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Best Vietnam War Movies

by Chhem Kravann
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The Vietnam War was a disaster where a whole generation of young men were killed, crippled, driven to drug use, or suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Accordingly, most Vietnam War movies are intense, often violent, and full of madmen doing mad things.

Some of Hollywood’s most exceptional filmmakers and stars have brilliantly been a part of these intense films, with revered directors like Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick bringing the terrible conflict to life in remarkable fashion.

Updated December 3rd, 2022: If you’re a fan of engrossing and honest Vietnam War films, you’ll be happy to know we’ve added additional content to this list.

These films often take a critical look at the war, as opposed to World War II movies which tend to show the valiant efforts and highlight ‘American exceptionalism.’ Here are some of the best films that capture the horrors and brutalities of the Vietnam War.

We Were Soldiers

Chronicling the Battle of la Drang, the first major fight between the United States Army and People’s Army of Vietnam that occurred on November 14, 1965, 2002’s We Were Soldiers depicts the brave and heroic men on both sides of the battlefield who valiantly fought on conflicting sides during the first phase of the nearly twenty year conflict. Mel Gibson stars as Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, the commander who was chosen to train and lead a battalion of 400 men into North Vietnamese territory in la Drang Valley. The gripping drama shines a light on the unwavering unity and loyalty among the soldiers as well as the struggles and sacrifices by the wives left behind, and is based on Moore’s novel he wrote with war journalist Joseph L. Galloway.

We Were Soldiers earned rave reviews for its brutally honest representation of the Vietnam War, with critics praising its realistic and incredibly honest battle scenes and refreshing portrayal of the opposing forces. Moore himself expressed that the Randall Wallace flick was the first Hollywood film “to get the war right”, with the vet having previously been critical of Vietnam War films due to their portrayals of the serviceman. The duo of Gibson and Wallace (who’d had so much success with Braveheart) created yet another moving, painful portrait of war.

Coming Home

Coming Home is one of the most honest and sensitive films ever made about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This is the study of three tragic destinies — a conservative military wife (played by Jane Fonda), her Marine husband (Bruce Dern), and a paraplegic Vietnam War veteran (Jon Voight) with whom she fell in love while doing volunteer work at veterans’ hospital.

In 1978, two vastly different Vietnam War films competed for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Michael Cimino’s intense film The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby’s quiet drama Coming HomeThe Deer Hunter won Best Picture, but Coming Home‘s Fonda and Voight won Best Actress and Best Actor. Fonda and Voight gave it their all in this realistic portrayal of the emotional effects of war.

Born on the Fourth of July

Film director and U.S. Army veteran Oliver Stone was deployed to Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. He was twice wounded in action and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for valor. Stone’s wartime experiences would shape his Vietnam trilogy: Platoon (1986), which won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture; Born on the Fourth of July (1989), which resulted in Stone’s second Best Director Oscar; and Heaven & Earth (1993).

Born on the Fourth of July is a heart-wrenching biographical anti-war drama that stars Tom Cruise in a leading role and depicts the life of Ron Kovic, an American anti-war activist who was wounded and paralyzed in the Vietnam War. We first meet Kovic as an idealistic young man who decides he wants to fight for his country. But the barbarities of war left him with PTSD and alcoholism and made him see the Vietnam War for what it was.

Good Morning, Vietnam

At first glance, Good Morning, Vietnam seems to be a comic character study of Robin Williams’ character, Adrian Cronauer, who is a Howard Stern-type radio DJ that all the troops like, but who is disliked by his superiors. Censorship is a major issue here, as he is prevented from reading certain news stories, all of which must be pre-approved by censors. Everything he does angers his direct superiors in new ways, and he constantly finds ways to subvert their commands.

He is caught between his duty, which is to boost the morale of the soldiers, and his loyalty, which is to telling the truth and letting the soldiers get uncensored news. Abuse of power is another issue here, with Adrian butting heads daily with the tyrants who command him. Soon, Adrian learns the reality of the danger of his situation and the war, and it’s no longer a laughing matter for him. Nixon and his lies are a frequent target of criticism in this film, which alternates between comedy and tragedy.

Psychopathic individuals take advantage of any situation, and wartime is hardly an exception. Michael J. Fox’s character Max objects when Sean Penn’s Sergeant Tony Meserve kidnaps a young innocent Vietnamese girl in Casualties of War, so that the platoon can gang rape her and beat her for fun. Max informs authorities who are less than interested in what Penn describes as an interrogation of a Viet Cong suspect, which we know is not true. They never interrogate her-in fact she is kept gagged most of the time.

The situation is complicated because Tony saves Max’s life. Fox does the best he can to save the captive, and he ends up a target himself. John Leguizamo gives a great performance as someone who at first objects to the idea of the gang rape, but participates in it anyway due to peer pressure and the fear of antagonizing his superiors, who control his life and ability to survive. Max is all alone in trying to get justice for the victim. This film is based on a true story and is one of the most serious and intense works from the great Brian De Palma. Sean Penn is dynamic as the evil Meserve, and Don Harvey stands out as the most bloodthirsty angry soldier in Casualties of War.

