Actor Tom Berenger knew during filming that “Platoon” would be one of the most sensational war movies ever made. He played the main antagonist, a contentious and spine chilling Sergeant Bob Barnes in the 1986 Vietnam war movie. Written and directed by Oliver Stone based on his own experiences, it included a cast that would produce Hollywood’s most notable actors such as Johnny Depp, Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Tony Todd, John C. McGinley, Kevin Dillon, Mark Moses, Keith David and Forrest Whitaker. The movie would go on to win four Academy Awards and Berenger a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
“This was a part I wanted to do, everyone thought it would be William Dafoe but really I wanted it,” said Berenger. “It wasn’t a big debate for me playing the bad sergeant because the role was so good.” With kind eyes, wavy gray hair and an affable nature, Berenger seemed less like the crude character Barnes and more of Key Wester sporting a fishing shirt and looking for a good Cuban coffee.
Berenger came to Key West last weekend for the Key West Film Festival and to see his longtime friend, Mark Ebenhoch, another “Platoon” star and attend the new documentary “Brothers in Arms”, a retrospective about the making of the film. Ebenhoch was hired by Stone as a consultant rifleman from the Marine Corps and also acted in the film under his own name. Later he would also star with Berenger in “Rough Riders” as well. Although over 30 years ago, for both Berenger and Ebenhoch, it’s an easy time recall.
“It was such an important experience,” agreed both men. Berenger remembers a great number of details about the time as well as becoming close with actors Mark Moses, Dale Dye and Francesco Quinn. He was one of the older, more experienced actors in the group but most of them had theater backgrounds and took the task seriously.
As for Director Oliver Stone, Berenger marveled at his ability to imagine such a film.
“Stone was smart enough to trust the actors’ improve–that’s how the line ‘tag ‘em and bag ‘em’ got in there. We learned the slang and then even made up our own, if Stone liked it, it stayed,” said Berenger. The character Sergeant Barnes would also popularize the phrase “lock and load” and “Everybody’s gotta die sometime, Red.”
“Stone worked incredibly fast, 2-3 takes and we would move on. He just trusted us and let us push the limits.” Nothing was more of an example than when Berenger as Barnes held a gun to a young girl’s head. This gut wrenching scene always held a stigma for Berenger and at the KWFF, a surprise visit by Le Thanh Van, the then 12-year-old-girl who is now Edith “Erika” Thomas, reunited them on stage. The outcome was a cathartic moment for Berenger, who finally put to rest uneasy feelings about shooting the scene with a gun to her head.
Berenger, Ebenhoch and many of the original cast members were excited when Paul Sanchez created “Brothers in Arms” to look back, but to also capture what it’s like to make a truly great film.