ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Gardens of Stone (1987) Blu Ray (Indicator)
Stationed back home during Vietnam
This drama, adapted from the novel of the same name by Nicholas Proffitt, takes place from the point of view of American soldiers assigned to duty on domestic soil during the Vietnam War. Jackie Willow (D. B. Sweeney), the hotheaded son of a highly venerated war veteran, has a passionate drive to follow in his footsteps by going to Vietnam. Instead, however, he is assigned to The Old Guard at Fort Myer in Virginia to take part in parades and look after the local war cemetery. While stationed there, he is taken under the wing of his father’s old army buddy, Sergeant Clell Hazard (James Caan). In contrast to Willow, however, Hazard is deeply disillusioned about how Vietnam is being fought and about how it condemns so many young men to sad deaths. He worries that his new charge will suffer the same fate.
Hazard himself starts a relationship with Samantha Davis (Anjelica Huston), a vehement anti-war protestor. While they both have a dislike of Vietnam in common, Hazard doesn’t entirely see eye-to-eye with the “peacenik” viewpoint - something which gets him into a rough disagreement with one of Samantha’s fellow activists. Willow, meanwhile, has to deal with some dramatic events in his own family life and his relationship with his on-off girlfriend Rachel Feld (Mary Stuart Masterson) who worries about his chosen career path.
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A footnote in Coppola’s career?
The general consensus amongst cineastes is that Francis Ford Coppola’s 1970s streak of classics (the first two Godfather films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now) ended up being his career peak. Most of his films from the 1980s onwards received mixed reviews at best or were brutally lambasted at worst. In his defence, his S. E. Hinton adaptation Rumble Fish (1983) has received a well-deserved re-evaluation over the years. This has also proven true of his adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), albeit with the proviso that Keanu Reeves has indisputably been miscast. These, however, have proven to be the exceptions to the rule. Most of his other post-1970s efforts have been relegated to the status of semi-forgotten footnotes.
One of the most forgotten of all is Gardens of Stone (1987), his second exploration of the Vietnam war after Apocalypse Now. It is hardly surprising that it has been forced to stand in the earlier film’s long shadow over the years. However, while hardly anyone would claim that it touches its forerunner’s cinematic brilliance, it’s still a worthy attempt to view The ‘Nam from a perspective other than the front line.
A number of reviews have commented that the film feels rather anonymous in terms of direction and that it could have been helmed by just about anyone. In general, Francis Ford Coppola’s approach feels rather invisible, seeming to just sit back and let the performances do all of the heavy lifting. However, one does get the feeling that there is a sure hand at work here behind the curtain, in the subtly dark atmosphere with which every scene is cast, in the rhythm of the dialogue and in the tightly-staged details of military life.
The cast takes on something of a stellar ensemble feel here. All of the main actors get the chance to both shine individually and generate real onscreen sparks with each other. James Caan, who had just returned from a period of temporary retirement to make this film, gives some fine, grizzled work as the disillusioned Sergeant Hazard. James Earl Jones brings a bearlike (in the sense of being both overbearing and huggy at once) and occasionally hilarious presence to his role as Hazard’s best friend and immediate superior Sergeant Major "Goody" Nelson. Anjelica Huston possesses a distinctive sass and understated strength as Hazard’s conscientious objector girlfriend. D. B. Sweeney effectively blends headstrong bullishness and an innate well-meaning dignity to his role as the young (and some would say naive) Willow.
What the film lacks, however, is an ability to really kick the viewer in the gut. After all, it is set during a time when countless young men were killed in a long and futile war, leaving similarly countless families and other loved ones devastated in the process. The fact that this is conveyed via being talked about and gently referred to rather than being put on full display means that it is more difficult to bring the feel of it all across with real effectiveness. Unfortunately, Gardens of Stone fails in this undeniably challenging task. There is a tragic event which occurs late on in the film but the overall approach to it is so determinedly low-key that it barely registers.
