I always have this emotional punch in the gut when I watch Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War. It leaves me drained and brings back memories that are best left forgotten. I was not in the “front lines” in Vietnam but the exposure to war for any nineteen year old, no matter what your situation, leaves disturbing memories and worst for a lifetime.
Casualties of War is not so much a war film as it is a film about morality and moral decisions. In war, morality gets cloudy and one can forget what the purpose of it all is. This is true about every war, but I believe it was especially true about the Vietnam War where it was never clear from the beginning what the hell we were doing there.
The film is based on a true event that became known as the Incident on Hill 192. It happened in November of 1966. In 1969, writer Daniel Lang wrote an article about it for The New Yorker magazine and then turned it into a book. With the recent success of The Untouchables (1987), DePalma had the financial clout to make this downbeat film. It’s one of the best films about the Vietnam experience and its effects on the men involved. While this story happened in Vietnam, it could happen and has in other wars.
An Army squad has just finished a long range recon mission and are back at camp for what turns out to be a short break. They are told they will again be going back out the next morning. Meserve, (Sean Penn) is the Sgt. in charge of the squad. He and his men want to chill out, take a shower, get some clean clothes on and get laid by local prostitutes. However, as they start to make their way to the village they are prevented when an MP tells them it has been declared off limits. Upset, really pissed, Meserve mumbles to his men that tomorrow when they leave on their mission, they will first make a detour to the village where they will kidnap the prettiest girl and have their sexual release. Most of Meserve’s men are on board except for Eriksson (Michael J, Fox) and Diaz (John Leguizamo) who at first bond together to resist Meserve’s plan.
Meserve is a good leader, he’s tough, smart and persuasive. Earlier in the film he saved Eriksson’s life. He’s also bitter over friends lost over the past year. With less than thirty days left in country, Meserve has lost perspective on the war and on life. He convinces his men, and possibly convincing himself, that the Vietnam girl they have taken, Oanh (Thuy Thu Le), is Viet Cong and not a kidnap victim. When the multiple rapes happen, Diaz crumbles under Meserve’s pressure and goes along with the other guys turning his back on Eriksson leaving him the lone man not to join in the atrocity. Eriksson is left looking helpless. He doesn’t join in but he can’t stop what is happening either.
Soon after the multiple rapes, Meserve decides they need to get rid of the girl. Holding her will slow them down in their mission. However, they just can’t let her go. She could make it back to her village and incriminate them in a crime. They need to get rid of her. Corporal Clark, a vicious Don Harvey, stabs the girl three times. However, after the stabbing, she is still not dead and attempts to escape. Meserve calls out to shoot her. The four men who raped her open fire making sure this time she’s dead.
It could have ended there, but Eriksson knows what happened was not war, it was pure murder. Kidnapping, rape and murder of an innocent girl. He reports the incident once they are back at camp, but the chain of command basically wants to sweep it under the rug. The officers he speaks to tell him an investigation will lead nowhere. He should just forget about it. It’s the kind of incident that is just one of the spoils of war. Eventually, Eriksson speaks to a Chaplain and word finally gets out.
The incident is investigated and the four men are put on trial. They are all sentenced to terms in prison. Still, there are no winners. Each and every character pays a steep price. Even Eriksson who is haunted by it years later. He’s also worried that possibly the men he put in jail, once released, will seek out revenge on him and his family.
As I mentioned earlier, the film is more about morality than war, though there is plenty of violence and action. It’s really about how war can have a desensitizing effect on its participants. How one loses sight of right and wrong. How a horrible crime has been committed and covered up. How justice is perverted and how those who do the right thing are penalized. The only one to preserve his moral compass is Eriksson, and his life is on the line for speaking out. At one point in the film, one of his former squad members, in an attempt to silence him, puts a live hand grenade in a latrine while Eriksson is the only man there (literally blowing the shit out of the place.) Eriksson does manage to get out in time.
The casting of the two leads is a major plus. Penn is a perfectly dark specimen of a man as Meserve, the leader, who has gone off the deep end. His character’s rage and hatred for the girl, and what he sees through his eyes, what she represents is the driving force of the film. Michael J. Fox as Eriksson arguably provides the best performance of his career. His emotions are multiple levels deep. His character represents the sort of person most of us would like to think we are; decent and righteous. If we found ourselves in a similar situation we would like to believe, we would behave in the same fashion. Don Harvey as Clark is almost as frightening and unhinged at Sean Penn’s Meserve. The cast also includes a young John C. Reilly as Hatcher, the not too bright PFC who mumbles about comparing their squad to the genocidal Genghis Khan, the aforementioned John Leguizamo as Diaz, who at first sides with Eriksson but backs down when it counts siding with the majority when it gets tough and Ving Rhames as one of the officers.
DePalma’s visual style is powerful. Filled with gorgeous crane shots of the Thailand countryside where the film was mostly shot. Additionally, he uses the camera, filling all available space masterfully, with images in both background and foreground as he does in the rape scene. Bruce Weber points out it out in his New York Times Magazine piece, where the murder “takes place in the corner of the frame, behind a close-up of Michael J. Fox.”
The screenplay was written by David Rabe (Streamers, The Firm). Rabe’s depiction of the characters is fully three dimensional unlike what we have generally have seen in most of DePalma’s work in the past. Finally, there is also a melancholy score by Ennio Morricone that adds a considerable murky mood to many of the disturbing scenes.
 Lang, Daniel, Casualties of War, McGraw-Hill, October 1st, 1969
 The film opens and closes in 1974, around the time of President’s Richard Nixon’s resignation, with Eriksson riding a bus where he spots a Vietnamese woman who reminds of the girl who was murdered. The bulk of the film is told in flashback.
 Elia Kazan’s 1972 film The Visitor’s tell a fictional tale what could have happened to Eriksson and his wife after the men were released from prison. Two former Army buddies of a young James Woods (his first feature film) visit his home. We eventually learn these are two men Woods turned in for raping a Vietnamese girl. He never told his wife about the incident and now both will pay. The Vistor’s was a low budget production despite an A list director. The screenplay was written by Kazan’s son Chris. Steve Railback made his debut as one of Woods buddies.
 Weber, Bruce, New York Times Magazine, May 21, 1989