|Vietnam Veterans of America|
|Books in Review, November/December 2020|
Glory Days: Oliver Stone’s First Forty Years
REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON
One cold winter evening in mid-January of 1987 a group of Vietnam Veterans of America national staff members took in a movie. We had been invited to a screening of a soon-to-be-released Vietnam War film that none of us knew anything about—except that it was about the war. We made our way to the old MacArthur Theatre in D.C., which soon was packed with a few hundred other veterans, politicians, and federal government types. We sat down and commenced to jabber about this and that till the theater darkened and the movie started.
Two hours later the lights came on, and not one soul said a word. To a person, we stood up and silently filed out into the cold, stunned at what we had just seen. We had just taken in Platoon, the first Vietnam War film written or directed (in this case both) by a Vietnam veteran, and seen the most realistic depiction by far of that war put on celluloid. And the most powerful.
Few of us had heard of the Vietnam vet who made the movie based on what he had experienced as an Army draftee during his eventful 1967-68 tour of duty. Some movie aficionados knew that he’d won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay of the brutal prison drama Midnight Express (1978), that he had written the screenplay for the Al Pacino gangster movie Scarface (1983), and had written and directed the international political thriller Salvador (1986).
But soon all of America knew the name Oliver Stone as the critics raved about Platoon, controversies erupted about its depictions of fragging and killing civilians, and Stone took home the Oscar for Best Director and Platoon was named Best Picture at the Academy Awards in March.
Oliver Stone went on to direct, write, and produce a boatload of movies and became a pop culture star—and one of the nation’s best-known Vietnam War veterans. Much has been written about Stone, his politics, his moviemaking, and his personal life since Platoon burst on the scene 33 years ago. But nothing has come close to revealing more about the man and his work than his riveting new demi-autobiography Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving ‘Platoon,’ ‘Midnight Express,’ ‘Scarface,’ ‘Salvador’ and the Movie Game (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 342 pp., $28).
Riveting because Oliver Stone is a great writer, a very smart and learned guy, and because he has an amazing story to tell about the first forty years of his life. Revealing because Stone offers up detail upon detail about his life, including more than he’s ever divulged about his 1967-68 Vietnam War tour and about the making of Platoon—and the other movies he worked on through 1987.
Here’s one example of Stone showing off his writing skill and giving us fascinating inside-baseball stuff on his vision for Platoon:
It would be a movie, he writes, “with young men who looked older than their years, not men in their thirties and forties playing young GIs like in many Hollywood war movies. It’d be a dirty war, as it was—men who rarely slept, their nerves bent out of proportion, jumpy, hateful, playing to some of their baser instincts of racism, white, black, and yellow. And at its worst, it’d be about murder most foul, as in a Greek drama. But their faces would be pure rural or inner-city American. It’d be a modest, low-down grubby movie, but with a venomous sting.”
Indeed. He goes on to say that Platoon’s main character, his alter ego Chris (Charlie Sheen), would be modeled on Odysseus, “the wanderer struggling to find his way home. A young man without identifying traits beyond a vague educated-class status who goes innocently into hell and comes out the other side—a man darkened by the experience.”
In sketching his personal and professional lives, Stone does not shy away from delving deeply into the dark times. The title, Chasing the Light, applies to his life and to movie making, as it refers to what Stone calls “one of the first basic lessons”: finding the correct lighting, especially for outdoor movie scenes, without which, he says, “you have nothing.”
He reveals his personal highs and lows, of which there were many. They mostly involved his relationships with his French mother and American stockbroker father who went through a bitter divorce; the women in his life, especially his first two wives; and the 1970s and ’80s Hollywood snake pit of backstabbing agents, money-obsessed producers, two-faced studio execs, crazed directors, and egomaniacal actors.
Then there’s his tour of duty in Vietnam as an infantryman with the 25th Infantry and the 1st Cav. Stone had dropped out of Yale and pushed the draft in April 1967. He arrived in Vietnam after Infantry AIT in mid-September and saw plenty of action, during which he was wounded twice (once through the neck), medevaced twice, and received a Bronze Star. He extended his tour to get an early out, and came home bitter and “unhinged.”
I “was coiled tight,” he writes, “a jungle creature, ready for anything, living 24/7 on the edge of my nerves, even when I slept. I was a hard man, harder than I’d ever been. I was so numb I couldn’t recognize it, like waking up anesthetized after an operation in a hospital.”
The young war veteran—born William Oliver Stone—went back to college, graduated from NYU in 1970, and decided he wanted to write and direct movies. He had very little success in New York. Inspired by an epiphany during his grandmother’s funeral in Paris, he came back to the States and moved to Hollywood.
Then came his struggles with the Midnight Express producers and director, but redemption in the form of a big hit—and an Oscar. But his ecstatic ups and depressive downs continued. Stone spends much time writing about his contentious and spirit-draining battles with his own postwar emotional struggles, as well as with stingy producers, controlling studio bosses, and prima donna actors while making the movie Salvador—much more time than he devotes to Platoon, and too much for my money.
