There are certain movie posters that are easy to identify even when you take all the words off. Back to the Future, Pulp Fiction, Young Einstein and, of course, Platoon. The image of a soldier on the grassy jungle battlefield of Vietnam, arms thrown above his head as he meets his tragic fate at the hands of the Viet Cong – it tells an entire story in one frame.
But did you know it was based on a real photo? Art Greenspon was 26 when he made his pilgrimage to Vietnam in order to document the action taking place. “I got $600 for my Volkswagen beetle, bought a one-way ticket to Saigon, got a 10-day tourist visa and set out to show the world ‘the truth’ about Vietnam,” he told Time in 2013. “I arrived on Christmas Day of 1967. I was too naive to be scared.”
That 10-day visa turned into months as Greenspon shot film as a stringer for United Press International (UPI). In April 1968, he went out looking for something real from the field. Embedded with soldiers on a patrol mission in the A Shau Valley, he witnessed an ambush and fight in a jungle clearing. He laid flat in the grass and waited for it to be over.
After the unit met up with another heavily injured company, Greenspon took his most famous photo, which encapsulates the shock, horror and chaos of what his adoptive unit had just been through. “As the first medevac chopper hovered overhead, I saw the first sergeant with his arms in the air,” he told Time. “I saw the medic shouldering wounded and then I saw the kid on his back in the grass. I have got to get all this in one picture, I thought. My heart was pounding. Was 1/60 fast enough? Screw it. Shoot pictures. I got three frames off, and the moment was gone.”
There are differences between what’s happening in Greenspon’s photo and Stone’s recreation, the most obvious of which is that the first sergeant with his hands in the air is gesturing to a rescue helicopter in the former, rather than throwing them up in oversignified defeat. But the relationship between the two images reveals the core of what Stone was attempting to do with this film – share the authentic story of the American grunt in Vietnam.
As for the authentic photographer in Vietnam, a week after taking his most famous photo, Greenspon was hit in the face by a spent shell. Upon recovering, his hands shook too much for him to continue shooting, so he returned home to America, with the assistance of local staff who helped him bribe his way out of Vietnam (remember that 10-day tourist visa?).
Saturday 22 August, 8:30pm on SBS (note: no catch up at SBS On Demand)
UK, USA, 1986
Genre: Drama, War, Action
Language: English, Vietnamese
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp