Although the Vietnam war was bloody and gruesome, it undeniably birthed some fantastic war films that followed. As a result, the 80s in particular produced some fantastic Vietnam movies which shocked and entertained viewers alike. In brief, these films showed a new side to war and one which was less glamorized compared to films that previously depicted wars. Vietnam was different, as it often highlighted the mental trauma of war, besides action, violence and bloodshed. So, here’s my pick of the top 6 Vietnam war movies you need to watch:
1. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
It’s fair to say that Full Metal Jacket could have been director Stanley Kubrick’s best ever film. Like many on this list, it truly showed the horrors of war and was also filmed with the typical ambiance that filmgoers have come to expect when watching a Kubrick movie.
This film is filled with dark moments with the likes of Private Pyle during the first half of the film who slowly descended into madness in the army barracks. The second half doesn’t give up either, with a harrowing child-sniper scene that puts viewers on the edge of their seats. Not only was this movie beautifully shot, it was also quite realistic. The infamous drill sergeant was played by R. Lee Ermey which launched his career. Before his acting role, he was actually on the movie set to give advice, being a former drill sergeant in real life. Kubrick was so impressed with his realism that he eventually cast Ermey as the main sergeant which eventually birthed his acting career.
A combination of social commentary, technical filmography, and a gripping plot helped turn Full Metal Jacket into a classic war movie.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Although Marlon Brando was an established actor by the late 70s, Apocalypse Now helped elevate his career to new highs as he played Colonel Kurtz. Sporting a skinhead and looking menacing, Kurtz was a U.S. soldier gone rogue who became the leader of a jungle tribe.
Technically, this movie was set in Cambodia, but many still class it as a Vietnam film. Like Full Metal Jacket, it also touches on the psychological side of warfare and shows the chaotic, depraved nature of killing. What also helped this film was its time of release.
It was released in 1979 which was just 4 years after the Vietnam war had ended. At this point, memories of war were still fresh in the minds of the U.S. public, which made this movie even more unnerving. Arguably, the tense and edgy nature of the film went on to influence other Vietnam flicks such as Full Metal Jacket as it opened doors to showing stories that were as much psychological as based on warfare.
3. Platoon (1986)
Whilst Platoon wasn’t based on the human psyche as much as other Vietnam movies, it is still iconic in its own way. In fact, many viewers have branded this as the most realistic Vietnam movie ever and there may be a logical reason why this is. In short, the director Oliver Stone had served in the U.S. military in the late 60s in Vietnam.
During this time, he was wounded twice and saw his share of action. Unsurprisingly then, this served as the basis for his storylines in the Vietnam epic, Platoon. It seemed to translate commercially too, with the film grossing over $138 million at box office, despite its $6 million budget.
Interestingly, Platoon was also filled with an all-star cast including Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp, and Forest Whitaker. Despite the big names, the movie flowed excellently without the cast threatening to overshadow the plot. If you’re after action and want a realistic look at what the Vietnam war was like (including the uglier bits), Platoon is a fantastic pick.
4. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Simply put, The Deer Hunter is yet another Vietnam epic. At over 3 hours long, it’s not exactly short either but thankfully the pacing is perfect and it ticks over nicely. The first part of the film features a young Robert De Niro who goes deer hunting with his friends from a backwater town in the U.S. These young men are excited to go off to war but once arriving in Vietnam, they realize the harsh, brutal realities of warfare.
This movie also spawned the iconic scene in which De Niro literally plays Russian Roulette with a revolver whilst being held captive by the Viet Cong. Overall, The Deer Hunter mixes a nice blend behind the mental side of war with enough action to keep you engaged throughout. It also looks at life at home for the soldier’s loved ones which are often neglected or glamorized in other war films. Thankfully, like many of the Vietnam classics, The Deer Hunter doesn’t hold back and is as tragic as it is epic.
5. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Perhaps the most psychologically challenging Vietnam war film ever released was Jacob’s Ladder. Released in 1990, this starred Tim Robbins as the main character who played the role perfectly throughout. Interestingly, Jacob’s Ladder actually features very little footage of the Vietnamese jungle and is instead based on life in U.S. soil after the war had ended. Here, Robbins played a man who was mentally crippled from the war and was struggling to cope.
The plot of the movie involves Robbins wondering whether he’s dead or alive and whether he’s mentally ill or whether he was part of an LSD military experiment. With haunting visuals and themes, this film has a cult classic status and is probably one of the lesser-known war films out there.
Sadly, it wasn’t truly appreciated at its time of release and grossed $26 million from a $25 million budget. More importantly, though, it serves as a stark metaphor for mental health and PTSD which is common with soldiers after war. Be warned, it’s not exactly a fun film but is certainly thought-provoking and is very unique.
6. Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
The 1987 movie Good Morning Vietnam arguably serves one of Robin Williams’ finest roles. Here, he plays DJ Adrian Cronauer whose job is to lift the spirits of the U.S. troops over in Vietnam. Over time, Cronauer became incredibly popular with the U.S. soldiers due to his tongue-in-cheek and ironic humor. However, this is much to the displeasure of high-ranking officials who see him as a negative influence.
Overall, this film serves as an important insight into how wars function. Whilst the soldiers are seen as cannon fodder who must be controlled, the higher-ups use their status to control the narrative and don’t care about the deaths or personal tragedies. Aside from the deeper meaning, Good Morning Vietnam is probably the only Vietnam-comedy movie that is an achievement in itself. Unlike many on this list, it doesn’t take itself too seriously either yet still delivers an important message.
There you go! These are some of the best Vietnam war movies that are essential viewing. Which of these have you ticked off your list?