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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Last week, Le Point's David Mikanowski wrote an article about Brian De Palma's Casualties Of War, upon the release of the new Blu-ray-and-book box set from Wild Bunch. Here's an excerpt, with help from Google Translate:
The presence of a woman in a war film is astounding - this genre full of testosterone has traditionally been vested in men. Even though she is gagged, tied up, and spends most of the time moaning and crying, in a state of prostration. Besides, Oanh's death is a nightmare streak that seems to never end. Covered in blood, she walks like a ghost on the railway tracks of a bridge (the scene was shot on the banks of the River Kwai, near the Burmese border). Unforgettable, her slow agony resembles a funeral march, a requiem.

Depalmian heroes are often haunted by a woman they have seen die before their eyes, unable to rescue her. This was notably the case for the characters played by Cliff Robertson in Obsession (1976), John Travolta in Blow Out (1981) and Craig Wasson in Body Double (1984). This time, it's the one played by Michael J. Fox who becomes a passive witness to a crime and blames himself for being cowardly in front of the other soldiers by not preventing them from taking action. Through his melodrama, De Palma speaks of individual responsibility. And asks an ethical question: are rape and murder more excusable when committed in wartime? "Even in war ... Murder is murder," read the slogan of the film's American poster.

In the eyes of some, this appalling news item remains anecdotal and insignificant. A point of detail in a napalm bombing war. As a good moralist, De Palma, on the contrary, believes that Oanh's death is not a drop of water in a sea of blood. His film works as a metaphor: we must see in this rape that of an entire country by the American invader. And when Michael J. Fox is indignant during a scene, it is De Palma who expresses himself through him (the famous tirade of Eriksson: “Just because each of us might at any second be blown away, everybody’s acting like we can do anything. And it don’t matter what we do. But I’m thinking, maybe it’s the other way around, you know. Maybe the main thing is the opposite! Because we might be dead in the next split-second, maybe we gotta be extra careful what we do.”) Almost philosophical, the theme of Outrages (the individual who is right against the group) provokes reflection. And De Palma would rather dwell on the fate of a single victim, to move the public, than on that of thousands of dead.

Heroes or bastards

War makes heroes, but also bastards, the director seems to say. Dropped in the middle of a conflict they do not understand, attacked at night in the jungle (an incredible opening sequence in an underground gallery where the Viet Cong look like ants), the young American soldiers behave badly towards the Vietnamese civilians in the film. Because the army never prepared them to face a foreign country, a culture, and customs different from theirs. Towards the end of Outrages, the four soldiers guilty of the crime are sentenced (one of them to life) by a military court. But in reality, they were acquitted!

Indeed, after multiple appeals, the sentences were considerably reduced. None of them will have served more than five years in prison. Out of fear of reprisal, the real Eriksson even changed his identity and became a farmer somewhere in the Midwest. In 1972, Elia Kazan made a film that imagined a fictional sequel to this story: The Visitors with James Woods. In the heartbreaking drama, a soldier’s former comrades in arms, who had denounced them for the rape and murder of a Vietnamese woman, returned, after being released from prison, to his Connecticut villa for revenge. And took the opportunity to rape his partner!

No, Outrages is not a cool movie. It looks like a sticky nightmare, which causes discomfort and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Because De Palma's cinema is outrageous. Upon its theatrical release, the film divided critics. The New York weekly The Village Voice notably published an indictment against the film and its director - one of the most violent attacks ever directed against a filmmaker! But Outrages also has supporters. Steven Spielberg was raving about it in Rolling Stone magazine: “This is a huge film, perhaps the most beautiful that we have shot about Vietnam.” Renowned New Yorker reviewer Pauline Kael also wrote a lengthy, glowing article about the film.

In November 1994, in the pages of the monthly Les Inrockuptibles, Tarantino, in full promotion of Pulp Fiction, declared of Brian: “Blow Out is the absolute masterpiece of De Palma, closely followed by Outrages. The latter is in my opinion the best war movie ever made. It’s also one of the best movies about rape and Sean Penn’s best role - which is no small feat." Bertrand Tavernier also defended the feature film in 50 Years of American Cinema, his reference work co-written with another scholar, Jean-Pierre Coursodon: "De Palma manages to renew himself with this film which constitutes for him a real challenge, changing it at the same time of genre, place and register." The authors of the book also prefer his film on Vietnam to that of Kubrick: "The finale of Full Metal Jacket is a bit thin. And it is possible to find richer, even more courageous, a film like Outrages which, for its part, tackles a real moral problem head-on." Which is to say that De Palma was one of the few filmmakers to get their hands dirty, to immerse themselves in the Vietnamese quagmire.

