Picks and Pans Review: Gardens of Stone

updated 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/11/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

'Ten-shun! Since Platoon has grossed more than $100 million and been decorated in Oscar glory, it was only a matter of time before a new army of Vietnam films began box-office and publicity maneuvers. The first high-visibility contender concerns Sgt. Clell Hazard, a combat vet of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. As Hazard, James Caan delivers an impressive comeback performance (he spent five years concentrating on raising his son). Given the minefield of clichés he must circumvent, Caan's achievement is even more admirable. The sarge aches to train recruits to survive jungle fighting. Instead he is detailed to "toy soldier" duties with the Old Guard burial unit at Arlington National Cemetery. The graves, growing at the rate of 15 per day in 1968, are the stone gardens of the title. Based on a novel by Nicholas Proffitt, a former Newsweek bureau chief in Saigon (and a member of the Old Guard), the film means to salute the Vietnam dead by telling the story of one of them. Played by newcomer D.B. Sweeney, he is an idealistic enlisted man hankering to leave his Old Guard berth and leap into battle. Naturally Caan feels paternalistic, as does his profane buddy, acted with bluster to spare by James Earl Jones. The premise is suffocated, however, by director Francis Coppola's polemics. Ronald Bass, a Harvard lawyer-turned-screenwriter, sets up the film like a legal brief. These "toy soldiers" are the salt of the earth and you will believe it. No hostile witnesses admitted, excepting stereotypes. The bad guys are the hazy bureaucrats and the press who helped turn public respect for soldiering into contempt. When the propaganda stops, the audience is treated to a From Here to Eternity rehash about love and war that inhibits a first-rate cast, including Dean Stockwell, Mary Stuart Masterson and a wonderfully sexy Anjelica Huston as a peacenik reporter who falls for Caan. Moreover, by using Sweeney's funeral to begin and end the film (a ploy the book resisted), Coppola washes Gardens of Stone in sentiment. For a director whose finest work (The Godfathers, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now) shows a clear-eyed scrutiny, the reliance on melodrama is inappropriate even if it is understandable. During filming, Coppola's son Gian Carlo died at 23 in a boating accident. Cast members have spoken of how that loss permeated the production. When Caan eulogizes Sweeney as a boy known only to an honored few ("I knew him. I won't forget"), the honest emotion shows up everything that's missing in the rest of the film. (R)

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