Take The Pain! Behind The Scenes Of Platoon

Written and directed by Oliver Stone, Platoon is a 1986 Vietnam War film following a U.S. Army volunteer and his time during the war and the question of morality during wartime. Based on Stone’s own experiences as an infantryman during the conflict, the film has been praised for its realism and was an unexpected success, becoming one of the most renowned American war films.

Oliver Stone Started Losing His Mind On Set

Picture of Oliver Stone
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Oliver Stone is a notoriously difficult director to work with, even when things are going well. But during a ten-week shoot in the middle of the Philippine jungle, things started to get out of control for the director.

Supposedly, he was so sleep-deprived at one point that his paranoia led him to accuse his film editor, Claire Simpson, of hiding footage from him. Stone finally calmed down when Simpson explained that the film he was looking for hadn’t been shot yet.

One Of The Actors’ Methods To Get Into Character Backfired

Picture of Charlie Sheen
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

In a scene when Chris bonds with Elias, the two men are in a tent surrounded by fellow soldiers pretty much doing anything they could get their hands on.

To get into character, actor Willem Dafoe admitted that he and several other actors actually partook to prepare for the scene. unfortunately, by the time it was actually time to shoot, everyone had come down with Dafoe describing everyone as being “tired and useless.”

The Actors Participated In A Simulated Boot Camp

Picture of Mark Moses
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

While they couldn’t risk putting the actors through the rigors of a real army boot camp, it was decided by Dale Dye, the film’s technical advisor and Vietnam War veteran, to put them through a boot camp of his own making.

So, the cast spent two weeks in the Philippine jungle digging holes, eating rations, carrying their own gear, and staying in character as much as possible. Dye commented on the process, saying, “It’s usually around day two or day three [the actors] realize playtime is over and that this guy is serious.”

The Actors Wrote Their Own Messages On Their Helmets

Picture of Charlie Sheen
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

A trend in the Vietnam War that can be seen in pictures, documentaries, and films is American soldiers writing slogans or sayings on their helmets. When making Platoon, for authenticity, the actors were given permission to write their own sayings on their helmets, and not the wardrobe staff.

For example, Charlie Sheen chose to write “When I die, bury me upside-down so the world can kiss my [expletive],” which was fitting for his character and his own personality.

The Movie Took Ten Years To Get Produced

Picture of Charlie Sheen
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Director Oliver Stone, a Vietnam War veteran himself, wrote the screenplay based on his wartime experiences when he came back in 1969. By the time 1976 rolled around, the story had evolved into what we now know as Platoon, although he couldn’t find anyone willing to make it.

Apparently, the war was still too recent, making the movie a risk to make, despite Apocalypse Now and Deerhunter being made. After that, people didn’t want to make Platoon because they felt now there were too many Vietnam War movies.

Oliver Stone Specifically Cast Tom Berenger And Willem Dafoe In Their Roles

Picture from Platoon
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Up until the movie came out, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe were known for their typecast roles with Berenger typically playing the good guy and Dafoe playing the bad. Oliver Stone wanted to do something different and flipped the script with Berenger playing the sadistic Sergeant Barnes and Dafoe playing the compassionate and selfless Elias.

Stone’s plan worked, with both actors receiving Oscar nominations for their performance in the film. It also benefitted the men by showing their true range of acting.

The Department Of Defense Refused To Help Make The Film

Picture of Dafoe
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

In order to acquire the accurate uniforms and soldiers’ gear, the filmmakers reached out to the U.S. Department of Defense to lend a hand on the film. Because of the nature of the movie, the Department of Defense declined.

This resulted in the equipment having to be borrowed or bought from other sources including the Philippine military. It all worked out in the end, as the uniforms and other equipment are authentic, with a real RPG and explosion being used in a scene.

They Used Imported Dirt

Picture from Platoon
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Platoon was filmed in the Philippines because it was the closest looking location to Vietnam after Vietnam authorities didn’t allow filming there because of its portrayal of Vietnamese soldiers.

While the Philippines worked as a convincing enough Vietnam, there was one thing it didn’t have. This was the red soil that Stone vividly remembered being present during his time in the war. So, Stone had the soil with the proper color imported and spread around the sets.

There Were Few Big Name Actors

Picture of Johnny Depp
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

When Platoon was first released in 1986, many of the actors were relatively unknown. Even those with major roles, such as Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, only had a few movies under their belt at the time.

The film is known for having a number of future famous actors like Johnny Depp and Forrest Whitaker, who learned quickly from Oliver Stone how movies were made. Before the filming, Johnny Depp had never even been out of the United States.

Jim Morrison Was Sent A Script

Picture of Ji Morrison
Chris Walter/WireImage
Chris Walter/WireImage

After Oliver Stone wrote the first draft of Platoon in 1971, he sent a copy of it to Jim Morrison, the frontman for the legendary rock band The Doors, to play the role of Chris Taylor. Unfortunately, the script was found amongst his belongings when he was found dead in Paris of a heart attack.

