The story of the war at home and the people who lived through it.
From Francis Ford Coppola, the man who gave the world its most powerful cinematic vision of the Vietnam conflict—Apocalypse Now—comes this starkly different account from the other side of that war: the home front. In a film in its own way as quiet and thoughtful as Apocalypse Now is bombastic and intense, Coppola shines the war's blood-red light on the immortal words of poet John Milton:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1968, and President Lyndon Johnson's affirmations to the contrary, there's a war on. Specialist Jackie Willow (D.B. Sweeney) is an infantryman and the son of an infantryman who wants nothing more than to be on the front lines of the battle, duking it out for his country against the Viet Cong. There's just one problem: Jackie isn't in Vietnam. He's just been assigned to Fort Myer, Virginia, specifically to the Third Infantry's "Old Guard" that serves as ceremonial escort for military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.
Platoon sergeant Clell Hazard (James Caan) would, like Jackie, prefer to contribute more directly to the war effort, even though he already has multiple tours of duty in two Asian conflicts behind him, and a chestful of medals to prove it. Clell would at the very least like to be stationed at Fort Benning, teaching green recruits the survival skills he acquired in Korea and 'Nam, so they'd have a prayer of returning from the sweltering jungles of southeast Asia alive, instead of in the coffins that Clell and his spit-and-polish soldiers plant in the Virginia soil day after day. There's just one problem: Clell's commanding officer, Captain Thomas (Dean Stockwell, Blue Velvet, TV's Quantum Leap), won't approve his reassignment to the battlefield, and Clell's best friend and immediate superior, Sergeant Major "Goody" Nelson (James Earl Jones, wrapping the voice of Darth Vader around a more jovial and engaging personality here), won't push the issue with the brass.
Clell and Goody know, by virtue of harsh experience, what callow and hawkish Jackie refuses to accept: that Vietnam is a no-win proposition. And they know all too certainly why: the jungle is a nasty, unpredictable setting for war—which is hell no matter where it's fought—and this particular war has devolved into such a political hot potato that the men in the trenches are handcuffed by the baby-kissers back home. That doesn't mean these two old soldiers don't want to fight—they'd leap at the opportunity—but as Clell tells Captain Thomas, "I'm not a peacenik, Captain…but if we're gonna fight it, we ought'a fight it right."
Clell may not be a peacenik, but the attractive woman who lives down the hall is. Samantha "Sam" Davis (Anjelica Huston, The Addams Family, The Grifters) is a reporter for the Washington Post, a liberal activist who believes the war is tantamount to "genocide." Clell and Sam's conflicting views don't prevent them from falling in love, though, maybe because they're mature people who've lived a little and understand that intelligent people can disagree, even about big things like war, and maybe because they both want the same thing: for Clell and his men not to keep filling the ground at Arlington with the bodies of young Americans.
Jackie, too, falls in love—with Rachel, a former sweetheart (Mary Stewart Masterson, Johnny Depp's dysfunctional girlfriend in Benny and Joon) whose self-important officer father never had much use for this son of a lowly enlisted man. And by the time all this love is in the air, we've determined whose funeral we observed as the film opened, and we know all too well the truth of Clell's commentary on Vietnam: "It's not even a war. There's nothing to win. And no way to win it." And the garden of stones continues to grow.
Francis Ford Coppola's body of directing work encompasses some of the most jarring and electric films ever made—the Godfather trilogy, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and of course Apocalypse Now. But more of his films are deftly drawn human stories, like his brace of disenfranchised youth dramas adapted from the novels of S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders and Rumble Fish) and even such lighter fare as Peggy Sue Got Married and Tucker: The Man And His Dream. Gardens of Stone is yet another of Coppola's simple tales about people, and in this case that's both a compliment and a critique.
To the film's credit, it does well by the people whose lives it showcases. We feel Jackie Willow's passion for the soldier's calling, and his frustration at being forced to while it away stateside even as his fellow infantrymen are fighting and dying across the sea. We care enough about Jackie that we simultaneously hope that his wish to go to war will be granted, and that it never will. This empathy is almost wholly evoked by Coppola's skillful presentation of the character, and not by D.B. Sweeney, who is limited and almost anonymous as Jackie (and in pretty much everything he's done since).
