GARDENS OF STONE. Directed by Francis Coppola; written by Ronald Bass; produced by Michael Levy and Francis Coppola for Tri-Star. Starring D.B. Sweeney, James Caan and Anjelica Huston. Rated R (language).
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Gardens of Stone is a home-front Vietnam movie with a difference. Although it's a little slow to get going, its fine cast and the unique perspective of its story make it well worth seeing. Its emotional impact is pretty strong, though; bring plenty of Kleenex to this one if you're prone to the "weepies."
One of the most intereating things about Gardens of Stone is its setting, which allows the movie to comment on the war in a completely new way. Arlington National Cemetery, where many Vietnam casualties are brought to be buried, and where the Army's elite Old Guard is stationed, is where most of the movie takes place.
Although they're spoken of casually as "drops," the daily burials—alarming numbers of them—provide a constant, silent accompaniment to the interactions among the characters. Several of them have quite different ideas about the war. But the burials remind us that in spite of the political and military controversies, the one indisputable fact is that many, many young men died in Vietnam.
Jackie (Sweeney) is second generation Army, picked for the service's elite ceremonial unit, but itching to see action in Vietnam. Hazard (Caan), an old buddy of Jackie's father, has been in Vietnam for four years and feels the war is being tragically mis-fought. Sam (Huston) writes for the Washington Post, of all pinko newspapers. But her strong anti-war feelings miraculously don't interfere with her affection for Hazard.
The performances are uniformly (no pun intended, despite the large amount of brass on display in this movie) fine, from newcomer Sweeney to veterans such as Caan.
Mary Stuart Masterson is good in a low-key performance as Jackie's wife. And James Earl Jones, as an Orson-Welles-shaped sergeant major, known for his colorful language, is a scene-stealer. A word about the language, though: It is very raw. This may be the Army, not the Navy, but the talk is plenty salty just the same.
None of the movie's scenes actually take place in Vietnam; there is some T.V. news footage, however. Blown up to cinema-screen proportions, the T.V. images' lines give the pictures an unreal quality. But the reality of the war haunts almost every moment of the characters' lives.
Of course, this is director Coppola's second movie about Vietnam. Although it was artistically stunning, Apocalypse Now (1979) strained much too hard after its imposed storyline, giving up any claim to realism in the process.
There's plenty of poetry in Gardens of Stone, too, but the pain it expresses is real, and is shared by a generation. Judging by the number of thoughtful Vietnam movies out recently and forthcoming (as opposed to the Rambo-type shoot'em-ups, I mean) perhaps the time has come to communicate the anguish of that time to those for whom Vietnam already sounds like ancient history. Gardens of Stone makes a positive contribution to this effort.