The Bottom Line: "The seeds that we scattered are all parched and blown Flowers wont grow in a garden of stone" ..... Don Williams
At my last job I had a customer that owned several cemeteries. He was a youngish man, had inherited the business from the family when they retired. That didnt mean that he didnt work. He worked long, hard hours. Unfortunately, in his business, there never seems to be something known as recession. He would come in, at the change of each season, and purchase the appropriate flowers or decorations for the seasons. Bawdy flowers in the Spring, Mums in the fall, wreaths and so forth at Christmas.
Maybe it was because he was young or maybe it was because he had worked around death so long, I just didnt get a feeling of respect from him for the work he was doing. He always showed up just as closing time, which doesnt make you a popular customer anyway, and he always had a large order. I would ask him Where have you been all dang day while we were open? and he would say Planting dead people. You know, kind of throwing it off as a side comment.
His thoughtless response often left me cold, adding to the fact that he was always a 5 oclock Charlie, I had a bit of dislike for him even though he was personable.
One day he came in, early, and quiet. He knew I had lost my son several years before and was actually decent to me at the time, giving me a hug. Now I wondered what had changed his attitude, so naturally I asked. He explained that he had never lost anyone through death, although he was around it every day. He had just lost his best friend in an automobile accident. He said his entire outlook had changed because he suddenly realized the gravity of his job. He was responsible for planting his own friend and now he was personally involved.
From that point on his entire demeanor changed. He was often somber when he came in, early now, no longer the last customer of the day. He had lost a bit of his jovial side and now showed a great deal of respect for the position he held. While I missed his often playful and quick witted persona, I completely understood. Death had knocked at his own personal door.
I would hope that my life never becomes so cynical that I dont view death with the respect it deserves. I would hope that I always show the survivors that I understand and feel their pain. On the other hand, I completely understand that people who are surrounded by death every day do become desensitized to it, much like police and firemen. You have to or otherwise it will destroy you.
And that is what this movie is about.
Gardens Of Stone isnt your common Vietnam movie. It is about the soldiers on this side of the war. The ones that are the honor guard for the returning soldiers remains. It is about the warriors that patrol the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the old guard, the ones that accompany a flag draped coffin to Arlington Cemetery and hand a crisply folded flag to the widow or widower or father or mother of the fallen. It is a deeply touching movie steeped in tradition and respect. It also shows a side of these soldiers that is all too common, Im just doing my job.
The outstanding cast pulls you into the movie. It starts as it ends, a ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. The intervening story becomes the meat on the bones. You are introduced on a personal level to each of the soldiers you see standing at stiff attention beside the coffin in the beginning and understand their look of abject pain by the end.
James Caan - The main players are Sgt. Clell Hazard, a lifer that has already done 2+ tours in Vietnam. He is now in a position he doesnt want. He wants to be on the front line even though he explains to the new soldiers in his group that there is actually no front line in Vietnam. Still, he longs to be back in the battle and among the men and women that are fighting and dying every day. Instead he walks alongside a coffin in this staid and stiff environment.
His wife divorced him after he signed up for Vietnam the last time, he hasnt seen his own child in years. He is old school Army, one of the fighting proud. This is not his mans war. His mans war is over there.
James Earl Jones - His drinking and B.S. companion is Sgt. Maj. Goody Nelson. Goody is another old school warrior. Both men are well past their prime for the front line anyway but their knowledge is too important not to be shared with new soldiers. Goody is a bit of a ladies man, a funny and delightful old soul that chuckles and rubs his hands together in glee when he sees a pretty woman. Of course, Goody has his own gorgeous woman but it dont hurt a thing to look.
Dean Stockwell - Both these good old boys conspire against the company commander, Capt. Homer Thomas. Capt. Thomas sees these guys for what they really are and he refuses to approve Hazards papers for transfer to another base, and certainly not back to Vietnam. He thinks both Hazard and Nelson are right where they are supposed to be, where they can do the most good. This doesnt stop either one from playing a few war games when they get the chance and they even take Capt. Thomas captive one time.
D. B. Sweeney - When new recruit, Jackie Willow, arrives on the base both Hazard and Nelson find a new player for their games. Willow is an Army brat and like the other two finds little to offer him tending the gardens of stone. He wants to be on the front line that doesnt exist fighting a war that doesnt exist. He is hell bent for leather to go to OCS and get out of this mundane job.
Mary Stuart Masterson - Willow runs into his ex-girlfriend at a memorial, Rachel. She has been away at school, another Army brat, and he doesnt understand why they broke up. She explains it is because he caved to her father, Col. Feld. She doesnt want to be married to the Army, she doesnt want her man to go to war. But in the end they marry.
Anjelica Huston - Hazard runs into a sweet little thing waiting for the elevator in his apartment building, Samantha Davis. She is a reporter for the local paper whose ideas of the war are the complete opposite of Hazards. That doesnt stop cupids arrow though and the couple become, well, a couple.
Those are the major players, although there are others that dance across the screen. Each one has a story to tell, a part of the larger picture. My favorite was Wildman [Casey Siemaszko] that just didnt seem to belong in this mans Army or any mans Army. Couldnt polish a buckle or spit shine a shoe to save his life. But apparently he learned something for by golly he received a Congressional Medal of Honor later in the movie.
Another small but notable part was Sgt. Flanagan, played by Laurence Fishburne. As a point of interest, Rachaels parents in the movie were played by her real life parents, Peter Masterson and Carlin Glynn.
The movie is sensitively written and acted. You grow an attachment for several of the characters and want success for them, want things to work out for them. You look inside the players and see something behind that gruff exterior and shiny medals. You find humans. As well, you learn a bit about the pomp and circumstance of tending a garden that never dies and constantly grows, Arlington Cemetery.
One thing I've never understood, yet I also understand, is the 21 gun salute. While it honors the passing, it is nothing more than a cold reminder to those standing beside the coffin. Kind of a catch 22.
Written by Ronald Bass from the novel by Nicholas Proffitt, it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Quite the different look of Vietnam after Apocalypse Now. It was nominated for two awards but did not win. Filming was crisp and clear with some real life footage from Vietnam. Sound quality on this DVD wasnt the best but it could have been the DVD itself.
No DVD extras. Run time 112 min, R rating I assume for language.