It’s hard to ignore the appeal in imagining the critical reception of an emotionally resonant and tragic film like Casualties of War without the unavoidable trap of auteurism. De Palma’s noted strengths do not typically include reverence, and a film about a military gang rape based on real-life events seems just about the least appropriate subject matter for a filmmaker then-plagued by accusations of pornographic depictions of violence in his films. Yet Casualties is perversely non-perverse, deeply remorseful and allegorical of the national failure of the US presence in Vietnam. None of these things ring De Palma, yet he’s claimed in interviews he believes Casualties to be his best film.
Though De Palma had collaborated on its screenplay since 1979—based on Daniel Lang’s New Yorker profile and book of the incident—Casualties was released a full 10 years later, after a string of Nam pictures had seemingly exhausted the topic of a national sore point in US military history. Yet unlike Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket or Platoon, De Palma’s post-Vietnam offering carries an overwhelming biting sting of remorse: the emotionally afflicted protagonist, Private Max Erikkson (Michael J. Fox), is reminded of his war experiences upon seeing a young Vietnamese American (Thuy Thu Le) on the train where he falls asleep. He is taken into a nightmarish flashback in which he fails to save the young Vietnamese woman, Oanh (also Thuy Thu Le) kidnapped by his unit for the sole purpose of rape. It’s natural to be haunted by such grueling memories, be they the personal experiences of a young private or the collective memory of a country writ metaphorically. Erikkson catches up with the woman on the train after she forgets her scarf on the seat, a cinematic homage more aligned with Vertigo than De Palma’s previous references to the Hitchcock film, insofar as both are reverent films about male characters’ regret in failing to save a woman. The young lady intuitively guesses that she reminds Erikkson of someone, then says, “It’s over, I think.” The conflicted cloudiness in Erikkson’s eyes, despite his polite nodding, would suggest otherwise, which I believe negates the argument made by critics who were quick to read the film as a gesture that the Vietnam nightmare is over and that the chapter is forever closed on that painful era.
How the film plays out the nearly hidden crime following the war could easily be mistaken as a mechanical climax—once the troop is relieved of duty and Erikkson has trouble playing whistleblower, it doesn’t take long before the military higher-ups are involved and the justice system swiftly delivers its sentencing—though I’d argue that the real pain suffered by Erikkson is placed within the present, on the train, and not the bureaucratic struggle he faced in getting his superiors to take the matter seriously. Once he opens up to a chaplain, there is a quick elliptical cut to the men’s trial, as if the red tape that got them there never mattered as much in the greater scheme of things (a valid point in hindsight). What is more important in this debacle is Erikkson’s traumatic experience during the war and why the rest of the squad lost their moral compass in the jungles of Nam, and the film spends most of its flashback there.
With the loss of the unit’s jubilant Specialist 4th Class Brown (Erik King) by a village armed with undercover Viet Cong, the film shows how his death becomes a catalyst for Sergeant Tony Meserve’s (a brutish Sean Penn) already-xenophobic (more like xeno-angry) treatment of civilians. His jokes about stealing a woman from a village as their play toy is shrugged off with nervous laughter by his men, but Erikkson is revolted and startled when he inadvertently joins them during their midnight hunt. De Palma uses his ol’ tricks here in casting the critical eye on Americans by implicating them in the fictional young woman’s violent abduction: the scene in which the soldiers find the girl begins with a roaming POV shot of the village, as if the viewer is doing the sex-slave hunting. The same unidentified POV tracking shot takes place later when one of the troops, Corporal Clark (Don Harvey), tries to plant a bomb on an unsuspecting Erikkson in one of the base cabins. Make no mistake: De Palma is explicitly damning in his broad and bold condemnation of national character in Casualties, but he’s pointing the finger at himself, the filmmaker, the one behind the camera, as much as he is the American viewer who shares that corrupted lens.
De Palma’s frequently discussed split-screen technique is also employed with narrative and thematic poignancy here. When caught in battle, Meserve’s order to kill Oanh is later carried out with near-fatal stabbings by Clark, and Erikkson’s watchful eye of the firing, incoming VC is blown-up into a close up beside Oanh and Clark in order to frame his inability to see Oanh’s brutal victimization taking place right behind him. The shot delivers a blow of utter helplessness, particularly augmented by the calamitous, vociferous climate of war. Yet perhaps De Palma’s most masterful framing composition in Casualties—and another that speaks to the helplessness and implication of Erikkson’s traumatized and weak position—is the scene in which the troops take their turn in molesting Oanh. After being ridiculed for refusing to participate, Erikkson is assigned to watch post several meters away from their hut, and his near-distance view of the troops and Oanh is conflated with our own, framed by trees and greenery. Using jump cuts to illustrate the passing of time, this point of view shows each member taking his turn raping the girl in the blurry far left, while the others joke with one another in the middle plane. At one point Meserve gets closer to talk to Erikkson, and the shot is finally relieved by a close-up of Erikkson’s cold hard face, soaked by rain, his disturbed resolve cloaked by an unblinking catatonia. It’s a gut-wrenching scene to watch.
Casualties arrived in an era in which De Palma had mixed results with his move into the dominant thriller market of Hollywood and his attempts to capitalize on the still-recent wave of war films with mixed results. Though recently, the efforts in re-examining De Palma’s oeuvre have proven that many of his works were misread upon release and mired by the filmmaker’s bawdy reputation. In a way, Casualties is its own casualty, but like the reflective eye of the gloomy Erikkson, we can and should take another look back on this understated, and overlooked gem.