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The Grunts' War, Take 1

First in a two-part series by Jay Sharbutt on how some Vietnam veterans are finally getting the chance to tell about the Vietnam War the way they experienced it, not the way Hollywood saw it. In Monday's Daily Calendar: Four Vietnam-veteran writers who have films up coming talk about their intentions and Hollywood's version of the war.

May 25, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Sharbutt, who covers television for The Times, covered the Vietnam War in 1969-70 for the Associated Press.

Their field training schedule calls for them to sleep in two-man fighting holes, partake of two cold Army rations a day and learn of such things as klicks (kilometers), bloopers (M-79 grenade launchers), Claymore mines, M-60 machine guns, M-16 rifles and "rock 'n' roll" (firing on full automatic). They'll set night ambushes and man LPs, or listening posts.

They'll rappel down a 50-foot tower. And go on patrols, known as "humps." And learn that with full gear and weapons, even a two-klick hump is a mother when hills and triple-canopy jungle lie ahead. With luck, they'll get four or five hours of sleep a night.

The idea of this cram course, Stone says, is to immerse them in the Vietnam infantryman's life, his way of thinking, talking and moving.

Then, he says, once the cameras roll, "subconsciously what will slip out is the dog-tired, don't-give-a-damn attitude, the anger, the irritation, the casual way of brutality, the casual approach to death.

"These are all the assets--and liabilities--of infantrymen. . . . I remember being so damned tired that I wished Charlie"--short for Victor Charlie, or Viet Cong--"would come up and shoot me, get this thing over with."

Stone's script doesn't have the massively surreal war of "Apocalypse Now" (a movie he likes) or the explosive, one-man revenge-and-rescue returns to Vietnam of such pure cinematic fighting machines as Sylvester Stallone and Col. Chuck Norris.

Instead, he's written a grunt-level series of vignettes, seen through the eyes of the New Guy, about the day-to-day existence of a rifle platoon, with members of the platoon based on the men with whom Stone served.

The script depicts the camaraderie, compassion and often loopy humor of the grunt; the let's-get-mellow brotherhood of pot-smoking; the brutality, terrifying violence and madness of combat, and the somehow-surviving bits of conscience and innate decency exemplified by Dafoe's sergeant and young Sheen's scared New Guy.

"I think it's a truthful view of what happened to the infantry over there," Stone says. "You can call it 'left' as opposed to 'right' in the sense that the right has glorified and fantasized the war"--he means Rambo & Co.--"and never dealt with the heavy toll the war took. Or the fact it may have been a mistake.

"This film certainly questions the political basis of the war."

"Platoon" has a pittance-by-Hollywood-standards budget of $6 million. Stone has been trying to film it since 1976, when he wrote its first version. Although it drew favorable comment, he says, it still had "dozens of rejections . . . nobody wanted to make that movie because it was too hard. I was told it was too much of a downer."

He finally got the money from a British company, Hemdale Film Corp. (the company that also backed "Salvador"). Orion Pictures agreed to distribute "Platoon" in the United States in October. He then signed up a cast and crew. But after all that, there was one more delay that almost unhinged him.

The delay was caused by the turbulent, fraud-riddled presidential election here in February that touched off a score of deaths, a revolution and the possibility of civil war. It would have been bad craziness to start filming the Vietnam War, then have real shooting erupt.

So the actors--most still were in the States--were told to hang loose and see how the revolution went. It went just fine. President Ferdinand Marcos fled on Feb. 25, Corazon Aquino took over, and most of the platoon flew in nine days later.

On the day they arrive, Stone is very relieved. A civil war probably meant shifting to Thailand, "losing actors and money. Considering how many times I'd come close to making the picture--well, one more time. . . ." He winces, then laughs.

That night, Dye, a tall, gregarious man of 41 with a remarkable gift of mimicry and 21 years in the Marines, holds a briefing on the pre-film training schedule.

In attendance: White, Dye's chief aide, and three young "ringers"--Marine reservists Robert Galotti and Mark Ebenhoch, and a former reconnaissance Marine, Drew Clark, a tough, bawdy kid whom the actors soon affectionately nickname "Recon."

The ringers are the USMC edition of the three Musketeers. They're clannish, they do drink some, and they kid and cuss each other without mercy. Clark is particularly ferocious--at first glance. A vivid trio for actors like Kevin Eshelman, a "Platoon" Pfc.

"When we got here, we saw them having a beer," the actor says later. "The guy who plays Tex started to sit down with them. One of them, it had to be Clark, says, 'Hey, you don't sit here. Marines sit here.' That story got around real fast."

But, Eshelman adds, things dramatically changed once in the field:

"They turned out to be the nicest bunch of guys you'd ever want to know. I probably couldn't have gone through half this stuff without them."

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