Even 26 years after its theatrical release, Born on the Fourth of July is a film that can be difficult to watch. Focusing on Vietnam War veterans, it tells the story of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), a Marine who eventually becomes a strong anti-war activist. In the film, his team accidentally kills women and children during the conflict. He is also responsible for an unfortunate incident of friendly fire. What ensues is a downward spiral into violence, promiscuity, and alcoholism as Kovic wrestles with guilt and his physical limitations.
The Academy Award-winning film was screened during the Virginia Film Festival last weekend at Charlottesville’s iconic Paramount Theater. Oliver Stone emerged shortly thereafter for an interview with Bob Toplin, a retired professor of history at the University of Virginia. The legendary and controversial director explained that funding for the film was pulled at the last minute in the 1970s, shelving the project for nearly a decade. “Born on the Fourth was what [studios] considered a bummer,” he added. Platoon, another war film, was one of those so-called “ten-year movies,” too.
Adapting Kovic’s memoir was a challenge for Stone, who opted for a chronological format rather than the elliptical setup of the book. He also enumerated other changes such as the violent Syracuse confrontation and Kovic’s meeting with Wilson family. Syracuse demonstrations by anti-war protesters never escalated to the horrific incidents at Kent State, but the “provocative” scene is important for capturing the mood of that time. The scene with the Wilsons was essential, even though it never happened. “I don’t think we missed the spirit of it,” Stone explained. “[Kovic] wanted to go.”
Capturing the pain, violence, and confusion of battle scenes realistically was vital to the project as well. Actors were required to train in an intense boot camp in the jungles of the Philippines. “They hated me,” Stone said, as the audience laughed.
To address the problems from war, the director has some ideas. “When we go to war, we have to send everyone of a certain age and women, too,” he told the crowd. “We’ll get this reality picture and I assure you, there won’t be so many wars.” He suggested cancelling football games and other festive events, keeping everyone focused on the significance of the mission.
Stone’s next project is called Snowden, a film centered Edward Snowden’s leak of classified documents from the National Security Agency. “We have a surveillance state and accept it like we do, like lambs. It’s really bothersome to those who think about it and [Snowden] did,” Stone said. “Whatever you think of him, he was a man who followed his own conscience.” As with Platoon and Born on the Fourth, he faced issues with securing funds for this film. In this case, we won’t have to wait ten years. The backing eventually came from France and Germany, instead of within the United States. Due out next spring, Snowden stars Shailene Woodley, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scott Eastwood, and Nicolas Cage.
Even with such a prolific career as a filmmaker, Stone seemed reserved about his films and their influence. Films with powerful messages have not always changed society but they are still important to develop in order to get the truth out. “You make the movie, you put your heart in, and you let it run,” he concluded.