“The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” – Martin Luther King
Often laced with deep moral interrogation and cultural iconography of the 1960s, films that depicted the horrors of the Vietnam War were highly popular throughout the 1980s, casting an analytical eye on America’s brutal invasion of the country.
One of the most influential filmmakers in this sub-genre was Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran who came to prominence with films such as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Speaking in an interview with the Washington Post, Stone explained his stance on the Vietnam war as well as the current state of US politics, “We went to war on a false basis, it was a lie…that war was a disaster, it resulted in many changes but not enough changes”.
Adding: “Unfortunately, the same forces that made that war happen continued in our life, they controlled us and pushed us into another war, and another war.”
Elaborating on his stance on the ‘faceless’ Vietnam enemy, Stone noted, “We propagandise an enemy, make them far bigger than he is, and I don’t know what we’re fighting… We’re in this loss of purpose, this anarchy, which came about and started in 1963 on that day”.
Two of Oliver Stone’s classic reimaginings of the Vietnam war are included on our list of the ten very best Vietnam war films ever made. Take a look at our full list below.
The 10 best Vietnam war films:
10. Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989)
Personally recommended by master filmmaker Martin Scorsese, Born on the Fourth of July is the second instalment of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam war trilogy, following 1986s Platoon and preceding 1993s Heaven & Earth.
Stone’s film reconstructs the biography of Ron Kovic, a man paralysed in the Vietnam war who became a vocal anti-war political activist following his time abroad. A captivating tale, perfectly captured by lead actor Tom Cruise, the casting of the Hollywood icon remains an inspired choice.
Speaking to the LA Times about the inclusion of the actor, Oliver Stone stated, “I saw this kid who has everything,” he stated. “And I wondered what would happen if tragedy strikes, if fortune denies him … I thought it was an interesting proposition: ‘What would happen to Tom Cruise if something goes wrong?'”.
9. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)
An unforgettable account of the indoctrination and insanity in the military, Full Metal Jacket is divided into two distinct parts: the psychologically demanding incubation period of the boot camp and the viscerally unsettling Vietnam War. R. Lee Ermey’s performance as the brutal drill sergeant will go down in history as one of the all-time greats.
In Stanley Kubrick’s immense filmography Full Metal Jacket ranks toward the bottom, but this is merely an ode to just how fantastic the director truly is. Speaking to The Washington Post in 1987 Kubrick stated, “I certainly don’t think the film is anti-American…I think it tries to give a sense of the war and the people, and how it affected them. I think with any work of art, if I can call it that, that stays around the truth and is effective, it’s very hard to write a nice capsule explanation of what it’s about”.
8. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)
Based on the true story of a German-American pilot, played in Herzog’s film by Christian Bale, who was shot down and captured during the Vietnam War, Rescue Dawn is a film about the complexity of the human condition. It focuses on Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape his hellish captivity, against all odds.
It’s a compelling, gritty tale that ranks among Werner Herzog’s finest films and picks apart the fractured mentality of the American soldiers. As Christian Bale recalled, “With us, Werner included, doing things that everyone was looking at saying, ‘But guys, you’re going to die! What are you doing? You’re going to really catch a wild snake and maybe get bitten by it!’ Those are great times. These crazy helicopter pilots in Thailand taking off the tops of trees as we were flying so low over the jungle; those times were great for me. I just enjoy them monumentally”.
7. When the Tenth Month Comes (Dang Nhat Minh, 1984)
When it comes to recalling the horrors of war, taking several perspectives into account is crucial in order to build up an accurate, compelling tale. Simply consider Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall or Bernhard Wicki’s The Bridge, two essential films that help piece together the whole story of WWII.
War films from the perspective of the Vietnamese however are rarely publicised, with Dang Nhat Minh’s When the Tenth Month Comes being perhaps the most crucial film of the alternate perspective along with Hai Ninh’s The Little Girl of Hanoi. Largely devoid of any actual combat, When the Tenth Month Comes adopts the perspective of a young Vietnamese woman who struggles to take care of her son and father-in-law following news of her husband’s death at war.
Quiet and poet, this is a stunning melodrama that focuses more on the quiet tragedy of personal loss than the violence of war itself, analysing the impact conflict had on the Vietnamese people left behind.
6. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
One of cinema’s most iconic Vietnam war films, The Deer Hunter stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep and takes an in-depth examination of the ways in which the Vietnam war disrupted the lives of many in a small town in Pennsylvania.
Cimino’s film represented one of the very first Hollywood attempts to create a serious drama about the deep-rooted impact of the Vietnam war on American veterans. Prominently anti-war in its stance, The Deer Hunter would take home Best Picture and Best Director at the 1979 Academy Awards, but will forever be remembered for its iconic and deeply disturbing Russian roulette scene.
5. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)
A startling piece on anti-war documentary filmmaking, Peter Davis’ Hearts and Minds is an unflinching, balanced account of America’s time in Vietnam.
Released at the very height of the war itself, mere months before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Davis’ film is an anguished plea for his country to withdraw from the morally unjust war. Using shocking archival footage of the war itself, as well as the family homes decimated by American troops and the Vietnamese people forced to flee, Davis didn’t have to tamper with the footage much at all to create a provocative piece of cinema.
4. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog, 1997)
The lesser-known Vietnam war documentary from the filmmaker Werner Herzog, Little Dieter Needs to Fly follows the German-American Dieter Dengler discussing his time as a naval pilot in the Vietnam war. Revisiting the sites of his capture and eventual escape, the documentary is a surreal and captivating piece of filmmaking.
The extraordinary tale details the pilot’s brutal torture over the period of six months until he miraculously escaped and was rescued by an American Air Force pilot after spending almost a month lost in the jungle. Harrowing, yet poetic, with thanks to Herzog’s flourishing touch, Little Dieter Needs to Fly features many of the hallmarks of the director’s style, often interrupting the story with a dreamlike observation. Later remade by the director in Rescue Dawn, the original documentary is far superior.
3. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003)
Widely recognised as one of the finest documentaries ever made, Errol Morris’ portrait of US Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara and his involvement in the Vietnam war is truly fascinating, giving unprecedented access into the boardroom decisions that created a national uproar.
Reflecting on his part in the continuation of the war, McNamara admits mistakes though never directly apologises for any wrongdoings, noting in the documentary, “In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathise, and there was a total misunderstanding as a result”.
Threading together, talking heads interviews, striking archival footage and a rousing score from master composer Phillip Glass, Errol Morris creates one of the most important filmic documents ever to cover the Vietnam war.
2. Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)
Oliver Stone’s 1986 war film attempts to depict the horrors of the Vietnam War through the art of cinematic violence, transforming the experience into a bloody spectacle. Willem Dafoe plays the role of Sgt. Elias, an idealistic soldier caught in the middle of a historical event that can only push one deeper into the caverns of pessimism.
A favourite of the classic director Stanley Kubrick who noted, “I liked both Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter – but I liked Platoon more” in an interview with Jay Scott from Toronto’s Globe & Mail, Oliver Stone’s war drama is by far the best of his Vietnam trilogy. Based closely on his own experiences as a soldier, Stone wished to portray the brutality of the American soldiers with the idea of the film emerging from the directors own dislike of the patriotic The Green Berets created by John Wayne.
Painstakingly accurate, Platoon is often cited as one of the most visceral Vietnam war films ever, inspired by the first-hand account of Oliver Stone.
1. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
The best film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s 1979 exploration of the Vietnam War is a complete cinematic experience. We follow the psychological and spiritual journey of Captain Benjamin L. Willard (played by Martin Sheen) who sets out to find the enigmatic Kurtz (Marlon Brando).
Emotional and viscerally stirring, Francis Ford Coppola’s film is nothing short of a masterpiece, capturing the grandeur of war, along with its severe psychological impact on those fighting on the ground. Iconic for its ‘flight of the valkyries’ sequence, along with the enigmatic performance of Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now stands as a cultural landmark of spectacular war cinema.
“What is considered avant-garde in one moment, 20 years later is used for wallpaper and becomes part of the culture. It seemed that’s what had happened with [Apocalypse Now],” Coppola said. “When I was making this, I didn’t carry a script around. I carried a green Penguin paperback copy of Heart of Darkness with all my underlining in it. I made the movie from that”.