Gardens of Stone

gardensofstoneFrancis Coppola has looked at the Vietnam War before. A decade ago, hot off the success of the Godfather films, he poured everything he had into Apocalypse Now, a broad, out-of-control movie that played up the insanity of Vietnam through a plot borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It was all darkness: The war was a rudderless ship, and the military people in charge were psychopaths. (Remember “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”?)

Now Coppola has made another Vietnam movie, based on a novel by Nicholas Profitt, and the contrast is fascinating. Gardens of Stone, produced with the enthusiastic cooperation of the U.S. military, shows the home front in 1968, among some soldiers and friends at Arlington National Cemetery. This time the conflict isn’t the simple war-is-madness of Apocalypse Now. This is a much more mature, and much more ambivalent movie.

The central figure is Clell Hazard (James Caan, in a terrific comeback performance), a combat veteran who’s been put out to pasture as a member of the Old Guard. His main responsibility at Arlington is teaching soldiers how to bury other soldiers, but he burns to be doing something more useful.

A young gung-ho soldier (D.B. Sweeney) becomes Hazard’s surrogate son at Arlington. He wants to be an officer and go where the fighting is. Hazard’s response is basically the film’s standpoint: This war is different, probably a mistake; but a soldier must serve, and should be where he can do the most good. The movie tracks the year of the boy’s tutelage under Hazard and another Old Guard sergeant (James Earl Jones, in a scene-stealing role), until the kid is shipped off.

Some of the ambivalence of the time is reflected in Hazard’s relationship with a Washington Post reporter (Anjelica Huston) who thinks the war is “genocide” but who falls in love with the Army man anyway.

I’m not sure Coppola feels completely comfortable with the old-fashioned straightforwardness of this story, especially toward the end, but he bravely faces it head on. It’s a very entertaining film, with lots of inside military stuff. There’s an emphasis on the military as a family, and Hazard refers to the war as a “family business”—which reverberates intriguingly with the family business of Coppola’s Godfather.

And it’s a good-looking film, both in terms of the people onscreen and the physical production. Jordan Cronenweth’s photography is excellent as usual, and production designer Dean Tavoularis, who has worked with Coppola many times, gets a late-’60s look that is discreet but evocative. Hazard’s slightly dumpy apartment, for example, is an uncannily authentic space.

These details are memorable, and that’s proper. The big issues of the war won’t get settled here, and the film is at its best when it stays away from them (one of the only cheap-shot moments comes at the expense of a caricature peacenik, played by counterculture promoter Bill Graham). The movie succeeds because of its attention to the frailties of people, caught in a terrible situation.

First published in the Herald, May 1987

History has not remembered this movie, and to be honest, neither really have I. But it did, at least, feel rooted in something. Coppola’s son had died just before filming, and the film has a gravity that distinguishes it in the director’s work.

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