For the first hour of Brian De Palma's Casualties of War, I simply could not accept it. Its characters were too savage, its dialogue too obvious and too much of it felt simply like a retread of common Vietnam tropes. Then I reconsidered it and, though the dialogue is still weak, Casualties of War contains some of the best acting to grace a war film, as well as one hell of a dark message.
Most war films introduce us to our characters as rookies or at least at a point when they still have a modicum of optimism about them. These men are grizzled, but still lighthearted, give or take a low-ranking officer or NCO. Into this group comes a fresh-faced, idealistic volunteer who will invariably act as the sole voice of reason when the more experienced men finally snap, which they tend to do when the gentlest of the veterans, the conscience of the group, fall prey either to enemy or friendly fire.
Casualties of War follows this to a T, but where it takes a bold step is in its decision to kill that calm vet (Erik King) in the first act. Cpl. Brownie takes a bullet to the neck when the VC ambushes the squad on break, immediately driving a wedge between the noble youth, Pfc. Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), and the rest of the troops, led by Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn). For the first stage of the film, there is an unspoken, underplayed struggle for the soul of Brownie's replacement, Diaz (John Leguizamo).
"War is hell," as the old adage says, but De Palma really puts it to the test when Meserve takes his men to the nearest village looking for revenge for both the deaths of his men as well as the attack cutting their leave short. The troops devastate the village looking for Viet Cong, and Meserve at last snaps and takes a young girl with the squad in retaliation. Eriksson reflects our horror when Meserve announces that she'll "tend to the men's needs."
De Palma structures Casualties of War around a terrifying gang rape scene, one of the most disturbing and repulsive (yet not exploitative) ever filmed. Eriksson tries desperately to sate the men before they cross that line, and even manages to convince Diaz. Then the other three, who have been waiting for their moment, pounce on him. Meserve, driven totally insane at this point by the jungle, cannot understand why Eriksson can't be a team player, so he lobs insults at the young soldier. He must be a communist sympathizer or, worse, a homosexual. Meserve makes open death threats as his two lackeys chuckle. Diaz, cowed by the lashing, falls in line with the others, and Eriksson must watch as the four men take turns with this poor, shrieking girl. Later, the squad stages a fight with some VC soldiers, and during the fight all four of the rapists end up shooting her for trying to escape.
The stark horror of the rape sequence might seem enough to burn the film into our retinas, but really it works because of the actors. Fox might be typecast as the wholesome kid just trying to do the right thing, but he's a believable soldier, one sent to die simply because his name came up in a "lottery." Leguizamo, King and John C. Reilly excel in some of their earliest performances (this was Reilly's debut) and round out the cast nicely. But Sean Penn's deranged Meserve will keep people coming back for more. As we are dropped in the middle of their tours with these men, we don't see Meserve slowly fade into some sort of animal: he's like that from the start. On the surface, he looks like the sort of soldier the Army would be desperate to prop up as a poster boy: loyal, uncompromising, intimidating. Yet he is a force of darkness, everything wrong and amoral concerning the US involvement in Vietnam personified. He's so deluded that he actually convinces himself that his sex slave is a VC prisoner. A recurring theme of De Palma's work is his linking of the man's sex drive and his capacity for shocking violence, and it's unforgettably displayed here but it wouldn't have worked if you didn't fully buy Penn's madness.
This second act is riveting and horrifying. It paints the jungles of Vietnam as a place where the American ideal, the human ideal even, died slowly and painfully. That's why the third act feels so tacked on, a paltry excuse to give the film some sort of uplifting coda, possibly to avoid outrage over the depictions of these soldiers. Upon returning to base, Eriksson pleads his case to all who will listen, but the top brass, in profane, definite terms, tell him to drop the matter. The last thing they need is another PR nightmare. But Eriksson persists, and justice is had.
After everything that preceded these last 40 minutes, the ending feels hollow. De Palma did such a great job of laying bare the atrocities good old American boys could commit when placed in a situation entirely beyond their ken, and this might have been one of the great Vietnam films had it simply ended with the men returning to base, leaving all the evidence back in the jungle but carrying everything with them. To show the nightmare of their existence and try to say "Oh, but one person really can make a difference" after the second act does nothing but viciously repudiate this brings the film to a screeching halt. And it certainly doesn't help that the actors must deliver David Rube's lines; Rube is a playwright and it shows, as the characters seem to be projecting their lines at an audience instead of interacting with one another. As a result, Casualties of War starts strong but finishes with a whimper, one that in no way affects the excellent work from its actors. Sean Penn fans, or even detractors, should find this an excellent find, as it contains one of his best performances.