Francis Ford Coppola made numerous films immediately after the box office failure of One From the Heart, averaging one film per year up until the early 90s, when the run finished with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Gardens of Stone remains one of his least seen but more interesting works made during this period of his career. He was more fond of some of these films than others. The best of the lot was Rumble Fish, which I prefer to the Godfather films (putting me in a small minority).
Gardens of Stone could be described as the reverse Apocalypse Now, which Coppola himself has said he does not consider an “anti-war film.” It is primarily about military life during the Vietnam War at Fort Myers, and the military graveyard there. James Caan plays Sgt. Clell Hazard, who is charged with training soldiers to go to Vietnam as at the same time he has to deal with internal conflicts, including burials of soldiers.
Things becoming increasingly complicated for Hazard when the young Jackie Willow (D.B. Sweeney) joins his platoon. Jackie is the son of a former friend and fellow Korean War Veteran. Hazard, like Jackie’s wife Rachel Feld (Mary Stuart Masterson), is ultimately against the war. James Earl Jones’s fellow sergeant and his journalist girlfriend Samantha (Anjelica Huston) also have big roles in the story. Hazard is divorced and estranged from his son, so Jackie becomes a kind of surrogate son to him.
The finished movie is probably too earnest for its own good at times, but James Caan, who hadn’t worked for the majority of the ’80s, gives it his all in the role of this deeply complex sergeant. Coppola himself in the supplementary interview admits at the outset that he barely remembers the film. It doesn’t have the stylistic flourishes of his best work, like Apocalypse Now or Rumble Fish, but instead it’s a gentler and more low-key film that sometimes feels televisual. However, Gardens of Stone has a unique way of dealing with the Vietnam War, and is such a counter to Coppola’s own Apocalypse Now and the onslaught of ‘Nam films that appeared, from the Rambo movies to Platoon to Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, making it’s something to admire. The ensemble cast is also excellent across the board, from the big names to then-young actors like Elias Koteas.
The disc Indicator has put together is solid, including a great interview with Coppola, who seems to not give a damn anymore, making it a joy to watch. The other features include an audio commentary with filmmaker and critic Jim Hemphill, an audio recording of an NFT talk with Anjelica Huston, the original theatrical trailer, a photo gallery and a booklet with new and archival writing on the script to round off the package.