‘Platoon’ star Willem Dafoe breaks down his famous death scene from Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam War classic

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In case you had somehow forgotten, Spider-Man: No Way Home provides additional evidence for why Willem Dafoe is one of the finest character actors of this — or really any — generation. And it’s only appropriate that the superhero sequel arrived in theaters 35 years after Dafoe’s breakout performance in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Released on Dec. 19, 1986, the Vietnam War-set movie awarded the then-31-year-old actor one of the most famous death scenes ever filmed. “I think that’s a very affecting scene because of the music and how it’s shot — it’s a beautiful set-up,” Dafoe told Yahoo Entertainment in our 2016 Role Recall interview. (Watch the video above.)

Based on Stone’s own wartime experiences in Vietnam, Platoon stars Dafoe as Sgt. Elias, whose level-headed manner distinguishes him from his violence-prone fellow officer, Staff Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). Midway through the movie, Elias is betrayed and fatally wounded by Barnes, who tells the rest of the platoon — including its newest member, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) — that he’s been killed in action. 

Just as their helicopter takes off, though, they see Elias racing through the trees pursued by North Vietnamese troops who shoot him in the back. The sergeant falls to his knees and extends his arms up to the sky as he dies — an immediately memorable image that’s immortalized on the film’s poster. Dafoe and Berenger went on to receive Best Supporting Actor nominations at that year’s Oscars, while Stone won the Best Director statue and Platoon itself took home Best Picture.

Willem Dafoe's death pose is immortalized on the Platoon poster (Photo: ©Orion Pictures / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Willem Dafoe’s death pose is immortalized on the Platoon poster. (Photo: ©Orion Pictures / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

It’s also an image that Dafoe insists was never planned. “For me, it was a purely physical thing,” the actor explained. “The gesture of reaching towards the heavens, that’s not something we talked about. It’s purely practical: the helicopter’s up there, you want to reach for it.” 

“It’s funny, in retrospect I’ve heard many people say that Oliver Stone took that [pose] from a war photo,” Dafoe continued. “But it’s not true! It was totally practical and then once we had that image and once that sequence was very strong, I think it became a nice emblematic and iconic image for the film.” 

In a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Stone agreed that Dafoe most likely came up with that pose on his own. “I think he did, and it’s iconic,” the filmmaker said. “You never know what those shots are gonna be, you know? We were shooting very fast and under pressure, but it caught the attention of the photographer. It was probably a little melodramatic to tell you the truth: I mean, how many times can he get shot and do that? But it’s definitely memorable.”

Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger star in Oliver Stone's Platoon, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. (Photo: Orion Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger star in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. (Photo: Orion Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Speaking of memorable, Dafoe’s dual performance as Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin in 2002’s Spider-Man instantly put him in the canon of great cinematic super-villains. And Spidey fans cheered his decision to dust off his Goblin gear nearly two decades later for No Way Home, which features a moment that recalls the famous mirror sequence from Sam Raimi’s film where Dafoe plays both sides of Norman’s personality at the same time.  

“The task of playing a scene with yourself — that’s not new,” Dafoe remarked about that scene in 2016. “But to try and do it in one take and go back forth, dancing with the camera and also playing the two characters, was a lot of fun. I remember Sam Raimi gave me Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and said, ‘Read this before you do the scene.’ And I did! It was helpful.”

Platoon is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video and Tubi.

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