It’s been 45 years since the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam, but the conflict continues to play an outsized role in American politics and popular culture. From John Wayne’s stern-jawed performance in the 1968 propaganda film The Green Berets to Robert Downey, Jr.’s antics in the 2008 meta-comedy Tropic Thunder (a movie about a movie about Vietnam), the war’s complexity and social impact have made it an irresistible subject for generations of filmmakers and moviegoers. These nine films set the standard for the Vietnam War movie.
Fresh off an astonishing run of success that included The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola set out to make a Vietnam War epic based on Joseph Conrad’s anti-colonialist novella The Heart of Darkness. It would turn out to be one of the most arduous productions in the history of cinema, taking over three years to complete and nearly destroying Coppola’s health and career in the process. But the result was nothing short of a masterpiece. With a star-studded cast including Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford, Laurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now added the indelible phrases “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and “Charlie don’t surf!” to the American vernacular and was ranked 14th on Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll of the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time.
Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick’s darkly comic and deeply disturbing portrait of war’s dehumanizing effects follows a group of U.S. Marine Corps recruits from basic training on Parris Island to the Battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive. Adapted from Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, the screenplay was co-written by Kubrick, Hasford, and journalist Michael Herr, author of the acclaimed Vietnam War memoir Dispatches. Starring real-life drill instructor R. Lee Emery as the virtuosically profane Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann, Full Metal Jacket met with criticism from some early reviewers who found the film’s second half unequal to the brilliance of the boot camp scenes. It’s now recognized as a classic of the war movie genre and ranked 95th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years...100 Thrills list.
The Deer Hunter
Winner of five Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor, The Deer Hunter is the saga of three Russian American steelworkers who leave their working-class Pennsylvania hometown to fight in Vietnam. Written and directed by Michael Cimino and starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale (in his final role before succumbing to lung cancer), the film sparked controversy for its famous sequence in which sadistic Việt Cộng soldiers force POWs to play Russian roulette. There were no documented cases of Russian roulette during the war, but critics such as Roger Ebert defended Cimino’s use of artistic license, arguing that the deadly game is a “brilliant symbol” for how the conflict touched the lives of U.S. soldiers and their families.
The first Hollywood film to be written and directed by a Vietnam veteran, Platoon was based on Oliver Stone’s real experiences as an infantryman during the war. Charlie Sheen, son of Apocalypse Now star Martin Sheen, plays a naive college student who volunteers for combat duty in 1967. Assigned to an infantry platoon near the Cambodian border, he is caught up in a bitter rivalry between two veteran NCOs: hard-edged and cynical Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the more compassionate and idealistic Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). Winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, the film achieved its consummate authenticity by hiring retired USMC Colonel Dale Dye to put the principal actors through an intensive 30-day boot camp before filming started.
Good Morning, Vietnam
A brilliant blend of comedy and drama, this Barry Levinson film is loosely based on the experiences of real-life Armed Forces Radio Service DJ Adrian Cronaeur. Robin Williams, who improvised most of his broadcast scenes, stars as Cronauer, a wild card whose irreverent sense of humor and love of rock and roll infuriated his immediate superiors but made him hugely popular with the enlisted men. Set in Saigon during the early days of the war, the screenplay offered a more nuanced portrait of the Vietnamese people than previous Hollywood films and earned Williams his first Academy Award nomination.
Based on David Morrell's novel of the same name and starring Sylvester Stallone as a former Green Beret who fought in Vietnam and received the Medal of Honor, First Blood is the opening chapter in the hugely popular Rambo series. Set in the fictional town of Hope, Washington, the plot revolves around John Rambo’s escalating confrontation with a tyrannical local sheriff played by Brian Dennehy. Forced into the wilderness outside of town, Rambo relies on his survival and combat skills to escape capture by hundreds of state troopers and national guardsmen. By turning its veteran hero into a guerrilla fighter like the Việt Cộng, this blockbuster action film played an influential role in America’s reckoning with its first military defeat and helped raise awareness about PTSD.
Born on the Fourth of July
Oliver Stone’s second film about the war is based on the bestselling autobiography by Ron Kovic, a patriotic Long Islander who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served two tours of duty in Vietnam before a firefight left him paralyzed from the mid-chest down. Struggling to adjust to life in a wheelchair and haunted by his role in the death of a fellow soldier, Kovic battles alcoholism, depression, and PTSD before eventually finding redemption as a leading activist in the anti-war movement. Tom Cruise received his first Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Kovic, who thanked the actor by giving him the original Bronze Star Medal he received after the war.
Casualties of War
Directed by Brian De Palma, written by Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe, starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, and based on Daniel Lang’s New Yorker article and follow-up book, Casualties of War is the story of the Incident on Hill 192, a notorious war crime committed by U.S troops in 1966. Penn plays Sergeant Tony Meserve, an experienced squad leader who seeks revenge for his friend’s death by ordering his men to kidnap and rape a Vietnamese girl. Fox is Private First Class Max Eriksson, the only member of the patrol brave enough to stand up to Meserve. Told in flashback, the film has a hopeful ending that resonated with viewers seeking to put the horrors of the war behind them. Quentin Tarantino has called it “the greatest film about the Vietnam War.”
Hearts and Minds
According to Michael Moore, it’s “the best documentary I have ever seen” and the movie that inspired him to pick up a camera. But Hearts and Minds polarized audiences even before it was released. Columbia Pictures refused to distribute it, and an interviewee unhappy with his portrayal obtained a temporary restraining order against the producers. Despite the controversy, Peter Davis’s searing indictment of America’s involvement in Vietnam won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in March 1975–one month before the fall of Saigon brought an end to the war. Featuring interviews with subjects on all sides of the conflict, from General William Westmoreland to Daniel Ellsberg to a Vietnamese coffin maker, and a wealth of archival news footage from the font lines and the home front, this landmark film is a must-see for anyone seeking to understand the meaning and significance of the Vietnam War.
Featured still from "Platoon" via Orion Pictures