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In director Francis Ford Coppola's homeland war drama Gardens of Stone (1987), a tightly-knit group of soldiers work as part of the 1st battalion 3rd Infantry Regiment at Fort Myer, Virginia, in the famed "Old Guard". It is 1968 and they are very busy, engaged in the depressing ritual of ushering the bodies that have returned from the Vietnam War into Arlington National Cemetery.
In a carefully choreographed ritual, the soldiers, resplendently turned out in their dress uniforms, perform the gestures of coffin carrying, flag folding, gunfire salute and expression of condolences to grieving family members. They are, in the estimation of longtime soldier and Korean and Vietnam War vet Sgt. Clell Hazard (James Caan), "tin soldiers," involved in a ritualized Kabuki theater masquerade of soldiering for the benefit of the family members who gather to see their loved ones lowered into the ground.
Disheartened by the constant exposure to death, Clell longs to escape the empty pomp and pageantry of his job and instead serve as an instructor at the U.S. Army School of Infantry at Fort Benning, Georgia so that he can train young soldiers for the reality of combat, not merely watch their coffins return home. But his commanding officer Capt. Homer Thomas (Dean Stockwell) resists the notion of a soldier of his age serving overseas and his seemingly misguided notion to honor the dead by becoming one of them. His best friend and fellow "tin solider" Sgt. Major "Goody" Nelson (James Earl Jones) is also concerned about Clell's mounting mania about the war. Amidst Clell's increasing angst comes a bright spot in the form of Samantha Davis (Anjelica Huston), a neighbor who lives down the hall in Clell's off-base apartment building. A cosmopolitan, left-leaning Washington Post journalist, Samantha is initially reluctant to get involved with a man she perceives as a right-wing, gung-ho soldier. Yet over time, Clell and Samantha fall in love, though even her presence cannot dissuade him from his desire to serve overseas.
When a young soldier, Jackie Willow (D.B. Sweeney) arrives at Fort Myer, Clell's sense of guilt intensifies. Jackie is the child of one of Clell's longtime friends who served with him in Korea, and so becomes a kind of surrogate son for Clell--who stopped seeing his own son during a bitter divorce. During the course of the film, Jackie is engaged in a love story of his own, reuniting with, and eventually marrying, high school sweetheart Rachel Feld (Mary Stuart Masterson) whose Colonel father (Peter Masterson) has forbidden her to see an enlisted man. In turn, Jackie takes a fellow young soldier Private Albert Wildman (Casey Siemaszko) under his wing, turning him from a sloppy, prat-falling soldier into one so accomplished he distinguishes himself for heroism with the Medal of Honor when he is assigned to Vietnam. When Jackie is also called up for service in Vietnam, Clell is horrified because he sees it as a virtual death sentence for the soldiers who serve there.
A number of young actors who would move into distinguished careers of their own appear in small roles in Gardens of Stone including Laurence Fishburne as Jackie Willow's squad leader. Also notable in the cast is Elias Koteas as the good-natured company clerk Pete Deveber who shows Jackie the ropes when he first arrives at Fort Myer. Other notable inclusions were Mary Stuart Masterson who appeared that same year in the John Hughes-penned teen drama Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). Masterson's real-life parents, Peter Masterson and Carlin Glynn, play her onscreen parents, Colonel and Mrs. Feld in Gardens of Stone.
Tatum O'Neal's brother and Ryan O'Neal's son Griffin O'Neal was originally set to play Jackie Willow in Gardens of Stone. But he bowed out of the production after his involvement in the grisly accidental death of Coppola's oldest son Gian-Carlo Coppola in a 1986 speed boat accident.
Gardens of Stone was not a hit with the critics upon its release. Vincent Canby wrote of the film in The New York Times, "it's a mystery why Mr. Coppola, one of the most efficient writers in Hollywood, came to direct such a screenplay, one that's alternately lame and utterly confusing. Possibly he tried to improve things, but the movie builds to no point."
Over time, many viewers have reassessed Gardens of Stone for what it reflects of director Francis Ford Coppola's cinematic evolution, and for a memorable performance by James Earl Jones, who plays a secondary character to the showier role played by James Caan.
Jones has enjoyed a diverse and celebrated career in Hollywood, most memorably perhaps through his voice work. Jones' sonorous bass voice has defined the Star Wars (1977) arch villain Darth Vader, Mufasa in The Lion King (1994) and the voice of CNN. George Lucas initially hoped to cast Orson Welles for Vader's voice, but decided Welles was too well known and subsequently allowed Jones to go down in movie history as one of the American cinema's most famous villains.
Born in Arkabutla, Mississippi, Jones was raised by his maternal grandparents. Jones originally began to take acting lessons to get over a stutter. Even today, Jones says he still suffers from the problem, and has to think of what he will next say in order to outwit the condition. It is not surprising that Jones has played military figures in a number of films. At the University of Michigan Jones was in the ROTC and trained for Basic Infantry Officers School at Fort Benning. He left the Army with the rank of first lieutenant. Jones also got his start in film playing a military role, as an American soldier aboard the aircraft dropping an atomic bomb in Stanley Kubrick's riotous Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In another notable achievement, in 1969 Jones became the first celebrity guest on the PBS children's show "Sesame Street."
Jones has also had a distinguished career on stage, appearing in African American cast versions of On Golden Pond (2005) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2008 and 2009). In 2010 and 2011 Jones appeared in a stage version, alongside Vanessa Redgrave, of Driving Miss Daisy. He has also received an honorary 2011 Oscar® for his contribution to cinema, which he accepted on video while performing in Driving Miss Daisy with Redgrave at London's Wyndham Theater.
Producer: Francis Ford Coppola, Michael I. Levy
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Ronald Bass, based on the novel by Nicholas Proffitt
Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth
Art Direction: Alex Tavoularis
Music: Carmine Coppola
Film Editing: Barry Malkin
Cast: James Caan (Sgt. Clell Hazard), James Earl Jones (Sgt. Maj. 'Goody' Nelson), Anjelica Huston (Samantha Davis), D.B. Sweeney (Jackie Willow), Dean Stockwell (Capt. Homer Thomas), Mary Stuart Masterson (Rachel Feld).
by Felicia Feaster