Top 10 Films Featuring the Vietnam War

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Big as America’s military hubris may be, Vietnam was a terrible failure, also one which has been given unyielding film treatment.  In hindsight, there’s no denying that the bodies which lied needlessly in waste were in vein and for a cause too idealistic to warrant such entirely-symbolic bloodshed.  That said, you don’t blame the cattle for the slaughterhouse they are herded into unwittingly, but it’s hard not to regret the decisions made by disconnected chess players that decide fates remotely.  There are many stances to take and many an argument to be had between those on different sides of the blood-stained coin; a veteran survivor probably won’t see eye to eye with a  college-educated John Lennon-fan, and not just because he was blinded by shrapnel or is confined waste-high to a wheel-chair.  As such, there are many disagreements to be had with highly-subjective film portrayals, especially when liberals dominate Hollywood.  But that shouldn’t remove entertainment value or mean that every portrayal is absolutely unilateral.  Given the many different perspectives and interpretations, the war itself is only used on screen as a vehicle for meaning and one individual’s feelings.  It’s sometimes nice to hear what someone else might have to say, for the sake of an alternate perspective.  Here are the top ten examples of Vietnam films that approach the war in one way or another, but ultimately to entertain.

10. Tigerland (2000)

This movie offers, in very little else in the way of originality, the perspective of a slacker in wartime. Granted Matthew Modine’s character in Full Metal Jacket possessed similar tendencies, Colin Farrell’s character was more committed to getting kicked out of the war than being a disruptive funny guy. This movie, also like the previously mentioned ‘Nam flick, shows a good deal of the distressing conditions of being a military man before the war even happens. While Jacket finds its way inevitably to the worst of the war, Tigerland doesn’t leave boot camp or anything beyond the worst while still in training. Nonetheless, we still are able to sympathize with any of the characters that try so desperately hard to run away.

9. Tropic Thunder (2008)

Tropic Thunder

Not a parody of the Vietnam War, but one of the many movies which cloud public perception.  This movie does a great job of poking fun at Hollywood cliches and putting a magnifying glass to the many attempts to confuse truth with a military-sized budget and heavy artistic subjectivity.  Robert Downey Jr. in black face is an obvious standout, but is only a part of the satire that comes with a self-serious movie industry.  By making the film about a Vietnam film-gone-wrong, evocative references comment on the very industry that manufactures such affecting scenes.  Dramatic and influential movies are shown to be the direct result of dramatic and influential people.

8. We Were Soldiers (2002)

Think what you want about this film, or its creation by an actor/director with a questionable private life, this film stands out as a pretty rare film devoted to portraying American soldiers as heroes rather than crude, rape-minded pigs. If anything, this is a patriot’s film and a welcomed break, more or less, from the conventional focus on the inhumane aspects of our nation’s veterans, sufferers of more than post-war trauma: a ceaseless bad rap.

7. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Who would’ve thought light could come from such a dark war? Leave it to Robin Williams to find a punchline in any given situation and string together a rapid-fire series of jokes like a comedy machine gun. This film is mostly comic relief but doesn’t lack a human heart or fail to capture a good dose of tragedy in between comedic monologues. Robin Williams’ dual tendencies, as both a Julliard-trained dramatist and stand-up comedian, are given full crack in this film through the context of a real-life radio DJ stationed in the war-steeped Vietnam. We get the sense, in this film, that Williams’ character is as much a hero to the troops he entertains as the troops are to those sleeping soundly back home.

6. Forrest Gump (1994)

Good for mostly entertainment value, this film is hardly a fact-guided history lesson; instead it creates an amusing fictional narrative by combining politically-significant events in U.S. history (particularly from the sixties and seventies) to a central character for which the film is named. When the Vietnam War appears in the film, it does so rather lightheartedly and more so aesthetically (what with that great soundtrack) excluding when his shrimp-loving best friend Bubba dies after Forrest runs into a napalm-surging jungle to rescue him. This film is riddled with heart but doesn’t rely on over dramatizing or selling out the war itself. All the effect is in the character development and emphasis on various relationships.

5. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

An almost 180 degree turn from Oliver Stone’s previous Vietnam-themed epic, this film sympathizes wholeheartedly with the starry-eyed-American boy-turned-crippled-veteran played by an unlikely Tom Cruise. We are taken through all the highs and infinitely-more-abundant lows that befall a veteran who escapes the throes of Hell only to come home wounded to a sea of protesters and unpatriotic “long-hairs.” And in that mix, his own brother, one within an entire country that seems to have turned its back on him.

