As any respectable history professor will tell you, if you want to learn about our past you should watch Hollywood historical fiction. That explains why MGM’s College Essentials: History 101 features Platoon – Special Edition, Windtalkers and Dances With Wolves. All three are clearly excellent examples of thoroughly accurate representations of historical conflicts, right?
Alright, so maybe educational impact isn’t the intention here. This is just MGM’s way of unloading some sub-par discs on unsuspecting buyers. What’s wrong with getting three movies for the price of one, you ask? Nothing. Unless one disc is out-dated and the other two should be incinerated by a giant laser.
Please note: this review borrows from existing upcomingdiscs.com reviews of these individual discs. Credit is due Gino Sassani for Dances With Wolves, Aric Mitchell for Platoon and David Williams for Windtalkers.
Let’s start with the outdated disc, Platoon – Special Edition (2001):
Many have labeled Oliver Stone as a fan of conspiracy theories, out to destroy foundations of conservative ideology, while at the same time re-visiting 60’s nostalgic icons. Despite the jokes and the stereotyping, one has to admit that, as a director, his works have generated discussion both within and aside from the technical merits. Platoon was his most personal work, and is widely regarded as one of the defining films of the Vietnam War.
The thing is, Platoon – Special Edition has been one-upped by the release of a 20th Anniversary edition in 2006, which is definitely a superior disc.
Platoon relates the experiences of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), who, like Stone, dropped out of college, and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. His battles are everywhere, be it the enemy, with his surroundings, some of his fellow soldiers, or with his identity. He is thrown into a platoon with several characters, each with their own distinguishing characteristics. Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) is riddled with facial scars, a veteran of many skirmishes in country, perhaps to the point where emotions have dwindled, as he is left a hard-nosed leader. Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) tries to forget the memories and experiences through drugs, but acts as a spiritual center, if one could find that within a war movie. Other actors in this cast include John C. McGinley, Forest Whitaker and a very young Johnny Depp, among others. They encounter many things during the time there, including ambushes and firefights. They experience the loss of fellow platoon members, either via combat or by other reasons, either wounded or serving their full tour of duty in country.
The story and characters are done so well, when watching the movie, their losses are our own. When Taylor leaves his platoon following an injury during combat, the closing shot of the movie is his sobbing on the floor of the chopper taking him out. You could say the sobbing is due to finally being out, or to the friends that he lost, but it is without question that his (and our) experiences leave him a totally different person that when he arrived.
Next up is the first of this set’s laser-fodder, Windtalkers (2002):
This disc is worse than your average bare-bones release, and the film has already seen double and triple dips that easily surpass this one. Why isn’t one of those releases included in this set?
Windtalkers is about the Navajo code-talkers from World War II. As you may know, Navajo was used extensively in the latter parts of World War II to relay information over open airwaves. The Japanese, unfamiliar with the language, were never able to crack it, and using it for coded transmissions played a significant part in the U.S. winning the war in the Pacific.
Windtalkers covers an often ignored aspect of the war and unfortunately, rather than giving it the treatment it deserves, director John Woo and company overpower the story with clichés, while bloody and violent battles serve as segues. Nicolas Cage stars as Marine Sergeant Joe Enders, a battle hardened veteran who opens up the film making a valiant stand with his men during a 1943 battle on the Solomon Islands. Unfortunately, the group becomes overrun, many Marines die, and Enders becomes injured in the melee. Enders will carry scars for the rest of his life from the battle – one on his ear and the other in his guilt-ridden conscience.
After his release from a military hospital, Enders finds himself with an extra stripe and a new assignment, partnered with Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a Navajo code-talker. Enders is told he must “protect the code at all costs,” and that means if he or Yahzee find themselves in a potentially sticky situation, he’ll have to kill his Navajo companion. As the men progress through battle after battle, the ominous question is always front and center – what lengths will Enders go to in order to protect the military’s most powerful secret? Unfortunately, the film drags its answer out for well over two-hours.
Woo attempts to give Windtalkers some sort of emotional stronghold and assumes we care about Enders and his inner demons. Unfortunately, we don’t. We’ve all “been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt” in previous World War II outings that were much, much better than this one. For a film that wants a character-driven and poignant core, the script is so full of one-dimensional caricatures from previous war films, that it keeps Windtalkers off-center and makes the whole pill harder to swallow. For a film that tries to be a character study, there are too many here we’ve met on previous occasions, in much better films.
The film is hardly better than its surprising $41 million dollar domestic take and there’s a good reason word-of-mouth didn’t get the take much higher – quite simply, the film was a (huge) disappointment. Windtalkers wants to be good, it tries to be good, but in the end, it falls well short of others in the genre.
Finally, we have another disc worth of incineration by laser, Dances With Wolves:
Yet again, this is a bare-bones DVD, included in spite of the existence of two better versions, including a two-disc director’s cut.
