Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Oliver Stone’s Platoon: Jesus Christ Superstar vs. the Marlboro Man

Posted on | August 12, 2020 | No Comments

In Oliver Stone’s award-winning film, Platoon (1986), Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a “coming of age” infantry soldier trying to reconcile his identity between the influences of two sergeants in his US Army platoon. The setting is the Vietnam War circa late 1967. The sergeants, played William Dafoe and Tom Berenger, were directed to represent two mythical poles of ideology and belief that have come to heavily influence American political culture. I refer to these two men and the contrasting themes they represent as “Jesus Christ Superstar” vs. “the Marlboro Man.”

Platoon (1986) won Best Picture at the 1987 Academy Awards received additional awards for Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and a nomination for Best Cinematography. Oliver Stone won an “Oscar” for Directing and was nominated for Writing. Both sergeants were nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, which brings me back to the two conflicting myths.

With Sgt. Elias (William Dafoe) representing “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Sgt Barnes (Tom Berenger) “the Marlboro Man,” the movie condenses a series of meanings into the two contending perspectives. These viewpoints divided America and haunt to this day its view of the war. Barnes characterizes the tension succinctly at one point, “there’s the way it ought to be, and there’s the way it is.” Barnes, who was shot seven times, including in the face, has the physical scars to represent “the way it is.”

Jesus Christ Superstar was a rock opera album that was released in 1970 on Broadway and as a movie in 1973. The film was shot in Israel and other Middle Eastern locations and was the eighth highest-grossing film of that year. It reconciled different gospels of the Bible and focused on the relationship between Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene, emphasizing betrayal and picking one’s battles. It was in some ways an anthem of the time as its roll and roll music and energy resonated with the “hippie” counterculture that emerged during the height of the Vietnam War. Jesus of Nazareth, with his long hair, certainly looked the part. Stone “paints” Elias and several other soldiers with iconography from the era. Peace symbols, headbands, drugs, and Sixties music like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” are used to represent this counter-culture.

It’s hard to portray Elias as a Jesus-like pacifist when he volunteered for three tours in the “Nam” and was a skilled and experienced soldier. But from the first scene, we see him carrying a machine gun on his shoulders like a cross and climbing up a mountainside like Jesus ascending Calvary. As Sergeant O’Neil from a third squad says about Elias after an argument, “Guy’s is in three years and he thinks he is Jesus fuckin’ Christ or something.”

Elias is portrayed as the more sensitive leader. We next encounter him helping Chris and offering to carry much of the load from his amateurishly stuffed backpack. Most importantly, he is the voice of restraint when the platoon is searching a Vietnamese village for guns and ammunition. When Sgt. Barnes shoots a Vietnamese village woman during an interrogation, Elias confronts him and initiates a fistfight.

This scene creates a tension between the two as Barnes faces a potential court marital for the murder. The conflict eventually ends up with Barnes shooting Elias during a battle with the Viet Cong. The shots don’t kill him though and as the platoon is being evacuated by helicopters he is sighted from the air being chased by Vietnamese troops. He is shot several times in the back but struggles to continue. Finally, as he falls to his knees, writhing in pain, a medium shot shows him with his arms outstretched and gaze towards the heavens, as if he was being crucified.

The Marlboro Man was another iconic figure of the Vietnam era. It became the masculine symbol of the famous cigarette brand. Invented to subvert the early impression that Marlboro cigarettes were for women, it successfully became the icon of rugged individualism and aggressive patriarchy. The first scene of Barnes shows him in the jungle with a pack of Marlboro cigarettes strapped to his helmet.

Barnes was clearly the leader of the platoon, as even the lieutenant deferred to his judgment. His first words in the movie were “Get a move on, boy” to Chris, in his Southern accent. He is regularly portrayed as the tough but competent, no-nonsense leader. At one point, while criticizing the pot smokers for what he calls their attempt to “escape reality,” he says, “I am reality.”

Oliver Stone served in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star medal. The story was based roughly on his experience there. In Stone’s interview with Joe Rogan, he speaks to his respect for both sergeants. While Stone clearly favors Elias, his portrayal of Barnes is surprisingly sympathetic, and we see how both men influence Chris.

Chris arrives in Vietnam as a “cherry,” a virgin to the war experience. But after he recovers from being shot during their first ambush, he befriends a black man named King and a “surfer dude” from California named Crawford. They are all assigned to cleaning the latrines and the scene allows Chris to tell his story of why he quit college and enlisted in the Army. “I wasn’t learning anything. I figured why should just the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids always get away with it?” The others laugh off his naivety but invite him to the Feel Good Cave, a bunker where they “party” by playing music and smoking pot.

King introduces Taylor as the resurrected “Chris” to the “heads,” including those soldiers played by Johnny Depp and Forrest Whitaker. Elias is there smoking pot as well and welcomes Chris with a “hit” of marijuana blown through the barrel of a rifle. You can hear Grace Slick singing “feed your head” as Chris says he feels good and can’t feel the pain from his injury. Elias responds, “feeling good is good enough.”

Tom Berenger is masterful in his performance as Sgt. Barnes. While Elias is “partying” with the “stoners,” Barnes is listening to country music and playing cards while drinking whiskey and beer with his group. Later, after Elias is dead, Barnes goes to the Feel Good bunker to confront Elias’ friends in the platoon. With a Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey bottle in hand, he goes on to criticize the recently departed Elias.

    Elias was full of shit. Elias was a Crusader. Now, I got no fight with any man who does what he’s told, but when he don’t, the machine breaks down. And when the machine breaks down, we break down. And I ain’t gonna allow that in any of you. Not one.

The scene ends with Chris attacking Barnes, who quickly subdues the young soldier. He is convinced not to kill Chris as he would face ten years in military prison for killing an enlisted man.

In a later battle, the platoon is overrun with Viet Cong, and an airstrike is called in to bomb the US camp. Barnes takes advantage of the chaos to try to kill Chris, but the sergeant is knocked out by the bombing concussion. Chris and Barnes barely survive. When Barnes asks Chris to get a medic, Chris shoots him in retaliation for Elias’ death.

As Chris is airlifted from the battleground, his voice-over narrates an inner conflict:

    I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days as I’m sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession of my soul. There are times since, I’ve felt like the child born of those two fathers. But, be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. He has also taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He keeps his American home in Austin, Texas and has taught there in the Digital Media MBA program at St. Edwards University He joyfully spent 9 years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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