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Film / Casualties of War

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Casualties of War is a 1989 Vietnam War film directed by Brian De Palma and starring Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, Don Harvey and Thuy Thu Le (in her only role). It was based on the actual incident on Hill 192.

In 1966 in Vietnam, a squad of five American soldiers, lead by Sgt. Tony Meserve (Sean Penn), kidnap a young Vietnamese woman named Oanh (Thuy Thu Le) from her village and take her on a patrol, making her their sex slave. Of the five men, only one - Pvt. Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) - refuses to take part in Oanh's rape and torture, and he is determined to bring his fellow soldiers to justice no matter what the cost.

Ennio Morricone composed the score. It's also notable for being the film debut of John C. Reilly and for featuring John Leguizamo in a very early role (his second film and his first major role).

In 2006, an Extended Cut was released, including two scenes near the end featuring Eriksson in court.

This film contains examples of:

  • A Lighter Shade of Black: While all members of Meserve's squad other than Eriksson are culpable in the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Oan, they are not all equally depraved. The perpetrators, in relative order of depravity, are:
    • Clark is a vicious sadist with no redeeming qualities. He's only slightly more decent towards his fellow Americans than he is towards the Vietnamese.
    • Meserve planned the kidnapping and rape and probably bears the highest ultimate responsibility. However, unlike Clark, he has some humanizing qualities - most importantly, Meserve is genuinely devoted to the men in his squad.
    • Hatcher is just a passive dimwit who goes along with whatever his superiors are doing and would never have been a kidnapper, rapist, or murderer on his own initiative.
    • Diaz is morally repulsed by the kidnapping and rape, but he went along with it and participated out of fear and the pressure to fit in with the other men in his squad, especially after seeing how Eriksson was threatened and ostracized.
  • Anti-Villain: As crooked as Meserve becomes in the film, he did begin the film saving Erikson's life; and he describes in great detail his struggle some time ago to save a Vietnamese girl from dying. He's also obviously heartbroken by Brownie's death, which all suggests that he's very loyal and devoted to every soldier in his squad.
  • Barefoot Captives: Oanh lose her shoes after being captured alive by the Americans, and she spends the entire film trudging through the jungles of Vietnam barefoot.
  • Big Bad: Meserve is the closest the film has to one.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Eriksson succeeds in exposing Meserve, Clark, Hatcher, and Díaz, and he finds peace after a chance encounter with a girl who strongly resembles Oanh (played by the same actress at that). However, that doesn't change that Oanh was brutally murdered.
  • Blatant Lies: Meserve tries to pass off the kidnapping of Oanh as the capture of a Viet Cong POW and the subsequent gang-rape as "interrogation".
  • Blood Knight: Clark. Not only is he gung-ho about the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a Vietnamese girl, the prospect of combat excites him enough to try and shove the job of guarding Oanh to Eriksson when the opportunity for a firefight arises.
  • Bound and Gagged: One of the many indignities Oanh is forced to suffer through.
  • Category Traitor: When Eriksson objects to the kidnapping and planned rape of Oanh, Meserve points to the rest of the squad, saying they're not VC. When Meserve points to Eriksson, he says "you, I'm not so sure about". Later on Meserve accuses him of being an outright sympathizer for the VC.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Oanh is stabbed repeatedly by Clark, then she tries to escape, but she is shot numerous times to death and falls off the bridge screaming.
  • Dirty Coward: Antonio Díaz. He is the only member of the squad besides Eriksson who hesitates to rape Oanh, but he changes his mind due to the possible consequences of the squad to him.
  • The Dog Bites Back: After being abused, seeing an innocent, traumatized woman murdered in front of him, and nearly being killed by a grenade his squad sticks in the latrine, Eriksson finally brains Clark with a shovel and scares the hell out of the others to get them to leave him alone.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Eriksson gets sloshed after his repeated failure to bring the squad to justice and almost getting killed by them for it.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: When Eriksson refuses to participate in raping Oanh, Meserve becomes confused and enraged, calling Eriksson a "faggot" and accusing him of caring more for the Viet Cong than for his fellow soldiers.
  • Evil Is Petty: The entire reason the kidnapping and rape plot is devised is because Meserve and the others weren't able to get R&R with prostitutes.
  • A Father to His Men: Sgt. Meserve is about the same age as the men under his command, but they look up to him as an almost father-like figure. Understandably so - Meserve is in most ways a great soldier - he saved Eriksson's life at great risk to himself.
  • From Bad to Worse: Oanh keeps getting sexually abused by the soldiers, and Eriksson can't do very much to help her. Then she is shot to death.