Dances With Wolves has always been a bit of a conundrum for me. The story is simply a beautiful one. The cinematography is often nothing short of breathtaking. What causes my trouble is when we get down to its star. Kevin Costner is horrible in this film. I’m not a Costner hater. Untouchables and JFK are two of his best films, and in each he delivered exactly what was required. I’m beginning to think, however, that the G-Man persona is all he is capable of delivering with any consistency.
What, exactly, is my problem? I’m glad someone asked. Dunbar needs to be a very complex character. We find him at first a very loyal American soldier dedicated to his duty. His transformation under the Indian influence should be a dramatic one and pivotal to the essence of this tale. Costner doesn’t show us this change. The writers do in his words and actions, but Costner hasn’t changed the very soul of his character. Example: In The Godfather, Al Pacino plays Michael, who is the son of a crime lord. He despises what his father stands for and has vowed never to be involved. When Michael makes the decision to lash out at his father’s attackers, you can see the change before he speaks a word. Pacino played a different man then. It’s obvious he understood this man was different not because of how he was now behaving, but rather that he had changed somewhere in the core of his being. His voice and speech changed as did even the way he walked across a room. Where is the change Dunbar undergoes inside? It’s simply not there. Costner was also the director, and perhaps there lies the true flaw. Maybe if another perspective had been there to better guide the transformation, we might have been given that dramatic metamorphism so desperately required for this film to work. There’s a reason why one of the film’s many Oscar wins was not for Best Actor.
- Platoon – Special Edition: presented on one disc, in 1.85:1 widescreen format. This film was shot on a cheap budget, and it shows to an extent. What disappoints me here is that under the Special Edition tag, MGM seems to have used essentially the same transfer from their earlier barebones release. The quality is satisfactory, but some more effort could have been put into it, considering how well other older releases before and after this SE have been treated.
- Windtalkers: this single disc includes only a 1.33:1 full-screen presentation. Pan-and-scan butchers films, and even Windtalkers doesn’t deserve to be compromised in this way. As for the transfer itself, It looks pretty good overeall. Colours are mostly natural throughout, with a few noticable deviations. The picture is slightly on the soft side, though, and there’s a bit of grain here and there. Neither of these issues is particularly bad, so they likely won’t bother most viewers. Besides, nothing is as bad is the picture being full-screen.
- Dances With Wolves: I’m getting angry. This single-disc release also features only a 1.33:1 full-screen presentation. With a film that has such beautiful, wide-frame cinematography, seeing it squashed and chopped into a 4:3 window is a painful experience. On top of that, the print is scratchy and full of compression artifacts. Colors are mediocre at best, and black levels suffer from the grain and compression issues. There are so many better prints of this film out there that this poor excuse for a transfer is no better than early 90’s television copies.
- Platoon – Special Edition: The audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, but most of the action comes through on the front speakers, with very little use of the rear ones, except during battles or when helicopters fly over. The quality can be felt during the ambush and combat scenes, and even the background noises were very familiar. Again, because of the budget, you’re not going to have the same kind of reference audio that has come out lately for newer releases such as Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers, but it certainly does its job when it has to.
- Windtalkers: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentation is the best thing about this disc. The aural experience is enveloping, just like great surround sound should be. All channels are used effectively to create a synergystic sound, with nothing standing out unless its supposed to. You’ll get plenty of rumbling from your subwoofer, and the centre channel levels keep all dialogue perfectly audible even during the wildest action. Granted, there isn’t a lot of talking while sh*t is blowing up.
- Dances With Wolves: This Dolby Digital 5.1 track is fair, but not as dynamic as the special edition. Dialogue is clear enough, and at times the score is quite magnificent. Subtle channel use also provides a relatively average or slightly above average presentation. Once again, this is the wrong Dances With Wolves disc to buy.
- Platoon – Special Edition: with two audio commentaries, one fantastic in-depth documentary, a photo gallery, a collectible booklet and some trailers, this disc has a lot to offer, though it’s not quite as good as the anniversary edition released in 2006.
- Windtalkers: hey, look, there’s a theatrical trailer, and a teaser! And…absolutely nothing else. Have I mentioned there’s a 3-disc DVD available?
- Dances With Wolves: continuing the mockery, this disc offers just one sad, lonely theatrical trailer.
College Essentials: History 101 is a bunch of crap. Even if you don’t own any of these films on DVD, and despite the respectable presence of Platoon – Special Edition, the value just isn’t here. To say there are better available versions of Windtalkers and Dances With Wolves is a huge understatement. Stay away from this one.
- Foywonder.com takes a look at the other College Essentials sets from MGM.
- Franksreelreviews.com presents its take on the best war movies ever.