Gardens of Stone (1987) is at least a bit better than the neglect into which it has fallen might suggest. It’s a sombre, well-made piece which has enough life in its performances to make it worth a watch in its own right. It’s just that it’s a long way away from being Coppola at his best.
Runtime: 111 mins
Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
Script: Ronald Bass, from a novel by Nicholas Proffitt
Starring: James Caan, Anjelica Huston, James Earl Jones, D. B. Sweeney, Dean Stockwell, Mary Stuart Masterson, Dick Anthony Williams, Lonette McKee, Casey Siemaszko
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This is another great looking and sounding restoration courtesy of Indicator.
Audio Commentary with Jim Hemphill
American filmmaker and critic Hemphill provides an interesting if rather dryly academic commentary track here. He spends a great deal of time discussing its context within Francis Ford Coppola’s 1980s career. During this decade, Coppola was something of a whipping boy in the movie press. This all began with the tales of self-indulgence and spiralling budgets on the set of Apocalypse Now. The backlash grew louder when he built his own studio (Zoetrope) only for it to go bankrupt after his next film, One from the Heart, also went massively over-budget and subsequently tanked at the box office.
As a result of his financial difficulties, Coppola was forced to helm a number of “director for hire” films amid his more personal projects. Gardens of Stone was one of these, albeit it did hold some measure of personal interest for him due to the fact that he attended military school while growing up and became fascinated with its rituals. The film’s unusually positive depiction of US soldiers meant that the military had provided a high level of assistance and cooperation towards its production - in fact, allegedly the most since John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968). However, while the adaptation of Nicholas Proffitt’s novel was largely faithful, a few compromises were made including toning down some material involving the female characters displaying contempt towards the army.
Gardens of Stone’s production was also blighted by a tragedy in the Coppola family. Francis Ford Coppola’s son Gio was killed in a speedboat accident around this time. Moreover, the boat’s driver was Griffin O’Neal (the son of Ryan O’Neal), who was originally cast as Wildman in the film. He was charged with manslaughter and was subsequently replaced by Casey Siemaszko. Gio’s death arguably contributed towards the director’s decision to adopt such a distinctively sombre tone.
Distributors Tri-Star had little faith in the film and critical notices were mixed at best. As a result, they didn’t do a lot to promote it and it only got a smallish theatrical run. Nonetheless, Hemphill argues that it is overdue for reappraisal; while he acknowledges that it isn’t one of Coppola’s best, he opines that it is still as interesting as the top-tier work by many other directors.
Francis Ford Coppola: War at Home
While Coppola admits that he can’t remember a great deal from his time filming Gardens of Stone, this interview is still well worth a watch. His idea behind making it was that a true anti-war can’t use the excitement of war or battle; it has to be peaceful. He cites The Burmese Harp (1956) as an example. He also notes that, while some critics have called it a companion piece to his earlier and more famous Apocalypse Now, he never saw any relation to it.
Amongst the other things that he mentions are that he went to the same military school as Donald Trump and that he inadvertently offended Michelle Pfeiffer by saying that she was “too beautiful” to cast as Hazard’s onscreen girlfriend. She took that to mean that she traded on looks rather than talent (something which Coppola fully admits is incorrect).
Towards the end, he touches upon his reaction to the death of his son Gio during filming. Despite the tragedy, he pressed on with making the film in order to give some shape to his day and avoid falling into hopeless despair. He also recalls that his “beard turned radically from black to white in a day”.
The Guardian Interview with Anjelica Huston
An audio recording of an interview of the actress conducted by Adrian Wootton at the as part of a John Huston retrospective National Film Theatre, London in 2006. It’s well worth a listen as she talks about her time growing up in Ireland, her earliest memories of being on her father’s film sets, her experiences working on her first film A Walk with Love and Death (which was directed by her father), her relationship with Jack Nicholson and her favourite directors.
A trailer, image gallery and collector’s booklet round out the extras here.
Gardens of Stone is a worthy movie but doesn’t come close to matching the brilliance of Francis Ford Coppola’s finest works. However, the extras are good enough to enrich the overall disc.