Today, it is still unknown if Morrison ever had any intention of being in the film. Stone would later go on to make The Doors, a film about Morrison’s life.

A Political Revolution Stalled Filming

Picture of Charlie Sheen
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

At the time, opting to film the movie in the Philippines rather than Vietnam sounded like a good idea. That was until they realized that corrupt President Ferdinand Marcos was in the process of being forced out of the office right before filming started.

The country’s instability halted production for a week, with shooting beginning just two days after Marcos and his family fled to Hawaii. According to Stone, “When the change came, we had to make new deals with the new military. You had to get a lot of permissions and bribe a new set of people.”

Oliver Stone Couldn’t Believe The Movie Was A Success

Picture of Oliver Stone
Images/Getty Images
Images/Getty Images

Before the release of Platoon, Oliver Stone had established himself as a competent screenwriter working on films such as Midnight Express and Scarface. However, the films he directed, The Hand and Salvador, had proved to be less successful.

Considering that Platoon had taken ten years to make and had been a nightmare to film, Stone expected the worst, which is why he was astonished when it was a hit. His former wife, Elizabeth Cox, reported that he would drive around L.A. to the theaters and stand out front to listen to what people had to say about it.

Charlie Sheen’s Role Almost Went To His Brother

Picture of Emilio Estevez
Paul Archuleta/Getty Images
Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

Because the film took ten years to get made, there were several different rounds of auditions. During one of the earlier audition periods, Charlie Sheen auditioned for the role of Chris Taylor, although Stone was unimpressed. Ironically, Stone was more interested in Sheen’s older brother, Emilio Estevez.

The funding fell through, and the movie was in limbo once again. A few years later, auditions were held yet again, and Sheen took another crack at it. This time he wowed Stone with the director admitting, “This time I knew in 10 minutes he was right.”

It Was Banned In Vietnam

Picture of Charlie Sheen
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Unsurprisingly, Platoon was banned in Vietnam, as the country did not agree with the film’s portrayal of the war and the Viet Cong. Yet, that didn’t stop the Vietnamese people from getting their hands on the movie.

In 1988, the Vietnam News Agency announced that thousands of people had seen it on video in Ho Chi Minh City, although nobody would admit how they gained access to it. At the time, it was the first American movie about the Vietnam War to be played in the city.

Keith David Saved Charlie Sheen’s Life

Picture of Keith David
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

While filming a helicopter scene with the doors open, the helicopter unexpectedly banked to one side. Charlie Sheen, who already wasn’t stable in the helicopter then lost his balance. Falling toward the open door, actor Keith David managed to catch him before he flew out of the vehicle.

Sheen would later go on to credit David for saving his life, and the two would co-star in two more movies titled Men at Work and Loose Women.

Several Notable Actors Turned Down Roles

Picture of Keanu Reeves
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

After years of struggle, when production was finally underway, Oliver Stone and the producers met with several known actors to fill roles. Initially, Stone wanted Mickey Rourke for the role of Barnes and Nick Nolte for Elias, although both men turned down the offer.

Keanu Reeves was also approached by Stone, who offered him the role of Chris Taylor, with Reeves declining due to the amount of violence and the other darker content of the movie.

One Of The Film’s Most Iconic Images Was Inspired By A Real Picture

Picture of Dafoe
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Even if you haven’t seen the movie, most people are able to recognize Platoon just by the cover. The image features Willem Dafoe’s character, Elias, on his knees with his arms outstretched to the sky.

While this may be an iconic image today that is associated with the movie, Stone was actually inspired by a real picture taken by photographer Art Greenspon during the war in 1968. Today, the photo is still considered one of the most notable pictures taken during the conflict.

Filming Was No Picnic

Picture of Dafoe
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

If the movie’s cast looks convincingly tired, hungry, and fed up, that’s because they were in real life. Director Oliver Stone made a point to make the actors miserable by declining them the luxuries of civilian life so they could experience similar struggles to that of Vietnam War soldiers.

It’s reported that all of the actors hated Stone at one point or another but understood what he was doing and why, so they respected him for it.

Tom Berenger’s Makeup Took three Hours A Day

Picture of Tom Berenger
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Tom Berenger plays the ruthless Sergeant Barnes, who is distinguishable by the number of horrible scars across his face. Not only does it make him look frightening, but it proves that he has been fighting for some time.

To make the scarring look as realistic as possible, Berenger was in the makeup chair for around three hours a day. Because of the discomfort of the makeup, Berenger would avoid having to put it on at all cost, like in scenes when his face wasn’t in the shot.

Lieutenant Wolfe Is Used As An Example In Military Training

Picture of Mark Moses
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Played by Mark Moses, Lieutenant Wolfe is a much less experienced soldier than characters such as Elias and Barnes, although he is their direct superior. However, his inexperience and inability to make decisions under pressure get the platoon into dire situations over and over, even calling an artillery strike on his own men.

Supposedly, Wolfe is such a good example of how not to be a leader that the U.S. military shows clips of his character during officer training.

