Heaven and Earth (1993) Revisits Oliver Stone’s Hell

Screen Archives Twilight Time label has released several Oliver Stone films over the last year, including Salvador, U-Turn, and his little seen freshman outing, Seizure. They’ve also just released Heaven and Earth on Blu-Ray, considered the third part of his Vietnam trilogy, which was predated by Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Much like Clint Eastwood would later do with his Flag of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima Two-Part Anthology, Stone’s Heaven and Earth attempts to tell the Vietnam conflict from a non-American perspective. This time, it’s a young girl from a small village, trapped between South and North alliances. Based on two autobiographies by Le Ly Hayslip, the young Vietnamese girl (Hiep Thi Le) lives, what is depicted, as an idyllic childhood, working the wheat fields with her family. Her mother (Joan Chen) is an old world peasent, trying to raise several daughters and sons with her husband, played by Haing S. Nor, best remembered for his Oscar winning role in The Killing Fields.

Prior to the Vietnamese war, North Vietnam has successfully fought the French colonialists (as far as can be told from Le Ly’s “in country” perspective). They take all the young men from the village, and “impress” them into their army. Le Ly’s brothers bid her and her family a tearful goodbye. Soon, though, the Viet Cong are invading the village and explaining to the residents that they’ll need to fight to preserve their way of life against the Americans. Hearing the North Vietnamese have visited the village, they kidnap specific villagers, including Le Ly. She is tortured and electrocuted for information, of which she has none. Her mother pays from her dowry to get her out of jail, but because she was taken by the South Vietnamese, her village assumes she is a spy. When the Viet Cong return, two soldiers take her into the woods, and with a gun to her head, tell her she is going to die. She begs for her life. They give it to her, in exchange for a savage rape. They leave her in the pouring rain, covered in mud.

Now she is ostracized entirely from her village; considered a spy for the South, and a “whore” for the North. Her mother and she move to Saigon, where her older sister has already become a prostitute. She finds work for them, as servants to a wealthy Vietnamese family. The husband takes a liking to the pretty young Le Ly, which she interprets as love. He visits her bedroom, seduces her, and before long, she’s pregnant. Ashamed, her mother moves back to her village, and Le Ly struggles to stay away from becoming a prostitute by selling black market cigarettes, liquor and weed to the American military. When an MP who knows her offers the now very pregnant girl $400 to lay with two servicemen, she just can’t turn the money down.

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Now, streetwise and bitter, she meets Gunnery Sergeant Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones) who is instantly smitten, especially since she is not a prostitute, but a hard-working single mother. She continues denying him her time, repeatedly explaining she doesn’t want a “boyfriend,” but he is persistent, buying her and her baby gifts. He tells her he loves her, and wants her to come with him back to the States to be his wife. He paints a vibrant and beautiful picture of life in San Diego. She and her little boy are brought to the military base, and soon she’s pregnant again, now by the sergeant. As South Vietnam falls, the base is overrun, and Sgt. Butler gets her on a military chopper out, but she and her babies are dropped off back in Saigon, where she’s left wandering the streets.

Needless to say, Butler finds her, and makes good on his promise to take her back to the US with him. Once there, though, she finds his life is not all he’s promised. He’s broke, living with his mother. Not only does he owe every remaining cent he has to his wife’s alimony and child support, but he’s also brought back a terrible case of PTSD.

Stone attempts a deft touch here, and the film definitely reveals a less ostentatious directing style than his previous films JFK and The Doors. Still, the fiery director can’t help himself in some scenes, as the early days of Le Ly resemble gratuitous revenge porn (see, or actually DON’T see, I Spit On Your Grave or Last House on the Left for examples) as we watch numerous scenes of torture, rape and degradation. Granted, we need some context to know how rough Le Ly’s life has been to appreciate how far she comes, and it’s all based in fact, but there’s something about the way Stone shoots these scenes that (and correct me if I’m projecting) seem like he relishes the opportunities. How many Stone films have had scenes of torture and rape? This is not new terrain for him, although several reviewers would have you believe he’s telling a story for the first time from a woman’s perspective, which is just not the case. Perhaps it would’ve been wiser for the director to sit in the Producer’s chair only for this project, and brought in a woman director, or a Vietnamese writer (even the author of the source material) to help keep the film “honest.”

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While there’s no question Stone was diving into daunting subject matter that relies on a perspective atypical for him – and he should be applauded for doing such, the dialogue and plot devices are trite to the point of Lifetime TV heavy-handedness. It’s also strange that with such an abundance of Asian actors, the whole film is spoken in English. There’s no question this was an attempt to pull in American audiences, but the actors struggle to get through the awkward dialogue, and there’s several scenes where characters are supposed to be switching from “pidgin English” to speaking in their native tongue, but all done in English. It’s confusing to say the least.

As usual, the Blu-ray includes Stone’s wildly manic commentary, which along with a drink and dubious smoking material makes for an enjoyable and diverting screening, as well as some deleted scenes that once again prove why deleted material should stay deleted.

Twilight Time’s transfer as always is sharp and crisp, but does not offer up an isolated score like so many of their releases generally include. The Blu-ray is also only available for Region 1, so even if you wanted to send this to a friend in Vietnam, they couldn’t enjoy it. But that begs the question, would a person from that country get anything out of Heaven and Earth, even though it attempts to tell their story? Being born and bred in the US, I wouldn’t attempt to speak for them. Perhaps Stone should’ve thought about that too.

Heaven and Earth is available through Screen Archives Twilight Time label and Shop TCM as a limited edition release, in Region 1 only. 

About Wade Sheeler 153 Articles
Wade Sheeler is a Reality TV Producer & Director, Writer, Frustrated lover of film and obscure music. He still makes mixed tapes if he likes you enough. For The Retro Set, he'll be covering the best new releases of classic and hard-to-find films on DVD, with an occasional foray into comedies and comedy teams you should really stay away from.

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