The 20 Greatest Vietnam War Movies of All Time

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The 20 Greatest Vietnam War Movies of All Time

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The Vietnam War remains controversial today. The conflict in the region of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia would last from November 1955 until the “Fall of Saigon” on April 30, 1975. When the United States of America became involved in the conflict, it was controversial. Social movements in the United States were resentful of the United States’ involvement in a war on the other side of the world. When young men were drafted into the Army and sent to fight in a foreign war, protests were abundant. News of the war was televised, young Americans died and many came back changed forever by the horrors they say. The Vietnam War quickly became the subject of American films during the war and in the decades that followed.

Here are the 20 greatest Vietnam War movies of all time.

Apocalypse Now

“Apocalypse Now” is considered one of the greatest films to capture the horror of the Vietnam War. Directed by Frances Ford Coppola in 1979, the film has been critically acclaimed for its subject and cinematography. It was award nominated and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The impressive cast included Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne and Dennis Hopper. Drawing on the classic novel “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, the movie revises the novel’s nineteenth century Congo topic to twentieth century Vietnam. The movie follows US Army Colonial Kurtz (Brando) who goes insane and commands his army group in neutral Cambodia. Captain Willard (Sheen) is sent into the unit to terminate Kurtz before he causes further destruction. Kurtz’s final words when Willard kills him are telling: “the horror…the horror”.

The Deer Hunter

“The Deer Hunter” won several Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Cimino) and Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken). It also marked Meryl Streep’s first Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actress). The 1978 movie shows three young Russian American steelworkers living normal lives in a 1967 working class Pennsylvania town. The three men Mike (Robert Di Nero), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) are shipped to fight in Vietnam which forever changes their relationships and their lives. While serving in the war the three friends are captured and held in a prison camp by brutal guards. The guards take bets as they force their prisoners to play Russian Roulette. The men are able to escape but Mike is injured. Mike gets Steven to safety and Nick escapes not knowing what the fate of his friends was. Back in the United States in 1975, the three friends are forever changed. Nick has gone insane and ends up killing himself in a game of Russian Roulette.

Platoon

Oliver Stone directed “Platoon” which was released in 1986. This was thee first movie about the Vietnam War directed by a Vietnam War veteran. It is also the first of Stone’s trilogy of movies about the war and its effects on vets. Platoon is loosely based on Stone’s own experience serving in a platoon during the war. The movie introduced the world to Charlie Sheen whose father played an important role in “Apocalypse Now”. The younger Sheen plays army volunteer Chris Taylor who serves in a platoon in southern Vietnam during the Cambodian boarder in 1967. The platoon’s Lieutenant, Wolfe (Mark Moses), is young and inexperienced. The platoon must look to Sergeants Barns (Tom Berenger) and Elias (William Dafoe) for guidance. “Platoon” was the won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Sound Mix Editing. The cinematography and sound helps bring to life the horror and fear of living through war.

Full Metal Jacket

Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 move “Full Metal Jacket” followed a group of US Marines training at boot camp through their Vietnam War journey and tragedy. Matthew Modine played “Joker”, a military journalist who becomes a Sergeant and a war correspondent in south Vietnam. His friends “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard) and “Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio) aren’t as fortunate. The film gave a different view of the war. During the Tet Offensive, the young soldiers are met with a sniper who turns out to be a teenage girl. They must grapple with whether to kill her or not. The film was critically acclaimed and won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

Hearts and Minds

The United States had just pulled out of the Vietnam War when the documentary “Hearts and Minds” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1974. Directed by Peter Davis, the film gets its title from a quote by President Lyndon B. Johnson. “Hearts and Minds” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. The documentary featured interviews with government officials, soldiers, families and refugees. It showed a tragic light on the war and its affects. The film showed many controversial scenes including a soldier’s funeral juxtaposed with an interview with a commanding General.

Born on the Fourth of July

Marking the second of director Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy, “Born on the Fourth of July” was released in 1989. It is the story of Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise who received his first Oscar nomination for the role), who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone. Based on his life, the movie starts by showing Kovic as a young boy in 1956 playing soldier in the woods and viewing the local Fourth of July parade where World War II veterans were treated as heroes. After watching John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, Kovic was moved to enlist in the US Marines. During his second tour of duty in 1967 Kovic witnessed tragedy whey innocent villagers are killed by accident. Upon retreat, Kovic accidentally killed a new Private within his troop. Soon after, Kovic was shot and paralyzed from the chest down. When he returned to the United States he recovered in a rat infested VA hospital and faced war protestors. Coping with his PTSD, Kovic turned his life around and began speaking out about the war. He joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1972, and in 1976 was chosen to speak at the Democratic National Convention.

