Dale Dye has a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts, the medal they give you every time you get wounded in combat. Dye served with the Marines for twenty years before retiring and becoming the pre-eminent military adviser to Hollywood. Most of us first heard his name in 1986, when he appeared in and served as the adviser for Oliver Stone’s seminal Vietnam movie, Platoon. He has since gone on to appear in and advise on dozens of great war films, TV shows and even video games.
Platoon turns 25 this year, and the film is coming to Blu-Ray; that gave me a chance to get on the phone with Dye and talk about his career and Platoon, a film that fundamentally altered me when I saw it at age 13. It’s the rare film that’s important AND great, and Dye makes a good case in this interview for why Platoon remains just as important today as it was in 86.
How did you make the transition into film?
My last combat assignment was in Beirut in 1982/1983, and that ended in a tragedy as you may know, with the bombing at the Marine barracks that killed 241 of us. At that point having been multiple tours in Vietnam I began thinking I had had enough and I should look for something else to do before the whole experience depressed me too much. I didn’t have much to bring to the table. The year I was thinking about retiring the Mafia wasn’t hiring, and I had been shot at too many times to want to be a cop on America’s mean streets.
I was looking around for something I might bring, and as it turns out the common denominator was that I was a huge movie fan and had been all my life. I had seen every military film there was and the common denominator was that most of them pissed me off. They didn’t reflect who I was and what I knew and what my experience at war and in peace in the military was all about. I know for a fact that the reality was much more dramatic than the crapola I was seeing on screening.
So I began looking into it and I discovered that movie had military advisers for years and years and years, from when the first military film was made. But Hollywood, in my opinion, didn’t use them correctly. They used them to find out which side the ribbon goes on and which rifle is right, but that’s all superficial stuff. What I sensed was missing on the part of the actors and the storytellers was an understanding of the military mentality, of the emotions that are involved. And I realized somebody has to teach them that, and they have to teach them that before they assume the role and begin the process of filmmaking.
So that was my theory. That was what I thought I could bring to the table. It was a pretty hard sell. I came to LA and started talking to people and trying to make them understand that. The reaction I got was that they had been making zillions of dollars making war films for decades and here was some clown coming in to tell them they had a better mousetrap? Go away, and don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.
That’s where Platoon came in. When I discovered that Oliver was going to do this film and when I discovered that he himself was a combat infantryman in Vietnam, I knew that if anyone would understand what I was trying to do he would. Finally through hook and crook I got a meeting with him and it was probably the most pivotal twenty minutes of my life after the service. I explained to him what I thought the problem was with other war movies and he immediately got it. He said, ‘You’re right, and that’s not what we’re going to do with this one.’ We discovered right there that we were kindred spirits and we had a common goal, and the rest as they say is history.
The boot camp that the actors went through on Platoon was legendarily tough. Did you really go in there and kick these guys asses?
I did. And I continue to do it to this day because it works. It’s the only way to take a young guy or a gal who has grown up thinking the sun rises and falls on their ass, and who only thinks ‘Is my hair right’ or ‘Is my trailer appropriate’ and ‘How many lines do I have in this scene’ - that’s self-centered thinking, and it’s antithetical to the way military people think. Military people understand that there are only two goals, and that’s to accomplish the mission and to take care of your people. They learn in extremis how to do that, and how to think about somebody else before themselves. To teach an actor that it’s got to be a really physically, emotionally, psychologically jarring experience. The more I make it that way the quicker I can teach them.
Yeah, it was legendarily tough. We had them for three weeks in the jungles of the Phillipines. South central Luzon. They lived in holes that they dug with their blistered hands and they ate twice a day out of a ration can - if they didn’t piss me off that day - and they carried real weight and humped those jungle hills in enormous heat and they got shot at all the time. They learned very quickly they had to rely on each other to survive, just to stay away from that mean ass old white haired guy.
I imagine the first day they’re excited to be doing this, that it feels to them like playing. When do they begin to really feel it? When do they break?
Depending on how I’ve designed the training schedule it’s usually around day two or day three they realize play time is over and that this guy is serious or I’m going to have to buckle down here or starve and have a nervous breakdown. That’s one of the reasons I make it so physical, because the more physical I make it the more they become concerned with nothing more than surviving the next five minutes. When I get them into that mindset they’re finally open - their minds are open, their hearts are open, their bodies are worn out - and I can finally teach.
Oliver Stone offered James Woods a role in Platoon, but he turned it down, saying he would never go back into the jungle with Stone after Salvador. What was Oliver Stone like at this period, at the peak of his crazy young man days?
He was that, a crazy young man. But he’s a visionary filmmaker, he really understands how to tell a story in pictures. He understands how to mold actors into a character arc. Some people would watch Oliver on set and say ‘That’s chaos theory, all he’s trying to do is stir up emotions.’ To some extent with him that’s true. He was under extraordinary pressure with Platoon.
He had been trying to get that movie made for ten years, and suddenly he turns the corner and somebody is willing to give him five million dollars - which is all we had. That qualifies for low budget these days. We didn’t have a cent more. He was a driven man. He was a driven man by the story he had written. By the experiences he had had in Vietnam that gave him that story. And by the desire to get that story told correctly. To get it to be the impactful film that it really was. He poured everything he had into that, and in doing so he insisted that everybody else pour everything they had into it. And we did. And that’s the reason for the film’s success.
It occurs to me that there’s a whole generation that wasn’t even alive when Platoon came out, and that these younger people might be coming to the movie on Blu-Ray without really understanding the context of when the film was released. Can you talk about how Hollywood had treated Vietnam before Platoon and why Platoon was so important at the time?
What you have to understand, I think, especially younger audiences, is that the country was extraordinarily divided over the Vietnam War. It was one of the most divisive events of the 20th century. It tore this country apart, between rabid hawks who insisted we were doing the right things and equally rabid doves. And in the middle were students and social revolutionaries of one kind or another. The nation was in turmoil. We had a whole generation of veterans coming home from that war in Southeast Asia being ignored. Nobody wanted to talk about them because nobody wanted to get into the controversy, nobody wanted to get into the argument. Those veterans had to keep that experience inside, and when you do that it eats at you. It was very difficult for a whole generation who fought in that war.
When Platoon came out, the ice broke. People, no matter which side of the fence they were on, began to talk to each other. They said “I never understood your experience, or why you didn’t want to talk about it, until I saw Platoon.” It fomented a social change. Very few films can say that they did that. But Platoon did. Veterans came out of the closet everywhere and said ‘That’s what I went through, and that’s why I’m a little nervous and a little twitchy and why I don’t talk about my experience.’
It was pivotal in a lot of ways, not only as a superlative film but as a social phenomenon. That said, what young audiences should also understand is that we have a whole new generation of combat veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who will have been through some of the things they see in Platoon. So the important thing is to use Platoon as a springboard to understanding what war veterans go through. They can help make sure that this new generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and other wars we’ve been involved in since Vietnam, they can use that to help them understand so that the new generation doesn’t go through what the Vietnam generation did.