- Vietnam War movies are unflinching examinations of the horrors of war, offering a perspective on the dark chapter in American military history.
- These films showcase the cultural exchanges and anti-war sentiments that arose during the Vietnam War, leaving a lasting impact on American society.
- From epic battle scenes to profound character development, these movies explore the morality of war, military brainwashing, survivor’s guilt, and the racial ramifications of wartime programming.
If the greatest war movies about the Vietnam War have anything in common, it is that they are all unflinching examinations of the horrors of war. In many ways, film is the perfect medium for tackling the incredibly complex topic of armed conflicts throughout history. This is especially true for major events like the Vietnam War, one of the darkest chapters in American military and foreign relations history.
A popular subject among the best war movies of all time, the Vietnam War is a proxy war of the larger Cold War, the global, ideological, and sociopolitical divide between capitalist and communist superpowers in the 20th century. Lasting from 1955 to 1975, the Vietnam War massively influenced the radical cultural changes that spanned these decades in the U.S., notably giving rise to domestic anti-war movements and sentiments. From the transatlantic cultural exchanges enabled by the war, to the unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S. on foreign soil – and hid from the public – the greatest films about the Vietnam War are typically unsuitable for the faint of heart.
10 Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is among the best Vietnam War movies for several reasons. For starters, Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness, which makes a crucial comparison between the actions of the U.S. in Vietnam and 19th-century European colonialism in Africa. Meanwhile, the government assassin Captain Willard and his target Colonel Kurtz, the renegade Special Forces officer-turned-cult-leader, are easily two of the greatest war movie characters of all time. Lastly, apart from its epic battle scenes, how Apocalypse Now shows the decadent culture of the U.S. Army puts the Vietnam War in perspective in ways that few other war films can.
Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is most famous for the cruel tutelage of Sergeant Hartman, particularly from the perspectives of privates Joker and Pyle. It is a jarring transition between these first scenes and the movie’s latter half, which focuses on Joker’s time in major Vietnamese cities during the Tet Offensive. However, the somewhat episodic nature of Full Metal Jacket only gives the movie more authenticity. From Joker’s ruminations about the morality of war to Marines singing the Mickey Mouse March after having just massacred their enemies, Full Metal Jacket is a bizarre but straightforward condemnation of military brainwashing and savagery.
8 Rescue Dawn (2006)
The harrowing true story of Vietnam War veteran and U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler was first told in Werner Herzog’s documentary film Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Rescue Dawn is the dramatized version of this war story. Played by Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn, Dengler is less than an hour into his flight and confidential mission when he is shot down in enemy territory. Along with several others, Dengler is taken prisoner by the Lao People’s Liberation Army, during which they are subjected to torture and malnutrition. Between Christian Bale’s method acting and Werner Herzog’s restraint, Rescue Dawn does justice to Dengler’s real tale of survival against all odds.
7 The Deer Hunter (1978)
Featuring some of the best performances by Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter is an over three-hour epic war drama. From the domestic lives of American soldiers and their experiences during the war to their struggles to live normal lives at home after living through hell, few war movies have so completely encapsulated how Americans felt about the Vietnam War than The Deer Hunter. Apart from its explicit depictions of violence, The Deer Hunter‘s overarching plot is an emotionally jarring experience that unflinchingly deals with love, loss, survivor’s guilt, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
6 Da 5 Bloods (2020)
Most of Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods happens in modern times, but it deals with the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Showing a side of the war that’s very rarely tackled, Da 5 Bloods is about a group of Black Vietnam War veterans, who lost the location of their hidden stash of gold after a napalm strike – along with their squad leader. Decades later, the surviving four members return to Vietnam after finding clues about not just the gold, but the body of their fallen squad leader as well. Wrapped in an exciting and deadly treasure hunt, this movie examines PTSD and the racial ramifications of wartime programming.
5 Born On The Fourth of July (1989)
In the role that earned the actor his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor, Tom Cruise plays Vietnam War veteran-turned-anti-war activist Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. Based on Kovic’s autobiography of the same name, Born of the Fourth of July confronts head on how U.S. soldiers massacred defenseless Vietnamese civilians in their zeal to defeat the Viet Cong. The movie also details how Kovic becomes disillusioned with dedicating his life to military service. A reflection of how many Americans at home felt duped after learning more about Vietnam, Kovic later finds new purpose as he processes and publicizes his memories of the war.
4 Birdy (1984)
Remembered for Nicolas Cage’s method acting and for winning the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, Birdy is about two best friends with very different personalities who end up fighting in the Vietnam War. While Al is just a regular guy, Birdy has been obsessed with birds since they were kids. After the war, they reunite in a medical facility where Al is being treated for head injuries, while Birdy suffers from severe mental trauma as the sole survivor of a helicopter crash. Combined with horrific flashbacks of the Vietnam War, Al and Birdy’s friendship poignantly tackles PTSD and the sordid post-war lives of American veterans.
3 Platoon (1986)
Based on director Oliver Stone’s own experiences fighting in the Vietnam War, Platoon is an extremely dark tale told with utmost retraint and reverence. Hailed as one of the greatest anti-war movies of all time, Platoon is about Chris Taylor, a soldier who is freshly deployed to Vietnam. From Taylor seeing covered corpses being wheeled off upon arriving at a Vietnamese airport, to how he witnesses and sometimes prevents war crimes committed by the men in his platoon, the movie is a stark expose of the war’s real toll on both American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. At its core, Platoon is about courage in the face of war’s inherent inhumanity.
2 Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
The most surreal of the best Vietnam War movies, Jacob’s Ladder is a psychological horror that combines sci-fi and fantasy elements. The movie begins and ends with the experiences of soldier Jacob Singer at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. In between, Jacob’s Ladder dives deep into Jacob’s troubled psyche. Jacob’s Ladder is a terrifying meditation on death, underscored by social commentary pointed at the military industrial complex. The nightmarish visions in Jacob’s Ladder have gone on to inspire subsequent horror movies and even video games. Meanwhile, its analysis of the effects of the Vietnam War remains a timeless message tucked inside one of the most nightmare-inducing war movies in history.
1 Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan (2019)
Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan is about how a little over 100 Australian soldiers held their position against thousands of Vietnamese soldiers at the titular rubber plantation. While the film has been criticized for not concerning itself with the greater geopolitics of the Vietnam War, Danger Close also has some of the most historically accurate tactical war scenes ever filmed. Moreover, by detailing a pivotal battle for both the Viet Cong and the 1st Australian Task Force, Danger Close reveals the untold stories of Australian and New Zealander soldiers in the Vietnam War.