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‘Gardens of Stone’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 08, 1987


Francis Ford Coppola
James Caan;
Anjelica Huston;
James Earl Jones;
D.B. Sweeney;
Dean Stockwell;
Mary Stuart Masterson;
Dick Anthony Williams;
Lonette McKee;
Sam Bottoms
Under 17 restricted

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James Earl Jones, James Caan and D.B. Sweeney turn in superior performances in "Gardens of Stone," but it's all for naught. Francis Coppola sabotages their efforts with a handsome but fragmentary film that can't decide which story to tell.

Set in the late '60s in Washington, "Gardens" is about the Vietnam War at home, specifically Ft. Myer, where the 3d U.S. Infantry (the Old Guard) buries the incoming dead daily at Arlington Cemetery. The only jungle conflict you see is secondhand -- on the tube or from letters abroad.

Stuck with this domestic duty is Sgt. Clell Hazard (Caan), a spit-and-polish but warm-hearted veteran of Korea and Vietnam. He doesn't enjoy working this graveyard shift with these "toy soldiers." He'd rather be at Ft. Benning, training the kids for what he knows to be deadly and unwinnable battle.

Pvt. Jackie Willow (Sweeney), a young and gung-ho idealist itching for a real fight, comes to camp. He is the son of Hazard's old wartime buddy, and the sergeant takes him under his wing. Sergeant Major "Goody" Nelson (played with magnificent, beefy authority by Jones), another good ol' buddy from war-yore, also takes part in Willow's rites of passage.

Coppola is at his best directing men. He has coaxed superlative work out of the best of 'em -- Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, De Niro, Duvall, Caan -- and he does the same here. "Gardens" is in full bloom when there's machismo brawl-and-banter in the barracks. But as soon as we enter the civilian world, the movie wilts.

Subplots pile up like the bodies at Arlington. Hazard gets into a relationship with a Washington Post reporter (Anjelica Huston) and Willow picks up with an old girlfriend (Mary Stuart Masterson) whose colonel father doesn't want infantry marrying into the family.

Both women in "Gardens" are dimension-hungry. Sweeney may be the Willow, but Masterson is the weeper -- and little else. And Huston, despite her built-in presence, has the skimpiest of roles as The Liberal. She calls Vietnam "genocide." She demonstrates and gets arrested. She even tells Hazard at one point not to say the word "Vietnam" because it's too painful to hear.

Outflanked by characters and situations, Coppola truncates scenes and introduces plot elements which then go AWOL. Even the film's most tragic death is treated cursorily, rushed through as a by-the-way.

Although Caan and Jones can anticipate Oscar nominations for their roles, Coppola is merely killing time here. If he hadn't made such classics as "The Conversation," both "Godfathers" and "Apocalypse Now," perhaps this film wouldn't pale so obviously by comparison. -- Desson Howe.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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