Casualties of War is a 1989 American war drama film, starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, directed by Brian De Palma, and written by David Rabe, based primarily on an article written by Daniel Lang for The New Yorker in 1969 and a subsequent book.
The film is based on the events of the 1966 incident on Hill 192 during the Vietnam War, in which a Vietnamese woman was kidnapped from her village by a squad of American soldiers, who raped and murdered her.
The story is presented as a flashback of Max Eriksson, a Vietnam veteran.
Lt. Reilly leads his platoon of American soldiers on a nighttime patrol. They are attacked by the Viet Cong (VC) after a panicked soldier exposes their position. While guarding the platoon’s flank, Eriksson falls as the top of a VC tunnel gives way beneath him. Eriksson’s squad leader, Sergeant Tony Meserve, pulls Eriksson out of the hole and eventually, the platoon retreats out of the jungle.
The platoon takes a break outside a river village in the Central Highlands. While relaxing and joking around, one of Meserve’s friends, Specialist 4 “Brownie” Brown, is killed when the Viet Cong ambushes them. Brownie’s death has a major impact on Meserve. The platoon is sent back to their base. Private First Class Antonio Dìaz arrives as the replacement radio operator.
Frustrated because his squad has been denied leave for an extended period, Meserve orders the squad to kidnap a Vietnamese girl. Eriksson strenuously objects but Meserve, Cpl. Thomas E. Clark, and Private First Class Herbert Hatcher ignore Eriksson’s objections. Before the five-man squad disembarks, Eriksson talks about his concerns to his closest friend, Rowan. At nightfall, the squad enters a village and kidnaps a Vietnamese girl, Than Thi Oanh.
As the squad treks through the mountains, Dìaz begins to reconsider raping Than and begs Eriksson to back him up. The squad and Than eventually take refuge in an abandoned hooch, where Eriksson is confronted and threatened by Meserve, Clark, and Hatcher. Diaz suddenly gives in to the pressure, leaving Eriksson alone in opposing the act. Meserve forces Eriksson to stand guard outside while the other men take turns raping Than.
At daybreak, Eriksson is ordered to guard Than while the rest of the squad takes up a position near a railroad bridge overlooking a Viet Cong river supply depot. Through his acts of kindness, Eriksson manages to earn Than’s trust and prepares to go AWOL and return Than to her family. However, Meserve sends Clark to get Eriksson and Than to go to the bridge before Eriksson can carry out his plan.
Meserve has Dìaz order close air support for an assault on the depot and then orders Diaz to kill Than with a knife. Before Dìaz can kill her, Eriksson fires his rifle into the air, exposing them to the nearby Viet Cong. In the midst of the firefight, Than tries to escape. Eriksson tries to save her but is stopped by Meserve, who knocks Eriksson down with the butt of his gun. Eriksson watches helplessly as the entire squad shoots Than numerous times until she falls off of the bridge.
After the battle, Eriksson wakes up in a field hospital at the base. He eventually bumps into Rowan and tells him everything that happened. Rowan suggests that Eriksson sees Lt. Reilly and company commander Captain Hill. Reilly and Hill both prefer to bury the matter but Hill, infuriated at Eriksson’s determination to press the issue, resolves to get rid of Eriksson and orders him transferred to a tunnel rat unit. The other men in Meserve’s squad will all be reassigned as well.
After narrowly escaping an attempt to kill him in the latrine with a grenade (made by Clark), Eriksson storms into a tent and smacks Clark in the face with a shovel. He bluntly tells Meserve that killing him is unnecessary because no one cares about what they did. Meserve makes a shaky attempt at a joke, and Eriksson leaves.
Eriksson then meets an Army chaplain at a bar and tells him the story of what happened during the patrol. The chaplain in turn reports it, launching an investigation. The four men who participated in the rape and murder are court martialled: Meserve receives 10 years hard labour and a dishonourable discharge, Clark is sentenced to life in prison, Hatcher receives 15 years hard labour, and Dìaz receives eight years hard labour.
