I wrote film reviews for over a decade in a variety of formats.
Which Movies About the Vietnam War Should You Watch?
Vietnam was a seminal event in modern American history.
As such, the films that depict the event are complex and fascinating. They range from attempted factual accounts to mythic interpretations.
Although anybody could write about the best Vietnam movies ever, I bring a different perspective. I am both a Vietnam scholar and a film critic. I studied about the Vietnam War in graduate school. I also wrote film criticism professionally. I enjoy combining the historical perspective with the cinematic.
Ironically, I'm not all that interested in the films that were historically accurate. It's not an important quality for a great film. I'm more interested in the ones that brought unique perspectives to the issues surrounding the War. In fact, most Vietnam films are not historically accurate at all. Thus, my list of the best Vietnam movies ever are a mix of historical narratives and mythologically based movies. Ultimately, the Vietnam War was a controversial conflict that inspired many great films.
The war fractured American society. It damaged America's psyche. Those are important elements in almost any great film about the Vietnam War.
10. Cutter's Way (1981)
Director: Ivan Passer
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: "Cutter's Way", also known as "Cutter and Bone" was a kind of film that used Vietnam as a thematic device rather than attacking the war in any political or mythological way. In "Cutter's Way", Passer examines how an event like the Vietnam War can ravage people psychologically. The film is wrapped in a mystery that ultimately doesn't resolve itself, which goes to show the movie isn't about the mystery. It's about what drives each of the characters: a rudderless slacker named Bone (Jeff Bridges), his friend Cutter (John Heard), who's a vet who's lost an eye and leg, and Cutter's wife (Lisa Eichhorn). Bone witnesses what may be a murder, but is unmotivated while Cutter sees it as an opportunity to engage. It's a largely overlooked film with tons of symbolism.
9. In Country (1989)
Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Bruce Willis, Emily Lloyd, Joan Allen
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: A very underrated movie. One of the first films to really tackle the Vietnam Veteran experience in a realistic way. Although it was never destined to be a blockbuster, I can only imagine that since Bruce Willis was in a stage of his career we'll call the "Hudson Hawk" stage, he wasn't generally regarded as a good serious actor and people stayed away. However, Willis gives a very compelling performance as an emotionally damaged vet who has to deal with his baggage and heal, ultimately by visiting the Vietnam War Memorial.
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8. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Director: Michael Cimino
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Meryl Streep
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: Michael Cimino's epic film was the first to bring Vietnam into the mainstream (though "Coming Home" was also released the same year). Although its fictionalization of the Russian Roulette sequences could perhaps be considered exploitation and avoidance of the real, emotional issues that affected veterans, that very dramatic sequence brought the overall devastation of the war home. Let's face it, of everything that went on in that film, the Russian Roulette sequences are almost the only thing that's remembered. That powerful image symbolized the destructiveness of the Vietnam experience and burned in our collective memories.
7. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Tom Cruise, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: For all his weirdness, Oliver Stone has made some great movies and this is one. The story of Ron Kovic, in both the film and in real life, is of a young patriot who goes off to war and comes back, still a patriot, but horribly injured - a paraplegic. Then, Kovic turns against the war, essentially realizing it was a mistake. While previous Vietnam films dealt with various aspects of the war symbolically, none dealt quite so overtly with the political elements. It is perhaps not surprising that such a film got made in Hollywood, but remember that political message films usually only get made when there is some degree of public acceptance of the message and that's what this film symbolizes.
6. Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: Some might say that it's only when we can laugh at a tragic and/or failed event collectively that we've come to accept it. Such is the case with Vietnam and the year we came to collectively look upon that event in a complete way was 1987 when this movie came out. However, not only is this movie a comedy with Vietnam as the backdrop, it's also a film that humanizes the Vietnamese, which is another stepping stone in the assimilation of the Vietnam experience in the American consciousness. Here was a film that laughed at the absurdity of the situation, but also took the Vietnamese (through the eyes of the Robin Williams character) and showed us real people fighting their own, legitimate battle.
5. Casualties of War (1989)
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: My Lai was one of the most horrific events of the Vietnam War. Approximately 500 people were murdered by United States Army soldiers. Many were women and children and many were tortured, raped, and beaten. It is one of the most horrific events of any war. In a much smaller way, "Casualties of War" tries to examine how it's possible for such an event to occur and what challenges an honorable person faces trying to bring such an event to light. In this case, a five-man patrol kidnaps a Vietnamese woman, forces her to march with them, and eventually rapes and murders her. Again, when popular entertainment is able to take this sort of thing and present it honestly, it's a signal that our culture is ready to deal with the reality of our failures. It's a significant moment.
4. We Were Soldiers (2002)
Director: Randall Wallace
Starring: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: As Vietnam wore on our collective cultural consciousness, films came out that seriously examined some of the planning failures of the war and those battles that symbolized why America couldn't succeed there. Compare the battle sequences here with the ones in "Apocalypse Now" and you begin to understand how complex issues are digested in the public's consciousness. Things move slowly from the mythic to the real and "We Were Soldiers" is a signal of the real. The battle depicted, one of the first land battles of the war, effectively characterized battle in Vietnam, but also how the Vietnamese were willing to die and outlast the U.S. military.
