Gardens of Stone, Francis Coppola’s muddled meditation on the Vietnam War, seems to take its name not so much from the Arlington Memorial Cemetery, where much of the action takes place, but from the stiffness of the characters it portrays.
Structured around the small details and formal rituals of military life, pic opens and closes with a funeral and in between is supposed to be the emotional stuff that makes an audience care about the death of a soldier. But there is a hollowness at the film’s core.
As a two-time combat vet biding his time training young recruits for the Old Guard, the army’s ceremonial unit at Fort Myer, Va, Clell Hazard (James Caan) knows the war is wrong but cannot oppose it. Rather than protest, he feels it is his responsibility to prepare the young soldiers as best he can, especially young Private Willow (D.B. Sweeney), the son of an old Korean war buddy.
Script, from Nicholas Proffitt’s novel, attempts to create sympathetic soldiers whose first loyalty is to their brothers in arms. Indeed it is a world unto itself as Caan swaps tales of horrors and heroism with his buddy ‘Goody’ Nelson (James Earl Jones).
Most contrived of the relationships is Caan’s affair with Anjelica Huston who plays a Washington Post reporter vehemently opposed to the war. Basically the supportive woman waiting in the wings, she also has enough stilted dialog to destroy her character.