Paramount, but when the budget increased from $17 million to $20 million, the studio backed out.
       In 1987, Steel was hired as head of production at Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., which was then rated least successful of the nine major Hollywood studios. Tasked with reviving Columbia, Steel took Paramount’s abandoned Casualties of War property to Columbia and approved it in Nov 1987. The $22.5 million film marked her first “green lit” endeavor at the studio. A fall 1988 interview with Steel, cited in the 21 May 1989 NYT, revealed that she was banking on the success of Casualties of War since Vietnam War films, including The Deer Hunter (1978, see entry), Apocalypse Now (1979, see entry), and Platoon (1986, see entry), had a track record of being enormously lucrative. The 13 Aug 1989 LAT reported that Steel was on maternity leave in 1987 while De Palma and producer Art Linson spearheaded development. Her participation in the film was reportedly minimal until after casting was complete and principal photography was set to begin.
       According to De Palma in a 13 Aug 1989 article in The Hartford Courant, the real-life soldier upon which the film is based was “disinterested in the whole project” and only spoke to screenwriter David Rabe on several occasions. Similarly, De Palma did not formally confer with Vietnam veterans’ associations, and instead researched the story by watching documentary footage. He also revisited several veteran interviews that he shot in his early days as a filmmaker. The picture generated negative criticism from Vietnam veterans, who complained that the soldiers in the movie were falsely representative of the men who fought in the war. Various contemporary sources, including a 24 Aug 1989 NYT article, stated that veterans also took issue with De Palma’s draft dodging and claimed that it was insensitive of him to portray the misdeeds of soldiers while he never served in the military, himself.
       The 11 Aug 1989 DV review noted various ways the motion picture version of Casualties of War deviated from Lang’s article and book. In Lang’s account, the sergeant, known in the movie as “Meserve,” planned to murder his Vietnamese captive before the kidnapping occurred. In the film, the killing of “Oahn” is portrayed as a last ditch effort to protect the platoon from incrimination, not a pre-calculated event. According to Lang, the sergeant told his subordinates from the start that they would have to kill the girl so she would not report the crime. The film omits Meserve’s real-life understanding of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which holds abduction and rape as capital offenses. Instead, the movie shows Meserve arguing that moral codes do not apply in combat. DV also noted that the picture conveys a greater emphasis on repressed male sexuality, linking “sexual rage and false concepts of ‘manhood’ with the political issues of Vietnam.” The review stated that the movie has “overtones of sexual uncertainty that weren’t present in Lang’s account” and “skimmed” over “Eriksson’s” plight to expose the crime through the courts-martial.
       Studio production notes in AMPAS library files and the 10 Aug 1989 NYT article reported that principal photography got underway in Thailand early 1988 after a two-week military training program for the leading male characters. Under the guidance of military technical advisors Art Smith, Jr., and Michael Stokey, the actors were isolated in the jungle with Army-regulation fatigues and “C-ration” meals. Pre-production also included six weeks building sets in and around Phuket, a Thai island that served as the filmmakers’ base. An abandoned tin mine was transformed into a sound stage for jungle scenes that could not be shot on location, including the opening sequence of the film. Another tin mine served as “Basecamp Wolf,” a thirty-acre Army base. Other locations included Phang-Nga and Kanchanaburi, above the river Kwai near Burma.
       A 20 Jun 1988 LAHExam news item published during production stated that actor Woody Harrelson visited Michael J. Fox in Thailand and was cast in a minor role, but he is not credited onscreen. Production was scheduled to wrap in Thai locations early Jul 1988 and finish shooting in San Francisco, CA. According to the 10 Aug 1989 NYT, Micheal J. Fox returned home from the production on 9 Jul 1988 and married his fiancée, Tracy Pollan, one week later.
       The film marked the feature film debut of Thuy Thu Le, who was not interested in becoming an actress, but responded to a casting call in order to meet Brian De Palma. As stated in an 18 Aug 1989 LAT article, she saw the advertisement in the Chinatown district of Paris, France, and was given four days to prepare for the shoot. Her casting deal precluded her from appearing naked, and a double was used for the rape sequence. The 18 Aug 1989 LAT review stated that the actress played the role of the Vietnamese captive and the young woman on the train. Although her character name is credited “Oahn” onscreen, the common Vietnamese spelling of the name is “Oanh.”
