King as Moral Center
Elaborating on my discussion of the moral center in films…
“The first casualty of war is innocence.” That’s the tagline for Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), a film that’s different from other Viet Nam war stories because it’s not about two countries fighting each other. Rather, it’s a story about a country at war with itself. Although the story centers on the thoughts and fears of one soldier, everyone in the platoon faces similar moral choices, and must decide for themselves what is right and wrong.
The men in Chris Taylor’s (Charlie Sheen) platoon divide into two groups: the heavy drinkers loyal to Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the pot smokers who follow Elias (Willem Dafoe). The main difference between them is that Elias already believes the war can’t be won, but keeps fighting in it with honor. The audience roots for him because he’s a moral compass and mentor to the liberal minded members of the platoon. Barnes and his men, however, have a different take on the war. They lash out at the Vietnamese and each other; committing atrocities that turn them into the real bad guys.
With a story as multi-layered as this, it’s not surprising to find a moral center – someone who voices the author’s perspective. The moral center steers the theme, so that is not about surviving war, but surviving war with humanity still intact. The moral center of Platoon is King (Keith David), introduced early in the script:
- KING looks like a king. A lion of a black man but with a sleepy, gentle face, not to be roused, is painfully trying to scrawl a letter home with the pencil held awkwardly, mouthing the words.
He has many of the film’s key lines and entertains the platoon with his home-spun wisdom and sense of humor.
King wonders how an educated man like Chris wound up in Viet Nam. The boy’s idealistic view of the war makes him laugh. He calls Chris a crusader for thinking dropping out of school and signing up would make a difference. (Stone reportedly dropped out of Yale twice and based Platoon on his own experiences serving in Viet Nam.)
After the hero survives an injury, King – whose very name is symbolic – accepts him as part of the group. He takes Chris under his wing, shrugging off the possibility that he might have let the platoon down. King tells him there is “no such thing here as a coward,” a line that he repeats later in the film.
As an ally, King introduces Chris to the “head,” an underground world where Elias’ crew smoke pot and escape the war. He gets Chris high for the first time, which not only relieves the pain of his injury, but initiates him into the underworld. The symbolism of this occasion isn’t lost on King:
- This ain’t Taylor. Taylor been shot. This man Chris been resurrected…
King is not the only moral guide in Platoon. The Christ like figure Elias is another strong force of good and the focal point of Chris’ admiration.
In my mind, the moral center is generally a less active participant in the story and more of an observer. Elias plays a big part; staying very involved in the plot. He helps the men prepare for missions and teaches them what he can about survival. When faced with difficult tasks he crusades for good. King is more of a witness and commentator on the action. His actions never influence the direction of the story.
When the platoon suspects that Barnes actually killed Elias they talk about getting revenge. Barnes turns up drunk and challenges them, giving them a chance to get even.
- King, the biggest one there, is about to say something, but the moment passes.
He knows that an eye for an eye is not justice; and remains an observer. As an observer King is also the only that notices Chris isn’t writing home anymore. In case the audience hasn’t noticed Chris’ transformation, King is there to point it out.
We don’t know what happens to Chris and the other members of the platoon at the end. King makes it out alive before the final battle and he gives Chris some final advice:
- Make it outta here, it’s all gravy, every day of the rest of your life man – gravy.
If anything, this is the delivery of the film’s real message. War is a terrible experience for everyone involved. Surviving it is one thing, but surviving it and still remaining human is another.
For King, to have another chance at life, and to live life to the fullest, every day is gravy. It’s an extra gift that is worth staying alive for.