Hamburger Hill

Hamburger Hill is a brutally violent film about a platoon of soldiers who must continually mount a hill in the forests of Vietnam. The enemy is on the other side, and everyday soldiers battle and kill and try to make it further to the top of the Hill where North Vietnamese Soldiers await. They do this day after day, but make little progress. They are forced to retreat and start over, kind of like in The Myth of Sisyphus, as described by Albert Camus, where the titular king of Corinth is doomed to roll a stone up a hill, over and over, for eternity. It is an absurd task, just as is the task of mounting the hill.

While the fight scenes are spectacular, it is the quieter scenes of the men talking that really make this an exceptional film. The soldiers argue and debate about the realities of racism and systemic racism, about how soldiers were then treated in America, about their disgust with the media, and talking about the things they miss most: mainly cold beer and hot girls, along with a great big feast of delicious foods, all things they have left behind in order to fight the war. They also discuss the difficulty of re-integrating into society. A young Dylan McDermott makes a strong debut in this film, and Steven Weber, Don Cheadle, and Courtney B. Vance also perform top-notch supporting roles.


Most films about the Vietnam War deal with the ambiguities of defining what is good and what is evil. In Oliver Stone’s Platoon, we have a clear example of a good vs. evil conflict, as Sergeants played by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger battle it out with Charlie Sheen’s rookie character Chris Taylor, a volunteer in the middle. Sgt. Barnes (Berenger) is the evil one, trying to hunt down and kill a fellow American soldier Sgt. Elias, played by Dafoe, after Elias witnesses Barnes killing an innocent woman and committing war crimes.

The story traces a new rookie soldier as he trains and goes into battle, watching death and violence all around him. We get to see what the day-to-day life of a soldier is like, and it is an intense and paranoid experience. As in Casualties of War, the film is about how psychopathic individuals will manipulate an already ugly situation into a reason to rape, kill, or otherwise harm innocent people including women, children, and the elderly. The infamous pot-smoking scene is great, and shows a lighter side to the soldiers’ lives, even as death permeates their fun times. Sheen is great as a rookie who gradually toughens up to become a soldier.

Full Metal Jacket

Like nearly every Stanley Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket is a masterpiece, a story told by a true visionary. The movie is split into two different parts  the first half of the film is about a ruthless, over-the-top, verbally abusive drill instructor (R. Lee Ermey, who was an actual drill instructor) who trains men preparing to be deployed as Marines in the Vietnam War. Told from the point of view of Joker, played by Matthew Modine, the film deals with the very extreme conflict between the drill sergeant and one of the men, nicknamed Gomer Pyle, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who seems to get everything wrong; the consequences are violent and tragic, and the final showdown between the two characters is incredibly eerie.

In the second half of the film, the men are in Vietnam, fighting the war. A sniper shoots one of their men, and when others go to help him they find that it’s a trap and must make a difficult moral decision. The acting is incredible, with R. Lee Ermey and Vincent D’Onofrio really standing out. Vincent D’Onofrio (who now plays Kingpin) is spectacular as the mentally disturbed recruit. He transforms into a killer soldier, armed and dangerous. Kubrick provides his usual stunning visuals, and every shot of the film is a work of art.

The Deer Hunter

The Deer Hunter is one intense and devastating film with absolutely perfect performances by the main characters. The first hour of the film takes place in the US, where three men, played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage, are getting ready to go fight in Vietnam. What happens to them is an epic tragedy. The men are captured by the brutal North Vietnamese army and made into prisoners of war who live in squalid and disgusting pits where they are tortured. The soldiers are forced to play Russian Roulette with each other in an unforgettable scene that has spawned many imitations.

Eventually, the men escape and go their separate ways, with Christopher Walken’s character Nicky staying behind in Vietnam, addicted to both heroin and the nihilistic thrill of playing professional Russian Roulette for money. Like other great Vietnam War films, this one portrays the army and the war as inherently mad, with Russian Roulette representing the random and absurd nature of death in a war. The Deer Hunter’s portrayal of the violence and chaos of the war is intense and scary, and the characters succumb to PTSD and heroin addiction, unable to readjust into society.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now features some of the most iconic scenes not just in the history of war films, but in the overall history of films. There are so many great moments, great lines, and great battle scenes. This is Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, and is an adaption of the Joseph Conrad book Heart of Darkness, about a man on a mission to take out the insane Col. Kurtz. Coppola took the story and applied it to the Vietnam War. Here, Marlon Brando plays the insane Col. Kurtz, a fanatic leader with his own insane army located in the forbidden zone of Cambodia. The military assigns Martin Sheen’s Army Captain Benjamin Willard, to kill him.

This epic film is filled with endlessly memorable scenes, and features stand-out performances by Robert Duvall, Lawrence Fishburne, and especially Dennis Hopper, a follower of Kurtz; it even has a very young Harrison Ford. The final cut, Apocalypse Now Redux has an extra hour or two of footage deleted from Apocalypse Now.

Source: Movieweb

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