       The picture had its first test screening in Boston, MA, with an audience that included De Palma, Steel, and their close friend, director Steven Spielberg. Also in attendance were producer Art Linson and a host of Columbia executives. Approximately six audience members left the theater at the midpoint of the film, and the viewers responded with silence at the end, according to the 21 May 1989 NYT. After attending focus groups and reading audience feedback cards, Palma decided to cut the ending. The 11 Aug 1989 DV review noted that the film’s final running time of 117 minutes was seven minutes shy of the 124 minute duration listed in press kits, and the edits revealed “ragged recutting.” Cuts included scenes of the final military trial, as well as parts of the sequences in which Eriksson briefly encounters a young woman who reminds him of Oahn. The picture was initially set to open in late 1989, positioning the film for award contention. However, in response to tepid reviews from test screenings, Columbia pushed the release date back to 18 Aug 1989, hoping the film would be more profitable when marketed as a summer action blockbuster.
       Despite responses of test audiences, the picture was generally acclaimed by critics, including the 18 Aug 1989 LAT review, which stated that Casualties of War was De Palma’s best film to date. Various contemporary sources, including the 18 Aug 1989 LAT and NYT reviews, noted that screenwriter David Rabe was not happy with the movie as released and refused to affiliate himself with it. LAT speculated that “Rabe probably tried to make the nightmare real; De Palma turned it back into a nightmare.”
      The following written prologue appears onscreen after the title card: “This film is based on an actual incident that occurred during the Vietnam War. It was first reported by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker magazine in 1969.” End credits also state: “Based upon the book ‘Casualties of War,’ originally published in The New Yorker, October 18, 1969,” and the epilogue: “Although this film is based on an actual incident, the names of participants have been changed. Herbert Hatcher was found not guilty of murder. On appeal, Hatcher’s rape conviction was reversed and on retrial he was acquitted, his confession having been disallowed on constitutional grounds.”

              End credits also state the following acknowledgments: “Special thanks to the staff and crew of Thailand, whose assistance and support was invaluable in the production of this film, and to the mayors and people of Phuket, Phang-Nga, and Kanchanaburi.” More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
11 Aug 1989
p. 2, 24.
Hartford Courant
13 Aug 1989
Section G, p. 1, 6.
Hollywood Reporter
11 Aug 1989
p. 4, 51.
Hollywood Reporter
18 Aug 1989.
---
LAHExam
20 Jun 1988.
---
Los Angeles Times
13 Aug 1989
p. 28.
Los Angeles Times
18 Aug 1989
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
18 Aug 1989
p. 20.
New York Times
10 Aug 1989
Section C, p. 13.
New York Times
18 Aug 1989
p. 10.
New York Times
24 Aug 1989
Section C, p. 14.
New York Times
21 May 1989
Section A, p. 24.
New Yorker
18 Oct 1969.
---
Variety
14 Jan 1970
p. 7.
Variety
4 Feb 1970
p. 30.
Variety
22 Jul 1970
p. 13.
Variety
16 Sep 1970
p. 4.
Variety
11 Nov 1970
p. 6.
Variety
16 Aug 1989
p. 20.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Columbia Pictures presents
A Columbia Pictures release
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Unit prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
2d unit dir
2d 2d asst dir
Thai asst dir
Addl 2d asst dir
San Francisco 1st asst dir
San Francisco 2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod
Co-prod
Opticals by
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
1st asst cam
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Steadicam op
Chief lighting tech
Key grip
Dolly grip
Set grip
Elec best boy
Elec
Generator op
Chapman crane op
Projectionist
Still photog
[Grip equip]
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
Asst art dir
FILM EDITORS
Assoc ed
Negative cutter
SET DECORATORS
Const supv
Greens supv
Prop master/Set dec
Asst prop master
Chargehand standby propman
Standby propman
Armourer
Chargehand dressing propman
Set dec
Draughtsperson
Draughtsperson
Greens foreperson
Const foreman
Standby carpenter
Set standby rigger
Carpenter
Carpenter
Painter
Painter
Painter
Painter
Plasterer
Plasterer
Rigger
COSTUMES
Cost des
Cost supv
Cost supv
MUSIC
Mus comp, orch and cond by
Mus ed
Asst mus ed
Orch and chorus
Scoring studio
Scoring mixer
Gen mus coord
SOUND
Supv sd ed
Sd ed
Sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst ADR ed
Apprentice sd ed
Apprentice sd ed
Apprentice sd ed
Apprentice sd ed
Foley artist
Re-rec mixer
Sd mixer
Boom op
Re-rec and post prod facilities
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff supv
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Opticals by
Opticals by
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
Make-up supv to Michael J. Fox
Hairstylist
Prosthetic make-up for Thuy Thu Le (San Francisco)
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Transportation coord
Prod coord
Loc mgr
Prod accountant
Asst to Mr. DePalma
Scr supv
Casting asst
Co-unit loc mgr
Asst accountant
Asst accountant
Military tech adv
Military tech adv
Military tech adv
Helicopter pilot
Unit pub
Catering supv
Research coord
Asst to Mr. Linson
Prod office coord (Burbank)
Prod office coord (London)
Trainer to Sean Penn
Asst to Michael J. Fox
Asst to Michael J. Fox
Asst to Sean Penn
Interpreter for Ennio Morricone
Prod asst
Prod asst
STAND INS
Stunt coord
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
Stunts
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col timer
Col by
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the book Casualties of War by Daniel Lang (New York, 1969).