At the end of the film, Eriksson wakens from a nightmare to find himself on a J-Church transit line in San Francisco, just a few seats from a Vietnamese-American student who resembles Than. She disembarks at Dolores Park and forgets her scarf and Eriksson runs after her to return it. As she thanks him and turns away, he calls after her in Vietnamese. She surmises that she reminds him of someone, and adds that he has had a bad dream. They go their separate ways, and Eriksson is somewhat comforted.
- Michael J. Fox as Private First Class Max Eriksson.
- Sean Penn as Sergeant Tony Meserve.
- Don Patrick Harvey as Corporal Thomas E. Clark.
- John C. Reilly as Private First Class Herbert Hatcher.
- John Leguizamo as Private First Class Antonio Dìaz.
- Thuy Thu Le as Than Thi Oanh/Asian student on the train.
- Erik King as Specialist 4 “Brownie” Brown.
- Jack Gwaltney as Rowan.
- Ving Rhames as Lieutenant Reilly.
- Dale Dye as Captain Hill.
- Holt McCallany as Lieutenant Kramer.
- Dan Martin as Hawthorne.
- Wendell Pierce as MacIntire.
- Sam Robards as Chaplain (Captain) Kirk.
- Steve Larson as Agent.
- Vyto Ruginis as Prosecutor.
- Maris Valainis as Streibig.
- Darren E. Burrows as Cherry.
- Sherman Howard as Court Martial President.
- John Marshall Jones as Military Policeman.
- Amy Irving as voice of girl on the train (uncredited).
The film was based on the real-life incident on Hill 192, and on Daniel Lang’s book of the same title, but all names and some details of the story were altered.
The novel was published in 1969. Film rights were bought by David Susskind who was to produce the film for Warner Bros. Pete Hamill wrote a script and Jack Clayton was to direct. However the film was not made. In the late 1970s Susskind announced he would make the film for ABC-TV. This did not happen.
In 1979 David Rabe mentioned the project to Brian De Palma, who was interested but was unable to raise the money to finance it. Some years later Rabe had written a script, and De Palma attached Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn as actors. They almost succeeded in getting the film financed at Paramount, but ultimately decided not to proceed when the budget went from $17 million to $20 million. De Palma then went on to make The Untouchables which was a big hit; Dawn Steel had liked the project at Paramount, and when she became head of production at Columbia Studios, Casualties of War was the first film she green-lit.
“Historically Vietnam War movies have been very profitable,” said Steel. “All of them. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter. You’re looking at movies that have never been not pretty successful, but very successful. The foreign numbers have been extraordinary.”
The film was shot in April–May 1988, mostly on location in Thailand, with some filming in San Francisco. The bridge location was filmed in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, which was the same as the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.
This film was Fox’s third major dramatic role. He had previously starred in Light of Day and Bright Lights, Big City. John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo make their screen debuts in the film, and the latter would again star with Penn in another picture by De Palma, 1993’s Carlito’s Way.
“Let’s be honest,” said Fox at the time. “If this movie makes a buck and a half it’s going to be things like Bikini’s Away for me. But to fail doing something unexpected is no disgrace. To fail doing the ordinary is a disaster. This movie is about how much you will risk if you have nothing to gain.”
- Won the Political Film Society: PFS Award; Peace; 1990.
- Nominated at the Golden Globes: Golden Globe; Best Original Score – Motion Picture Ennio Morricone; 1990. Motion Picture Sound Editors: Golden Reel Award; Best Sound Editing – Sound Effects; Maurice Schell; 1990.
- The Extended Cut is 6 minutes longer than the original and contains 2 extra scenes.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Brian De Palma.
- Producer(s): Art Linson.
- Writer(s): David Rabe.
- Music: Ennio Morricone.
- Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum.
- Editor(s): Bill Pankow.
- Distributor(s): Columbia Pictures.
- Release Date: 18 August 1989.
- Running Time: 113 minutes.
- Rating: R.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.