Sunday marks fifty years since the first U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. To mark the anniversary, I am doing a series of posts listing my picks for the best histories, memoirs, novels, movies, and songs about the war. Today my focus is on movies. There certainly have been a lot of them. To simplify things, I only considered English-language films produced for theatrical release. Nothing against foreign-language films or made-for-TV movies. I just can’t say that I have seen enough of either to pick the best. With that caveat out of the way, here are my top ten picks:
Apocalypse Now (1979). Apocalypse Now is Academy Award–winning director Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s chilling novel Heart of Darkness, so it’s not so much about the Vietnam War as it is set against its backdrop. But it belongs on this list because so many scenes in the movie are unforgettable and the cast reads like an acting hall of fame: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Scott Glenn, Dennis Hopper, and Harrison Ford, among others.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989).Tom Cruise plays the role of Ron Kovic, a real-life Marine who was paralyzed by a combat injury in Vietnam. He returned home to an indifferent country, eventually putting his bitterness aside to become a leading anti-war activist. The scenes of Kovic coming to grips with his paralysis are hard to forget.
Coming Home (1978). Coming Home is an unusual love triangle: a woman whose husband is serving in the Marine Corps in Vietnam falls in love with a high-school classmate who has been left paralyzed by his combat injuries. It won three Academy Awards, including for Best Actor (John Voight) and Best Actress (Jane Fonda). It might have won Best Picture as well if not for the next film on the list.
The Deer Hunter (1978). The Deer Hunter won five academy awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director (Michael Cimino). It tells the story of Pennsylvania steel workers and their friends and families who lives are forever changed by the war. Contrary to what The Deer Hunter would have you believe, Russian roulette was not a feature of life in Vietnam. But when you have a hall-of-fame cast with the likes of Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep, it’s easy to overlook implausible plot points.
Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). Erroll Morris won the Academy Award for Best Documentary with Fog of War, which is built around an interview with Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who was still grappling with his role in the Vietnam War.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) Full Metal Jacket operates more like two separate films. The first is a harrowing exploration of the rigors of boot camp on Parris Island. The second is a tale of a marine who gets his wish at the Battle of Hue to see combat. The great Stanley Kubrick directed.
Hamburger Hill (1987). Hamburger Hill tells the story of one of the most brutal battles of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army’s ten-day effort in May 1969 to take Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley, one mile east of the border with Laos. The U.S. losses were steep given the hill’s minor significance—nearly one hundred Americans dead and four times as many wounded. Eight days after taking the hill, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces abandoned it.
Hearts and Minds (1974). Take your pick: Hearts and Minds is either an “epic documentary” or thinly disguised anti-American propaganda. Based on interviews with a range of U.S. government officials and interspersed with clips from the war, it makes no bones about its anti-war bent. Hearts and Minds won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, but four decades on the debate continues over whether it shows the genre at its best or its worst.
Platoon (1986). Platoon won four Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director (Oliver Stone). It tells the story of a young Army private fresh to the war who joins a battle-hardened platoon that’s split in its loyalties between two sergeants. You don’t need to have taken a film class to recognize that one sergeant represents good and the other evil. What Platoon lacks in subtlety it more than makes up in its ability to convey the stress of combat.
The Hanoi Hilton (1987). The settings for most war movies are the battlefield or the home front. The Hanoi Hilton instead explores the brutality that U.S. prisoners of war suffered at the infamous Hoa Lo Prison. The villains are one-dimensional, but overall, The Hanoi Hilton provides a powerful reminder of the human ability to prevail over adversity.
As I mentioned above, a lot of films have been made about the Vietnam War. So if you don’t see one of your favorites listed here, please mention it in the comments below.
For more suggested resources on the Vietnam War, check out the other posts in this series: