It’s one of the most iconic scenes in film history. But what went wrong when it came to the shoot?
Oliver Stone served during the Vietnam War and loosely based his screenplay for Platoon on his experiences as a soldier. An original draft completed in 1971 had Jim Morrison in a leading role, and when The Doors’ frontman died in Paris the same year, a copy of the script that Stone had sent him was found in his apartment.
Filmed in the Philippines, Stone insisted on putting the cast through a demoralising two-week boot camp with military advisor and former Marine captain Dale Dye, before production began. All contact with the outside world was forbidden and the cast was only permitted to address each other by their rank and character name.
The director decided to shoot Platoon in sequence, and sent the actors home as they were killed off in the film. [SPOILER ALERT] In one of the memorable scenes towards the conclusion of the film, Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) emerges from the thick jungle pursued by North Vietnamese soldiers.
After being caught in an ambush and led to believe (by the nefarious Sergeant Barnes, played by Tom Berenger) that Elias has been killed in the firefight, the remnants of the platoon are evacuated by helicopter. Unable to land, the occupants of the helicopter stare down in disbelief, observing Elias’ final moments.
It’s an iconic sequence – Elias sprinting forward, accompanied by the stirring Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. Bullets eventually strike Elias and he falls to his knees, arms stretched upwards before falling forwards.
According to Willem Dafoe, when talking to Larry King in 2017, the shot was captured after “three or four takes”. Dafoe’s jacket was loaded with explosive packs to simulate the bullet strikes. In his left hand he held a detonator for setting off the predetermined bullet hits, and he would perform accordingly as the packs were detonated.
Unfortunately, none of the packs worked and the keen-eyed can see Dafoe repeatedly pressing the switch in his hand to no avail. Eventually, the actor drops the detonator; as he collapses to his knees, the bullet pack wires can be clearly seen.
Oliver Stone was suitably impressed with the way Dafoe reacted to the imaginary bullet strikes in the scene, and despite the fact the packs failed to explode he used the shot in the film.
Platoon would go on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards winning four including Best Director for Stone.