The western and the war film are both distinctly violent films – they are basically about revenge, defeating the adversary, and operating in a wilderness of sorts (the Old West, compared to the jungles of Vietnam or the beaches of Normandy). In many films of this genre, the protagonist is unfamiliar with the harshness of the environment around them – they are not accustomed to violence, and must find themselves in the process. Two such characters are, respectively, Mattie Ross in the 1969 western True Grit and Chris Taylor in the 1986 war film Platoon. Both are young, idealistic characters who slowly learn who they are in the harsh landscape they find themselves in. The performances involved in the creation of these characters require vastly different demands due to the setting and the production, despite the similarity of their roles within their respective films. This essay will discuss the varying challenges Kim Darby and Charlie Sheen faced in realizing the characters of Mattie Ross and Chris Taylor in the films True Grit and Platoon through the lenses of character, relationships, environment, conviction, and theme.
Kim Darby, having been given the challenge of realizing this character of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, had a number of challenges to face. The complex nature of Mattie Ross lies in her strength, which shines through despite her youth and the expectations of her gender at the time. Her superobjective is fairly straightforward on the surface (“avenge Father”), but in Kim Darby’s confident, yet vulnerable performance, she shows that she is willing to go to the ends of the Earth to accomplish her mission. She pours herself into her character, inhabiting her fully, as actors are intended to do (Lumet, p. 66). She confronts everyone with a steely confidence that belies her age, all of the adults scoffing at her as she demands to be taken seriously. The negotiation scene with the horse trader is evidence of this; she never backs down and makes reasonable arrangements, and Darby is visibly irritated with this adult man, who she soundly pushes around in the negotiation process. Darby is almost annoyed that she encounters so much difficulty because of her youth and gender, and this is a perfect example of displaying why she seems to need to try so hard to prove herself.
Sheen, on the other hand, is much more of an everyman character – at the beginning of the film, he is a blank slate; a dropped-out college student who joins the Vietnam war effort and does not know what he is getting into. In this way, he is like Mattie; ready and willing to run into danger, but not really cognizant of what they will find. Sheen’s performance revolves around the changes in his character as he experiences hell in Vietnam, with the various thematic and character-driven forces that pull at him. He is truly walking the line between good and evil – whether to act justly or to indiscriminately follow the crass, terrible behavior of many of the soldiers he works with. His character is much more fluid than Mattie, as Mattie’s arc is fairly static due to its focus on her mission. Sheen portrays him as a blank slate, his personality slowly molding to fit in with the group, while still maintaining his sense of right and wrong…at least at first. In Sheen’s case, one can see the wheels perpetually turning in his eyes, as he attempts to absorb the horrifying situation around him. – “A film actor must be sufficiently in charge of his material and in tune with the life of his character to think his character’s most private thoughts as though no one were watching him” (Caine, p. 3).
The relationships of the other characters in both films have significant impact on both Mattie and Chris Taylor, and Darby and Sheen have unique challenges in portraying how these forces affect their characters. Both characters have two conflicting supporting characters surrounding them; Mattie has the old, drunken Marshal Rooster Cogburn and the young, straight-laced LaBeouf, while Taylor is led around by the righteous, humble Elias and the brash, aggressive Barnes. Kim Darby, through her confident distance with both characters, manages to portray her own leadership abilities, as this young girl needs to be almost comedically overbearing and brash in order to successfully win the allegiance of these two large, powerful men.
Kim portrays immense frustration with both characters – at Rooster for being such an old drunk, and LaBeouf for being far too forward. Mostly, however, Darby works to assert her role as leader of the group, despite her young girlhood. This is done through her body language and speech; Darby speaks directly and with purpose, and her head is always held high, not regally but confidently. At the same time, she speaks plain with them, making clear her intentions at any given moment, and expecting to be treated like an adult. She is completely unfazed by any other characters’ disbelief at her brazen attitude, as Darby makes clear that this is what Mattie needs to do to survive and accomplish her mission. Her physical mannerisms, which are simple yet effective in their confidence, convey this aspect of her character (Caine, p. 32).
