There’s a really great book by Peter Biskind called Easy Riders, Raging Bulls about the direction that the film industry took in the 1970s as America started to question their government. Americans were thinking that maybe President Nixon couldn’t be trusted and maybe the military shouldn’t have intervened in Vietnam and veterans were coming back with PTSD and getting shunned from society. Movies got grittier and darker and less hopeful – and the directors who were drafted responded with films about the conflict. So, get your gear on, load up your rifle, and jump in the chopper for the 10 greatest movies ever made about the Vietnam War.
10. First Blood
The John Rambo character would eventually become known as a shirtless two-dimensional muscle-bound meathead who walks around with a bandana tied around his head and a minigun in his hand, shooting bad guys and liberating people from prison camps, but there was originally so much more to him than that. The first movie in the franchise, First Blood, is a deep study of how the Vietnam War affected its veterans and how society treated them once they came back home. Sylvester Stallone does not get enough credit for his acting ability and for thinking through the sociopolitical implications of his projects. First Blood was the most prominent case of this, as he played a vet who returned to the U.S. with PTSD. The movie opens with Rambo trying to track down his Army buddies, only to find that they’ve all died through various circumstances. Then he clashes with the local law enforcement, just for being around and getting in the way (seriously, that’s how those veterans were treated), and it leads him to bring the war home until his old commanding officer talks him down. It is a thrilling movie, but it also affects you personally and makes you think.
9. Hamburger Hill
Don’t let the name Hamburger Hill fool you. This isn’t a wacky National Lampoon comedy or a McDonald’s tie-in movie – it’s one of the most brutal war movies ever made. Some of the best Vietnam War movies tell fictional stories or repurpose earlier works like novels for a Vietnam setting, but Hamburger Hill tells the true story of one of the bloodiest battles in the entire war. It’s so violent and so shocking and so visceral, and knowing that it all happened for real only serves to make the viewing experience even more unsettling – but that’s the point. This movie is just 110 minutes of soldiers getting killed in very brutal and realistic fashion, and isn’t that what all war movies should be? That’s the war experience, so that’s how it should be portrayed on film. Most filmmakers don’t do that, because it doesn’t make for a fun time at the movies, but filmmakers who have the balls to do it create accurate historical documents, which is exactly what Hamburger Hill is. The director, John Irvin, had experience working on documentary crews in Vietnam in the 1960s, so he knew the atmosphere, the emotions, the sensations, the aesthetics – he was the best prepared director that they could’ve gotten for the job.
8. Forrest Gump
Okay, so Forrest Gump isn’t just a movie about the Vietnam War. It’s a movie about the entire 20th century in America through the lens of one lovable character: Apple Computers, Hurricane Carmen, the Watergate scandal, Nixon, Kennedy, Elvis, AIDS, the Black Panther Party, you name it. But a big chunk of the movie is dedicated to Forrest’s time serving in Vietnam, and it’s where he meets some of his closest friends: Bubba, who he goes into the shrimp business with, and the bitter Lieutenant Dan, who he eventually wins over with his childlike innocence. The Vietnam scenes aren’t as gritty and dark as some of the other Vietnam movies, but we are seeing this whole movie through the simple eyes of Forrest Gump. He doesn’t understand the politics behind the war or why so many people are protesting it – he’s just been told to do something for his country and he’s committed to doing it. In this respect, Forrest can either be seen as a model American or an apolitical hero – he can pretty much just see right from wrong. That’s why he goes back to save the guys from his platoon during an ambush and ends up winning himself a Medal of Honor.
7. Born on the Fourth of July
The story of Ron Kovic is one of the most interesting of any Vietnam War veteran. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address inspired him to join the Marines, but by the time he came back from ‘Nam in a wheelchair, he was one of the most prolific peace activists around and got arrested a dozen times for political protesting. Oliver Stone became so interested in this story that he made it into a powerful and moving film, bringing on the real Kovic to co-write the screenplay with him. Born on the Fourth of July was one of the first times that we saw Tom Cruise show off his serious acting talents outside of playing a charming, charismatic, likable guy. We see him here as a bitter, passionate war veteran that society is trying to forget while he refuses to let them – and he earned himself an Academy Award nomination for it. The movie is emotional and visceral and beautifully shot and written and directed with such passion, but it all hinges on Cruise. Without his fantastic lead performance, the whole movie with crumble. He gives the movie a heart that is real and raw and beats along for 145 powerful minutes.
6. Good Morning, Vietnam
Throughout his terrific film career, Robin Williams did both overtly comedic and overtly dramatic movies, but what really made him shine were the movies that allowed him to walk a tightrope line between the two. For example, he got some improv laughs in Good Will Hunting, but there was real heart to it, and that’s what won him his much deserved Oscar for it. And in Good Morning, Vietnam, he got to showcase his madcap, rapid fire comic talents as the radio DJ for a U.S. military base in Saigon and showcase his serious dramatic talents as a man who is burned out, sick of having his words censored, and struggling to have his voice heard with listeners who adore him and superiors who want to silence him for speaking the truth. The movie mostly succeeds on Williams’ lead performance alone, but Barry Levinson’s direction is brilliant, too. The montage of the American soldiers cut with the Viet Cong soldiers cut with the farmers out in the fields cut with the Vietnamese villagers minding their own business set to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” is genuinely one of the most beautiful and touching moments in the history of cinema.
