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19 May

Ho Chi Minh born, 1890

On this day in 1890, Nguyen Sinh Con, later known as Ho Chi Minh, was born, in Hoang Tru, in Vietnam. One of four children, he got an education thanks to the colonial French, at a local lycée, and under the direction of his father, a Confucian scholar. Realising there was little future for him in Vietnam after his father lost his administrative position – influence was everything – he boarded a ship for France, working as a ship’s cook, where he failed to get work in Marseille. Over the next few years he worked on ships, lived in New York and Boston, then skivvied in kitchens in London, where he might have trained as a pastry chef under Auguste Escoffier in 1913. By 1919 he was living in France, and was going by the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), and became politically active in pursuit of the rights of Vietnamese people in French Indochina. Nguyen became a communist and in 1923 moved from Paris to Moscow, where he was employed by Comintern. By 1924 he was in Canton, China. After the arrival of the anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek in China in 1927, Nguyen returned to Moscow, then went to the Crimea to recover from tuberculosis, then travelled around Europe before arriving in Bangkok in 1928. Over the next few years he continued travelling, organising communist political groups, caballing and intriguing, interspersing political work with spells working as a waiter in restaurants. In 1938 he returned to China, where the communists were now on the rise. He took the name Ho Chi Minh – it means Ho who is Enlightened (Chi), Brightly (Minh) – and returned to Vietnam, where he led the Viet Minh independence movement against the French. During the Second World War this meant he was fighting the Japanese and the Vichy French (who were aligned with Hitler) and he was tactically but tacitly supported by the USA. Ho Chi Minh’s men, ironically, were trained by the US. In 1945, the Viet Minh took control of the north of the country and Ho Chi Minh declared himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (ie North Vietnam). In 1946, the French counter-attacked to regain control of their colony. The First Indochina War, which would eventually become the Vietnam War, had begun. Ho Chi Minh remained president of North Vietnam until his death in 1969, on the anniversary of the Republic’s founding.

Platoon (1986, dir: Oliver Stone)

Released only a few months before Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Oliver Stone’s Platoon is often considered the lesser film. It is the better film, more coherent and authentic, though lacking an R Lee Ermey (Kubrick’s crackerjack gunnery sergeant) around which everything coheres. Stone fought in Vietnam and had already made a film tangentially about it – a short called Last Year in Viet Nam, in which Stone himself played a Vietnam veteran living on the streets of New York – but this was his big shot at the subject.

It is still without doubt his best film, and one of the best “this is how it was” depictions of war, a hash of scenes that pitch us into the jungle with that rare figure in Vietnam war films, the recruit who actually volunteered (as Stone did). And we watch as this shit-scared rookie falteringly learns how to become a soldier, all the while fending off suspicious glances from his own guys, draftees who wonder what a college kid is doing here. If war is, as the old adage has it, long periods of boredom punctuated with moments of pure terror, Stone captures that as his platoon of guys hack through the jungle while the enemy – shadowy presences at best – wait and wait and wait.

Boredom is one trope, but confusion is another – we’re never sure where the bad guys are, whether the villagers are innocent or whether they are harbouring the enemy, whether the American soldiers who get trigger-happy and just shoot everyone have lost their moral compass or whether, in the end, that’s just the best way to proceed. The fog of war. Charlie Sheen is our fixed point, the narrator and Stone avatar, and around him are faces we didn’t know so well back then – Forest Whitaker and Kevin Dillon and Willem Dafoe and Johnny Depp. Others we knew quite well back then, Tom Berenger and Keith David, who we know less well now.

Rewatched, the film could do without a lot of Sheen’s soapy narration – Stone knows that Charlie’s dad, Martin, did the pov voiceover on Apocalypse Now so this must be some kind of poor joke – and the two sergeants representing the extreme ends of soldiering (Berenger’s scarred dog of war against Defoe’s sensitive hippie) seem more like placeholders than characters. But what Stone needs to get right – the panic of combat – he really does.

Platoon came at the end of the cycle of great films about Vietnam. Kubrick would bring the era to a close later that year. The war continued to inspire films good (Hamburger Hill) and bad (Rambo III), offbeat (Good Morning Vietnam) and sentimental (Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July).

Why Watch?

  • Oliver Stone’s best movie
  • Winner of the Best Picture Oscar
  • Written expressly to counter John Wayne’s The Green Berets
  • Imagine Jim Morrison of the Doors in it, as Stone intended

Platoon – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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