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)
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.
By Ryan Thomas