  • Hate Sink: Clark is the most detestable of the squad. Even prior to the kidnapping plot, he bullies Private Eriksson and advocates for genocide against the Vietnamese. During the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Oanh, Clark is the cruelest in the group, taking sadistic glee in the woman's suffering and being the most eager to do the deed. After Eriksson tries to report the crime, Clark is the one who attempts to kill him with a grenade.
  • Implied Death Threat: When Eriksson refuses to take part in the rape of Oanh, Meserve tells him that "friendly fire" accidents during combat can happen at any moment.
  • Kill the Cutie: Tran Thi Oanh, who is ultimately stabbed and shot to death.
  • Lima Syndrome: When Meserve orders the squad to kidnap a Vietnamese girl, Eriksson's objections are ignored, and while the rest of the squad takes turns raping Oanh, Eriksson decides to show kindness to Oanh and gain her trust, planning to go AWOL and return Oanh to her family, which is stopped when Meserve sends Clark to retrieve Eriksson and Oanh and she is stabbed and shot to death.
  • Morality Chain: Brownie eventually reveals himself to be this for his friends (even the bigoted Clark seems to like him) before most of them fall off the deep end except Eriksson. Also see Small Role, Big Impact below.
  • New Meat: Eriksson begins the film as a rookie, but in around three weeks, he treats another rookie like this. He then begins to realize that the war is turning him and everyone else into total jackasses.
  • Nice Guy: Eriksson seems to be one of the only people to give half a damn about the Vietnamese, treating them with respect while his fellow soldiers act contemptuous of them. He also emphatically refuses to participate in the rape of Oanh and tries to save her from being murdered. He's also the only one who attempts to bring the crime to the light, and he is disgusted and horrified when his superiors brush it off.
  • The Neidermeyer: Captain Hill and Lieutenant Reilly, who both initially demand Eriksson to sweep the rape and murder incident under the rug to prevent an international incident and possibly to protect Eriksson from the wrath of Meserve's vengeance if he ever wants to retaliate against him for exposing him and his accomplices. Meserve and his fellow rapists follows this most definitely.
  • The Oner: A Brian De Palma trademark. There are two tense oners shot in a similar manner to The Untouchables: when the soldiers are about to kidnap poor Oanh and when Clark attempts to kill Eriksson.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Clark is viciously racist towards the Vietnamese and rants about how the whole country should be destroyed. The rest of the squad call Eriksson a "faggot" after he refuses to participate in their gang-rape.
  • Rage Breaking Point:
    • After Brownie is killed in action and they're denied the ability to go out and have sex with prostitutes prior to going on a long-range patrol, Meserve and the other members of the squad (barring Eriksson and Díaz) devise a plan to kidnap and rape a Vietnamese woman.
    • Frustrated after nobody wants to prosecute anybody for the crime and fearful after an attempt on his life, Eriksson bashes Clark's face in with a shovel and angrily tells the rest of the squad off.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Subverted, as very few people in the local American command hierarchy seem to care at all about the crime even when Eriksson reports it, and it is at first swept under the rug. Erikson, after the attempt on his life is even prompted to tell Meserve "I told 'em, oh yeah, I told 'em, AND THEY DON'T CARE!"
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Based on the Incident on Hill 192.
  • Scenery Porn: Thailand, standing in for Vietnam, is beautifully shot.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran:
    • Although the rape is inexcusable, all of the soldiers are clearly shell-shocked, which is especially shown in the court martial scene, where Clark accuses the judge of aiding the Viet Cong by throwing them in the stockade. Díaz's defence of his rape is pathetic in that he tries to throw the blame on the job, but he is speaking hesitantly and in a broken tone. When the judge rips Meserve with murder, he coldly justifies it with "kill or be killed".
    • After the events of the film, Eriksson is clearly traumatized by what he's seen, having a flashback when he sees an Asian girl that looks like Oanh when riding the subway back in America.
  • Silent Whisper: Near the end of the film, after being court martialed, Meserve stops by Eriksson before leaving the room and whispers something into his ear. We don't hear it, but it was undoubtedly a threat.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Brownie is killed very early on, but the anguish and stress caused in no small part by his death strongly affects the behavior of some of his friends later in the film.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: Meserve and Clark in particular.
  • Token Good Teammate: Eriksson is the only soldier who refuses to rape Tran Thi Oanh.
  • Unfriendly Fire: To keep Eriksson from exposing them, the rest of his squad stick a grenade in the latrine he is about to use, but he narrowly manages to escape.
  • Villain Has a Point: During the court martial, Clark accuses the Army of disregarding soldiers' lives and not understanding the true horror of what they endured. While it certainly does not excuse rape and murder of an innocent woman, he does make that point clear, and the fact the judge ignores it does back it up. Truth in Television, as many veterans of Vietnam did indeed believe that the army didn't care about them.
  • War Is Hell: And it can twist decent men into monsters.