Ken Burn’s latest documentary, Vietnam, is currently broadcasting nightly on PBS. Up until the 1960s, war films were good business for Hollywood. It all changed with the Vietnam War. With no clear military objective, the war became more and more unpopular on the home front. Hollywood knew a hot potato when they saw one and the major studios were slow to put themselves on the front line. There were exceptions. Most were low budget independent productions like A Yank in Vietnam (1964) and To the Shore of Hell (1966). Other low budget films dealt with the returning Vietnam Vet. Most times they were portrayed as disturbed crazies: Motorpscyho, Targets, Taxi Driver and The Visitors. Then there was John Wayne’s The Green Berets, the only film at the time distributed by a major studio. Arguably it is the worst movie made about the Vietnam War, and I am not even talking about its politics. It is just a poorly made film. With this in mind here are ten must-see films about the Vietnam experience.
Oliver Stone’s semi-autobiographical film about the experiences of one young soldier. The film packs in a lot. It’s a harrowing view filled with the senseless horror in a senseless war. Powerful performances from Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe.
Full Metal Jacket
The film can be split into two parts. Part one is the tough hardcore basic training new troops experience under the guidance of a hard-ass Drill Sgt, portrayed by former real-life Drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey. Part two takes us to Vietnam as we view the war through their eyes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, it’s not the most original concept, but Kubrick presents us with a dark, at time darkly comic, view of the war.
Francis Ford Coppola’s epic is a near masterpiece. It falls slightly short because Coppola, and he admitted this himself, never figured out what he wanted to say. Still, it’s a brilliant look at the insanity and the darkness of war (I love the smell of napalm in the morning). It’s a hallucinatory and audacious work that shows what film as art can achieve.
Causalities of War
Whenever I watch Brian DePalma’s film, it leaves me drained and brings back memories that are best left forgotten. I was not in the “front lines” in Vietnam, but the exposure to war for any nineteen year old, no matter what your situation, leaves disturbing memories and worst for a lifetime. Casualties of War is not so much a war film as it is a film about morality and moral decisions. In war, morality gets cloudy and one can forget what the purpose of it all is. This was especially true during the Vietnam War where it was never clear from the beginning what the hell we were doing there. You can read my complete review here.
The Visitors deserves more attention than it has received, though it remains a mixed bag. It’s no hidden masterpiece, but it does have its pleasures. It reflects both Kazan’s strengths, his rebellious loners, as well as his weaknesses; his continued attempts to justify his cooperation with HUAC. The film is notable for being both James Woods and Steve Railsback’s first films. They both deliver wonderfully tense and strong performances. Read my complete review here.
Good Morning, Vietnam
The film is notable for three things: It gave Robin Williams his best role to date. It was also the first comedy about the Vietnam War, and it treated the Vietnamese people as real human beings and not cardboard characters. It’s based on the real-life story of Arm Forces Radio DJ, Adrian Cronauer. Before Cronauer’s arrival in ‘Nam, AFR’s playlists consisted of the likes of Mantovanni, Bing Crosby and others from bygone generations. With Cronauer spinning the records, it was the beginning of the rock and roll war with the sounds of James Brown, The Beach Boys, and Bob Dylan. Cronauer’s influence extended to his on air rants about Army regulations, sex, and politics.
Born on the 4th of July
Oliver Stone’s compelling and compassionate adaptation of Ron Kovic’s bestselling memoir detailing Kovic’s transformation from a clean-cut innocent into an anti-war activist. Tom Cruise, this was still at a time when Cruise cared about being an actor and not a “movie star,” gives what may be his most powerful performance ever.
John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill is one of the most realistic and grim reminders of what it was like to be a young nineteen or a twenty-year-old soldier in Vietnam by staying clear from the extremes of films like Stallone’s phony Rambo machismo. Under the radar during its original release, Hamburger Hill is now considered one of the best Vietnam War films.
The Deer Hunter
I have always found The Deer Hunter problematic. The Russian roulette sequence, for example, is a complete fantasy. And the simplistic tone of the Vietnamese as pure evil destroying innocent Americans almost turns this into a weepie soap opera at times. Still, Michael Cimino’s recreation of small-town Pennsylvania where the three lead men come from is wonderfully painted as are the scenes of turmoil and confusion that engulfed the fall of Saigon. Fine performances from most of the cast.
Go Tell the Spartans
Another Vietnam War film that flew under the radar when initially released. Go Tell The Spartans takes place during America’s early days of involvement in the war when most American soldiers were advisors. The film reflects that even in the early days of American involvement the war was a dead end.
Ten More Films about Vietnam
A Yank in Vietnam (Made in1964, it is one of the earliest films on the subject ever made and should be watched for that reason alone.)
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
The Hanoi Hilton (1987)
Gardens of Stone (1987)
First Blood ( 1982 – Ignore all the ridiculous sequels)
The Green Berets (1966 – arguably the worst movie made about the Vietnam War, and I am not even talking about its politics. This is just a poorly made film).
Coming Home (1978)
The Boys of Company C (1977)
Path to War – The Vietnam War as seen by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Also, check out PBS’ recommended list of twelve documentaries about the Vietnam War.