By Scott Costen
FEW people have as many associations with armed conflict as Oliver Stone.
Born a year after the end of the Second World War, he grew up the only child of an American army veteran and French war bride.
After volunteering for active service in 1967, he did a 14-month combat tour in Vietnam, during which he was wounded twice and decorated for valour.
Two decades later, he entered the public consciousness as a chronicler of war through the films Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, both of which earned him Academy Awards for best director.
Stone explores his early life, military service, and first Hollywood successes in the gripping new memoir ‘Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador and the Movie Game’.
Stone’s political awakening
He describes growing up with a conservative-minded father whose political influence was not easily shaken, even as the world made less and less sense.
In 1980, fresh off an Oscar win for writing the screenplay for Midnight Express, a troubled but still hopeful Stone cast his ballot for Republican candidate Ronald Reagan.
“When he was elected president that year, it was his kind and relaxed manner, his sense of humour that eased my spirit,” he writes. “He marked a return, I believed, to that habit of reassurance we absorbed as children from television shows like ‘Father Knows Best’ in the 1950s.”
He would soon regret his choice.
“I fell for it; many did. But we hadn’t read the fine print,” he writes. “The Cold War, the Soviet Union, anticommunism became once more our dominant themes – and soon the possibility arose of nuclear war.”
Stone’s political awakening had well and truly begun.
It would lead him to critical triumphs with Salvador, Platoon and Wall Street, but also to controversy with the likes of JFK and Natural Born Killers.
And while Stone the screenwriter was almost immediately successful, Stone the director and filmmaker faced far more impediments.
Studio interest was difficult to attract. Studio money was almost impossible to secure.
Stone describes his repeated difficulties getting Born on the Fourth of July made, including a moment where it seemed Al Pacino would be playing the lead role of Ron Kovic, only to have the film’s financing fall through.
Falsehoods and Vietnam
One of the most striking things about ‘Chasing the Light’ is Stone’s brutal, self-aware honesty.
He is candid about his escalating use of cocaine, the failure of his first marriage, his professional shortcomings, and his harrowing, life-altering time in Vietnam.
While developing the screenplay for Platoon, he notes: “As I kept writing, my memories were expanding, and I began to understand my experience in Vietnam on a deeper level.
Ours had been a battle of man and his corruption in a system that demanded every man there had to lie, which, in a sense, was a form of dishonoring ourselves.”
Stone eagerly confronts the lies inherent in war.
One of those falsehoods is the suppression of information about friendly fire casualties, which he believes accounted for 15 per cent of American deaths in Vietnam.
“The military has cut it out of the official records and Hollywood movies as much as they can, because they don’t want thousands of poor parents or wives getting upset about their loved ones dying so stupidly,” he writes.
Another of these lies is the downplaying of civilian casualties.
According to estimates released by the Vietnamese government in 1995, the war claimed two million civilian lives, not to mention those left wounded and displaced.
Stone acknowledges and laments the regularity with which civilian casualties occurred during his time overseas.
Crossing the line
He describes how fear, exhaustion and anger led some soldiers to cross the moral red line – and how he himself came close to “losing it” on an elderly Vietnamese farmer.
“We were always pushing them, shoving them, treating them like lower beings, animals. We were bullies,” he admits.
“The truth, though not admitted by the majority of us who’d served there, was that Vietnam had debased us all,” he writes. “Whether we killed or not, we were part of a machine that’d been so morally dead as to bomb, napalm, poison this country head to toe, when we knew this was not a real war to defend our homeland.”
‘Chasing the Light’, published by Boston’s Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has only one real weakness: the limited amount of detail Stone provides about his creative process, both at his desk and behind the camera.
Less time could have been spent discussing the financial strains, logistical challenges, and administrative issues involved in making movies. This would have left room for the filmmaker to tell readers about his artistic vision and impulses.
Perhaps this shortcoming will be addressed in a possible second volume covering Stone’s work in the 1990s and beyond.
Whatever the case, ‘Chasing the Light’ is an engrossing and important memoir by one of the true mavericks in the film industry.
Featured Image: Gage Skidmore @Flickr
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