Escape the Covid lockdown with a Vietnam War film binge, courtesy Kubrick, Cimino, Coppola, Stone and others
So, you’re still stuck in Covid lockdown, and you’ve watched everything on Netflix – but you’re in the mood for some good war movies.
Something that will go well with an easy treat, like pizza, chicken wings or maybe a giant plate of nachos and cheese ordered from your local takeout establishment.
Well, look no further than the Vietnam War. Yes, the war that still fascinates and captivates us, and one that has been revisited by several great film directors, each having their take on one of the most complicated wars in modern history.
So, without further ado, Asia Times’ top ten Vietnam War flicks … and don’t forget the Tabasco sauce for the pizza.
- The Deer Hunter
Yes, only half of the film actually takes place in fictional Vietnam, but Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter remains one of the most touching takes on the gritty violence and senselessness of the Southeast Asian conflict, and how it affected ordinary Americans back home. The ethnic wedding scene is probably the highlight of the entire film, and following it we are quickly whisked to the heart of ultimate darkness – a vicious game of survival at the hands of Viet Cong, as they force terrified captives in a deadly game of Russian roulette. Actor Robert De Niro later claimed he was nearly killed in the helicopter drop scene, recalling it as a “hairy” experience. Look for amazing performances from De Niro, Chris Walken, John Cazale and Meryl Streep, in a film that holds up well to this day.
2. Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning Vietnam epic remains one of the most fascinating looks at the war in Vietnam through the lens of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The making of the film, which was shot in the Philippines, was almost a war in itself, with the project going wildly over budget, a typhoon damaging the set, the firing of leading man Harvey Keitel and an overweight Marlon Brando. When actor Martin Sheen arrived on set, he found chaos. Coppola was writing the movie as he went along and firing personnel, people were coming down with tropical diseases and the helicopters used in the combat sequences were constantly recalled by president Ferdinand Marcos to fight his own war against anti-government rebels. Don’t bother with the Redux version, the original cuts work well.
3. The Quiet American
This Michael Caine film adaptation based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same name offers an interesting filmic take on pre-war Vietnam, when the Central Intelligence Agency was deeply involved in the emerging politics and the US wrestled for control of the struggling Southeast Asian nation. Caine, a dependable pro whose talents are often taken for granted, gives a beautifully vulnerable, Oscar-nominated performance that might also be his best. This so-called anti-imperialist masterpiece is said to be based on CIA agent Colonel Edward Lansdale, who wanted to save democracy with violent “psychological warfare” methods. Some intelligence sources also say the mysterious Lansdale was in Dealey Plaza the day JFK was assassinated.
4. Full Metal Jacket
Directed, co-written, and produced by illustrious director Stanley Kubrick, the story follows a platoon of US marines through boot-camp training, primarily focusing on two privates, Joker and Pyle, who struggle under their abusive drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, and the platoon’s experiences in Vietnam. If you’re thinking of joining the US Marine Corps, you might want to see this film first – the portrayal of “Gunny’s” abuse is both realistic and memorable. Not one of Kubrick’s best, but definitely worth seeing.
5. Hamburger Hill
According to film website Rotten Tomatoes, Hamburger Hill is a film about the futility of war expressed in the simplest terms. Although it was underrated at the time of its release, time will eventually reveal that Hamburger Hill is one of the best and most realistic films made about the Vietnam War. Over the course of 10 days in May 1969, an infantry squad led by Lieutenant Frantz (Dylan McDermott) and composed of both seasoned troops and new recruits attempts to take a hill. In between attacks, the squad members deal with the psychological stresses of total war.
According to film critic Roger Ebert, it was Francois Truffaut who said that it’s not possible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun. If Truffaut had lived to see Platoon, the best film of 1986, he might have changed his opinion. Here is a movie that regards combat from ground level, from the infantryman’s point of view, and it does not make war look like fun. Director Oliver Stone, who actually fought in Vietnam, tried to make a movie about the war that is not fantasy, not legend, not metaphor, but simply a memory of what it seemed like at the time to him. Fantastic performances from Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger.
7. Green Berets
Yes, John “Duke” Wayne’s Green Berets was lambasted by critics of the day who opposed the war in Vietnam, and Wayne’s role is similar to his part in The Longest Day (1963), which flew well in World War II but not so great in war-weary 1968. Wayne plays the hard-nosed Colonel Mike Kirby who heads a courageous bunch of Green Berets determined to capture an important enemy general. They are accompanied by a skeptical reporter (David Janssen) who soon becomes a gung-ho red-white-and-blue patriot. The film, which is laden with wartime clichés, is especially notable for the fine battle scenes and also features the hit song “Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by Sergeant Barry Sadler. It is interesting to note that Janssen was against the war, but did the film as a favor to the Duke.
8. Rambo: First Blood
It’s a bit dated, but Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood remains one of the most watchable Vietnam veteran films of the era. In short, John Rambo, a former US soldier traumatized by memories of the Vietnam War, gets into trouble when an incident with a small-town sheriff triggers his violent side. Rambo, of course, just wants to be left alone, but no, they push him too far, and the fun begins. The movie comes down to a face-off between Rambo and his old Green Beret commander (Richard Crenna), and the screenplay gives Stallone a long, impassioned speech to deliver, a speech in which he cries out against the various injustices done to him. Weary old clichés, but by this time, you’ve had a few beers, so it’s all good.
9. Coming Home
Jane Fonda and John Voight in an anti-war film – how could it possibly go wrong? Hanoi Jane, as she was called, after her much-documented and controversial trip to Vietnam during the war, wanted to make a Vietnam War flick, and in that effort, she delivers a memorable performance. Voight is brilliant as the returning vet who falls in love with Fonda, who is drawn away from her troubled husband, Bruce Dern, also dealing with his Vietnam demons. In addition to the intriguing story, the spectacular classic rock soundtrack will soothe the soul of any aging boomer.
10. We Were Soldiers
According to Roger Ebert, We Were Soldiers is the story of the first major land battle in the Vietnam War, late in 1965. Moore (Mel Gibson) is a family man, and a Harvard graduate. Plumley (Sam Elliott) is a US Army lifer, hard, brave, unsentimental. They are both about as good as battle leaders get. But by the end of that first battle, they realize they may be in the wrong war. Gibson is no Olivier, but he and Elliott both give inspiring performances. Interestingly, almost all war movies identify with one side or the other, and it’s remarkable that We Were Soldiers includes a dedication not only to the Americans who fell at Ia Drang, but also to “the members of the People’s Army of North Vietnam who died in that place.”
This article originally appeared in the Asia Times on August 4, 2020. Here’s a direct link:
— Sources: Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert, Wikipedia
I also conducted a poll in 2015 for the best Vietnam War Movie for those visitors of this website. There were 92 movies listed and 598 votes. Click here to see the results of this poll and how other movies (up to that date) fared: https://cherrieswriter.com/2015/01/07/best-war-movies/
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