Casualties of War

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Casualties of War
Casualties of War poster.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by Brian De Palma
Produced by Art Linson
Screenplay by David Rabe
Story by Daniel Lang (writer)
Starring Michael J. Fox
Sean Penn
Music by Ennio Morricone
Cinematography Stephen H. Burum
Edited by Bill Pankow
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • August 18, 1989 (1989-08-18)
Running time 113 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $22.5 Million
Box office $18,671,317[1]

Casualties of War is a 1989 drama film directed by Brian De Palma, with a screenplay by David Rabe, based on the actual events of the incident on Hill 192 in 1966 during the Vietnam War. It stars Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. An article written by Daniel Lang (writer) for The New Yorker in 1969, and a subsequent book were the movie's primary sources.[2]


The story is presented as a flashback of Max Eriksson, a Vietnam veteran. In November 1966, a squad of American soldiers is on patrol when they are suddenly attacked by the Viet Cong. The ground cracks under Eriksson while he walks above a Viet Cong tunnel, and he is stuck in the hole while enemy mortar shells land near him. Unknown to him, a Viet Cong soldier in the tunnel below him prepares to silently kill him with a knife. Sergeant Tony Meserve hears Eriksson, pulls him out of the hole, and shoots the Viet Cong soldier dead. Eventually, the Americans stave off the attack.

The squad takes a break outside a river village in the Central Highlands. While relaxing and joking around, one of the squad members SPC 4 "Brownie" Brown who is a close friend of Meserve, is shot in the neck by Viet Cong across the river. The squad kills several enemies until they realize there's Viet Cong running through a flooded field behind them. One throws a grenade at Eriksson, but in a miraculous shot he blows up the grenade in mid-air with his M-79 grenade launcher. Brownie is evacuated but Meserve later informs the squad that he died at the hospital. Shortly afterward, Private Antonio Diaz arrives as Brownie's replacement.

The unit is then re-deployed to a nearby village, which is believed to be an ally to the Viet Cong. Because of their reassignment, the unit has their leave time cut short. Frustrated because his squad has been denied leave for an extended period, Meserve orders the squad to kidnap a Vietnamese girl, Than Thi Oanh, to be their sex slave. Eriksson strenuously objects, but Meserve silences him and ostracizes him from the rest of the squad, with Corporal Thomas E. Clark threatening to kill Eicksson with his knife if he dares an attempt to stop the rape. Diaz at first did not want to take part in the rape, but goes along with the rest of the men in the crime. The girl is forcibly taken to the squad's next command outpost and is repeatedly beaten and raped by all the men but Eriksson. Oanh grows ill and develops a persistent cough.

The squad is later ordered to take up a position near a railroad bridge overlooking a Viet Cong river supply depot. Meserve and Clark realize Oanh's coughing might give them away. Meserve has Diaz order air support for an assault on the depot, then orders Eriksson to kill Oanh. Eriksson staunchly refuses despite Meserve's death threats. Clark looks out in the sky and sees a unit of Huey helicopters passing a mountain and then turning towards their position. Fearing the helicopters will somehow see their rape victim, Meserve first orders PFC Herbert Hatcher to kill Oanh, but Hatcher begs Meserve not to, so then Meserve orders Diaz. Before Diaz can kill her, Eriksson fires his rifle into the air, exposing them to the nearby Viet Cong.

As the battle rages, Eriksson, who is carefully picking off Viet Cong hiding behind a supply sampan on the river bank, doesn't realize that Clark has brutally stabbed Oanh more than twice with his knife. Things become desperate when the Viet Cong move mortars up to the river and begin lobbing shells onto the bridge trapping the squad. Meserve is able to kill many of the enemy with his M-60 machine gun. In the midst of the firefight Oanh, whose wounds were not immediately fatal, walks onto the bridge to try to escape. Eriksson charges at her, trying to catch her but is stopped by Meserve, who knocks Eriksson down with the butt of his M-60. Eriksson watches helplessly as the entire squad shoots Oanh numerous times until she falls off the bridge, dead. The helicopter gunships then strafe the supply depot with rockets blowing it up but accidentally setting a passing American River Patrol Boat (PBR) on fire when the sampan explodes, killing some of the crewmen.

After the battle, Eriksson wakes up in a hospital. Meserve and the squad cover up the murder but Eriksson refuses to let the secret die. He jeopardizes both his life and military career (thanks in large part to indifferent superiors, who prefer to bury the matter) to expose the crime. Eventually, an attempt on Eriksson's life is made by Clark, who tries to kill Eriksson while he is using the latrine. Eriksson takes action by confronting Meserve and his men, and using a shovel, strikes Clark across the face, scaring the rest of the men and informing Meserve that he "told everyone and they don't care", Meserve calls him "dinky dow" (an Americanized Vietnamese phrase derived from the Vietnamese phrase "điên cái đầu" meaning crazy head) before Eriksson exits the tent. Eriksson meets a chaplain at the bar and tells him the story of the girl. There is an investigation and the four men who participated in the rape and murder are court martialed: Meserve receives ten years hard labor and a dishonorable discharge, Clark is sentenced to life in prison, Private Herbert Hatcher receives fifteen years hard labor, Diaz receives eight years hard labor. As the four exit the court room, Meserve whispers something in Eriksson's ear, most likely a threat suggesting what Meserve might do to Eriksson once he is free from the stockade.

At the end of the film, Eriksson wakens from a nightmare (apparently a flashback of all the audience has just seen) to find himself on a MUNI J-Church in San Francisco, just a few seats from a Vietnamese-American student who resembles the murdered girl. She disembarks at Dolores Park and forgets her scarf, and Eriksson runs after her to return it. As she thanks him and turns away, he calls after her in Vietnamese. She surmises that she reminds him of someone, and adds, "You had a bad dream, didn't you? It's over now, I think. Chào Ông [as a response to his greeting to her 'Chào Cô' in Vietnamese]". They go their separate ways, Eriksson somewhat comforted.



The film was based on the real-life incident on Hill 192, and on Daniel Lang's book of the same title, but all names and some details of the story were altered. The bridge location was filmed in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, which was the same as the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

This film was, in a way, Fox's third major dramatic role. He had previously starred in the dramas Light of Day and Bright Lights, Big City. John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo make their screen debuts in the film, and the latter would again star with Penn in another picture by De Palma, 1993's Carlito's Way.


The theatrical cut of the film was released on DVD in 2001. This version has the original 113 minute running time. An extended cut of the film was released on DVD in 2006, that contains two scenes cut from the original release. One has Eriksson being interrogated by the two investigators, the other is the defense attorney trying to discredit Eriksson during the trial. This extended version has a running time of 119 minutes.


Casualties of War opened in 1,487 theatres, ranking at No. 4 at the box office to gross over $18,671,317 making it a box office loss. The film has received mostly positive reception, and has also garnered an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes.




See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Casualties of War (1989)". Box Office Mojo. 1989-09-26. Retrieved 2014-01-15. 
  2. ^ Canby, Vincent (1989-08-18). "Review/Film; In 'Casualties Of War,' Group Loyalty Vs. Individual Conscience". The New York Times. 

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