Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Journey of the Soul through War and Peace

After Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), director Oliver Stone completed his Vietnam War trilogy with Heaven and Earth (1993), a film that showed Vietnam from the viewpoint of a young Vietnamese woman who suffered the ravages of war and had to go through several life changing ordeals in the United States as well as her own country in order to find the meaning of her life.

Stone's first two Vietnam pictures were major successes, both critically and at the box office; they also won him two Best Director statuettes at the Academy Awards, with Platoon also winning the Best Picture Oscar. These films were studies of the war through the eyes of American soldiers; the first being based on Stone's own experiences in Vietnam, while the second was the journal of Ron Kovic, an all-American boy who was gung ho about fighting the enemy, but who became disillusioned after leaving Vietnam due to crippling injuries.

So it took some courage for Stone to make another Vietnam opus that dealt with a native woman's experiences rather than that of American soldiers. This theme would certainly not be one that would guarantee box office success - how could the audience identify with her? - and indeed, this is a film that is largely forgotten among the director's body of work.

Yet it is one of his most human and tender films, due largely in part to the universal themes all of us can understand. We may not have the same broad emotional strains realized by the heroine of this story, Le Ly Hyslip (portrayed with a beautiful dignity by Hiep Thi Le), but we can all share in the loss of loved ones as well as the anxiety of a new life after early failures.

Visually, this is also one of Stone's finest works and evidence of that is on display in a beautiful opening sequence as we see young Le Ly work the rice fields of her village in central Vietnam with her mother as well as visiting a Buddhist monk with her father. It is the Buddhist teachings that despite what goes on around them, their lives are guided by Father Heaven and Mother Earth.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson who had worked on several of Stone's films prior to this (most notably Platoon, Wall Street and JFK), contributed some of his finest work here, especially in the lovely images of the simple village these characters call home. The greens of the tall grasses are particularly vivid, especially in wide ranging landscape shots. Many of the shots of the opening sequence were filmed during the "magic hour" just before the sun disappears, giving the faces of Le Ly and her family a subtle glow. These images take on an even more mystical feel as we listen to the lush, emotional score of Kitaro. This is a magnificent opus, with beautiful, slightly mysterious themes that serve the story well; this is a musical work that deserves to be better known.

The story opens in the mid-1950s, as the country is ruled by the French, who are in large cities, far away from the villagers. The narrative proceeds to the early 1960s, when the Viet Cong inhabit the village to try and convince the people that they will help them achieve a unified country. Later the government troops and then the American forces take over the village and everyone's life is turned upside down.

Le Ly must leave the village; she eventually meets a quiet Marine sergeant named Steve Butler, who wins over her affection and soon marries her and then moves Le Ly and her son to his home in Southern California. The obvious changes in lifestyle - for both Le Ly and Steve - provide the dramatic turns in the second part of the story.

The third act has Le Ly return with her family to her village; her reunion with her mother is a beautiful and touching moment in this film. She has suffered tragedy and has also celebrated many beautiful moments in her life (the birth of her sons) and now realizes the meaning of her teachings as a young girl. The final passage of Le Ly, read in a voice over, as we watch her walk through a vast rice field dressed in a lovely white dress, is quite moving:

It is my fate to be in between heaven and earth. When we resist our fate, we suffer. When we accept it, we are happy... Lasting victories are won in the heart, not on this land or that. 

It is a fitting and beautiful end to this film; we then learn that Le Ly who now lives in California, has built several health clinics in Vietnam through the East Meets West Foundation.

For those who know Oliver Stone only by his testosterone-themed films about sports, political power, financial dealings or the struggles of soldiers in combat, you owe it to yourself to see Heaven and Earth. At least for this one work, the director shows that he can make a spiritual film that resonates with its lovely message of understanding. I for one, hope that he can make another film with this purpose and meaning.

P.S. A final note, I had mentioned that Heaven and Earth deserves to be better known. Perhaps at that point in his career, movie goers associated Stone with a more urgent, almost frantic style of movie making, as in JFK and therefore were disappointed by a more classical approach to cinema. Whatever the reason, this film has been largely forgotten in his body of work. This is truly a shame.


  1. I agree. I think this is a great movie. I liked it much more than Platoon, which turned into too much of an action movie, in my opinion.

  2. Hokahey:

    Thanks for your comment. It's always easier for the collective media to praise a movie such as Platoon (which I like very much) than a film such as this. Subtleties and emotions are more difficult to sum up in a quick sound bite as compared with blood and guts.

    I'm looking at hosting an Oliver Stone blogathon soon. I'll let you know if I do - perhaps you can write on this film.