Hacksaw Ridge is a movie about Private First Class Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a man who willingly signs up to serve in the military during World War II (which his family is mad about but the Army is happy about), but refuses to kill anyone or even hold a gun (which his family is happy about but the Army is mad about). His refusal to kill anyone is the central conflict of the movie, and that’s semi-funny to think about given that it’s a war movie and wars are pretty big conflicts. But it’s a good movie, and an intense movie, and one I could, and likely will, watch again. The main battle scene is, in no uncertain terms, as gruesome and captivating a war battle scene as has ever been filmed. And there are lots of other parts of the movie that I’d happily dissect (it’s an openly religious movie, for example, and also Vince Vaughn plays a war-grizzled sergeant, and we should all have a good long talk about that sometime in the future). But none of that is of any importance right now. What is of importance is the platoon, the group of low-level soldiers who go through basic training together and then get shipped off to the war together. More specifically: We’re talking about all the platoons of all of the war movies.
A war movie platoon has, on average, 10 members. And for it to be a good platoon (or an interesting platoon), each of those members needs to serve a particular utility. You need pieces in the platoon: pieces that complement each other; pieces that, when they’re all snapped together, form a whole. You need:
- The Funny One: He’s funny.
- The One Who Freezes Up During Battle: Usually the way we figure out who this guy is, is the fighting starts and he ends up tripping and falling down and then he just lies there and cries and refuses to move. (If I were in a movie platoon, I’d almost certainly be this guy.)
- The One Who Was Supposed To Be Something Else: He wasn’t supposed to be a soldier.
- The Screw-up: He screws things up.
- The Moral One: Also known as The One Who Questions The War.
- The One With The Exceptional Skill: Is he a really good comms guy? Is he a really good sniper? Is he really good at navigating through the jungle? Is he super good at hiding?
- The Rebel: He bucks back against the higher-ups.
- The Crazy One: Remember in Dead Presidents when Bokeem Woodbine cut the head off of that one guy and then carried it around in his bag as a souvenir?
- The Medic: Duh.
- The Reluctant Leader: The guy who holds everything together. He’s not doing the job he wants, he’s doing the job he has.
So let’s fill in those parts, and build the most interesting movie platoon possible. As Hacksaw Ridge teaches us, Desmond Doss is maybe the most exceptional platoon medic to ever appear in a war movie (he saved 75 people, and that’s great, but he also fucking karate kicked a grenade, which isn’t an essential trait but feels important), so he gets plugged into The Medic spot. One down, nine to go. To keep it at least somewhat proper, let’s move forward with these two things in mind:
- You can select only privates from movies. Platoons are made up of privates (the lowest rank in the Army), so those are the pieces we’re filling in and those are the guys you can choose from. Not sergeants or drill instructors or colonels or anything like that. Only the grunts. Only the privates.
- This ain’t a survival-based thing. We’re not trying to build a platoon where everyone’s going to survive or a platoon where whatever mission they’re supposed to be on is one that’s going to get completed. We’re not trying to build a functional, actual platoon. We’re trying to build the best, most interesting movie platoon.
So that’s it. We have The Medic. That means we just need …
The Funny One: The requirements for being The Funny One in a platoon are very straightforward: Just be funny. That’s it. That’s all you have to do. It’d probably be great if you were also good at other things (like not dying, or, fingers crossed, even killing), but it’s not a necessity.
It feels like a very big cheat move in this category to use any of the guys from Stripes, a military movie that was built specifically to be funny, so let’s make it a rule right now that you can’t pick anyone from Stripes. That being the case, the pick then has to be Private Swofford from Jarhead. He was funny in a reactionary way*, which is usually the best way to be funny in a harrowing situation, and also funny in an accidental way**, which is usually the second-best way to be funny in a harrowing situation.
*The best example of this kind of funny happens when the drill instructor digs him up for being bad at soldiering. After berating him for a good bit, the drill instructor condescendingly asks him how he ended up in the military. Swofford, frustrated, screams back, “Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir!” It was funny. The drill instructor responded by smashing Swofford’s head into a blackboard. That part was less funny.
**The best example of this kind of funny happened when Swofford got tricked into thinking he would be able to try out to be a bugle player instead of a sniper. Here’s the scene.
The One Who Freezes Up During Battle: Timothy Upham*, Saving Private Ryan. That motherfucker.
*He wasn’t technically a private. Sorry. He had to be chosen here, though. If you want to be a super stickler about the rules, you can go with Private Albert Blithe from Band of Brothers. He was so shaken by the terrors of war that he went temporarily blind from stress. Of course, the thing about picking him is Band of Brothers wasn’t a movie, it was a TV series. You’re hemmed in with rule-breaking on all sides.
The One Who Was Supposed To Be Something Else: There has to be a guy in the platoon who starts off OK, then about two-thirds of the way into the movie he has a stress-related breakdown of some sort and then during the breakdown he has a tearful monologue where he talks about how he wasn’t supposed to be a soldier, he was supposed to be something else. The best one for this spot is Private Miter from Tigerland.
Tigerland is about a group of soldiers going through training before being shipped off to Vietnam. Miter, who joined the Army because his life at home was crumbling and he wanted a way to prove that he was strong and tough, realizes as they near their deployment date that he’s no soldier. He tries to sneak off in the middle of the night but is stopped by Private Bozz (more on him in a minute). After being told that running away won’t bring the result he’s hoping for, Miter cracks. And he gives a just very wrenching monologue about how he wasn’t supposed to be a soldier. This is how it starts:
Private Miter: You know what I am, Bozz? I’m a butcher.