4. Platoon (1986)

Brutality at its most merciless, this film focuses on the harshest elements of war: aside from gruesome, macabre battle scenes, this film focuses on the evil that frequently underlies human nature. In the tradition of Oliver Stone’s highly-prejudiced storytelling, it is revealed through a plethora of scenes that show that the platoon’s greatest enemy is in fact itself. Common characteristics: senseless and animal-like tendencies to rape helpless women and betray unspoken trust. This film, through definite hyperbole and poetic license, drives home an intended, sharpened point: an ocean of separation does not excuse crimes against humanity.

3. The Deer Hunter (1979)

This movie does a good job of capturing that Bruce Springsteen-esque, blue collar ethos of a band of working men enlisting for the good of the country they are proud to represent. Focusing particularly on the steel mills of Pittsburgh and the bars and small town vibe of the Alleghenies, a certain tangibility lies in these beer-swilling, buck-shooting characters as symbols of their heritage. A dark turn comes when they are captured by the Vietcong during the war and forced to participate in sadistic games of Russian roulette. The aftermath: a deeply corrupted, if not entirely dead, soul, no longer vibrant as once was and buried beneath a frozen exterior.

2. Apocalypse Now (1979)

“The horror…,” the one line everyone pulls from this film, aside from the one about “the smell of napalm in the morning,” this film offers a matter-of-factness about the frequent casualties of war, ranging everywhere from human lives to sanity. Obviously, Marlon Brando’s character lost the latter, which we find out towards the end of this movie’s dark downward spiral and journey along the metaphorical river Styx.

1. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Part comedy, part disturbing drama, this movie echoes the ambivalence and obliqueness of life just so happening to occur in the middle of a war. At first we see Gomer Pyle as this doting, dim-witted glutton, easy prey for the irascible drill instructor who lays into him almost comically, right until he snaps and commits homicide-suicide. This is where the movie shifts for the worst and where we, the movie-viewer, snap abruptly to attention. This film, being the cinematic achievement it is, feels like it was made in the sixties, a credit to the cinematographic elements and persuasive power of the mise-en-scene (scenery, soundtrack, dialogue, etc.). There is something to be said for a movie that attempts to exist within a vacuum-sealed window and succeeds, suspending our preconceptions while we witness truly great film-making, even if the Vietnam War is just the frame.

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By Ryan Thomas


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26 Comments

  1. First off, Forrest Gump was not a “Vietnam based film”. A great movie nonetheless however.

    Also ranking Full Metal Jacket above Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter and Platoon is questionable to say the least.

    And Tropic Thunder? C’mon man!

  2. If anything Full Metal Jacket has become one of those movies that have entered the realm of popular culture, with many aspects of the movie becoming popular in and of itself.

    For example, the drill sergeant played by R. Lee Ermey. While there have been movies before with the popular portrayal of the screaming drill instructor, Ermey took it to another level altogether in a magnificent and iconic portrait of the quintessential DI. And another example, the Vietnamese prostitutes with their phrases which became famous through rap songs and have since entered everyday language when people joke (‘me so horny,’ ‘me love you long time,’ yes it’s racist and stupid but there’s no denying that many people know of these phrases today without particularly knowing where it came from).

    I do like We Were Soldiers as a personal favorite, a good observation that it’s a very loving and patriotic movie compared to the usual “drugged out war crime committing” stereotypical soldier portrayed in Vietnam war related movies.

    I also thought Hamburger Hill and Gardens of Stone were worth mentioning. And maybe even First Blood.

  3. Disappointment. Where are the “Vietnam-based” films? These are all VIETNAM-WAR based films?

    Chalk it up to a misleading title, I was expecting a more interesting list. Where are the Vietnamese movies showcasing a dynamic culture that is changing due to modernization and market changes?

    Anyway, seems like America is stuck in the past when it comes to the topic of “Vietnam”. Certainly it’s left quite an impression in the American psyche, and no denying the impact of the war on veterans, the generations of Vietnamese who escaped the war, and Agent Orange victims… but….

    Let’s move forward, why don’t we?

    • Wow, did you, like, come up with that all by yourself? Must be stressful to be carrying weighty, philosophical ideas like that.

  4. I actually think this is a decently done list except i think that full metal jacket should have been much further down the list. When it comes to the message conveyed I think born on the fourth of july is the best, and apocalypse now was the most entertaining. what really strikes me is that quite a few of these movies are considered cinematic masterpieces i dont really know of any WW2 movies (except maybe saving private ryan) that are given as much praise. I think it may have something to do with the fact that WW2 was considered a “good” war with a noble cause and vietnam was not.

  5. I would have included John Wayne’s The Green Berets, not because it’s a great film( it’s not ); but because it is the only Hollywood movie about the Vietnam war to come out during the Vietnam war.

