According to Oliver Stone, he intentionally cast Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe against type (Berenger, who played the ruthless, sadistic Sgt. Barnes, was mostly famous at that point for playing good guys, while Dafoe, who had primarily played villains up until then, played the heroic, compassionate Sgt. Elias). The casting worked, and both men received Oscar nominations for their work.
With this movie, Oliver Stone became the first Vietnam veteran to direct a major motion picture about the Vietnam War. He was already the first Vietnam veteran to win an Oscar (for Midnight Express (1978), a distinction which he still holds, and became with this picture the first Vietnam vet to win an Oscar for Best Director. As of 2010 he is the last veteran of any war to win an Oscar for Best Director, other than Clint Eastwood who served in the Army during the Korean War, but never went to Korea.
Toward the end of the film, when the reinforcements arrive after the battle, Rhah (Francesco Quinn) reaches into a dead VC's breast pocket, pulls something out, and keeps it, while looking around nervously. The item he is removing is heroin, which VC soldiers used as a painkiller. Many heroin-addicted US troops did the same thing. The scene implies that Rhah's mystical quality is a symptom of a larger problem.
Oliver Stone wrote the first draft of Platoon in 1971 and sent it to Jim Morrison in hopes that he would play the part Charlie Sheen would ultimately play. Morrison had the script on him when he was found dead in Paris. It is unknown whether he would have been cast had he lived, however Stone eventually made The Doors (1991) based on Morrison's life.
At one point, a character is warned not to drink from a river because he might get malaria. During filming, Willem Dafoe got thirsty and drank water from a river, not knowing that a dead pig was not far upstream. He was sick for 24 hours, but not with malaria.
Before shooting commenced, all of the actors had to undergo an intensive two-week basic training under the supervision of military adviser Dale Dye. Oliver Stone's intention was not to have the men bond and act as one unit but to deprive them of sleep and make them utterly exhausted, so that they would be burnt out and therefore in character.
Originally Charlie Sheen was turned down for the main role of Chris because it was felt he was too young for the part. His older brother Emilio Estevez was offered the part but the project fell apart due to financial problems. Two years later the project was given the go-ahead, but Estevez had already committed to other projects. Charlie Sheen again read for the part and won it.
The movie poster depicting Elias with his hands in the air, is a recreation of a 1968 photograph by Art Greenspon. This photograph was recognized as the 13th greatest military photograph in a Sept 2000 issue of the Army/Navy/AF Time.
Several of the actors wrote messages on their helmets worn throughout the movie. Charlie Sheen's helmet reads, "When I die, bury me upside-down, so the world can kiss my ass", while Johnny Depp's simply reads, "Sherilyn", a tribute to Sherilyn Fenn, whom Depp was dating at the time. Mark Moses (Lt. Wolfe) had on his helmet a drawing of MAD magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman with the phrase "What, me worry?" and, according to Tom Berenger, this caused Oliver Stone to laugh hysterically once during filming.
Prior to the scene where Elias' half of the platoon is smoking dope, the actors actually did smoke marijuana. Unfortunately for them, Willem Dafoe reported, by the time the stage was set and they actually filmed, everyone had come off their high and felt awful.
In a TV interview, Charlie Sheen credited Keith David with saving his life. While shooting in an open-doored Huey gunship, the helicopter banked too hard and Sheen was thrown towards - and would have gone through - the open door. David grabbed him by the back and pulled him back in.
Drawn from Oliver Stone's own personal experiences as an Army combat infantryman in Vietnam. He wrote it quickly upon his return from action and partly to counter the false depiction of war he had seen in John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968).
Oliver Stone considered casting Johnny Depp for the lead role of Pvt. Chris Taylor but Depp was too young for the part and unknown at the time. Stone said that Depp would someday become a huge star and is thus one of the first filmmakers who introduced Johnny Depp to Hollywood.
All of the actors had to endure a harsh 14-day boot camp in the Philippines before the shooting of the film commenced. The actors were given military haircuts, were required to stay in character throughout the camp, ate only military rations, were not allowed to shower, slept in the jungle, and even had rotations for night watch.
Oliver Stone originally was looking for a Native American actor to play Sergeant Elias. When he failed to do so, he cast Willem Dafoe instead. Several scenes with Elias reflect Stone's original idea of the Native American spirit embodying Elias.
Technical advisor Dale Dye was also the door-gunner on one of the Hueys after the church ambush. He made sure that his visor was down to disguise the identity of the gunner, as Dye also played Captain Harris.
At one point Junior and several other black soldiers are talking about the situation in the platoon. Sgt. Warren remarks that they should trust Barnes, while Junior retorts that Warren's ideas of a good leader may be contaminated by the 'shit' he 'shoots up'. This is a reference to Sgt. Warren's addiction to morphine, which was left ambiguous in the final movie.
Military advisor Dale Dye witnessed Oliver Stone suffer an attack of post-traumatic stress disorder on set while filming the village scene. He claimed that they had a good cry together afterwards based on their mutual experience in Vietnam.
Director Oliver Stone remembered that while casting the movie, Kris Kristofferson was thrown around by some as a potential 'Sgt. Elias', since he was in real-life close to the character in type, and had been an Airborne Ranger. Stone, however, was not keen, as Kristofferson was "way too old" and had not had a hit movie since Convoy (1978).
Oliver Stone wanted James Woods, the star of his previous film Salvador (1986), to have a role in the film. Remembering the hectic, grueling shoot in Mexico, Woods turned Stone down. Woods once said of this, "I couldn't take the mud". Although Woods was later interested in being in JFK (1991), he would not work with Stone again until Nixon (1995), nine years later.