3. Platoon (1986)
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: This was the first, great, realistic film about the Vietnam War. The battle sequences were harrowing. The storytelling was magnificent. At its heart are two different points of view depicted by the conflict between the Willem Dafoe character and the Tom Berenger character. It reminds me of my favorite book about the war, "Backlash". The basic thesis of that book was that the American military was incapable of fighting the war the way it needed to be fought, not because our soldiers were in any way incapable, but because the system was incapable. Dafoe's character, who fights by his own rules but is ultimately destroyed by the system is that hope. Berenger, a different kind of military man, is his opposite. It's a truly great movie that says a lot about what didn't work and what could have worked in Vietnam.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: "Apocalypse Now" is widely considered a masterpiece, so it's natural to say it's also a great Vietnam film. What makes it so has nothing to do with any accurate portrayal of the Vietnam War, but with the images and ideas it expresses. Who can forget Robert Duvall leading the helicopter charge? Who can forget Martin Sheen traveling up the river to bring back Marlon Brando's "insane" Colonel Kurtz? The Duvall scene represents how America saw itself and imagined things would be. Sheen's pursuit of Kurtz is a metaphor for where we ended up.
1. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey
Why it's one of the best Vietnam movies: Well, it's Kubrick. The film being split into two parts essentially is a choice that would seem to lack continuity, but it explains a lot. It shows how soldiers are indoctrinated into the mentality of killing and how that can sometimes backfire.
Since Vietnam itself was a failure in terms of how the American way of war worked, the second half of the movie basically illustrates very simply how and why Vietnam went wrong. The soldiers engage in a mission that involves hunting down and killing a girl. There's also the mythological element that Kubrick weaves into the film. The singing of the Mickey Mouse Club at the end, for instance. This didn't actually happen, which tells you that Kubrick wasn't interested in telling a true war story. He was interested in making a film about larger issues, which is exactly what he did. The film says everything about what went wrong in Vietnam.
© 2011 Allen Donald
Allen Donald (author) from Colorado on March 17, 2018:
Thanks for the comment. I think if you look at all the films you listed, perhaps with the exception of Platoon, both Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now are considered the best of the bunch. Taking liberties with the actual events to create a stylized account that provides perspective on actual events can be a more effective way of driving home a film's message, particularly one about Vietnam.
Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on March 15, 2018:
While I like your top two movies - and have seen every film on your list except Cutter's Way, I think Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are a bit too stylized. Films like Platoon, In Country, and Born On The Fourth Of July are personal, moving, and get my highest marks.
Mary Craig from New York on July 25, 2012:
I enjoyed your perspective on these movies. War movies always portray our side of the story and cast Americans as heroes which we always hope is the case. But it isn't easy being a hero or even a soldier. The training and 'indoctrination' needed to make an ordinary boy a killing machine is something the American public never gets to see.
Back to the point...this was a good hub which I not only voted on but linked to my hub on War Movies in the 1980s.
Voted up, useful, and interesting.
Allen Donald (author) from Colorado on December 19, 2011:
What a great question! I'm sure there are documentaries and such and films made by Vietnamese filmmakers, I just don't know of any, which is kind of sad. Probably a good thing for an IMDB search.
Sarah Kolb-Williams from Twin Cities on December 15, 2011:
To preface this comment, I absolutely recognize that it's impossible to separate the country with the war -- but I wonder if you have any recommendations for any movies that deal with Vietnamese culture and history without the war being the central focus of the experience. My fiancé and I are planning on taking a trip to Vietnam, and it's such a beautiful country with a rich history outside of the Vietnam War (though it has obviously influenced the culture in many ways since). With your academic background, do you have any recommendations, either in books or movies, for something that deals primarily with the French influences on the country's culinary progression, the canal and river system of the Mekong Delta, or anything else uniquely Vietnamese?
Thank you for your thoughts! I very much appreciated the hub.
Ed Michaels from Texas, USA on December 14, 2011:
When will America be able to deal honestly with the Vietnam War? As a society, we have not done so yet, although we are making steps towards doing so. My father-in-law is a vet, though he claims to remember nothing because he was an alcoholic at the time, and he does not deal with the emotional toll that war, or any war, can have on participants. Another friend of mine is a vet who insists Ho Chi Minh was directing the forces against him, though Ho was dead by the time he was in country. In high school, history ended before Vietnam began, and in my college American history course (there was no course specifically devoted to Vietnam)we discussed the American reaction to Vietnam and the rebelling youth movements of the time, not the war itself. Maybe now that the Cold War is over...maybe
Personally, though I have seen most of the films on your list, I have a soft spot for Apocalypse Now, not just for its remarkable marriages of music and image, his mythic conception of landscape, and Brando's Kurtz, but for its use of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" about the Congo to frame another darkness.