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Heaven and Earth (1993, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert John Burke)

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‘Heaven and Earth is the story of one Vietnamese woman and her family that’s played out again and again wherever strife replaces love. It’s a universal tale, accessible to everyone, everywhere.’ So says director Oliver Stone about the third part in his Vietnam trilogy, Heaven and Earth .

Unlike Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July , this time the protagonist is not a male US soldier but a Vietnamese woman. ‘What was interesting about Le Ly’s story was its chance for me to step outside of my own experience again,’ Stone says, ‘to see the war from another point of view.’

Born in the rice-growing village of Ky La in the centre of Vietnam, Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) leads a quiet life with her extensive family until the Viet Cong arrive from the north in 1963. Le Ly finds herself torn between the government and the rebels, and is arrested by the government and tortured for suspected Viet Cong sympathies. When her mother (Joan Chen) offers Le Ly’s dowry in exchange for her freedom and she is released, the Viet Cong become suspicious and rape her as a punishment. Fleeing with her mother to Saigon, she finds work as a domestic at the home of Anh Lien (Long Nguyen).

After an affair with her employer, she becomes pregnant and is forced to leave the house when Anh’s wife refuses to allow him a concubine. She returns north, but by now her home village is awash with American troops. She is befriended by a US marine, Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), and they become lovers. She bears his child and begins to share his dreams about life in America. When they get the chance, they take a flight to California and begin a new life together. For Le Ly, though, the battle within her own country is no less fierce than the struggle she faces settling in an alien land; particularly as her lover is becoming increasingly unstable.

Although the role of Butler is a composite of four American men who figured in Le Ly’s life, Stone’s adaptation otherwise remains faithful to her memoirs of life in Vietnam and America. As ever Stone proves himself to be a filmmaker with a unique vision, one that at times verges on the didactic but that nevertheless constantly proves immensely cinematic. ‘From the opening shots,’ the Daily Mail wrote, ‘Stone’s filmmaking strengths are apparent: an attention to detail, a mastery of camera, a willingness – even compulsion – to tell unpleasant truths to the American public.’

production details
France – USA | 140 minutes | 1993

Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Oliver Stone, based on the books by Le Ly Hayslip

cast
Tommy Lee Jones as Steve Butler
Robert John Burke as Paul
Timothy Carhart as Big Mike
Tim Guinee as Young Sergeant
Hiep Thi Le as Le Ly
Debbie Reynolds as Eugenia
Haing S. Ngor as Papa
Joan Chen as Mama
Dustin Nguyen as Sau
Liem Whatley as Viet Cong Captain
Vivian Wu as Madame Lien
Long Nguyen as Anh
Conchata Ferrell as Bernice
Thuan K. Nguyen as Uncle Luc