The Best and Worst War Movies About Vietnam
There have been many films made about Vietnam, America’s most contentious war. As cinema is one of our culture’s most prominent forms of storytelling, our films about this war need to ensure that we tell the truth to future generations – good and bad – while also honoring the men who fought it. It’s a tough juggling act, but I believe that collectively, the films below make a proper cinematic tribute to what is one of our most contentious conflicts. (Rambo’s participation in this category of war films didn’t help anyone!)
The Green Beret (1968)
John Wayne produced this pro-Vietnam film to convince Americans that they should support the war. It is entirely propaganda and gets almost all of its facts wrong. That and John Wayne is overweight while trying to play a Green Beret.
Winter Soldier (1972)
This 1972 documentary chronicles the Winter Soldier Investigation that investigated the occurrence of war crimes in Vietnam by U.S. forces. There isn’t much narrative here; the film mostly just records a series of vets going up to a microphone, each telling of a grisly, awful tale of murder and violence against the civilian Vietnam population. While some have questioned the veracity of the stories told within the film, this documentary is nonetheless compelling viewing. Its inclusion on this list is mostly for its historical value, as this was one of the first documentaries to begin offering a counter-narrative to the Vietnam War within popular culture.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam classic is infamous for its troubled production, which included the film’s star Martin Sheen having a heart attack, the destruction of several sets in the Philippines, and Marlon Brando showing up on set severely overweight for his role as the rogue Green Beret Colonel Kurtz. Despite all of this, the eventual film, which followed Sheen’s Captain Willard as he travels deep into the jungles of Vietnam on a secret mission to assassinate the crazed Colonel Kurtz, ended up as a classic of modern cinema. Though not a realistic war film, it is perhaps, the most gripping, thought-provoking war film ever made. A hallucinogenic dream-like descent into madness (which I suppose is supposed to be a metaphor for the process of engaging in warfare) is intense visceral viewing. I’ve seen it several times now, and each time I’m left after the end credit rolls feeling as I’ve just been punched in the gut. Not necessarily, pleasant viewing, but then, this is war, after all. It’s for all of these reasons that Apocalypse Now earns the top spot.
Hearts and Minds (1979)
This 1974 film has been criticized for being heavily manipulative in its editing and presentation of facts. Nonetheless, the film’s point remains, that there remains a tremendous gulf between the ideals alluded to by President Lyndon Johnson of “winning the hearts and minds” and the reality of warfare, which is often violent, horrible, and antithetical to the idea of winning over the native population. A film that is especially relevant given our current occupation of Afghanistan.
This 1982 film starring Sylvester Stallone may seem an odd choice for the second best Vietnam film ever made. After all, First Blood is largely just a cheesy, ridiculous action film which follows Stallone as he squares off against a sheriff and eventually the U.S. Army in the Pacific northwest, right? Yes, absolutely—it is a ridiculous over the top action film. But a well done, exciting ridiculous over the top action film. Plus, it’s also one of the first films in cinema to deal seriously with PTSD and agent orange exposure (both of which factor into important plot points). It’s also one of the first films to deal with vets that returned back to the states without proper job training and with vets who were treated poorly upon their return from Vietnam. Sure, it’s all done in a crazily over the top manner, but underneath the testosterone charged action lies a tender story about a vet crying for help and not receiving it from the country that tasked him with performing its dirty work.
Uncommon Valor (1983)
Gene Hackman leads a crack team of commandos into Vietnam to retrieve his son who is being held as a prisoner of war. Ever heard of this movie before? Ever heard of anyone mention it in a conversation about Vietnam films? No? There’s a reason for that.
In this classic Oliver Stone film and Academy Award winner, Charlie Sheen plays Chris Taylor, a new infantry recruit, fresh to the jungles of Vietnam, who quickly finds himself embedded in a platoon that is engaging in war crimes. Ultimately, a tale of moral choice, the film follows Taylor as he’s forced to choose between two contrasting platoon sergeants: Sergeant Elias (William Dafoe), the moral good sergeant, and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), the violent psychopath.
Rambo First Blood Part II (1985)
We hold the Rambo franchise responsible for the purposeful dumbing down of so much American cinema. In this film, Rambo goes into Vietnam, by himself, to rescue American prisoners of war who have been forgotten by the U.S. government. Rambo then proceeds to single-handedly take on the entire Vietnamese army…and win! This film is an offense to the real-life POWs that were left behind.
The most realistic, nuanced, and carefully deliberative film about the essence of war we’ve ever seen! (That’s a joke.)
Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
This 1987 film stars Robin Williams as a U.S. Army radio DJ for the Armed Forces fighting in Vietnam. Loved by the troops, but hated by the command for his irreverent tendencies, the comedic war film is a perfect showcase for the loopy antics of Robin Williams. (As a personal confession, I’m one of those people that rarely finds Robin Williams entertaining, but this is one film where his careening caricatures and voice work – all at the service of the radio – pays off.)
Hamburger Hill (1987)
“Hamburger Hill” is a criminally overlooked Vietnam movie focuses on the 101st Airborne’s attempt to take a single hill – and the carnage that ensues from this attempt. A film ultimately about the futility of the war, it nonetheless has great direction, is exciting, and is fully engrossing. Never made much of a dent with audiences at the cinema, and never jointed the pantheon of socially popular Vietnam films like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket,” but is a great film nonetheless.