Private Bozz: Yeah, we’re all butchers, Miter.
Private Miter: No, I’m a real butcher.
Private Bozz: Shit, you haven’t killed anyone yet.
Private Miter: Goddamnit, Bozz. I mean a real butcher. Back home, I cut meat.
Private Miter was supposed to be a butcher. He’s our The Guy Who Was Supposed To Be Something Else.
The Screw-up: It can’t be anyone besides Private Gomer Pyle from Full Metal Jacket, right? It’s so hard to watch that poor guy just get completely unraveled by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. :(
The Moral One: The main characteristic of this guy is he’s the one who can never all-the-way accept the idea of killing to create peace. And nobody was ever better in this capacity than Private Chris Taylor in Platoon. He spent just about the whole, entire movie trying to sort out the complexity of war; the worth of war; the cost of war, both philosophically and spiritually. He was caught between two lead soldiers, two guys he’d refer to at the end of the movie as his two fathers: the sadistic and troubled Staff Sergeant Robert Barnes, who didn’t love the war so much as he needed it, and the idealistic (and much less insane) Sergeant Gordon Elias, who was able to suss out the difference between violence and needless violence with more fluidity than Barnes. Taylor proved himself an extension of Elias (there was literally a part where he stopped a group of soldiers aligned with Barnes from gang-raping a POW), but ends the movie by killing Barnes in the jungle before making his way back to an evacuation helicopter and then crying to himself as they fly away. “The war is over for me now, but I will always be there, the rest of my days,” he narrates to himself, which is exactly the kind of thing The Moral One needs to say as he leaves the war.
The One With The Exceptional Skill: Give me Private Daniel Jackson, the left-handed sniper from Saving Private Ryan who would recite Bible verses while he gunned down the enemy. He’s my The One With The Exceptional Skill. If he’s unavailable, then give me Private Ray Motown from Hamburger Hill, who is elite at handshakes*.
*As a bonus, Private Motown could also fill in the The One Who’s A Minority category if you decide to include that since there’s almost always one or two black guys or Latinos or Italians or whatever in the platoon.
The Rebel: A good rebel needs to have two things going on inside of his head. First, he needs to be someone who questions authority and who will battle authority and will (almost) always do what it is that he wants and feels is best. That’s the first part. But just as important: He needs to have a good heart and eventually morph into someone who is dependable and willing to give his life for something bigger than himself or, in the absence of a grander ideology, then at least in exchange for the life of someone else in the platoon. (The morph usually happens after someone is finally able to put together the correct string of words that gets The Rebel to focus his energy or force forward instead of backward.) (It also happens after Morgan Freeman smacks you.) The Rebel here has to be Private Silas Trip from Glory.
The Crazy One: Private Phil “Spoon” Witherspoon, Dog Soldiers.
Dog Soldiers is about a group of soldiers who get tricked into trying to catch a werewolf so the government can study it and then turn it into a weapon (OR SOMETHING). One of the soldiers, Private Spoon, gets into a proper fistfight with one of the werewolves (turns out, there’s an entire family of werewolves) (OR SOMETHING). He runs into a kitchen, tries to block the door so the werewolf chasing him can’t get in, fires the last of his bullets at the door as the werewolf breaks it down, looks around, realizes he’s trapped, and then — and you can pretty much see his exact train of thought on his face — he goes, “Well … fuck it,” then puts up his fists and gets ready to box the werewolf. Here’s the crazy thing, though: The werewolf boxes him back. The werewolf sees Spoon with his hands up and is like, “Alright, lil’ hoe,” and THEN HE FUCKING STARTS BOXING HIM BACK, HAHAHAHA. And here’s an even crazier thing: SPOON BEATS THE WEREWOLF.
He dips and dodges a few of the werewolf’s punches, delivers a few crushing blows, eventually happens across a knife, then stabs him a good 20–25 times. The werewolf pops up, they go at it again, then Spoon crushes him good in the head with a frying pan. As he stands over him preparing to give the werewolf a death blow, a second werewolf slaps the pan out of Spoon’s hand and then grabs him by the throat. He pins Spoon up against the wall and gets right in his face, snarling and drooling and making it very clear that he’s about to eat Spoon. So guess what Spoon does? He chews on his gum, looks the werewolf in the eyes, then says — and I promise to you he really actually says this — he says, “I hope I give you the shits, you fucking wimp.” (!!!!!!!!!!) You’re telling me I need a crazy guy in my platoon? Then I’m telling you to give me the one who ain’t afraid to box a werewolf and then cuss out a different werewolf.
The Reluctant Leader: Private Roland Bozz from Tigerland. He’s perfect. The whole movie is him wrestling with:
- Wanting to be a soldier …
- … but not wanting to be a soldier.
- Knowing he’s a good soldier …
- … but tricking people into thinking he’s a bad soldier.
- Knowing he’s a good leader …
- … but not being sure if he’s ready to be a leader, or to carry the responsibilities of being a leader.
So you take those things and then add them to the fact that he’s (a) handsome, which, let’s not kid ourselves, is important in this setting, (b) cool (that’s also important), © smart (he figures out ways to help several people who don’t want to be in the Army get discharged from the Army so they don’t have to fight in the war), (d) compassionate, and (e) has a big, broad understanding of the mechanisms of war. He’s the exact right Reluctant Leader for our movie platoon. May they triumph on the field of battle.