Looking, I suppose, for a thread to anything, I started to peck away at a story based on my memories of January 1st, 1968. What had I really remembered of that battle except the bodies and the fireworks?
Eight years ago was a long time—details, faces were blurring. Ten screenplays and maybe five real-time years of my ass connected to a chair—and nothing to show for it. This story might possibly speak some truth about our failure in Vietnam because it’d be bigger than just “miserable old me.” A first draft shouldn’t take so long, or I’d end up like a crazed Robert Bolt, researching and writing for years.
Cut your losses. As I understood Norman Mailer’s directive on writing, we are governed by a secret pact to do it each day, to store and carry the residue of the previous day into our unconscious, to sleep on it, and then continue that mindset through the next day. It’s a rhythm you don’t break, and if you do, you wasted your preparation, never to be regained the same way.
After leaving Najwa, I moved into a friend’s third-floor walkup for almost a year. It was like living at a YMCA—a small, shabby room overlooking the rumble of trucks day and night down Second Avenue. I was happy here in my little room, no obligations, no rent to pay. My friend Danny Jones, in his forties, a divorced five-foot-five Englishman of sardonic wit and generous heart, held a stable and creative job as an art director at a top New York advertising agency, but he also had a huge appetite for drugs and alcohol and, like many New Yorkers, was living every two weeks from paycheck to paycheck.
Being a bachelor again with an eccentric host, I found the gloom of George Orwell’s poverty was dispelled, and I discovered a side of New York no cab driver would ever find on his map, the world of Henry Miller’s 1930s Paris, transposed to 1970s New York—an underdream of aspiring musicians, filmmakers, actresses and models, photographers, artists of all stripes, Wall Street hustlers, Park Avenue heiresses, divorcées, widows, teachers, nurses, doctors selling speed, drug dealers, immigrants, all new, all on the make.
Every night turned into an adventure; waking up in different places, I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun in my life, maybe because being young and single is more fun without money, and maybe because the only thing money can’t buy is poverty. Money gives you an edge, but without it, you become more human. In some ways it was like being back in the infantry, with a grunt’s worm’s-eye view. Everything is seen by looking up. Every gift, every kindness is appreciated as much as any dollar.
Sometimes, for the majority of the day I’d walk alone through the streets, exploring or dreaming. There was unemployment money, but that eventually ran out. And I felt no guilt at being a bum, not responsible to my father, or Robert Bolt, or anybody. I still felt destined for higher things, but was enjoying, day by day, the rent-free shelter given me by an older Falstaff in return for my collaboration with him on two promising screenplays.
Let me add that with his remarkable Celtic constitution, Danny went to work each morning sober, as I would write up our ideas at his tiny kitchen table. But this writer’s journey of hope and heartbreak does not bear repeating, except to say that I was now totally responsible for myself, and since I’d gone on this unique journey, I knew I was going to the very end of my talent—if I had any.
But after six months, our co-written screenplays were languishing in purgatory, and I sensed nothing was going to happen with them—again. “Nothing” is the most frustrating feeling in the world. Nothing. After that Fourth of July night, I began writing alone again, quickly in longhand, three pages here, four pages there, building a muscle of memory mixed with some imagination. I called it simply “The Platoon.”
War in reality is dull. So much boredom and dead time. Spiritual death too. A realistic version of my time in four different units, three of them combat platoons, would not make an interesting movie, and I was a screenwriter by this time, even if without success; I had at least gotten to know the form and the feel for it. The movie culture by the 1970s was moving off the success of Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider in 1969 in a neo-realistic, antiheroic direction.
Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Bob De Niro, Al Pacino, and Women’s Liberation were contradicting the traditional roles movie heroes and heroines had played. Nonetheless, movies had historically, to my mind, stood for action, spectacle, resonance—above all, a feeling that life had a meaning. Even failure had a meaning. And now I had to find meaning in that shitty little war if I was going to write a movie about it.
I didn’t want it to be an allegory like “Break,” my 1969 effort to deal with Vietnam. This was not going to be just about me—it would be about all of us who went on that journey without an ending. It was not hippies or college boys but lost working-class men whose future in contemporary America would be increasingly bleak. And I’d be the observer, if such exists. My alter ego in the script would be Chris Taylor—an anodyne white Protestant name for a young man who volunteered and just wanted to be anonymous over there.
