Gardens of Stone

February 13, 2013

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.

Advertisements

Alien Nation

November 29, 2012

Question: Which nation was not invited to the just-completed Olympic Games?

Answer: Alien Nation.

That’s the joke of a recent coming-attractions trailer for the new sci-fi thriller, which suggests the sense of humor this movie has about itself. The film isn’t as clever as the trailer.

But Alien Nation does present an intriguing new future. It’s set a few years from now, after a lost space ship has unloaded its passengers in Los Angeles. The humanoid creatures, known as “newcomers” (but unofficially called “slags”), have in many ways assimilated themselves into society; they’ve learned English, gotten jobs.

But most of them live in the ghetto, and are discriminated against. “Slag town” is a hotbed of violence; cop James Caan, a slag-basher to begin with, loses his partner in a dispute among the newcomers.

Caan is assigned a new partner, and of course it’s the first newcomer (Mandy Patinkin) in the L.A. detective force. With their testy relationship, the film slides into the buddy-cop movie formula, and delivers the expected banter and eventual grudging friendship. There’s nothing new about this angle of the movie, although both actors are watchable (the resourceful Patinkin is encased in the newcomers’ makeup, which includes a distended skull flecked with giraffe-like spots).

The underlying theme of Alien Nation is bigotry; like much science fiction, it deals with a social issue, in this case racial discrimination, in an oblique way. The rest of the plot revolves around drugs, a blue goo that drives the newcomers crazy. (Maybe the aliens belonged at the Olympics after all.) But the best thing about Rockne O’Bannon’s original screenplay is the newcomer culture that it describes.

The newcomers, for instance, have no interest in booze. But sour milk—a coupla belts of that stuff, and they’re blotto. Also, they can’t touch sea water, or they disintegrate. But they can breathe methane and not be affected, which is why they get jobs at refineries. And in their language, the name of James Caan’s character means “excrement cranium,” or… well, you can translate that one.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1988

It became a TV series for a while, and O’Bannon went on to create Farscape for TV.