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GARDENS OF STONE (director: Francis Ford Coppola; screenwriters: Ronald Bass/based on the novel by Nicholas Proffitt; cinematographer: Jordan Cronenweth; editor: Barry Malkin; music: Carmine Coppola; cast: James Caan (Sgt. Clell Hazard), James Earl Jones (Sgt. Maj. ‘Goody’ Nelson), Anjelica Huston (Samantha Davis), D.B. Sweeney (Jackie Willow), Dean Stockwell (Capt. Homer Thomas), Mary Stuart Masterson (Rachel Feld), Peter Masterson (Colonel Feld), Carlin Glyn (Mrs. Feld), Dick Anthony Williams(Slasher Williams), Laurence Fishburne (Flanagan, Squad Leader), Casey Siemaszko (Wildman), Elias Koteas(Pete Deveber, company clerk), Lonette McKee(Betty Rae); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Francis Ford Coppola/Michael I. Levy; Tristar Pictures; 1987)

“Subdued war drama on life on the home front during the Vietnam war.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”/”Rumble Fish”/”The Outsiders”) directs with great detail to military setting and procedures this subdued war drama on life on the home front during the Vietnam war. It’sbased on the novel by Nicholas Proffittand is written by Ronald Bass. It’s set in 1968, and focuses on a regiment called the Old Guard guarding the Arlington National Cemetery (the film’s title is derived from the cemetery) while stationed at Fort Myer, Va. The so called ‘toy soldiers’ are an elite unit busy at burial details with the many dead soldiers returning from the bloody war and they put on a tasteful show of pomp to honor the dead. The acting is superb, especially by James Caan and James Earl Jones, and the dialogue is smart in a muted way. The main problem is that it dances around with an assortment of views on the war but manages to be muddled about what it really wants to say about the tragic situation, and seems to stiffly give a variety of views of the war to characters who seem nothing more than mouthpieces for the author’s agenda.

James Caan plays world-weary divorced career soldier Sgt. Clell Hazard, stationed with the Old Guard, who served during the Korean War and served two tours of duty in Vietnam, but has become disillusioned that the war could be won and wants a transfer to a post like Fort Benning where he can train young recruits to learn from his experience how to fight and survive. Hazard’s boss is his old pal, Sgt. Maj. ‘Goody’ Nelson (James Earl Jones), who is cynical about the war but remains mum and likable. Gung-ho rookie Jackie Willow (D.B. Sweeney) is recruited into the Old Guard and Hazard takes a paternalistic interest in the kid because he was friends with the kid’s retired sergeant major’s father who served with him in Korea. Hazard also begins to date anti-war Washington Post newswoman Samantha Davis (Anjelica Huston), and they fall in love despite their political differences. Meanwhile Jackie dates his high school sweetheart Rachel Feld (Mary Stuart Masterson). She’sthe daughter of a snobbish colonel (Peter Masterson, Mary’s real-life father), who doesn’t approve of her seeing an enlisted man. The naive Jackie gets his wish for action and is sent to Viet-nam to fight an unwinnable and unnecessary war. I guess Coppola’s point is that we haven’t learned much about getting into bad wars, but those that fight them deserve to be honored for their bravery and questioned for their lack of political knowledge.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”