Forrest Whitaker Took A Nasty Fall

Picture of Whitaker
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Only having made three films prior to Platoon, in the movie, Forrest Whitaker plays Big Harold. In the film’s opening scenes, soldiers can be seen hiking through the jungle, with Big Harold falling down a rather steep hill.

Although it helps to show how treacherous and harsh the environment is, the fall wasn’t actually in the script. Whitaker fell on accident, and the scene was kept in the movie. Luckily, Whitaker didn’t sustain any serious injuries.

Oliver Stone Paved The Way For Vietnam War Veterans

Picture of Stone
Roland NEVEU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Roland NEVEU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

With Platoon, Oliver Stone became the first Vietnam War veteran to direct a major movie about the war. He was also the first Vietnam veteran to win an Oscar, which he did for Midnight Express.

Then, for Platoon, he became the first Vietnam veteran to win an Oscar for Best Director. As of 2016, Stone remains the only veteran of any war to have won an Oscar for Best Direct besides Clint Eastwood, who served in the Korean War but never made it to South Korea.

Willem Dafoe Got Sick From Drinking River Water

Picture of Dafoe
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

During the shoot in the Philippines, Willem Dafoe took a drink out of a river which the actors were told never to do. Although Dafoe didn’t contract malaria, he was unaware that there was a dead pig in the water upstream from where he stopped to take a drink.

This resulted in Dafoe becoming seriously ill in the following 24 hours. Ironically, in the film, there’s a scene where the soldiers are warned not to drink the river water or else they could get sick.

Stone Was Seriously Let Down By A Producer

Picture of Oliver Stone
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Although it’s no secret that Stone struggled to have the movie made, one of his biggest disappointments involved producer Dino De Laurentiis. Stone agreed that if he worked on Laurentiis’ Conan the Barbarian and Year of the Dragon, then Laurentiis would finance the film.

Laurentiis then had several box office failures that led to the ending of his production studio. Yet, if Laurentiis would have just financed Platoon, his company would have most likely been saved, as it made $138.5 million off a $6 million budget.

Kevin Dillon And Charlie Sheen Paid For A Villagers Surgery

Picture of Dillon and Sheen
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

Unfortunately, many of the most horrific scenes in the film are based on Oliver Stone’s actual experiences during the war. One of the most notorious of these moments comes when the soldiers come across a Vietnamese village and torment its people.

While filming, it was discovered that one of the extras for these scenes had cataracts, with their mother unable to afford surgery. Feeling sorry for the boy, Kevin Dillon and Charlie Sheen paid for the boy’s surgery out of their own pockets.

The Movie Was Shot In Order

Picture of Berenger
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

For the most part, movies aren’t filmed in the order we watch them for logistical reasons, but that wasn’t the case with Platoon. Shooting a film in order is usually more expensive, which puts a lot of pressure on the filmmakers, but it was a chance that Stone was willing to take.

He did this on purpose so that when a character died, that actor was done filming and could go home. This meant that Charlie Sheen was getting lonelier and lonelier, much as his character was.

Trouble With Animals

Picture of Charlie Sheen
Orion Pictures
Orion Pictures

In the DVD commentary of Platoon, Dale Dye, the film’s technical advisor, who also plays Captain Harris, notes one of the hardest scenes to film was when Taylor wakes up to see the buffalo after the battle.

Supposedly, the buffalo wouldn’t stay still and would run into the jungle, requiring it to be chased down and have the foliage taken out of its antlers. They ended up tethering one of its legs to keep it in the shot to solve the problem.

Platoon Is The First Of Three Vietnam War Films By Oliver Stone

Picture of Berenger
Orion Films
Orion Films

Although Platoon is noted for being grouped in with films such as The Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket, it is actually the first of three Vietnam War movies made by Stone. With Platoon being first, the following film was Born on the Fourth of July, starring Tom Cruise as a soldier and later an anti-war activist, which is based on true events.

The third and final film is Heaven and Earth, about a Vietnamese woman during the conflict, based on the real accounts of activist Le Ly Hayslip.

Ben Stiller Wasn’t Even Allowed To Audition

Picture of Ben Stiller
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

With several known actors turning down offers to be in Platoon, several actors also pursued roles, with one of the most interesting being Ben Stiller. Stiller entered the audition room with high hopes, but before he could even speak, he was told known no by Oliver Stone.

Supposedly, Stone claimed that Stiller was “too cute” to be in the movie at all. Stiller would later go on to be in the Vietnam War parody movie Tropic Thunder and parodied the director in the “Oliver Stoneland” segment on The Ben Stiller Show.

It Almost Wasn’t Directed By Oliver Stone

Picture of Sidney Lumet
Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Raphael GAILLARDE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The script for Platoon underwent numerous rewrites before it became what we know it as today. One of the earliest scripts even involves a character dying in Vietnam and his experiences in the underworld before Stone changed it to something more realistic.

After this rewrite, the script ended up in the hands of director Sidney Lumet. After working with Al Pacino in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, it’s rumored he had plans to make Platoon with Pacino as the star.