The 1980’s could read like a lost decade for director Francis Ford Coppola. After the career coronation that was 1979’s APOCALYPSE NOW, there seemed to be nowhere else for Coppola to go but down. Most of his films from this period are either regarded as outright disasters or merely forgettable. However, time has allowed these films to become removed from the context of their releases, and objective conclusions are easier reached. As such, many of his lesser films are in a prime position for re-evaluation and tend to be better than most remember.
The year 1987 saw the release of GARDENS OF STONE, Coppola’s follow-up to the surprise hit PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986). His first real heavy drama in more than a decade, Coppola channels the reserved vision of THE GODFATHER (1972) and THE CONVERSATION (1974) to tell the somber story of a tight-knit group of soldiers who stayed behind in America during the Vietnam War to bury those who came back in body bags. It’s a handsome-looking film, devoid of indulgent flash or a sense of self-importance. As a result, GARDENS OF STONE—while not terribly well-received upon release—is a rare glimpse at the dynamo filmmaker Coppola had been a decade before, and is perhaps the strongest film to come out of that period in his career.
Returning to the emotional fallout of a war that he had previously explored in APOCALYPSE NOW, Coppola assembles several old friends to help him tell the story. James Caan, who hadn’t been seen in a Coppola film since 1974’s THE GODFATHER PART II, plays Sergeant Hazard, a lonely military-man who made the army his family after his wife and son left him. Together with his pal, Sergeant Goody Nelson (James Earl Jones), Hazard leads the members of Fort Meyers’ Old Guard: the stoic soldiers who perform ceremonial duties (like the 21 gun salute) at Arlington Cemetery military funerals. An ambitious recuit, Jackie Willow (DB Sweeney), soon endears himself as a son-figure to these two old men, and they take an active interest in his development. They support his desire to go the front lines of Vietnam (despite there not being a front line to speak of), even though they’re well aware of the horrors that await him there. As the war rages on, the characters will find that holding down the fort at home won’t save them from the emotional turmoil of Vietnam.
GARDENS OF STONE is a return to form for Coppola, especially in his ability to command arresting performances. There’s not an ounce of the hotheaded, cocksure Sonny Corleone in Caan’s portrayal of a middle-aged man who finds that marriage to the military isn’t exactly fulfilling. Anjelica Huston, fresh off her collaboration with Coppola in 1986’s CAPTAIN EO, plays Samantha Davis—a middle-aged journalist who manages to dismantle Caan’s armor.
James Earl Jones is a particular delight, in a rare energetic turn that utilizes that lusciously smooth voice of his to charming effect. I’m so used to seeing him as a grizzled old-man figure, it was arresting to watch him engage in young-man shenanigans like getting plastered and wailing on punks. Lonette McKee, who previously acted for Coppola in THE COTTON CLUB, plays Jones’ feisty southern belle of a wife.
I wasn’t too familiar with Sweeney’s work before watching GARDENS OF STONE, but he is effective as the wide-eyed young man who naively yearns for glory on exotic battlefields. It should be noted that this role was originally supposed to be filled by Griffin O’Neal. However, a boating accident during filming that occurred due to his drug use not only resulted in jail time for him, but more unfortunately, resulted in the death of Coppola’s son and sometime-producing partner, Gian-Carlo.
A few familiar faces from APOCALYPSE NOW return for a PBR-boat reunion of sorts. Sam Bottoms plays Lt. Weber, albeit he’s not given a terrible lot to do. Laurence Fishburne, who by this point had become a regular in Coppola’s work, plays Sergeant Flanagan, a gruff drill sergeant at Fort Meyers. And then there’s Elias Koteas, that absolute favorite character actor of mine, as a young military clerk in a small, early role. If you were to make a list of all the great directors Koteas has worked with, you would be convinced that he might be the greatest actor to have ever lived. He’s literally worked with everyone–maybe even more so than Kevin Bacon.
GARDENS OF STONE is a handsomely somber-looking film. Shot on 35mm in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the film retains the services of legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who shot Coppola’s previous feature. Subtle, reserved camerawork complements a naturalistic lighting and color scheme, which draws from a palette of forest greens and khaki tones. The late 60’s setting is recreated in great detail by Coppola’s production designer Dean Tavoularis, without having to resort to an aesthetic that’s not blatantly period. The subtle, reserved camerawork is appropriate for the film’s serious tone, recalling the visual restraint that made THE GODFATHER so emotionally potent.
Coppola’s father Carmine returns to score the film, utilizing a mix of military-style trumpets and horns (in addition to traditional string arrangements) to create an elegiac mood. Authentic military hymns are scattered throughout to give a greater insight into the ritualistic world of the story, and the use of modern rock music from The Doors during a bar brawl sequence further conveys the time period while also subtly calling back to APOCALYPSE NOW.
With its militaristic setting and detailed recruit drill sequences, GARDENS OF STONE brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET, which actually came out that same year. The two films couldn’t be any more different, however. Whereas FULL METAL JACKET irreverently explores the inherent insanity and inhumanity of war, GARDENS OF STONE examines the emotional fallout that stems from that loss of humanity when (or if) the warriors return home from the battlefield.
There is a heavy sense of loss that pervades the film, visualized by endless rows of white slabs—each one signifying a lost soul taken in the name of their country. This feeling really hits home due to Coppola’s personal connection to the subject matter. I mentioned before that his eldest son, Gian-Carlo, was killed during production. For a film that dwells so much on the experience of death as lived by those left behind, Coppola was able to tap into his own grief and channel it into a cathartic experience. Family members have always been key collaborators in Coppola’s films, and the institution has always played a large role in the kinds of stories he tells, so it makes sense that the familial themes of GARDENS OF STONE are so prominent and poignant given the circumstances. We may never know the pain of losing a loved one to armed conflict, but GARDENS OF STONE makes one universal truth quite clear—we will all experience loss at some point.
Unsurprisingly, somber stories about death and sorrow don’t exactly translate to big box office. GARDENS OF STONE was misunderstood upon its release, bombing both financially and critically, and further adding to Coppola’s spotty track record in the 1980’s. Today, it remains an under-seen and underappreciated work in his filmography, but it holds up to the ravages of time quite well.
As an elegy for those lost in Vietnam, it’s a sobering experience. As an artist’s paean to his lost son, it’s devastating. But ultimately, GARDENS OF STONE is a compelling portrait of a side of war that is seldom seen—the experience of those left behind on the homefront.
GARDENS OF STONE is currently available on standard definition DVD via Mill Creek and Columbia TriStar.
Produced by: Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Levy, Fred Roos
Written by: Ronald Bass
Director of Photography: Jordan Cronenweth
Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis
Edited by: Barry Malkin
Composer: Carmine Coppola