This is a film with a difference -- many people come to it with preconceived notions of how a military-themed film should be, and are somewhat disappointed. This is not an action film, and while it fits the overall genre of being a protest film about Vietnam, it is not unambiguously so. It is an anti-war film, to be sure, but is not an anti-military or even anti-American film. It has an emphasis on duty and honour that transcends minor considerations of the particular patriotism for particular nations -- the themes as old as the Roman centurion's honour for fallen compatriots run through to the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetary.
The plot winds its way around the Old Guard, the honour guard at Arlington National Cemetary, charged with the performance of a hallowed trust, one of the few in a secular nation such as the United States -- that of overseeing the gravesites of the honoured dead who died after service to the nation, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The primary senior characters are Platoon Sergeant Hazard (James Caan) and Sergeant Major Nelson (James Earl Jones), two crusty veterans overseeing operations; both served in Korea and Vietnam with distinction, and are now sitting on the sidelines of the expanding war in Vietnam in a place where the body count is very apparent. Into this mix comes the young and idealistic Specialist Willow (D.B. Sweeney in one of his earliest roles), an Army brat whose father is (of course) a friend of Hazard and Nelson.
Willow has an unrequited love (played by Mary Stuart Masterson) in the daughter of a colonel, who seems to think that the son of a sergeant is beneath his daughter, even as Willow has ambition toward becoming an officer. Willow also has ambition toward the experience of real combat -- he sees duty at the Arlington National Cemetary as being uneventful -- Willow is certainly not a Patton-esque character, but rather portrays that element of the military and citizenry who wishes to be where the action is when action is happening. Hazard (and, to a lesser extent, Nelson), being world weary, tries to temper Willow's enthusiasm, knowing (and stating several times) that Vietnam is not the typical war -- when Willow says that he wants to be on the front lines, the retort from the more experienced soldiers is invariably that there is no front line in Vietnam. Ultimately, Willow does make it to Vietnam, and Hazard does decide to leave the Old Guard for a more active engagement in the war where he can do more good (or so he feels) than simply burying the dead who return.
Hazard also is involved (as a subplot) with a woman who struggles to deal with the contradictory nature of the war, embodied by Hazard (Angelica Huston plays the correspondent who has a largely anti-war feeling, but again this is tempered by not being anti-military). Hazard's intimacy with her grows throughout the film, being tested when he announces his intention to leave the cemetary duty and go to Vietnam service; Willow's father dies early in the film, thrusting Hazard into a fatherly role, so the trio become a makeshift family of sorts.
From my visits to Arlington and conversation and correspondence I've had with those who have worked there, this film is fairly accurate in its portrayal of the procedures of the place. There are some things which never change, and perhaps one of the more constant places of military tradition is here.
The backdrop of Coppola dealing with the death of his own son runs as a sombre tone throughout this tale, that has both high points and tragic points. The ending is somewhat predictable but no less poignant for being so. Coppola's idea that even with all the honour a mighty nation can muster, death is still tragic and war often has few winners (and certainly the Vietnam had no true winners) remains steady here.
There are few DVD extras, but the picture and sound quality is enhanced, with the full-screen and wide-screen options available.