Gardens of Stone (1987)
Written by Ronald Bass
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
There’s a good reason you probably have never heard of this Coppola film. It is bad. Like truly, the bottom of the barrel, not even the fun kind of bad. Yet, it doesn’t make me dislike the director or think he’d completely lost his creative touch. To understand why Gardens of Stone is so bad, you need to know what happened to Coppola during the production. It is no big reveal that Coppola centered his family in his life. You can see this in how he included them in every level of his film’s production. The man kept the people he loved the closest to him.
Gian-Carlo Coppola was the eldest of Francis Ford’s kids. Gian-Carlo was out on a speedboat with actor Griffin O’Neal, who played a crucial role in Gardens of Stone. There was an accident. Gian-Carlo was killed. He was 22 years old. I can’t begin to understand the pain Coppola and his family must have experienced learning that Gian-Carlo was dead, the way that must have rippled and torn apart many of their lives, freezing them in this moment of grief. Coppola was contractually obligated to finish the movie, but it’s evident he lost the drive. Who could blame him?
Gardens of Stone is focused on Sgt. 1st Class Clell Hazard (James Caan), a veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars who wants to become an instructor at the Infantry School in Fort Benning. Instead, he’s assigned to the regiment that oversees the ceremonial honor guard for fallen soldiers’ funerals and guards the Unknown Soldier’s Tomb. Hazard sees the assignment as being like a “toy soldier” and openly grumbles and hates what he’s been asked to do. Things begin to change for Hazard when Jackie Willow (D.B. Sweeney), the son of an old friend, joins this honor guard. Hazard sees this as his way of protecting at least one young soldier from the meat grinder of Vietnam. Willow has a far more idealistic view of the conflict and sees serving in Vietnam as a duty he must uphold.
As a moviegoer in the 1980s, I would imagine the idea that Coppola was making another film about the Vietnam War might have filled you with some excitement. The last time he touched on the conflict, we got Apocalypse Now, arguably the best film about the war and how it reflected the collapse of Western ideology. I could also see audiences having a bit of trepidation as Coppola struggled in this decade. Gardens of Stone is much more a slice-of-life picture than the psychedelic nightmare of Apocalypse Now. Many filmmakers were putting out heavy meditations on Vietnam at the time. Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam came out in 1987. Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July were released in ’86 and ’89, respectively. Brian De Palma gave us Casualties of War in ’89. These are just a few from the period.
The problem with Gardens of Stone is that I never felt that Coppola understood how to make the statement he was moving towards. It’s clear that this is meant to be an anti-war movie and that it wants to examine multiple perspectives on the war. Hazard is dating Samantha (Anjelica Huston), a Washington Post reporter against the war but holds views further to the left than her boyfriend. He wants to protect young soldiers from slaughter, but she has a broader take. If the script could go deeper, this would have been a totally different film, but it always hovers in a very distant place. I never felt a strong connection to these people and their stories.
The structure serves to undermine the intent. We open with a soldier’s funeral, and it is immediately clear whose it is. Then the movie flashes back to show us how we got to this point. That means when death happens, we will already know. Immediately the emotional impact is in danger of being softened because we can anticipate it. So the script needs to make that death have massive emotional weight. Relying on shock value isn’t correct from a structural or thematic perspective, so making sure the characters are well-drawn and complex will do the trick. But the film doesn’t do that, so it eventually brings us back to that funeral without making us feel the loss the characters have experienced. All the elements of the picture, even the performances, feel lacking. I have to chalk that up to not having a director steering the ship who could at that moment. The grief must have been overwhelming, and to make a movie about a young person losing their life early probably stung much worse than Coppola had anticipated when he took the job.
The director had one last movie to make before the 1980s came to a close. It wouldn’t be his best, but it would show promise. He has never lost his creative touch, just had it muted by circumstances in his life. Knowing about his failures teaches us about a creative person’s life. You will never have a day where you simply open a fount of art that flows freely into your hands. Some days will be like that. On others, you will need to search deep for a reason to keep going and struggle to manifest your ideas into something tangible. Coppola teaches us that better than most filmmakers.