This 1987 Stanley Kubrick film is more Hollywood nightmare than realistic portrayal of the Vietnam War. But it’s such a memorable relic of cinema—from the profane Lee Ermey as a Marine Corp drill sergeant, to the psychopathic Private Gomer Pyle—that any list of films about the Vietnam War would be remiss without its inclusion. Who can forget the Marines marching into the burning city, the skies thick with smoke, as they begin singing the theme song to the Mickey Mouse club?
Bat 21 (1988)
Two decades before “Rescue Dawn,” Gene Hackman starred as another pilot shot down over Vietnam, pursued by the Vietcong. A capable thriller with the ever-game Hackman offering another fine performance.
This 1989 Oliver Stone film, starring Tom Cruise tells the story of Rob Kovic, a patriotic cheerleader for America as a young man who eagerly enlists for the Marine Corps and volunteers to deploy to Vietnam, where he witnesses horrific war crimes and is wounded, losing the use of his legs, and where he accidentally kills a fellow soldier. The film’s real power though is when it returns to the states, where we see Cruise as Kovic, paralyzed from the waist down and stuck in dilapidated Veteran hospitals where he and other vets are mistreated by staff, and abandoned to beds. The film’s largest arc follows Kovic as he struggles to adapt and fit into an America which neither acknowledges his sacrifice, or his crimes. Cruise is in top form here, and as Kovic, his anger is fiercely palpable. Its a powerful, compelling film that largely set the template for many of the Vietnam films that would follow.
Casualties of War (1989)
Brian de Palma’s “Casualties of War” came out the same year as “Born on the 4th of July” and there simply wasn’t room for two Vietnam movies in the same year. It didn’t help that it came out a number of years after “Platoon,” which had already given audiences the plight of a Vietnam infantryman. Michael J. Fox plays a private out in the jungle with a psychopathic team leader (Sean Penn) who rapes and murders a teenager civilian. While Penn is in top notch ferocious form, Fox seems in over his head, and because the film rests on his small shoulders, it flounders. Plus, the film doesn’t treat Vietnam as a real war, the drama (soldiers murdering civilians, doing drugs) is too dramatized and manufactured to create any real drama.
Flight of the Intruder (1990)
Some soldiers get the idea into their head that the Vietnam War is being lost by the officers lead them and decide to steal a plane and go on an unauthorized bombing campaign in Hanoi. Dumb.
Forrest Gump (1994)
This 1994 American epic by Robert Zemeckis starring Tom Hanks is the story of…well, it’s pointless to summarize the film. Everyone in America has already seen it. Its inclusion on this list is simply because the film’s Vietnam arc is its most central story, one on which all the other events in the film are based. Forrest Gump manages the difficult feat of both dealing with the Vietnam War cyncially—the film doesn’t dare to suggest for a moment that participating in the war was anything but a moral hazard—yet because of Gump’s eternal optimistic character, the film ends up becoming almost the opposite of purposefully melodramatic fare like Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.” “Forrest Gump” is an epic American film detailing a history of an America that was locked in the revolving orbit of the Vietnam War.
Operation: Dumbo Drop (1995)
We’re not fans of light-hearted “family friendly” films about the Vietnam War.
Dead Presidents (1995)
“Dead Presidents” was about a decade and a half too late to be a poignant Vietnam movie. By 1995, no one found it that shocking that soldiers in Vietnam were, in fact, not happy about being in Vietnam. And, of course, there is the requisite occurrence of war crimes and drug use, and the difficult reunion home. But this film takes it one step further and has the veterans become bank robbers, because well – the war drove them to it, I guess. It’s sort of an insulting film to Vietnam vets.
This 2002 Mel Gibson film is sappy and overtly sentimental, but it also is one of the few films to show what battle on a large scale looks like. Almost every other Vietnam film shows conflict at the micro level, with squads and platoons engaged in firefights in the jungle. “We Were Soldiers” pulls back the lens a bit to see a battle from the perspective of a colonel moving around a brigade sized element on the battlefield. The battle this film chose to tell, the Battle of Ia Drang, is also a spectacular story in the annals of historical combat, where 400 cavalry soldiers ended up facing off against 4,000 North Vietnamese soldiers, most of them living to tell the tale.
“Rescue Dawn” is a 2006 war drama film directed by Werner Herzog, based on an adapted screenplay written from his 1997 documentary film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The film stars Christian Bale, and is based on the true story of German-American pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down and captured by villagers sympathetic to the Pathet Lao during an American military campaign in the Vietnam War.
“Rescue Dawn” is a fantastic film because of its intense realism in re-creating what it was like to be a prison of war during the Vietnam War, an experience that has to rank as one of the most awful experienced by any human at any point in the history of civilization. If that sounds like an extreme suggestion, well so is this film and its portrayal of life as a prisoner in the jungles of Vietnam.
This is an extremely intense film where, as in real life, everything is a struggle: The jungle, fighting guards, and starving to death. There’s no stupid Hollywood conventions in this film (like somehow easily navigating the jungle or punching a prison guard and having him knocked out with one blow.)