Casualties of War (1989): De Palma’s Powerful Vietnam War Film, Starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn

Almost every major American director, including Kubrick, Coppola, Cimino, and Oliver Stone, has made a movie about the Vietnam War.

Brian De Palma made his own contribution to the genre with Casualties of War, in 1989, scripted by David Rabe, based on the New Yorker article by Daniel Lang.

The tale focuses on one patrol and their mistreatment of a young Vietnamese girl (Thuy Tu Le) who they kidnap and then gang-raped under the encouragement (and pressure) of Meserve (Sean Penn in top form), the crazed and ruthless sergeant.

The conflict within the five-man Army unit is between Meserve and Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), a conscientious Lutheran.  De Palma’s movie stands out because its story is told from the standpoint of a man who tried to prevent the tragedy but ultimately proved helpless and ineffectual.  At one point, the exasperated Eriksson says, “I thought we were here to help these people,” a statement that conveys the message of the whole film.

Capturing the moral confusion and physical chaos of war, “Casualties of War” is consistently gripping and full of tensions, and it’s therefore too bad that the last reel is rather weak dramatically.

While Penn gives a fully-realized performance as the callous and barbaric sergeant, Fox’s is rather pallid and too soft and clean-cut to really counteract an animal-like Meserve; he comes across as a stereotype.

The thematically-similar conflict (good and evil soldiers) in “Platoon” was more convincing, in large part due to the strength of the characters as scripted and the actors who played them (Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger).

Sharply uneven, the movie lacks consistent perspective and it is too fractured for its own good, which may be a result of the writing: David Rabe is a Vietnam vet and distinguished playwright (Sticks and Bones, Streamers), but may lack the skills necessary for penning a movie screenplay.

That said, De Palma, putting aside his famed stylistic flourishes and cynicism, has made an intermittently harrowing melodrama out of a real-life tragedy that serves as a forceful indictment of how “civilized society” finds ways to justify brutal and immoral acts during wars.


Pfc Eriksson (Michael J. Fox)

Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn)

Clark (Don Harvey)

Hatcher (John C. Reilly)

Diaz (John Leguizamo)

Oahn (Thuy Thu Le)

Brown, Radio Man (Erik King)

Rowan (Jack Gwalthney)

Lt. Reilly (Ving Rhames)

Hawthorne (Dan Martin)


Produced by Art Linson and Fred Caruso

Directed by Brian De Palma

Screenplay: David Rabe, based on the article by Daniel Lang in New Yorker magazine (later a book).

Camera: Stephen H. Burum.

Editor: Bill Pankow.

Music: Ennio Morricone

Production design: Wolf Kroeger

Art direction: Bernard Hydes

Costumes: Richard Bruno


Running time: 120 Minutes