In 2007, the bearded man filmed with digital cameras Redacted, a mock documentary that is once again based on a true story and is presented as an extension of Outrages, a twin film. He embarked on this adventure after reading an article about an incident during the Iraq war in which US Army soldiers allegedly raped a 14-year-old girl, shot her in the face and allegedly burned his body, before massacring his family.

How could these young people have come to this? What is original here is that De Palma recreates the drama through various sources of images: surveillance cameras, videos posted on YouTube, blogs and a GI's diary. A fascinating theoretical object, which forms a good double program with Outrages. A work that has lost none of its strength three decades later. Moreover, during his retrospective at the Cinémathèque française in 2018, the filmmaker without hesitation chose Outrages to represent his work. At the end of the screening of the film, he burst into tears in front of the audience of his master class, so much this film, for which he had fought for so long, was close to his heart.

Outrages boxed set with the film on Blu-ray (in its Director's cut version with six additional unreleased minutes) and on DVD (in its cinema version). As a bonus: numerous additions and a large 200-page book, specially written by Nathan Réra and illustrated with rare photos and archives. Limited edition of 2,500 copies. € 49.99. Wild Side.

Posted by Geoff at 10:28 PM CST
Updated: Tuesday, January 4, 2022 10:30 PM CST
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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Sofilm's Maxime Werner looks at the making of Casualties Of War:
1979: Veteran and playwright David Rabe attempts to resuscitate the project and goes to see De Palma, who had taken an early interest in Lang's story, when he was just an underground filmmaker unknown to the battalion. But it will take a few more years and a favorable alignment of the planets for the endeavor to succeed. 1987: two Vietnam films, Full Metal Jacket and above all Platoon, have just hit the box office, and De Palma is himself crowned with the triumph of the Untouchables, which places him in a position of strength in Hollywood. But this is not enough. To pass the pill of such a depressing and controversial project (to the point that the startled Paramount withdrew in favor of Columbia), you need a huge star. Luckily, Michael J. Fox, the youth idol since Back to the Future and the Family Ties series, is looking for more serious roles than he is usually offered. A simple reading of the script (written by Rabe) convinces him: Eriksson, it will be him. To play his nemesis, Sergeant Meserve, producer Art Linson debauchery Sean Penn, best known at the time for his escapades with his companion Madonna that made the tabloids cabbage. A few youngsters, real blue screen dicks, complete the cast: Don Harvey, John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo. It remains to find the girl. De Palma absolutely insists that she be Vietnamese, and not Thai or Filipino, for example. He goes around the world to finally find her in Paris. Her name is Thuy Thu Le, she is a student and sees an advertisement. She shows up for the audition and it is immediately overwhelming. Outrages will be her only film.

De Palma pushes the sliders of realism far. There is no question of reconstructing Vietnam in the Hollywood jungle of the studios. But it's 1988, and Vietnam itself is still not an option. So, go to Thailand, where an entire village is created from scratch. For the jungle scenes, the team sets up in an open pit, deep in the forest, with water ramps for the rain. While the technical team is busy, the actors are not to be outdone. Because you don't improvise yourself as a soldier, if only for the beautiful eye of a camera. Under the guidance of two Vietnam veterans, they undergo intensive training and learn to behave like a real patrol. For two weeks before filming begins, they eat C rations (the soldier's individual ration: canned fast food), take long walks through the forest carrying heavy M- machine guns. 60 or grenade launchers, learn to disassemble and reassemble their rifles. Problem: One of the instructors quickly turns out to be a berserk, the type who sets up assault simulations in the middle of the night, in corners infested with snakes. Even Sean Penn, even the most invested of the troop, ends up answering him: "Are you not a little sick? This is a movie we're making, not the war. The dingo is quickly replaced by Dale Dye, another veteran who also plays Captain Hill in the film. The experience helps to create bonds between the actors, to strengthen their sense of belonging to a group, but also to give everyone a place in this group, the one they will occupy in the film. Each becomes his character.

In full delirium Actors Studio, Sean Penn plays the game thoroughly, even if it means behaving like a bastard with everyone. It has to look true on screen. Poor John Leguizamo bears the brunt in a scene where, take after take, Sean slaps him heavily - for real, then. After the thirteenth take, Leguizamo begins to see candles. But, of course, it's Michael J. Fox who suffers the most from the Sean Penn "method", who doesn't speak to him. Never. Even outside filming hours: in the hotel restaurant, he sits at another table. The rest of the time he trains or spends some time with "his" soldiers. For the purposes of a scene where Fox has to act out anger, he goes so far as to stick a straight right before the take. "Sean treated him like crap," producer Art Linson will say. As for the famous trial scene where Penn whispers something inaudible in Fox's ear, De Palma says the actor horrors him with every take. Like, "I fucked your wife a few times and now it's gonna be your turn. "At the end of the shoot, Fox will send him a note:" I wouldn't say it was a pleasure, but that it was a privilege. "

The shooting is extremely trying, especially the jungle scenes. First there is the climate, the tropical heat which is around 50 degrees, the sun beating down hard, when it's not the torrential rain ... Enough to cause a lot of delay and put everyone on the edge. To wait between takes, while De Palma perfects one of his super-sophisticated camera moves that are his specialty, the actors brutalize themselves with a questionable local beer. It takes a month to get the first night fight scene canned, with one shoot every night. To make matters worse, poisonous insects and snakes are present. Sometimes someone yells "Cobra !! And the tray is cleared while specialists take care of the intruder. Under these conditions, anyone ends up getting sick one day or another. Michael J. Fox vomits almost after every dose, has a colic and ends up in the hospital coughing up blood. Everyone has one desire: to go home, to their country. We count the days. It may only be a movie, but you end up believing it. As Fox says, “I wouldn't say I'm a Method actor, but after 60 days in the jungle you hate everyone and want to get the hell out of here."

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CST
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Friday, October 8, 2021

This morning, Wild Bunch tweeted the cover image for its upcoming box set Blu-ray and DVD release of Brian De Palma's Casualties Of War. "An edition that was long overdue ..." began the tweet. "OUTRAGES by Brian De Palma, in Cinema & Director's Cut Versions, will be available on December 1st on Blu-ray · DVD · Large format book. It's happeninnnnnng".

More details were provided by Cine Series' Pierre Siclier, here with the help of Google Translation:

A newly restored Master on DVD and Blu-ray

Released in a 113-minute cinema version, Casualties of War also received a 121-minute Director's cut version. These two versions will be combined in a collector's edition Blu-ray / DVD, which will be offered on December 1st by Wild Side.

In a press release, the publisher writes:

From Obsession to Carlito's Way, from Blow Out to The Untouchables ... Haunted by their past or driven by their integrity, the heroes of Palmiens denounce crimes that others would like to keep silent and come up against systems that crush. Brian De Palma will have had to persevere to transpose to the screen this appalling tale recounted as early as 1969 by journalist Daniel Lang.

The box set, in addition to bringing together the two versions of the film, will offer bonuses that promise to be exciting. Including a twenty-minute interview with Michael J. Fox and a making of that we will scrutinize with attention. As said above, the shooting was quite complicated, in particular because of the difficult relationship between the two main performers. Along with these video documents is added a large-format 200-page book illustrated with rare photos and archives. An object not to be missed.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Saturday, October 9, 2021 12:39 AM CDT
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Monday, September 20, 2021

Thanks to Chris for highlighting a bit of news from le festival Lumière: Wild Side plans a previously unreleased and restored DVD Blu-ray box of Brian De Palma's Casualties Of War. According to Blu-ray.com, the street date will be November 24, 2021.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Nathan Réra, whose book about Casualties Of War (Outrages) will be published on April 22, has posted an article at Gone Hollywood that details his years-long obsession with Brian De Palma's film, and the real-life events that it is based on. In the article, Réra reveals that he interviewed De Palma, David Rabe, Michael Verhoeven, and more for the book. In the introduction to the article, the Gone Hollywood editors state that Réra is a "lecturer in the history of contemporary art at the University of Poitiers, who offers a fascinating backward inquiry into the film and the 'news item' from which it is inspired." Here is a Google-assisted translation of Réra's post:

I have vivid memories of my discovery of Outrages at the end of my adolescence: I can still see myself buying the very first edition of the film on DVD, to expand my collection of works by De Palma… We were then at the very beginning from the 2000s. I was intrigued by this film, of which I only knew a few images; I assumed that it must be in line with the “great” films on the Vietnam War, alongside Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, films that I had seen during my adolescence and which had marked me, each in their own way. However, watching De Palma's film awakened feelings in me that I had never experienced in any other war film. I came away deeply shaken. I quickly realized that Outrages was not just another war film - nor was it completely a film about Vietnam ... - but a film about rape as a weapon of war. The impact the feature film had on me owes a lot to the heartbreaking renditions of Thuy Thu Le and Michael J. Fox, the terrifying performances of Sean Penn and Don Harvey, the chiseled writing of David Rabe as well as the overwhelming music of Ennio Morricone (in my eyes, perhaps his most beautiful score…). Since that first viewing, Outrages has not let go of me; I have seen it many times. Between the young film buff that I was when I discovered it and the confirmed researcher that I have become, a specialist in visual representations of mass violence and genocide, I have obviously come a long way. For example, a film like Schindler's List, which sparked my interest in depictions of the destruction of European Jews, confronted me with aesthetic, ethical and moral issues of the highest order; so much so that today my take on this film, from a filmmaker whom I admire by the way, is much more nuanced than it was twenty years ago. Quite the opposite of Outrages: with each viewing, the impression of strength and accuracy exuded by Brian De Palma's film remains intact.

I wanted to study the film to try to understand why it obsessed me so much, a bit like Eriksson who cannot forget the face of Oanh. This research was initially a personal, intimate quest. Originally, my plan was to write a book focusing exclusively on De Palma's film, which would have retraced its history, from its genesis to its theatrical release. To that end, I first contacted the filmmaker and screenwriter, David Rabe, to find out if they would be willing to speak with me. They both answered yes. It took several months for a meeting with De Palma to take place; on the other hand, I very quickly started a long correspondence with David Rabe. Our discussions convinced me of the interest of giving the floor to all those who had participated in the film, not just the most illustrious… Of course, I knew that De Palma's film was based on a text by the American journalist Daniel Lang originally published in the New Yorker. I had acquired the excellent French translation published by Editions Allia in 2018, but I was eager to know more about the fabric of the report and the journalist's intentions. The investigation into De Palma's film was then coupled with an investigation into Lang's work, which I was able to carry out with the agreement of his daughters, who allowed me to have access to his archives. . At the same time, I got my hands on the archives of the court martial trials; I was able to locate several funds relating to the early adaptation projects of Casualties of War, well before that of De Palma; and I also spoke with Michael Verhoeven, the author of o. k., the first film inspired by Lang's investigation, known to have prematurely interrupted the Berlin International Film Festival in 1970. My research thus took on a scale that I was far from suspecting at first! I am summarizing here in a few lines nearly three years of intensive work, punctuated by periods of doubts, false leads, trial and error ... I sometimes had the impression of throwing bottles into the sea! But my persistence paid off. It was essential to stir broad in order to reconstruct the history of Casualties of War over the long term, from 1966 (date of the real events) to 1989 (date of release of De Palma's feature film).


Several parameters made possible the realization of Outrages, which Warner had started in 1970 without succeeding in completing the project. De Palma reactivated the project in the wake of the release of The Untouchables (in 1987), which was at the time his greatest commercial success; the collaboration with its producer, Art Linson, was in good shape. When the latter asks him which project he now wishes to work on, De Palma sends him Lang's text, which he had dreamed of bringing to the screen since 1969. He had also tried to carry it out in 1979-1980, in a time when he was already working with David Rabe on a project called Prince of the City (which Sidney Lumet would eventually direct). Coincidence: Rabe, too, had been dreaming of writing an adaptation of Casualties of War for the big screen for several years! The screenwriter approached Lang at the time, shortly before the journalist's death, but negotiations did not go very far, and De Palma eventually embarked on the directing of Dressed To Kill. Seven or eight years later, the situation has changed: after the success of The Untouchables, De Palma has the big studios at his feet and can afford the luxury of choosing his projects. However, it should be remembered that the choice to adapt Casualties of War was perilous: the war in Vietnam remained at the time a sensitive subject, on both political and moral levels, despite the great cinematic successes that followed one another throughout the decade ... It is for this reason that Paramount, which was initially supposed to produce the film, finally threw in the towel, before Columbia decided to grant it its "green light".