Very few filmmakers who were making movies about the Vietnam War actually served in the conflict, but Oliver Stone did, and Oliver Stone wrote the screenplay for Platoon based on his experiences. He’s also one of the most outspoken and controversial political filmmakers who ever rocked the American nationalist boat, so he’d be the perfect candidate to portray America’s divisive and shady involvement in one of the bloodiest wars in recent memory. Platoon holds the title of being the first Hollywood movie to be written and directed by a Vietnam War veteran, and Stone chose to make the movie with an anti-war stance to oppose the very pro-war The Green Berets, which made war look awesome and whole-heartedly supported America’s involved in Vietnam and starred the very conservative John Wayne, who didn’t serve a day in his life in the military. It was actually Vietnam that got Stone interested in filmmaking as opposed to writing in the first place: “Vietnam was really visceral, and I had come from a cerebral existence: study…working with a pen and paper, with ideas. I came back really visceral. And I think the camera is so much more…that’s your interpreter, as opposed to a pen.” Platoon is a powerful, eye-opening study of a war and one of the best movies ever made about it.
4. Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese never made a movie that was actually set during the Vietnam War. All of his contemporaries were doing it – Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cinimo, Oliver Stone – but he never did one. He wasn’t in the business of jetting off to foreign countries and shooting there. He had too many New York stories to tell. He preferred shooting in his hometown. So, instead, he made a movie about the effects that the Vietnam War had on its veterans, which is told through the tale of Travis Bickle. After coming home from war, Travis has no job and no money and he can’t sleep, so he fills his days and his nights by driving a cab in isolation, dreaming of the day when “a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” As he slowly descends into madness – which we’re eased into by his rich internal monologue – Travis obsesses over a political candidate and goes out and buys a gun and starts exercising and getting in shape and befriends a twelve-year-old prostitute and keeps his eye on her pimp until he reaches his breaking point and goes out in a blaze of glory. Taxi Driver is one of the perfect combinations of director (Scorsese), writer (Paul Schrader), and star (Robert De Niro).
3. Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick can always be relied on for a healthy dose of dark humor in his movies. For all the horror and despair in movies like The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, there is also a lot to laugh at. Dr. Strangelove was the movie he made about the terrifying political paranoia of the time – and it’s one of the funniest, darkest, most scathingly satirical comedy movies of all time! Full Metal Jacket can be seen as a dark comedy, from start to finish. The scenes where the troops negotiate prices with Vietnamese prostitutes sound like they were taken from Seinfeld. The late, great R. Lee Ermey plays the drill sergeant so perfectly that every other movie drill sergeant pales in comparison. His portrayal of Sgt. Hartman is so loud and piercing and brilliant that he defined that character trope forever. What’s beautiful about his performance is that you can see that this is all a facade and there’s a real man just like the rest of them under that tough exterior. But the dark comedy has a harrowing undercurrent to it that shows you just how sick and twisted this whole war was. And it also sets us up to be shocked in the truly distressing dramatic moments like Private Pyle’s suicide or the soap-bars-in-the-pillow-cases beating.
2. The Deer Hunter
Watching this movie is an ordeal. The Deer Hunter isn’t just a movie about the Vietnam War – in fact, very little of it is actually set during the conflict. This is a movie about how the Vietnam War changed the people who fought in it. It starts by introducing all the characters – particularly those played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage – in a small working class town in Pennsylvania. Then they get drafted and their friends and family throw them a going away party where they’re all bright-eyed and hopeful and naive. Then they go to war and, while the war segment is the shortest one, it is filled with harrowing and shocking moments. The Russian roulette scene is one of the most intense ever put on film. But it’s when they get back from ‘Nam that the movie really becomes powerful, as we see the effects of the war on these guys. Walken is a broken man who has decided to stick around and play more Russian roulette. Savage has been disabled and he’s confined to a veterans’ hospital. This isn’t a movie about the government and the war at large – it’s a movie about the people who got drafted and fought that war. Suffice it to say, this is Michael Cinimo’s finest accomplishment. The Deer Hunter is his masterpiece. No wonder it won the Best Picture prize at the 51st Academy Awards.
1. Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now is the daddy of them all. It’s the magnum opus that perfectly encapsulates all of the darkness and the mystery of the paranoia and the psychedelia that surrounded the Vietnam War. Set to the sounds of The Doors and filled with hallucinogenic drugs and surreal battle sequences, Apocalypse Now is the be all and end all of Vietnam movies. If this was the only one made, the world of cinema would have everything it needed to know about that war. It’s as phenomenal as a historical document as it is as a piece of cinema. The story of a mad colonel who needs to be brought down by some soldiers heading up a misty river was adapted from Joseph Campbell’s Heart of Darkness and repurposed by screenwriter John Milius to give us the greatest Vietnam War movie ever made – and one of the greatest movies ever made, period. It was directed so meticulously by Francis Ford Coppola that he went over schedule and over budget. At one point, he demanded that one of the crew guys fly to Italy to get a very specific pasta for one scene – and by the time the guy got back with the pasta, they’d cut the scene! It has often been said that the making of this movie was so torturous that it wasn’t about a war – it was a war. But that paid off with a genuine cinematic masterpiece.