AUTHOR
SONGS
“Everybody Loves Somebody,” written by Irving Taylor & Ken Lane
“Hello, I Love You,” written by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore & Robby Krieger
“Hold On I’m Coming,” written by David Porter & Isaac Hayes, performed by Sam & Dave, courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corp. by arrangement with Warner Special Products
+
SONGS
“Everybody Loves Somebody,” written by Irving Taylor & Ken Lane
“Hello, I Love You,” written by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore & Robby Krieger
“Hold On I’m Coming,” written by David Porter & Isaac Hayes, performed by Sam & Dave, courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corp. by arrangement with Warner Special Products
“Magic Carpet Ride,” written by Rushton Moreve & John Kay, performed by Steppenwolf, courtesy of MCA Records
“Time Has Come Today,” written by Joseph Chambers & William Chambers, performed by The Chambers Brothers, courtesy of CBS Records.
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
18 August 1989
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 18 August 1989
Production Date:
early 1988 -- early July 1988 in Thailand and San Francisco, CA
Copyright Claimant:
Empyrean Film Enterprises
Copyright Date:
13 September 1989
Copyright Number:
PA431893
Physical Properties:
Sound
Dolby Stereo ® in Selected Theatres
Color
Processing by Technicolor®
Prints
Filmed in Panavision
Duration(in mins):
113
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
29396
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In 1974, a Vietnam veteran named Sven Eriksson awakens on a San Francisco, California, subway and notices a young Vietnamese woman. Falling back to sleep, Eriksson remembers traipsing through a Vietnamese jungle, just three weeks after his deployment. Suddenly under siege, Eriksson falls halfway into the ground with his legs dangling inside a Viet Cong tunnel. As he screams for help, an enemy soldier crawls through the trench with a knife, but Eriksson’s platoon leader, Sergeant Tony Meserve, frees him just in time. The men are riddled with gunfire and Meserve, who has thirty days left in his tour of duty, returns fire as Eriksson ducks for safety. The next day, five surviving soldiers from the platoon march into a Vietnamese village. Meserve’s wisecracking second in command, Brown, says men lose their morals in war. When Eriksson trades a group of children a chocolate bar for a mango, Brown teases him for being a freshly recruited “cherry.” The troop is caught off guard by enemy fire, leaving Brown mortally wounded, and Meserve is rattled by the loss of his friend. Sometime later, Meserve’s platoon arrives at Basecamp Wolf. The sergeant announces the men are off duty for the night, but will begin a long-term reconnaissance mission in the morning. Turned away at the village brothel, Meserve returns to camp in a huff and introduces Brown’s replacement, Diaz. As Meserve explains the upcoming assignment, he reveals his plan to capture a Vietnamese girl to travel with them as a portable sex slave. The next morning, the soldiers set out early and detour into a village. Meserve and ... +


In 1974, a Vietnam veteran named Sven Eriksson awakens on a San Francisco, California, subway and notices a young Vietnamese woman. Falling back to sleep, Eriksson remembers traipsing through a Vietnamese jungle, just three weeks after his deployment. Suddenly under siege, Eriksson falls halfway into the ground with his legs dangling inside a Viet Cong tunnel. As he screams for help, an enemy soldier crawls through the trench with a knife, but Eriksson’s platoon leader, Sergeant Tony Meserve, frees him just in time. The men are riddled with gunfire and Meserve, who has thirty days left in his tour of duty, returns fire as Eriksson ducks for safety. The next day, five surviving soldiers from the platoon march into a Vietnamese village. Meserve’s wisecracking second in command, Brown, says men lose their morals in war. When Eriksson trades a group of children a chocolate bar for a mango, Brown teases him for being a freshly recruited “cherry.” The troop is caught off guard by enemy fire, leaving Brown mortally wounded, and Meserve is rattled by the loss of his friend. Sometime later, Meserve’s platoon arrives at Basecamp Wolf. The sergeant announces the men are off duty for the night, but will begin a long-term reconnaissance mission in the morning. Turned away at the village brothel, Meserve returns to camp in a huff and