  6. Probably not seen outside Australia but the “The Odd Angry Shot” is a classic 1979 movie about the Vietnam War that speaks to the Australian experience/involvement. Stars a bunch of classic Aussie actors of the era including a young Bryan Brown, Graham Kennedy and a young John Jarrett (the killer from ‘Wolf Creek’) as the young fresh face SAS grunt learning about the reality of war (the Charlie Sheen of this Platoon). ” Using the byline “Everyone has got to be somewhere, and your here so you better get use to it”, Friends who are Vietnam Vets all pick it as being almost spot on in its depiction of the Aussie Vietnam experience, and how they were treated when they got home.

  7. Brian Beamer on

    Really, those top four could be in any order and it would still be right – I do agree that Hamburger Hill should be on the list.

  8. the list was good- had a lot of my favorites in it. I don’t think you are well-educated enough to say with such confidence that Vietnam was a failure.

    For your sentence, you meant “vain” not “vein” (transports blood)

  9. I’ve seen “The Odd Angry Shot” and it was a good film.

    No-one mentioned the original American Vietnam War film – “The Green Berets” with John Wayne and his “John Wayne Western movie” buddies transported from the Wild West to the Wild East. Instead of the group adopting a little Mexican boy as their mascot, in this film it’s a little Vietnamese boy as mascot.

  10. Full metal jacket is simply the best film on this list,regardless if it was about the vietnam war.It has the best director,the best dialouge,acting,suspense,music,cinematography,humor.It has it all,its a near perfect film! Platoon’s not even as good as hamburger hill,and that movie is routine and average at best.Platoon is the funniest,even though its the most serious.The acting is embarrassing,the dialouge,the cliched characters,and that cheesy score that plays evey 10 seconds,to remind us something heeeavy is happening.Its unbelievable how overrated that horrible film is.Apocalypse now is brilliant at times,but coppola really has nothing to say other than ”war is surreal”.And Brando gives one of his worst performances.I thought i was watching captain kirk,not colonel kurtz.Deer hunter is strong,mainly for the great performances.We were soldiers is crap.But there some good choices here.

  11. come one how do you miss Hamburger Hill? Hamburger Hill captures the realism of the war better then any move IV seen to date and its also received the most praise from veterans. Hamburger HIll should be a top 5

  12. Greg Dinskisk on

    Alright, Full Metal Jacket’s first half was probably better than almost any war movie ever, but its second half is meh. Almost like any other war movie. Apocalypse Now should have been #1.

  13. For my opinion, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill are the best, but all the movies still did not show all the truth about the vietnam war there is also many things behind the screen never been reviewed.

  14. Hamburger Hill should have been on this list. Tropic Thunder should have not. Dead Presidents although about a bank heist gone bad should be mentioned if only for being one of the few Hollywood films to look at how the war affected black ghetto youth. And if your going to include Forrest Gump… why not throw in First Blood, Missing In Action (Chuck Norris) or the TV series Tour Of Duty?

  15. The thing about Full Metal Jacket is that it’s rewatchable and gets better the more you watch it. It has complexities and ambiguities and breaks all conventions.

    Most other big Vietnam War movies dont hold up to 2 or 3 viewings. They cheesy, cliched, borderline racist or too wrapped up in weeping over “poor American soldiers”. Millions of Vietnamese died, but we cry over poor American soldiers. Come on man. At least Full Metal Jacket deals with this hypocricy.

  16. Thanks for posting your top 10. Love the effort. Good job. I agree with most of your list, and I will go ahead and jump on the Hamburger Hill bandwagon, you should of included Hamburger Hill. I don’t consider it number one, but definitely 4 or 5.

    Platoon is one of my favorites, however Black vets complained that it portrayed them poorly and I somewhat agree. Hamburger Hill rectified that, and then some. Every character had some sort of emotional glory, and the horrors or the Vietnam war is captured brilliantly.

    Full Metal Jacket is perfect as number one.

  17. This top should be titled most popular movies based on Vietnam war. Who has watched “Song of the stork” a vietnamese movie and “the killing fields” an american movie will know what I mean.

  18. There was a movie called the boys in company c about marines in Nam
    and i have not seen it any where.then there was one called causulty of war with mike j. Fox and sean Penn and some other stars cause.ICOLLECT these film’s .

  19. Kenneth (Bayonet War Films) on

    As for top 10 for Vietnam in my opinion that concentrated on the war…..
    Apocalypse Now
    Platoon
    Go Tell The Spartan’s
    A Rumor of War (Mini-series)
    The Boys of Company C
    Hamburger Hill
    Full Metal Jacket
    Odd Angry Shot
    The Siege Of Firebase Gloria
    The Iron Triangle & Platoon Leader (Could not decide 🙂

    Another suggestion is “Tribes,” 1970 which was a earlier film about recruits being trained as in Full Metal Jacket.

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