Sunday, 6 September 2020

Born on the Fourth of July by Kovic & Stone

The last time I wrote about an Oliver Stone movie was in a post about Natural Born Killers. Looking at what I wrote now, I see I gave credit for that script solely to Quentin Tarantino..

That was unjust, since Oliver Stone was not only the director of Natural Born Killers but one of the other screenwriters. Certainly he left his personal stamp on that movie.

At the time I was going through an enjoyable Quentin Tarantino revival and mini film festival as the result of reading a new book about him.

Well, I am now reading an even better book about the films of Oliver Stone and that's set me off on a Stone retrospective.

First up, Born on the Fourth of July. This is the true story of Ron Kovic, a naive all American boy who went to Vietnam, suffered catastrophic wounds, and went from being fiercely and blindly patriotic to a ferocious opponent of the war with his eyes wide open.

In many respects this was also the trajectory of Oliver Stone, who volunteered to be an infantryman in Vietnam.

I had powerful memories of this movie — especially the squalid veterans' hospital sequences — and I wasn't disappointed.  

Essentially the story here is of Kovic's disillusionment. To set this up Stone begins with a long sun-dappled depiction of his hero's boyhood and adolescence. And I do mean long.

In my viewing notes I wrote, "The interminable pre-Vietnam sequence needs a chainsaw taken to it." 

However, I also wrote. "But Stone actually gets Cruise to act."

Yes, that's the big surprise here. Tom Cruise is a major movie star, but one doesn't associate him with depth or range of acting.

But in Born on the Fourth of July, he is startling and compelling.

And after the long and rather dull beginning, the movie never lets up and never goes where you expect it to go.

The surprises begin with the build up to the all-important high school wrestling championship which Ron must win.

He loses. And signs up in the marines on the rebound.

No sooner is he in Vietnam than he is involved in shooting innocent villagers and babies — "Very unfortunate," says his commanding officer.

Moments later he accidentally kills one of his own comrades in arms, Wilson. 

When Ron tries to unburden himself about this — "It was very confusing and I think I might have killed him" — his officer snarls, "I don't need anybody to come in here and tell me this shit."

So washing his hands of the whole affair, and leaving Ron struggling to deal with it.

He deals with it by attempting to be a hero, and receiving wounds so severe that the doctors tell him he will never walk again.

Ron defies them in classic Hollywood fashion by staging, through sheer willpower and physical striving, a rousing recovery.

But, in very un-Hollywood fashion, he takes a grisly fall, shattering his leg and ending up worse off than before.

From here on this is the story of Ron coming to terms with what has happened to him. At first he is content to return to his family and be the war hero in a wheelchair.

But Stone almost immediately undermines these sequences with harsh reality — Ron emptying his catheter before the big parade.

And soon Ron is questioning the simple minded patriotism that took his legs away, and is on his way to become a figurehead of the anti-war movement.

But first he has to make his peace with Wilson, the American soldier he killed. And he goes to visit Wilson's family and confess what he did. 

It's a tough, haunting scene, and probably the highlight of a distinctive and unsual movie that simply doesn't follow any of the predictable story contours. 

(Image credits: All from IMDB.)

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