Outrages is a film adaptation of a journalistic investigation, which is itself based on the hundreds of pages of court martial transcripts Lang had viewed. David Rabe and Brian De Palma therefore necessarily made cuts, simplifications or adjustments. Some of their narrative choices conflict with the vision of Daniel Lang, who was heavily involved in the various adaptation projects prior to Outrages. However, Rabe's script is broadly faithful to Lang's text, as it is to the real story. The portrait he paints of soldier Eriksson is very close to the sensitive one painted by the journalist, and the unfolding of the facts resumes that of the book, even if the first part of the film, which relates the daily life of the soldiers in Vietnam, extrapolates the testimony of the real Eriksson. Everything is plausible, however, and we must insist on the realism of the feature film, which is due to the vision of Rabe (himself a Vietnam veteran) as much as to the work of historical or military advisers. There are of course some differences between reality and its cinematographic transposition. The main one relates to the nature of the crime: in reality, it was a planned feminicide. From the start of the mission, it was agreed that the soldiers would abduct the young woman, Phan Thi Mao, to satisfy their sexual urges, and then kill her. In the film, the kidnapping and the rape are well planned, but the murder is decided in haste, when Meserve (Sean Penn) becomes concerned that the captive will be spotted by the American helicopters which fly over the area where he and his men lie. In my book, I analyze these different gaps between reality and film; it was necessary not to obscure them, as they reveal the tensions inherent in the work of adaptation.


Outrages is evidently at the heart of the great DePalmian oeuvre, because it contains figures and themes dear to the filmmaker; but at the same time it constitutes a kind of outgrowth of it, forming part of a small nucleus of films (with Greetings and Redacted) which tackle war, male domination and violence against women. On the directing side, the film has a few brave moments that bring to mind De Palma's taste for complex camera movements (especially the tunnel sequence, at the start of the film). However, one feels the director less concerned with visual performance than in his other films; he seeks throughout the story to adapt the form to his subject. From this point of view, his use of Steadicam is particularly interesting, because the movements performed with the device are not aimed at gratuitous virtuosity: they take care of the moral questions raised by the narrative. Among the passages that arouse in me a renewed emotion each time is the metro scene, which frames the film. This almost silent sequence, carried by the music of Morricone, gives an account of Eriksson's break-up, of his inability to stay in the present, in the world of the living, to simply relive without thinking of the one he couldn't save. It seems like the ending leaves us on a "positive" note, but studying the multiple layers of scriptwriting reveals how reductive that feeling is, and does not do justice to Rabe's intentions. Eriksson’s last look is unforgettable… I could also cite the sequence of the kidnapping of Oanh, of unbearable violence, and the rape itself, which De Palma films with remarkable ethics. More broadly, I find Thuy Thu Le's bodywork gripping. Rarely has an actress portrayed a rape victim so realistically; the passage where Eriksson tries to establish a dialogue with Oanh, while her body is ravaged by multiple wounds and bruises, does not leave the spectator unscathed.

De Palma has often said that the reception of his film in the United States has been abysmal. It seems to me that this impression needs to be qualified a little: by going through the archives of the American press of the time, we also find good (even very good) reviews, not only that of Pauline Kael in the New Yorker! But it is true that many others have distinguished themselves by their great violence. The most striking is undoubtedly that of Frances FitzGerald, who won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1973 for a book on Vietnam. In the magazine Village Voice, she attacked De Palma, reproaching him for having made a "sado-porn" film and denouncing the supposed improbabilities of the story ... She had obviously not read Lang's book! Veterans associations have also stepped up to denounce the portrayal of the US military, claiming that the facts recounted in the film were "exceptions." I believe the reception of the film in the United States is indicative of the depth of the moral wound that the Vietnam War has caused in American society. Of course, Platoon had achieved resounding success two years earlier; but Stone's film was by no means as critical as De Palma's film. The reception of Outrages also reflects, in retrospect, how war rape and femicide were viewed at the time. That part of the criticism, supported by the veterans' associations, could deplore the image that the feature gave of the American army seems, in today's society, quite improbable ... While the real subject of the film was at the same time very largely brushed aside! In France, the film also had its detractors, but overall the critics were much more receptive, with excellent analytical articles published by Laurent Vachaud and Antoine de Baecque, among others, in Positif and Les Cahiers du cinéma.