He does deliver lots of play-by-play on how he wrote Platoon and the making of the film and the seemingly non-stop hassles with the studio about virtually every aspect of the process. He drops show biz names like hailstones: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jimmy Stewart, Liz Taylor, Cary Grant, Mick Jagger, Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty, Tom Cruise, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Al Pacino—you get the picture. He ends this story of his life at age 40, “proverbially the halfway point.”
Oliver Stone, not exactly a shrinking violet, is not shy about letting the world know that he achieved “money, fame, glory, and honor” during the last few of those 40 years. He ends the book with this revealingly less-than-humble statement:
“Thirty years now, I look back and realize I had no idea then of the storm that was coming, but I did know instinctively that I’d reached a moment in time whose glory would last me forever.”
Sounds like he’s paving the way for a sequel. I humbly suggest a title: Avoiding the Darkness: Making ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ and Other Movies, Concocting Political Conspiracies, and Trying to Stay in the Public Eye in the 21st Century.
Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear—the summer of 1969, in this case. Out of the past comes the Moon landing, Woodstock, Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, and the thundering hoofbeats of the American war in Vietnam. All of those events come into play in best-selling novelist Elin Hilderbrand’s Summer of ’69 (Little Brown, 425 pp. $28, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $11.99, Kindle; $9.99, mass market paperback), a romance-filled novel expressly designed to be consumed while vegging on a beach, preferably under clear blue skies.
Elin Hilderbrand has published 21 romance-heavy books since 2007. They come in four categories: “Summer” books (14) with beachy covers featuring happy, mostly blond young folks cavorting at water’s edge; “Winter” books (4) with happy young couples on the covers embracing in the snow; and “Paradise” books (3), each with a shapely, bathing-suit-clad woman on the cover enjoying life on a white, sandy beach.
Given its title, it should come as no surprise that Summer of ’69—which came out in the summer of 2019—has a strong Vietnam War theme. For one thing, there’s much antiwar talk among several young members of the upper-crust Foley-Lewis blended family that’s at the center of the book. More importantly, young Richard Pennington “Tiger” Foley gets drafted into the Army, is shipped to the war zone, and undergoes a hellacious tour. Tiger’s fate weighs heavily on all the members of his family, especially his mother and sisters.
The female family members—the stars of the book—face a multitude of other crises of the boyfriend, matrimonial, intergenerational, and family-secret variety. All is revealed after they’ve ended their very busy ’69 summer (on both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard) and sit down to a Thanksgiving Dinner.
Speaking of which, Hilderbrand lists the entire T-day menu.
Her word portrait of the entire meal—including that fragrant turkey—is as corny as Kansas in August and right out of a Hallmark movie. If any reader has a doubt about that, Hilderbrand spells it out, observing that the turkey-centered scene is “just like” a Normal Rockwell painting.
Hilderbrand spends much time in this long but fast-reading book detailing innumerable other meals and food items the family members consume and the clothes the women wear—along with their past, present, and potential romantic entanglements.
Angst over Tiger’s fate in the war periodically hovers over their lives, especially his put-upon mother’s. Despite a few sour notes about his military service (almost no one got sent “overseas” the day after finishing Basic Training; Hamburger Hill—not Dak To—was abandoned after a bloody battle) much of that rings true. However, the length, tone, and words Tiger uses in a long, three-page letter to his mother that Hilderbrand pops in near the end of the book strain credibility past the breaking point.
In it, Tiger explains to Mom that he’s been “rewarded with an R&R” because he survived a firefight in which “nearly the whole platoon was killed and I collected up the pieces of my buddy Puppy’s body and stayed with them until the chopper came and then I was reassigned to a special mission in Cambodia where we successfully seized twenty tons of supplies headed to VC forces. That was dangerous and exhausting… Then I was plucked out of that platoon for a recon mission with five other soldiers…”
Tiger goes on to describe more battlefield horror, then recounts—with dialogue—his face-to-face with a colonel. The grateful officer sends Tiger on R&R, gives him a promotion, and offers him “a cushier position,” a “job in requisition,” whatever that’s supposed to be. Tiger turns it down, saying he wants to stay on “the front lines.” Memo to Elin Hilderbrand: There were no “front lines” in the Vietnam War—it wasn’t World War II.
Throughout the entire book Hilderbrand prompts the reader to ponder Tiger’s fate. Will a family friend pull the right strings and get him home from the war? What is that secret mission he’s on in Cambodia? Will he survive?
The answers to these and other big Summer of ’69 questions are…. No spoilers here. I have to rush off in my faded, boot-cut Levi’s and sky-blue silk Hawaiian shirt adorned with swaying hula girls and jumping swordfish because dinner’s on the table.
Tonight we’re having homemade farfalle noodles with from-scratch pasta sauce (heavy on the garlic) topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Plus, a Greek salad of cold, crisp Romaine lettuce, savory Kalamata olives, pickled pepperoncini, and Macedonian feta cheese (no anchovies). Dessert will be a Breyer’s double-scoop cherry vanilla ice cream sundae with chopped pecans, hand-whipped cream, and a Maraschino cherry on top.
After that, I’m adjourning to the media room where I’ll munch on a large plate of imported Medjool dates, Mission figs, and Marcona almonds as I take in the 4:00 NFL game on my 81-inch, hi-def TV while savoring a snifter of 18-year-old single-malt Macallan Scotch.
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