Good Morning Vietnam

Both a critical and commercial success, 1987’s “Good Morning Vietnam” gave us a different view of the war. The movie was loosely based on the experiences of Armed Forces Radio Service Disc Jockey Adrian Cronauer. Robin Williams played Cronauer in the movie. Cronauer’s rock ‘n roll, comic and irreverent attitude as an Army DJ was a hit with troops stationed in Vietnam during the 1960’s, but Cronauer aggravated and disturbed his superiors. They stopped at little to try to prevent Cronauer from criticizing the War. Despite consistently being reprimanded, Cronauer persisted. He also befriended students in the local village and even taught English. The brilliant Robin Williams improvised many of his radio scenes and won a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for the role.

Heaven and Earth

1993’s “Heaven and Earth” is the final film in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy. The movie is based on the autobiography of Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnam villager during the war. Her experiences were tragic. Le Ly (played by Hiep Thi Le) was a young girl living with her family in a small Vietnam Village. The village was attacked by south Vietnamese troops, Le Ly was captured and tortured. She was later raped by the Viet Cong. Her family was forced out of the village and moved to Saigon where they were employed by a wealthy family. Le Ly was seduced by the Master of the House and became pregnant. The Master’s wife kicks the family out. Later Le Ly met a US Gunney Sergeant with the Marine Corps, Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones). She reluctantly fell in love with Butler who married her and takes her to America. The couple were happy for a while until PTSD took its toll. Butler became increasingly angry and violent. He committed suicide. The movie ends with Le Ly brining her sons to Vietnam to show them where she came from.

Coming Home

“Coming Home” was directed by Hal Ashby and starred Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Bruce Dern. The movie was released in 1978. The story was based on Nancy Dowd, a military wife. Fonda who played Sally Hyde, and Voight who played Luke Martin won Academy Awards. Dern played Sally’s husband, Captain Bob Hyde, and was nominated for the Academy Award. The movie follows Sally Hyde in 1968 California. With her husband away fighting the Vietnam War, Sally volunteers at the local VA hospital. She sees her old high school classmate Luke Martin who is recovering at the hospital and is now a paraplegic. Luke is now opposed to the war and become close. When Sally’s husband returns, he is deeply traumatized by the war, and commits suicide. “Coming Home” was a poignant film about the effects of the war on those who served it and those who supported those who served it.

Rescue Dawn

“Rescue Dawn” was directed by Werner Herzog in 2006. The movie is about a German born US Navy Pilot, Lieutenant Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) who is shot down in 1966 while flying a combat mission during the Vietnam War. He lands in enemy territory and is taken as a prisoner of war. He meets fellow prisoners pilots Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies) and Duane W. Martin (Steven Zahn). The prisoners live in unbearable conditions and learn that the guards are going to kill them. During their escape Dengler and Martin are attacked by angry villagers who kill Martin. Dengler is eventually rescued from the jungle by an American helicopter. Dengler is kept isolated during debriefing. Some of his men visit him and sneak him back to his ship where he can finally be treated like the hero he is.

First Blood

“First Blood” was released in theaters in 1982. Despite mixed reviews the Ted Kotcheff directed Vietnam War movie was a box office success. Several sequels would follow, but none would compare to “First Blood”. Sylvester Stallone co-wrote the screenplay and starred as John Rambo, a troubled Vietnam Veteran. Several years after the war, Rambo visits a friend from the war and finds he has died from cancer caused by Agent Orange. The film deals with Rambo’s post traumatic stress disorder. He gets into trouble with the police in a small town, has flashbacks to his days in Vietnam, and the police try to hunt him down. Rambo is able to use the survival skills he learned in Vietnam to survive but is troubled by the effects the war has had on him.

Hamburger Hill

Hamburger Hill” came out in 1987 when Vietnam War films were at their peak. The biographical movie shows the assault of the US Army’s 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment’s assault on the North Vietnamese Army on Ap Bia Mountain near the Laotian border during the war. The area the battle occurred was referred to by the American military as “Hill 937”. The film starred Steven Weber Dylan McDermott and Don Cheadle. As with most Vietnam War films, “Hamburger Hill” depicts the harshness, horror, loss of life and difficulties the soldiers actually faced in battle.