Prior to going after Elias (Willem Dafoe), Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) threatens to "Article 15" Taylor unless they return to the base camp. Article 15 is a section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that allows superiors to mete out non-judicial punishment under certain conditions. Specifically, it spells out U.S. military punishment for serious insubordination.
The cast and crew arrived in the Philippines in early 1986, almost simultaneous to the beginning of the Edsa Revolution of 1986 that toppled Ferdinand Marcos. Willem Dafoe said that a day or two after he arrived in Manila, he awoke to see a column of tanks rolling down the streets.
Bunny tries to encourage Junior by saying "You're hanging out with Audie Murphy here my man!". Audie Murphy was one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War II. He received the Medal of Honor and at least 32 other medals during his war-career. Murphy became a household name after he was featured on the cover of Life Magazine in 1945 and his subsequent movie roles.
The character of Bunny takes at least some of his lines and characteristics from the book 'Nam by Mark Baker. 'Nam is a collection of first hand accounts of soldiers who were in the Vietnam war, first published in the early 1980's. The line, "The only worry you had was dying, and if that happened you wouldn't know it anyway. So what the fuck" comes directly from the "Baptism of Fire" chapter of the book (p. 67). In addition, a soldier in the "Grunts" chapter of the book "had a scalp hanging off his helmet" at the back as does the character of Bunny in the film.
When Sandy and Sal search the bunker they come across a box full of maps and "S2 stuff". "S2" was (is) Military Intelligence, meaning those papers would be handed over to S2 for analysis after the platoon's return to base.
At the initiation of the end-fight, Raha tells Taylor air cover is coming in with "Snake and Nape", meaning the typical Vietnam CAS load out 250-lb. Mk-81 Snakeye bombs and 500-lb. M-47 napalm canisters.
Based on Oliver Stone's personal experience during the war in Vietnam based on a screenplay he finished around 1976. Numerous studios passed on it until he finally got approval and starting filming in early 1986.
At the end of the scene where Willem Dafoe and John C. McGinley are arguing about whose team should have to pull perimeter watch, John C. McGinley's character says, "Guy's in 3 years and he thinks he's Jesus F'n Christ or something." Dafoe went on to play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) one year later.
Oliver Stone suggested that the cast and crew camp out on location while filming an early scene on a hill they could only reach by hiking in. Everyone agreed to that at first, but that night, after hiking up the hill and finishing their day's work, everyone ran back down to the valley.
During the battle near the church ruins Big Harold calls out "SHORT!! SHORT ROUNDS!!!" Short Rounds is a term used to describe artillery rounds dropped short of target and possibly on top of friendly armed forces, another example of Lt Wolfe's incompetence as a combat platoon leader as he was the one who called in said artillery strike.
Sgt. Elias, in addition to the 25th Infantry Division patch on his left sleeve, also has 1st Cavalry Division insignia on his right; known as Shoulder Sleeve Insignia- Former Wartime Service or SSI-FWS, indicating the wearer served with that unit during a combat rotation. The 1st Cavalry Division was in fact the first American division to see major action in the Vietnam War, and in this case Elias may have been a participant in those battles. Elias makes a reference while talking with Chris about Ia Drang in '65, which is a reference to the battle involving the fight at LZ-Xray. The battle included a squadron of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division and is the main focus of the book by LTG Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway titled, "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young" on which the movie by the same title was based. Elias also seems to have been Airborne-qualified, as he has the Airborne tab on his headband.
John Spencer was originally cast as Sgt. O'Neill and John C. McGinley was originally offered the part of Tony. But Spencer dropped out and Stone offered McGinley the larger role. Ivan Kane ended up playing Tony.
Platoon (1986) was the third highest grossing film of 1986. Australian hit Crocodile Dundee (1986) was the second biggest film of the year, with Top Gun (1986) coming in first. It took $177 million in the US alone, and $353 million worldwide.
Sgt. Barnes (Berenger) drags two women out of a hole in the village and asks Tony (Kane) for a "Willie Pete" grenade which he throws into the hole. "Willie Pete" is slang for "White Phosphorus" (WP), more specifically the M34 White Phosphorus Smoke Grenade. It was frequently used in the Vietnam war due to it's effectiveness in close confined spaces such as bunkers and tunnels. The burning white phosphorus absorbs oxygen, causing the victims to suffocate or suffer serious burns.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The movie was filmed nearly sequentially; as soon as their characters were killed in the movie, the actors returned home. The emotion that Charlie Sheen shows in the closing helicopter scene was largely real, knowing that he was finally going home.
Pockets of fake blood intended to simulate gunshot wounds to Elias's body during the famous "arm-raising" scene malfunctioned and never exploded. However, Willem Dafoe's performance in that take was considered so impressive that the scene was left as is.
After Taylor (Charlie Sheen) takes his revenge on Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), the other platoon arrives to look for survivors and someone asks Taylor if he's okay. As he does, Taylor quickly drops a grenade. The script didn't call for it, but Sheen thought his character would be suicidal at that point in the movie, and director Oliver Stone liked it and kept it in the movie.
The paper pinned to Manny's (Corkey Ford's) dead body is a South Vietnam safe conduct pass. These papers were dropped en masse over South Vietnam in an unsuccessful attempt to get the VC and NVA to surrender. The enemy troops are showing their contempt for the Americans by attaching the pass to Manny's corpse.
In the aftermath of the end-fight, Francis stabs himself in his leg with a knife in order to get out of Vietnam. When Francis is seen leaving on the medical chopper, Rodriguez is also seen with a bandaged leg suggesting he too may have stabbed his own leg in order to get out of future military service.