After all, in the army I’d resorted to using, as in boarding school and the merchant marine, my official baptismal name, William. My middle name, which my parents settled on—Oliver—was too effete and European for rougher American accents. So Chris would have no family history to haunt his flesh, and there’d be a distant but obviously important grandmother to whom he writes letters from the battlefield:
Well, here I am—anonymous alright, with guys no one really cares about — they come from the end of the line, most of ’em towns you’ve never heard of—Pulaski, Tennessee, Brandon, Mississippi, Pork Bend, Utah . . . Two years’ high school’s about it, maybe if they’re lucky a job waiting for them back in a factory, but most of them got nothing, they’re poor . . . they’re the backbone of this country, grandma, the best I’ve ever seen, the heart and soul . . . I found it, finally, way down here in the mu—maybe from down here I can start up again and be something I can be proud of, without having to fake it.
This would be a movie with young men who looked older than their years, not men in their thirties and forties playing young GIs like in many Hollywood war movies. It’d be a dirty war, as it was—men who rarely slept, their nerves bent out of proportion, jumpy, hateful, playing to some of their baser instincts of racism, white, black, and yellow. And at its worst, it’d be about murder most foul, as in a Greek drama. But their faces would be pure rural or inner-city American. It’d be a modest, low-down grubby movie, but with a venomous sting.
Watching antiwar demonstrations in New York brought up a fury and contradiction in myself over something in the American air that was so deeply hypocritical; we marched for peace but somehow wanted war, wanted to release its aggression. After all, I’d wanted to go, hadn’t I? And I felt again the pure futility of my quest, alongside that of our expeditionary army. I was back in The Iliad with those Greeks camping on the shores outside the walls of Troy, with the divisive bickering and feuds. Like the Greeks, I felt, the Americans had great hubris embodied by an undeserved arrogance of victory left over from World War II.
As our “Dr. Strangelove,” Henry Kissinger, summed up the problem, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like Vietnam does not have a breaking point.” We were so proud, and then, when we couldn’t achieve victory, we had to lie like we all do when we deny what we know is true—that we lost, and lost big-time, and all those technology-loving Pentagon warriors were at last revealed as failures, and those determined little Vietnamese had licked us.
So America came up with its “Peace with Honor” public relations campaign, and then later intensified it with its “Bring Home Our Missing POWs” mission to mask the Vietnamese denial of our will to win. Never lose, never. This exceptionalism was stamped all over the arrogance of Patton, embodied by George C. Scott in the hit movie of 1970. The horrible truth was Americans loved this Patton, the movie and the man, a sick man who’d gone too far. We loved killers. Why was I raised seeing killers on almost every TV show? Isn’t that why I made Natural Born Killers later in life—to show that madness in our culture?
In my script, I’d model my alter ego on Odysseus, the wanderer struggling to find his way home. A young man without identifying traits beyond a vague educated-class status who goes innocently into hell and comes out the other side—a man darkened by his experience. I’d read Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves and loved the actions and fates of the multiple characters that appeared in Greek myth, which had essentially disappeared from our culture. That’s why Professor Tim Leahy at NYU, whose class I’d taken outside the film school, struck lightning with me in a classical drama course; he’d rage about the fate of Odysseus.
“Why,” he’d thunder, “did Odysseus alone return to Penelope after nearly 20 years? Why him of all the heroes that went off to Troy?”
He waited for his answer—silence. “Nine years! On the beaches at Troy, and nine more years returning to Ithaca. No one else in his crew made it home. Why? Why Odysseus?
“Consciousness!” he wrote, as his fist banged the chalkboard, his voice carrying. “Because he had consciousness,” he repeated. “That, people, is what kept him alive. That’s the difference between each one of us—how conscious can you remain in this hard world? How often do we forget because we . . . what? We want to —” He banged the board where he’d written the word “LETHE” in big block letters. “Sleep! Lethe. Forgetfulness.” In the silence that followed, I sensed several of the students were already practicing their form of “lethe”in this sparsely attended class.
“What are the Lotus Eaters about? Why are men turned into swine by Circe? Because they forgot they were men. They became beasts. But not Odysseus. Why does he order his men to tie him to the mast, no matter how much he’d plead to be released? Because, while his men stuff their ears with wax, he wants to hear the voices of these sirens! Knowledge—that is what Odysseus is after.”