introduces Brown’s replacement, Diaz. As Meserve explains the upcoming assignment, he reveals his plan to capture a Vietnamese girl to travel with them as a portable sex slave. The next morning, the soldiers set out early and detour into a village. Meserve and Corporal Clark kidnap a young woman named Tran Thi Oahn as her family screams in protest. Tran’s mother insists on giving her daughter a scarf, and Clark uses it to gag the girl. As the platoon hikes toward its destination, Eriksson pleads for Tran’s release, but the sergeant is displeased by the new soldier’s insubordination and orders him to the front of the column, replacing the more seasoned soldier, Herbert Hatcher. Before long, the men find an abandoned shack and set up camp. While Tran coughs incessantly, Eriksson and Diaz agree to defend the girl, but Diaz later succumbs to Meserve’s command. When Eriksson refuses to join the gang rape, Meserve refers to him as a homosexual and suggests he is a Viet Cong sympathizer. The sergeant warns Eriksson that his fellow soldiers could shoot him dead and pretend the murder was caused by enemy fire. He also threatens to sodomize Eriksson after raping Tran. Meserve grabs himself between the legs and declares that his penis is more powerful than any Army-issued weapon. As he forces himself upon the screaming girl, Eriksson shudders in horror and Clark holds a knife to his throat, ordering him to be on lookout while the others defile Tran. The following day, Clark guards Tran while Meserve, Hatcher, Diaz, and Eriksson discover a Viet Cong armory in the river valley below. While boats deliver weapons to the enemy depot, Eriksson and Hatcher return to camp for ammunition, but Clark is eager to participate in the impending battle and insists on trading places with Eriksson. Alone with Tran, Eriksson unties the girl and realizes her cough is the symptom of a feverish illness. He decides to escort her home, but fears the repercussions of being an Army “deserter” and tells her to run away alone. Just then, Clark returns and commands Eriksson to bring the girl to the lookout. There, Tran’s cough puts the men at risk of being discovered, and Meserve orders Eriksson to kill her. As U.S. helicopters hover overhead, Meserve becomes all the more desperate to rid himself of Tran. Clark offers to kill her, but Meserve orders Diaz to carry out the mission. As Diaz crawls toward Tran, Eriksson begs his comrade to let her go, then opens fire into the air, prompting a gun battle with the Viet Cong. Clark stabs Tran in the heart, but she survives and stumbles away along a railway bridge. When the gun battle dies down, Meserve’s men turn their weapons on Tran and she falls onto an embankment below. Eriksson loses consciousness as helicopters bomb the Viet Cong camp. He awakens in an infirmary, haunted by the murder and fearful that Meserve will stop at nothing to keep his misconduct a secret. Eriksson reports to the high-ranking Lieutenant Reilly and Captain Hill, only to learn that the military’s top brass is intent on covering up the crime. Hill reminds Eriksson about the battle in which Meserve saved his life and argues that the sergeant deserves a Bronze Medal, not a prison sentence. When Eriksson uses the latrine that evening, Clark sets off a grenade beneath the floorboards, but Eriksson jumps to safety. Sometime later, a clergyman named Chaplain Kirk approaches Eriksson in a bar and the young man blames himself for not intervening in the atrocity. In response to Eriksson’s confession, Kirk orders a courts-martial for Meserve, Clark, Hatcher, and Diaz, who argue that moral codes do not apply in combat. However, they are sentenced for rape and murder. Back in 1974, Eriksson continues to dream on the San Francisco subway. He recalls the end of the trial, when Meserve whispered something in his ear on the way to prison. Before Eriksson remembers Meserve’s words, the train comes to a stop and he is startled awake. The Vietnamese girl who caught his eye earlier, closely resembles Tran. She leaves the train without her scarf, and he chases after her to return it. She thanks him and turns away, but Eriksson calls out in Vietnamese, hoping to reconnect for another moment. She asks if she reminds him of someone, and if he had a bad dream on the train? When he nods, she tells him the nightmare is over. +

Legend
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Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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