Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon is considered one of the greatest war films ever made. Stone served in the Vietnam War from 1967-68 and used his own experiences during the conflict to shape the narrative. One of the most memorable scenes in Platoon was the death of main character Sgt. Elias, portrayed by Willem Dafoe.
Below are some facts about the iconic film scene.
Willem Dafoe’s famous arms-to-the-sky pose wasn’t planned
During Platoon‘s climax, Willem Dafoe’s Sgt. Elias is chased and fired upon by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops. They strike him in the back, after which Elias throws his arms toward the sky. The iconic image appeared on the movie’s poster and the box of the video tape release.
What many might not know is that the pose wasn’t planned out beforehand. As Dafoe told Yahoo! News, “For me, it was a purely physical thing. The gesture of reaching towards the heavens, that’s not something we talked about. It’s purely practical: the helicopter’s up there, you want to reach for it.
“It’s funny, in retrospect I’ve heard many people say that Oliver Stone took that [pose] from a war photo,” he continued. “But it’s not true! It was totally practical and then once we had that image and once that sequence was very strong, I think it became a nice emblematic and iconic image for the film.”
Critics felt Sgt. Elias’ death was Christ-like
Critics consider Platoon to be rife with religious symbolism. Sgt. Elias represents the good in Christ-like fashion, while the callous Sgt. Barnes, portrayed by Tom Berenger, is devil-like. The arms-to-the-sky pose during Elias’ death scene can easily be seen as an allusion to crucifixion and, interestingly, when viewers first meet the character, he’s carrying his weapon over his shoulders in a pose that somewhat mimics the act.
Sgt. Barnes, Elias’ sadistic staff sergeant, was in direct contrast to Platoon‘s main character. He was cruel and willing to slay those he was tasked with protecting. In one scene, Barnes is bathed in red light, symbolizing the evil within. The light also shines on his eyes, giving them a devilish glow.
There was a lot of pressure to get the shot right
During the filming of Sgt. Elias’ death in Platoon, Dafoe had little contact with the other members of the cast and crew. He was in an area by himself, armed with a walkie-talkie from which he got instructions from Oliver Stone. Essentially, he was told where explosives were going off and how to best avoid them.
Hollywood is filled with stories about directors burning through numerous takes to get the exact moment they’re looking for. For as intense as Elias’ death scene was in Platoon, it took relatively few takes; it only took three or four tries for Dafoe and Stone to capture it.
Willem Dafoe was told where the explosives were placed
The explosions occurring around Sgt. Elias as he makes his mad dash across the Vietnamese jungle were meticulously planned out beforehand, to ensure the scene not only looked spectacular, but that Willem Dafoe was safe as he performed his lines. Dafoe was aware of the location of the explosive devices. During the run, however, some went off, while others failed, although viewers were unaware of this.
Dafoe also had some control over the timing of the detonations. His vest was fitted with squibs and he held a detonator in his right hand. As he was running and some of the squibs failed, he threw the detonator to the side, an action that can be spotted by more eagle-eyed moviegoers.
Sgt. Elias’ death scene in Platoon was filmed in the Philippines
Director and writer Oliver Stone intended to make Platoon as realistic as possible, which meant filming in a location with terrain similar to that found in Vietnam. As such, Sgt. Elias’ death scene actually took place in a Philippine jungle. In fact, Stone shot the entire movie in the Philippines – and had plenty of trouble doing so.
He later wrote in his biography, Chasing the Light, “No cooperation was possible; in fact, they put out an advisory in the Philippines at the Clark and Subic Bay bases against US troops participating in any filming activity. Although I’d served with distinction, I never kidded myself that the Pentagon was in my corner.”
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Despite US military opposition and the rumblings of revolution in the Philippines, Stone was able to film his movie, and the jungle provided the perfect backdrop from Elias’ mad dash from the North Vietnamese troops who were pursuing him.