Sheen, on the other hand, has a much more dramatic acting challenge throughout the course of the film. Learning the virtues of kindness and temperance from Elias at first, Sheen is laidback, yet taken aback, by what he is seeing and learning from him. By the end of the film, Sheen gives Taylor a slowly growing confidence, as he bonds with the rest of the people in his unit and with Elias in general. Sheen’s talent is in communicating the actor’s feelings right to the audience, making it clear what his intentions and apprehensions are (Lumet, p. 59). The death of Elias stirs him to anger, Sheen portraying a quiet urgency as he attempts to spur the rest of the platoon to kill Barnes for what he did. Taylor’s transformation from man into monster culminates in the final battle, where an enraged Sheen kills Barnes in cold blood at his urging. Through Sheen’s gradually growing intensity over the course of the film, the Taylor of the end of Platoon is visibly not the same man who stepped off the plane at the beginning. The preparation he likely had to go through is incredible, as Sheen throws himself into the role, an important aspect to playing a part naturally (Caine, p. 4).
Environments can either complement or wash out the actors in a scene; the more an actor is invested in the environment, the more it becomes alive and present (Lumet, p. 84). The Old West in True Grit is very familiar to Mattie; Kim Darby seems unimpressed with the sweeping vistas and the dangers inherent in its environment. This is mostly due to her need to put forth a strong front in her mission to avenge her father; she focuses on business, barely even noticing the environment around her. This is evidenced most clearly in her show of bravado in nonchalantly walking the horse across the river to catch up with Rooster and LeBeouf at the outset of their journey. Of course, the experiences of the film bring her face to face with the dangers of the West, which she had been ignoring to that point; Kim Darby’s greatest show of fear as Mattie comes not when she is faced with her father’s murderer and about to be killed, but the threat of a rattlesnake, who bites her.
The lush jungles of Vietnam provide a perfect backdrop for Sheen to help Taylor find himself throughout the course of his film. The beginning of Platoon sees Taylor enter the environment with wide-eyed enthusiasm, and later surprise, at the horrors he likely did not expect when he left home. Right when he gets to Vietnam, Sheen conveys in his staunchly horrified face and slowed pace his feeling of shock at the sight of all the body bags being shipped back on the plane he just stepped off. The tempo of his walk makes it clear that these events are stopping him in his tracks, subverting the strength of a centered walk to show him off-balance (Caine, p. 84).
The conviction portrayed in both characters is quite different; Mattie Ross has a mission from the outset, and never wavers from it, whereas Taylor needs to find himself. Kim Darby portrays Mattie as almost having a single-minded goal, every action and every step being made towards the accomplishment of her mission. Sheen, on the other hand, displays a restlessness and an enthusiasm at the beginning of the film; his conviction is much less ardent than Mattie’s, as he came to Vietnam because he had to, not because he had a great desire to go over there. Sheen portrays this lack of conviction through his extreme apprehension, which soon grows into a conviction to become the best man he can be in his situation. After the death of Elias, however, his thoughts turn, like Mattie’s, toward revenge. Sheen, as his conviction increases, amps up the intensity of his character, who is now quick to action and reckless moves that can easily get him killed. He turns from a shy, aimless college dropout to a heartless killing machine – Sheen’s actions and physicality are much more direct, and he is driven much more by rage than by reason at the end of the film, screaming and shouting animalistically as he kills enemy after enemy. Sheen likely had to get into a very real and raw place for this type of intensity and rage, as you make actions and reactions realities however possible in film acting (Caine, p. 54).
Platoon, on the other hand, tortures its protagonist much more, giving Sheen meatier material to work with and allowing him to commit to the vulnerabilities present in this US soldier in a way Darby was not permitted to in her young girl. Sheen’s face, at many instances, betrays the horrors he sees in his experiences in Vietnam, from the raping of Vietnamese to the taunting and killing of native Vietnamese performed by his own platoon-mates – the audience can partly project these horrors onto his blank face, but he leaves it open enough to let it happen (Caine, p. 73). At the end of the film, he openly weeps on the plane home, ashamed at not only what he has seen, but what he has become.
Caine, Michael. Acting in film: an actor’s take on movie making. New York, NY: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1997. Print.
Lumet, Sidney. Making movies . New York: A.A. Knopf :, 1995. Print.
Platoon (Special Edition). Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe. Mgm (Video & Dvd), 1986. DVD.
True Grit (Special Collector’s Edition). Dir. Henry Hathaway. Perf. John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell. Paramount Pictures, 2008. DVD.