De Palma never really recovered from the critical failure of Outrages. Of course he returned to success afterwards, but he never took in the reception that was given to this film, which he rightly considers to be his most personal work. Some of his collaborators, whom he reunited with for his next film (The Bonfire of Vanities), told me that De Palma is not a filmmaker who dwells on failures; he never poured himself out with them. His reaction, after the film's screening at the Cinémathèque française in 2018, however, proves that Outrages is particularly close to his heart. It is not trivial to let such emotion shine through when you talk about a film made thirty years earlier! In 2006, De Palma directed Redacted, which is the tracing of the story of Outrages in the context of the Iraq War; a film once again based on a true story. Among his recent projects, there is also a film inspired by the Weinstein affair ... But I believe that on closer examination, the problem of violence against women and male domination haunts all of De Palma's work.

Revisiting Outrages is more necessary than ever, for at least three reasons. First of all, because it is a great film, still too little known, with complex issues, one of Brian De Palma's most successful works, and undoubtedly the film that best crystallized the moral bankruptcy of America in Vietnam. Secondly, because rape as a weapon of war is a subject that is still too little talked about, despite the existence of remarkable work by historians and journalists. Finally, because we must fight this culture of rape which plagues our societies. We feel that things are evolving, with the liberation of speech movements, but there is still a long way to go to educate the conscience, and especially those of men. Outrages speaks of rape committed in wartime, in a context where all moral barriers are collapsing; but it also speaks of the constitution of a culture of rape, which flourishes well upstream, through homosocial rituals. Outrages is also the antithesis of films which trivialize rape, or which make it a spectacle. Rape is represented here as an experience of great violence, from which one cannot recover; neither the one who is the victim, nor the one who is the witness. I believe that this film - like the book by Daniel Lang - can help educate the conscience and the gaze, because it raises the decisive question of individual responsibility. Positioning yourself on the good (or the bad) side is not inevitable: it is a choice.

Posted by Geoff at 11:53 PM CDT
Updated: Saturday, April 10, 2021 11:56 PM CDT
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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Rouge Profond will publish a new book about Casualties Of War on April 22. Written by Nathan Réra, who has previously written a Rouge Profond book of interviews with Paul Verhoeven, the new book, Outrages, is said to be "almost 600 pages" long, and illustrated with many images and stills (see below). Here is a Google-assisted translation of the publisher's book description:
Adapted from an investigation by Daniel Lang published in the New Yorker in 1969, Outrages (Casualties of War), Brian De Palma's nineteenth feature film, chronicles the kidnapping, rape and murder of a Vietnamese woman by a patrol of American soldiers led by Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn). First Class Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) refuses to participate and sets out to expose the culprits.

Nathan Réra's book reconstructs the pitiful history that led to the creation of this underestimated masterpiece. From numerous rare documents (military archives, correspondence, unpublished scenarios), the author returns to the real facts and their revelation in the American press, then on to the adaptation projects which followed one another during a decade, before immersing the reader in the heart of De Palma's film creation.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, April 7, 2021 1:02 AM CDT
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Monday, May 25, 2020

Parade's Neil Pond kicked off this weekend Friday with "50 Must-See War Films for Your Memorial Day Movie Marathon." "Encompassing everything from the awfulness of war to the far reaches of its absurdity," Pond states, "this list of the best war movies serves as our tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our prolonged times of peace." While the list is not numbered, Casualties Of War is the fourteenth film from the top:
Casualties of War (1989)

Best known for his work in the genres of suspense, crime, horror and thrillers (like Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables and Body Double), director Brian de Palma takes a harrowing plunge into the battlefield with this take on a real-life incident about how an American soldier finds himself on the outside of his rogue squad when they kidnap a young Vietnamese woman and rape her. Michael J. Fox (who took time off from TV’s Family Ties to film) and Sean Penn give riveting performances on opposite sides of the situational-ethics line, and the movie marks the first film appearance of John C. Reilly.

Meanwhile, last week, Pocket-lint's Chris Hall attempted to place the best Vietnam films in a chronological viewing order:
The conflict in Vietnam spanned decades of fighting, from the outbreak of the war with France in 1946, through to the political and ideological division of the country into north and south which formed the foundation for the US involvement in Vietnam. That involvement escalated through advisory roles through the early 1960s, until emerging as full conflict around 1965.

For the USA, the era of the Vietnam War is surrounded by socially and culturally significant events in the homeland, the passage of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon through the presidency and a rich depiction in a wide range of movies. There are a vast number of productions that owe their stories Vietnam, from the Rambo series, to Forrest Gump, the characterisation of The Simpson's Principal Skinner - "I was in 'Nam" - to those movies that actually tell the stories of Vietnam itself.

Here we present many of the best films that address Vietnam. We think the best order is chronological, based on the dates of the events depicted. But we're also giving a number of different approaches, which you can jump to in the table below, avoiding spoilers if you want to.


The best Vietnam movie viewing order (spoilers)

These are the movies we consider to be essential viewing not only for the stories that they tell, but how they tell those stories. They are ordered to fit the unfolding of events in the Vietnam War, although in some cases we deviate from that timeline when the emphasis of the film is on the return home, for example. Where there's no clear event being portrayed - because it's a fictionalised work - we've placed that movie in its position based on its content and context in the passage of the conflict.

The chronological order of films then goes like this:
  • Good Morning, Vietnam
  • We Were Soldiers
  • Casualties of War
  • Rescue Dawn
  • Tour of Duty
  • Platoon
  • Full Metal Jacket
  • Hamburger Hill
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Tigerland
  • Born on the Fourth of July
  • The Deer Hunter

And here is Hall's description of Casualties Of War:

Casualties of War takes us into 1966, telling a true story reported by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker in 1969. Michael J Fox plays Max Eriksson, a "cherry" in Vietnam who joins a squad to head out to Hill 192. Squad leader Sergeant Meserve, played by a powerful Sean Penn, has other ideas for the mission, kidnapping a Vietnamese girl to take with them for a little "R&R". It's a haunting tale, depicting the breakdown of any sort of moral standards and the conflict between comrades that ensues. The 1989 film from director Brian De Palma pulls at many of the threads we see across Vietnam movies, particularly the dehumanisation of the Vietnamese reflected in the US GIs. Watch out for Dale Dye's appearance, who also stars in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.

Posted by Geoff at 8:05 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, May 25, 2020 8:08 PM CDT
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Saturday, January 11, 2020

Yesterday, as Sam Mendes' 1917 opened in U.S. theaters, Vulture's Keith Phipps posted his ranking of "the 50 greatest war movies ever made." The article includes the subheadline, "A look back at a genre that has inspired a century of cinema." Brian De Palma's Casualties Of War doesn't rank very high on Phipps' list, but two excellent Paul Verhoeven films, Black Book and Soldier Of Orange, didn't make Phipps' list at all, which speaks, perhaps, to the inherently subjective nature of one person's viewpoint. In the article's intro, Phipps thoughtfully discusses how war films are viewed and perceived, as well as what constitutes a "war film" for his list:
Speaking to Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune in 1973, Francois Truffaut made an observation that’s cast a shadow over war movies ever since, even those seemingly opposed to war. Asked why there’s little killing in his films, Truffaut replied, “I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” The evidence often bears him out. In Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir Jarhead, Swofford recalls joining fellow recruits in getting pumped up while watching Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, two of the most famous films about the horrors of war. (On the occasion of the death of R. Lee Ermey, the real-life drill instructor who played the same in Full Metal Jacket, Swofford offered a remembrance in the New York Times with the headline “Full Metal Jacket Seduced My Generation and Sent Us to War.”)

Is it true that movies glamorize whatever they touch, no matter how horrific? And if a war movie isn’t to sound a warning against war, what purpose does it serve? Even if Truffaut’s wrong — and it’s hard to see his observation applying to at least some of the movies on this list — it might be best to remove the burden of making the world a better place from war movies. It’s a lot to ask, especially since war seems to be baked into human existence.

So, like other inescapable elements of the human experience, we tell stories about war, stories that reflect our attitudes toward it, and how they shift over time. War movies reflect the artistic impulses of their creators, but they also reflect the attitudes of the times and places in which they were created. A World War II film made in the midst of the war, for instance, might serve a propagandist purpose than one made after the war ends, when there’s more room for nuance and complexity, but it also might not.

Maybe the ultimate purpose of a war movie is to let others hear the force of these stories. Another director, Sam Fuller, once offered a quote that doesn’t necessarily contradict Truffaut’s observation but better explains the impulse to make war movies: “A war film’s objective, no matter how personal or emotional, is to make a viewer feel war.” The films selected for this list of the genre’s most essential entries often have little in common, but they do share that. Each offers a vision that asks viewers to consider and understand the experience of war, be it in the trenches of World War I, the wilderness skirmishes of Civil War militias, or the still-ongoing conflicts that have helped define 21st-century warfare.