Bat*21

“Bat*21” was directed by Peter Markle and premiered in 1988. The film is based on a book by William C. Anderson, a retired US Air Force colonel. The movie features the rescue of a US signals intelligence expert who was shot down behind enemy lines in Vietnam. Gene Hackman and Danny Glover starred in the movie. Although the movie and the pinnacle battle were dramatized, the characters are based on actual soldiers.

Forrest Gump

Award winning film “Forrest Gump” touched presented the tragedy of war. The 1994 film was directed by Robert Zemekis and starred Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. The slow witted by loving Gump was drafted into the US Army and sent to Vietnam. He shared his experiences. While under air attack, Gump did the only thing he knew which was to run. He ran into the bombs and saved members of his troop including his Lieutenant (Gary Sinese) who lost his legs. Gump also saved his best friend Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) and held and comforted him as Bubba died.

We Were Soldiers

“We Were Soldiers” is a 2002 movie based on the book “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young”. The film was directed by Randall Wallace and starred Mel Gibson. It dramatized the Battle of Ia Drang which occurred on November 14, 1965. Gibson played US Army Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore who was chosen to train and lead a battalion of 400 men. The US troops were outnumbered by the enemy and a large series of battles ensued. Moore’s group is successful but not without great loss of human life and tragedy. The last scene in “We Were Soldiers” shows Moore visiting the United States Vietnamese War Memorial and reading the names of the soldiers who died in the Battle of Ia Drang.

Uncommon Valor

Ted Kotcheff directed and Gene Hackman starred in 1983’s Vietnam War action film “Uncommon Valor” in 1983. The film also starred Robert Stack, Reb Brown, Fred Ward and a very young Patrick Swayze. Hackman played Colonel Jason Rhodes, a former US Marine officer who believes his son, who was listed as Missing in Action in 1972, is still alive and being held as a prisoner of war in Laos. The US Government will not help Rhodes, so a wealthy friend of his offers support and Hackman gathers a team to help him find his son. After some battles the team is able to rescue prisoners of war in Laos. Rhodes learns that his son died of illness shortly after capture but is satisfied that he now has closure.

Casualties of War

1989’s “Casualties of War” was directed by Brian De Palma and based on the actual battle on “Hill 192” in 1966 during the Vietnam War. Michael J. Fox played Private First Class Max Eriksson and Sean Penn played Sergeant Tony Meserve. The film is presented in Eriksson’s flashbacks. Not only does he recall the terrible battle but also witnessing the rape of a Vietnamese girl. “Casualties of War” depicts the tragedies that occurred during the Vietnam War and the scars that the survivors have to live with.

The Boys in Company C

“The Boys From Company C” is a 1978 movie about US Marine Corps recruits preparing to fight in the Vietnam War. This was one of the first films to appear after the Vietnam War era. Sidney J. Furie directed the film and would continue with two sequels, 2001’s “Under Heavy Fire” and 2006’s “The Veteran”. The movie follows five young men’s experience in 1967 in boot camp training and their subsequent tour of duty in Vietnam through 1968. They experience difficult combat, incompetence of their superiors and the corrupt South Vietnamese ally.

Tigerland

Joel Schumacher directed and Colin Farrell starred in the 2000 war drama “Tigerland”. The US Army training camp in Fort Polk, Louisiana during the mid 1960’s and early 1970’s was nicknamed “Tigerland”. This was the last stop for infantrymen before leaving for Vietnam. The film takes place in the fall of 1971. With the US failing in Vietnam, the environment is tense. Farrell plays Roland Bozz, a draftee opposed to the war and angry with his superiors. Matthew Davis plays Jim Paxton, a volunteer and aspiring writer. The movie looks at the differences in the soldiers’ opinions and motives. In the end Bozz is sent to Vietnam while Paxton can’t go because of an eye injury. Paxton later hears the rumor that Bozz somehow went AWOL and was living happily in Mexico.

The Veteran

The third film in Sidney J. Furie’s Vietnam War trilogy is “The Veteran”. It actually was a made for TV movie that debuted in 2006. The movie starred Ally Sheedy, Michael Ironside, Casper Van Dien, Bobby Hosea, Colin Glazer, Jim Codrington, Donald Burda and Colin Glazer. The movie takes place three decades after the “Fall of Saigon”. Veteran Ray Watson is now a US State Senator. He returns to Vietnam and is greeted by a fellow veteran that he’d served with but doesn’t remember. Meanwhile, US government agents are secretly listening to the conversation between the veterans in an attempt to locate a missing soldier.

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