Based on Nicholas Proffitt’s novel, Francis Ford Coppola’s Gardens of Stone is one of the most elegiac, eloquent and downbeat Hollywood films about the Vietnam War.
In fact, the film is less about the Vietnam War per se than about the military as a tightly-closed, ritualistic organization, sort of surrogate family and source of sustenance to its members, particularly while the country is steeped in a national tragedy and upheaval time.
The “Gardens” is the ironic euphemism soldiers use for describing the cemetery where they are kept busy burying the endless stream of dead soldiers.
As scripted by Ronald Bass, the film takes place in 1968 during the Vietnam War. However, unlike Platoon, which was released earlier and contained graphic depictions of violent battles, “Gardens of Stone,” depicts the war mostly through TV images.
Story is set is Fort Myer, Virginia, where a special unit of soldiers is in charge of burying Vietnam’s casualties. A loyal and sensitive sergeant Hazard (James Caan) has served in Vietnam and has grown to hat the conflict. He understands that it can’t be won the way it is being fought. Unhappy with his present assignment, that includes burying the dead that arrive daily from the front, he seeks to transfer to another camp where he can train the green recruits for the realities of Vietnam.
The second protag is a young idealistic soldier (D. B. Sweeney), who’s anxious to go to Vietnam, and looks upon the experienced sergeant as his mentor. The duo develops a tender surrogate father-son relationship.
The sergeant’s friend, a sergeant-major, and another seasoned combat veteran, tries to enlighten the recruit about his patriotic vision of battle. When the sergeant-major mentions that the boy believes his place during wartime is “at the front,” the veteran says to the recruit: “There ain’t no front in Vietnam.” The veteran is not as intense or philosophical about the Vietnam War as the sergeant is. “We’re middle management,” he explains to a fellow officer. “We are the heart and soul of America. We keep the wheels turning while we get ahead, while we watch our backside.”
The sergeant’s girlfriend, a Washington reporter (Anjelica Huston) disagrees fiercely with him about the war. “He sees this war as corrupt,” she admits to a friend, “I see it as genocide.”
The young soldier finally gets his wish and is transferred to Vietnam as a lieutenant. As expected, after a short time, the sergeant is notified that the young officer has been killed in action and that he needs to preside over the military funeral.
The film’s greatest qualities–Coppola’s meticulously detailed mise-en-scene, strng ensemble acting, Jordan Cronenweth’s lyrical imagery– were striking but misperceived by some reviewers.
Not surprisingly, Gardens of Stone sharply divided critics, particularly Pauline Kael, who minsuderstood the subtlety of the scenario, instead claiming that it was too generalized, emblematic, and incoherent.
The movie was a commercial failure, largely due to its downbeat, tragic tone and mixed reviews.
Nonetheless, years later, it stands out as one of the gentlest, most subdued and understated reflections on the impact of the Vietnam War.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Ronald Bass
Production Design: Dean Tavoularis
Camera: Jordan Cronenweth
Editing: Barry Malkin
Music: Carmine Coppola
Release date: May 8, 1987