On the flip side, our warm feelings for the rest of the major characters, Clell and Goody and Sam, resonate mainly from the players. James Caan is, like Gene Hackman (though without Hackman's presence or monumental talent), one of those rare naturalistic actors who rarely—as Henry Fonda put it—lets us "see the wheels work." Caan can sometimes be so loosey-goosey as to be annoying, but he reins in that tendency here and provides a solid anchor for Anjelica Huston and especially James Earl Jones to key from. Jones devours his authoritarian teddy bear of a character—to borrow a metaphor Goody repeats several times in the script—with lusty, boundless relish, which makes one wonder why he's spent so much of his career sleepwalking through such garbage as Soul Man and Clean Slate. Huston is, as expected, magnificent in an underscripted role that could have melted into shrill preachiness in lesser hands.
Coppola mines gold from an standout supporting cast that features Laurence Fishburne and Sam Bottoms, two recidivists from his previous Vietnam saga, as well as the always welcome Dean Stockwell and Elias Koteas. Mary Stuart Masterson, who had already turned in several fine performances (including Andrew McCarthy's love interest in Heaven Help Us and Eric Stoltz's butch secret admirer in Some Kind of Wonderful) by this early point in her career, is wasted in a vacant part that provides her nothing to do except stand around being dutiful.
Unfortunately, Coppola gathers these wonderful people before us, immerses us in their lives, and then forgets to actually say something with or about them. Gardens of Stone has an antiwar (not necessarily just anti-Vietnam) message buried in subtext somewhere, but it feels almost as though Coppola felt so badly about beating us up with Apocalypse Now that he decided to handle us with kid gloves this time around. The result leaves us perpetually waiting for something significant to occur, and we're still waiting when the credits slide past. Ronald Bass's script is all setup and no payoff—character moment after character moment in the absence of anything vital for those characters to do or have happen to them. We figure out pretty early on where this meandering road is leading, but Coppola's taking us for a drive in a limousine, not a Jeep, and the car's so softly sprung that we can't feel enough of the bumps.
Columbia TriStar offers a decent quality anamorphic transfer of Gardens of Stone on DVD, even if they pathologically insist on slapping a pan-and-scan monstrosity on the other side. (Columbia folks: this is an adult drama. No one under the age of ten is watching this movie. Use those megabytes for some real content instead of pretending this is Teletubbies.) A few minor print defects and some grain crop up from the source material, but nothing too extreme. This being a Columbia TriStar release, one fears the worst for edge enhancement and digital artifacting, but the few instances I spotted here weren't egregious.
The audio track is Dolby 2.0 Stereo and sounds like it. Fortunately, this is a dialogue-heavy film without much need for depth or activity, but you won't get any. The few instances of dramatic sounds, such as rifle fire, sound acceptably full but shallow. Coppola tossed his dad Carmine a bone and let him pen a nondescript score for Gardens of Stone, and it receives all the attention it deserves in this track—none whatsoever.
Speaking of "none whatsoever," that's pretty much the situation with supplements on this disc. Three trailers—not for this film, but for other movies (Birdy, Glory, the original Brian's Song) you saw at least a decade or more ago if you saw them at all—are the only extras to compensate for your hard-won dollars.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A couple of delightful showcase moments worth honoring.
First, there's a sequence in which Clell Hazard's platoon is preparing for inspection by Sergeant Major Nelson. Laurence Fishburne, as a martinet junior non-com, is hilarious as he verbally whips the troops into shape. When Goody arrives, his gruff, dictatorial but tongue-in-cheek interplay with the young servicemen must be seen to be appreciated. This is the kind of leader who knows when to be tough and exactly how tough to be, and James Earl Jones carries the scene with panache, even when he is one-upped by a quick-thinking Jackie Willow.
Second, there's a long shot of Clell Hazard walking down the hall from Sam Davis's apartment after their first dinner together. This ramrod-shouldered career grunt gets almost to his own door before giving a nearly-imperceptible skip of glee. Caan nails the bit. Priceless.
I liked, even admired, these characters. I enjoyed spending time getting to know them. I only wish the director and screenwriter hadn't been so reluctant to accomplish something more definitive with them. It's okay, Messrs. Coppola and Bass, for a message picture to actually have a message. Maybe even drive it home a bit. We can take it. Trust me. Gardens of Stone is so subtle that it could almost be mistaken for not having a message at all.
Francis Ford Coppola is found guilty of exhausting most of what he had to say about war, and about Vietnam in particular, in another, better film. On the strength of some sterling performances by his cast, he's released on his own recognizance. Columbia TriStar is sentenced to planting thousands of tiny American flags on the graves of the honored dead for disrespecting this film with a hack-and-slash transfer and a bare-bones DVD. Court is now in recess.
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