Few American icons are as powerful— and confusing—as the stars and stripes. When Bruce Springsteen launched his Born in the U.S.A. album in 1984, with its image of a blue-denim Boss standing tall against the flag, right-wing patriots embraced the title song as a jingoistic anthem, despite its angry message about the waste of American lives in Vietnam. Now, the red-white-and-blue is being used to promote two movies based on true tales of U.S. war heroes. An advertisement for Glory shows a cluster of Civil War soldiers standing firm with bayonetted rifles, their flag hoisted in the smoke of battle. Publicity for Born on the Fourth of July shows Tom Cruise staring intently through a veil of stars and stripes. Both films are epics about wars that tore apart the social fabric, but they express radically different attitudes towards military heroism.
Glory is an elegiac tribute to the Civil War’s first black regiment, men who served as Union cannon fodder in a suicidal assault on a Confederate fort. Beautifully filmed and finely acted, the movie sheds light on the overlooked role of 180,000 blacks who eventually signed up with the Union forces. But Glory treats war with such reverential zeal that it creates as many myths as it shatters. Meanwhile, Born on the Fourth of July reopens the wounds of Vietnam with about as much subtlety as a fragmentation bomb. A relentless melodrama, it bludgeons the myth of the American war hero with such a heavy hand that, in the end, the exercise seems as pointless and wasteful as the war itself.
Directed by Edward Zwick, creator of TV’s thirtysomething, Glory brings a significant chapter of black-American history to the screen. It is the story of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-black unit led by a young white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). A pampered son of the upper class, Shaw gradually overcomes his prejudices to champion the cause of his regiment. He fights to get them shoes, then rifles, and finally uniforms. Although Shaw’s fellow officers scoff at the idea of sending blacks into battle, his men ultimately prove to be gallant fighters. Forming the front line of a beach-front attack on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner in 1863, at least half the regiment is killed.
The battle scenes are graphically brutal yet lyrical. In Glory, war is equal parts hell and heaven. For the black soldiers, the struggle against the South becomes a crusade for emancipation. But by romanticizing that quest with a rising crescendo of spiritual music and patriotic images, Zwick undermines the authenticity at
the core of his film. The director also underplays the asset that makes Glory distinctive: its black cast. Two remarkable actors lead an impressive ensemble—Denzel Washington as a firebrand runaway slave and Morgan Freeman as a gravedigger who rises to the rank of sergeant major. All perform brilliantly, but their dialogue seems to be grimly rationed
while Broderick’s less interesting character, Shaw, dominates the movie as a Christ figure whose sacrifice serves as their inspiration.
Glory marks a significant step in recognizing the contribution of blacks to American history. But, filtering its story through a white hero and a glaze of patriotic sentiment, it makes unneccessary concessions to Hollywood tradition. In a letter to his mother, Shaw writes, “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.” In Shaw’s spirit, Glory fights for those whose movies are not yet made—and wins a limited victory.
The “poetry” of Vietnam, meanwhile, has been overwritten by Hollywood. And, with Born on the Fourth of July, the most successful exorcist of the Vietnam trauma, director Oliver Stone, is back with a vengeance. Stone scored a major hit and four Oscars with his 1986 war-is-' hell drama, Platoon. But his new movie makes Platoon look like a walk in the park.
Based on a 1976 autobiography by Ron Kovic, a crippled Vietnam veteran who became an ardent opponent of the war, Born on the Fourth of July has less than 20 minutes of Vietnam scenes. But they form a harrowing sequence in which Kovic (Tom Cruise) takes part in a civilian massacre, inadvertently kills one of his own men and is severely wounded. Paralysed from the chest down, he returns home to discover that war heroes are out of fashion. Inexorably, Kovic passes through stages of bitterness, rage and despair before being reborn as an antiwar hero.
Although it is a different story, Born on the Fourth of July is Stone’s unofficial sequel to Platoon. He enlists two of Platoon’s stars, Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger, for supporting roles. He also revives Platoon’s pushbutton rhythm of sentiment and shock—from the sweet Vietnam sunsets and jukebox sound track to the images of delirious violence. There
are sickening shots of slow-motion gore, bones protruding from flesh, bodies twitching in a ratinfested veterans hospital. And the psychological drama is almost as visceral.
Cruise does admirably well in the circumstances. By casting him, Stone cleverly desecrates an all-American archetype. Cruise’s Kovic sullies a handsome face with a scraggly beard and unleashes a torrent of obscenities against his mother. The actor gives a risky, allout performance that makes him an obvious Oscar candidate. But his sacrifice is squandered. By the end of Stone’s 140-minute ordeal, it becomes gruesomely clear that the movie is bereft of ideas. And, as antiwar protest, Born on the Fourth of July is too much, too late. Glory’s vision is much nobler. But, in opposite ways, both movies are blinded by America’s romance with war.
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