He was gone deep into the recesses of Odysseus’s mind. No one was taking the bait, most of them terrified of interrupting this intense man. He was so loud, I imagine people in Washington Square eight floors below our open window could hear him.
“Because he wants to know! To hear—to know all things! To go to the end of things. Consciousness, people, consciousness. That is the difference between life and death. This is what makes the modern man. Pay attention, I implore you!” It was sad to see this really great teacher using all of his life breath to pour the honey of Greek myth into the overstuffed minds of these bored and jaded NYU students.
Who would listen? This is the question. I understand now that I was lucky to be there, because I did recognize, if not yet completely, the importance of what he was saying, and that the Word and the Memory are what connect us through time; and one solitary young man hearing Leahy in that classroom might carry on that memory as if it were a torch passed down from Homer himself to the end of his own life—and perhaps, through my passing it on to others, ennoble the meaning of the Greek myths.
Not only does Odysseus have the hugely difficult problem of surviving the Trojan War, and then nine more years of travails, but also, once he manages to get home, lo and behold, he’s facing dozens of cocky young men from a new generation thinking him long dead, now lusting after his wealth and his beautiful widow’s consent in marriage. That he, weary from all his wanderings, actually accomplishes this homecoming by pretending to be a poor beggar and slaying these aggressors and reclaiming his wife, son, and island is the most glorious of his actions—and a deeply satisfying climax to one of the greatest stories we have.
Remember that many of the most famous warriors—Hercules, driven mad, Ajax, a suicide, or Agamemnon, murdered by his wife and her lover—could not resolve this abyss at the end of their outsized lives, whereas Odysseus, despite his enormous suffering, did. When Tennyson described him in his famous poem as an older man still wanting “to seek, to find, and not to yield,” it’s the ultimate Victorian compliment to our ability to rise above our circumstances.
To my mind, Odysseus is a Western hero parallel to Gautama Buddha in the Eastern tradition. But it’s telling that to the Western mind, killing your rivals and reclaiming your wife and property has far more resonance than the story of Buddha’s life, which embraces nonviolence. And that’s why, in my own life, I kept coming back to Odysseus as an example of conscious behavior. I drew sustenance from it. If he could stick it out, so could I.
Given, then, that the mythic in all of us is hiding behind the ordinary, I searched for my equivalent Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus. Leahy made me understand the people I’d been with in Vietnam had more weight than I’d felt at the time—several heroic, some cowardly, most in between.
I especially remembered two soldiers who stood out; both were sergeants, whom I encountered in two separate units of the 1st Cavalry Division. “Sergeant Barnes,” as I renamed him in the film, had the pride of Achilles, an avatar of war, quiet and dangerous, darkly handsome, prominently scarred, his wound running an entire half of his face from forehead and eye to jawline. Compact at five foot seven, he was as close to a leader as any of us in the infantry ever saw.
With his four stripes—three above, one rocker below—he was really a staff NCO acting as a platoon sergeant because we were usually short-handed. I carried his radio for a stretch, walking directly behind him through the bush, keeping in contact with our platoon and company command posts. He was left-handed, a natural shooter, so smooth in his movements. It seemed fitting he hailed from Montana someplace, a 19th-century fur trapper type with black eyes and a bushy black mustache, seemingly scared of nothing. When he spoke, you obeyed.
One morning, out on an irregular early patrol around seven, he froze, signaling for silence. We waited. The faintest whiff of cooking fish came from the bush. He moved quickly, quietly ahead, motioning us to stay still. No distractions. A long silence followed, then some sudden shots, then nothing. Barnes came back, no expression, told me to get our patrol up here. He’d killed two Viet Cong, young men carelessly eating their breakfast, never suspecting the Americans would be out so early.
They paid with their lives. Most of us were pretty excited whenever we actually, but rarely, saw the enemy, much less killed them. But Barnes was cool, so cool, no big displays ever. Having reported the incident, and stripping the dead men, he soon had us under way, no credit taken, looking for further action ahead; considering there had already been contact, the likelihood of more that day was in the air.
Whereas some of us were not looking forward to such an encounter, the thought excited Barnes. He was a great soldier, probably on his second or third tour—but why? Why would he come back after a facial wound like he had? I never asked, and he never told.
Excerpted from Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador, and the Movie Game by Oliver Stone to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 21, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Oliver Stone. Used by permission.