5 Movies About the Vietnam War Worth Seeing

by Editors


5 Movies about the Vietnam War worth seeing

By G. Arnold

With the arrival of Veterans Day, here are a few movies about the Vietnam War that are worth a look—or even a second or third look. This is not a list of “best” pictures. Instead, these five films are selected to offer a range of perspectives from different eras. No doubt, your list would be different. Let’s hear what you would add.

  • Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s epic from 1979 was controversial when it first appeared in American movie theaters. The decision to combine a Vietnam War story with elements of the novella Heart of Darkness perplexed people. They were expecting a more literal exploration of the war from the popular director whose film The Godfather had catapulted him to public attention. Over time, however, audiences have been won over. Coppola’s movie still doesn’t answer many questions about the war, but it’s a bold statement about the madness and chaos that the war can bring. Apocalypse Now features stunning cinematography and production design and a strong performance from Martin Sheen in the lead role. Skip the Redux version and see the original cut.
  • Platoon. In the 1980s, America’s taste in Vietnam War movies gravitated towards the likes of NARA unrestricted imageRambo and Missing in Action. Director Oliver Stone, a Vietnam veteran himself, was unhappy with what such movies said about the divisive conflict that had ensnared his generation, and so he set out to make a very different kind of film about the war. Combining a morality play about good and evil with battle sequences that many Vietnam vets found very realistic, he created a movie that elicited a deeply emotional reaction. In an interesting casting decision, Charlie Sheen, whose father Martin starred in Apocalypse Now, appears in the lead role. The film also features superb performances from Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger. Platoon won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1986.
  • The Deer Hunter. This 1978 movie was one of the first moves about the war to appear after it had finally come to an end. Focusing on a group of Vietnam veterans, it reinforced for the nation just how traumatic and scarring that war had been. The film is set after the war, but for this group of men, the war hasn’t really ended. The flashbacks, including tense scenes in which captive Americans are forced to play Russian roulette, are notable. Featuring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
  • The Anderson Platoon. This 1967 documentary from director Pierre Schoendoerffer was released at the height of the war. Originally made for French television, it does little more than tag along with an American unit for several weeks. In doing so, however, it offers a sobering portrait. Not really expressing a view in favor or against the war, The Anderson Platoon shows the bitter reality of a war apart from its politics. Original title: La Section Anderson. [This one is a bit hard to find.]
  • Rescue Dawn. The main character in this recent movie is a pilot shot down over Laos, Vietnam’s neighbor, but as we know, the Vietnam War spilled over national borders. Director Werner Herzog offers a complex movie, in which the characters come to center stage. The New York Times called this picture “a marvel: a satisfying genre picture that challenges the viewer’s expectations.”

More than thirty years after the end of the war, Hollywood still returns to the Vietnam War theme. Oliver Stone is working on Pinkville, a film about the investigation into My Lai Massacre [Business Week reports that the current writers strike has delayed work in this project]. In addition, Sylvester Stallone is resurrecting his iconic Vietnam vet hero in a new Rambo movie, set for a January 2008 release.

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UPDATE!Here are five more…

  • Full Metal Jacket — features a great performance from Vincent D’Onofrio.

  • Fog of War – an enlightening and controversial documentary with Vietnam War-era Secretary of State Robert McNamara.
  • Rambo: First Blood, Part II not exactly a favorite of critics, it’s worth seeing this Sylvester Stallone vehicle if only to see for yourself what it was that captured America’s attention in the mid-1980s.
  • The Green BeretsHollywood star John Wayne made this picture at the height of the war in order to shore up public attitudes in favor of American participation; this one is also worth seeing for its role as a historical artifact.
  • We Were Soliders — based on the true story of America’s so-called first battle in Vietnam; starring Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, and Greg Kinnear.


G. Arnold is co-editor of Bread and Circus and the author of The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam, [pictured right, McFarland & Company Publishers, 2006] and the forthcoming Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics [Praeger 2008].

Photograph [above]: Department of Defense photograph, 1967. Courtesy National Archives & Records Administration.