Compiled as Sam Mendes’s stylistically audacious World War I film, 1917, heads to theaters, this list opts for a somewhat narrow definition of a war movie, focusing on films that deal with the experiences of soldiers during wartime. That means no films about the experience of returning from war (Coming Home, The Best Years of Our Lives, First Blood) or of civilian life during wartime (Mrs. Miniver, Forbidden Games, Hope and Glory) or of wartime stories whose action rests far away from the battlefield (Casablanca). It also leaves films primarily about the Holocaust out of consideration, as they seem substantively different from other sorts of war films. Also excluded are films that blur genres, like the military science fiction of Starship Troopers and Aliens (even if the latter does have a lot to say about the Vietnam War). That eliminates many great movies, but it leaves room for many others, starting with a film made at the height of World War II in an attempt to help rally a nation with a story of an operation whose success required secrecy, extensive training, and beating overwhelming odds.

Casualties Of War places at #44 on Phipps' list:
Brian De Palma’s brutal, fact-inspired film about the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young Vietnamese woman didn’t catch on with audiences, helping to end the cycle of ’80s Vietnam War films and sidelining star Michael J. Fox’s attempt to cross over to more dramatic roles. It remains a tough film to watch, in part because De Palma shifts his skills as a creator of tense suspense films to a story of unbearable sadness in which a group of American soldiers (whose ranks include John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo in their film debuts) uses the permission of a violent, charismatic superior (Sean Penn) to engage in barbaric acts. Fox’s casting as the film’s moral center, and a man who suffers for his honesty, feels disorienting at first, but it works. Marty McFly looks out of place in such an awful situation, but that only drives the point home.

Posted by Geoff at 10:07 AM CST
Updated: Saturday, January 11, 2020 10:10 AM CST
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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Brian De Palma's Casualties Of War will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on Saturday, January 18, and on Tuesday, January 21st. The screenings are part of a series centered around critic Pauline Kael, who wrote a deeply impassioned New Yorker review of Casualties Of War upon its initial release in 1989. The series, "Kael's Causes Célèbres," runs January 10-22, featuring "seven films that are especially important in defining Kael's taste and influence," Martin Rubin, associate director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, states in the program notes. Also screening alongside the series is the recent documentary, What She Said: The Art Of Pauline Kael.

Here's Rubin's program description of Casualties Of War:

One of Kael's last great causes célèbres was CASUALTIES OF WAR, a film that divided critics and represented a marked change-of-pace for a director whose stylish thrillers she had long championed. Based on a real incident from the Vietnam War, it tells of a American reconnaissance squad, sexually and otherwise frustrated, who are incited by their sergeant (Penn) to kidnap a Vietnamese girl, over the increasingly urgent (and risky) objections of one of the soldiers (Fox). What's remarkable is how many of the characteristic elements of De Palma's thrillers and crime films (ominous p.o.v. tracking shots, split-focus widescreen frames, voyeurism, complicity, lingering guilt, the link between sex and violence, etc.) are adapted so effectively to a very different context, rendering the Vietnam War as an expressionistic nightmare rooted in reality rather than in genre tropes. 35mm widescreen.

Posted by Geoff at 11:58 PM CST
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Wednesday, November 20, 2019
For the past few months, Adam Zanzie has been working on the above video, "An Oral History of CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989)," and now it is here. Here is Zanzie's full description from YouTube:
On this day, 53 years ago, in 1966, a woman named Phan Thi Mao was murdered in Vietnam.

50 years ago this year, in 1969, journalist Daniel Lang's article about the incident was published in The New Yorker Magazine.

And 30 years ago this year, in 1989, director Brian De Palma's Hollywood feature film adaptation was released.

For this oral history video essay about the legacy of "Casualties of War", director Brian De Palma, screenwriter David Rabe, co-producer Fred Caruso, Captain Dale Dye, Sergeant Mike Stokey, actor Erik King, actor Jack Gwaltney, actor Darren E. Burrows and actress Thuy Thu Le all kindly answered questions that I had about their memories of the production.

Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for "fair use" for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted. "Fair Use" guidelines: copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html

Music by Ennio Morricone and the Chamber Brothers.

Posted by Geoff at 7:33 AM CST
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