The Vietnam War was one of the most controversial events in the 20th century and American history in general. The popular unrest and opposition to the war caused a much different portrayal of the event than previous wars had garnered.
While war films had always shown as a dangerous and hellish affair, they had usually conveyed the honor and justification behind the violence. The culture surrounding the Vietnam War also shifted the prevalent view shared by most filmmakers to be more condemning of the conflict and the U.S. Army.
While there were a few films that maintained the traditional values of the honor of combat, such as John Wayne’s outdated The Green Berets, most were of the far left nature, showing not only the brutality of the war, but the period also brought a surge of films that reflected the long term traumatic problems that soldiers face.
These films did not usually go as far as to villainize the troops but show the rough and desperate conditions of the war and how they could drive ordinary people to commit morally questionable acts. The military in general or the governments were typically accused of causing this unnecessary death.
Usually featuring iconic soundtracks representing the free-spirited culture of the era and powerful, engaging performances, the films about this controversial event are dynamic and riveting meant to be emotionally affecting as well as convey a political message. The list is compiled with films of many different forms and styles, including a documentary, dramas based on historic battles, biopics of real soldiers and fictional stories set during the war.
10. Born On the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989)
This transformative tale of a patriotic young soldier is director Oliver Stone’s second film in his Vietnam trilogy, also including Platoon and Heaven & Earth. Based on the autobiography by real life veteran Ron Kovic, the film stars Tom Cruise in his first Academy Award nominated performance as the outspoken soldier-turned-activist.
Starting with Kovic’s early life, raised as a patriotic American, Born on the Fourth of July follows him through several tours of duty where he commits regrettable acts and becomes injured in combat. After poor treatment in a military hospital, Kovic becomes upset and involves himself in the radical anti-war movement as he wrestles with the guilt of his actions in the war.
Tom Cruise does a terrific job in this early performance that cemented him as a serious actor, capable of portraying complex characters. Kovic becomes a lost soul with the disillusionment of his and his family’s principals and is forced to try and construct a new, useful life out of what the war did to him.
Cruise shows the wandering uncertainty of the era’s youth who are struggling to live in a society whose policies they disagree with. As Kovic runs away from all of his connections and responsibilities, he begins to realize his place in life and can come to terms with his past.
Stone’s film of the trauma following the service and injury of the Vietnam War shows the significance that the conflict had long after and far away from the actual events. The rift that comes between the justifiably bitter Kovic and the people he interacts with shows how a divide had formed in the country, splitting it around the Vietnam conflict.
Featuring one of Tom Cruise’s greatest performances, Born on the Fourth of July is an incredibly powerful looks at the aftermath effects of Vietnam on both the individual soldiers and on the American community as a whole.
9. Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)
Easily the strangest film on this list, Jacob’s Ladder is an unsettling mix of war drama and psychological thriller about the terror of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The film stars Tim Robbins as a extremely disturbed Vietnam veteran who is constantly haunted by the memories from his battle experience and the memory of his late son who died before he left for the war.
The plot and structure of the film is quite confusing as it switches back and forth from his present life in New York to his brutal war memories, interspersed with unnerving visions stemming from Jacob’s increasing paranoia and mental instability. As the story progresses, Jacob experiences increasingly disturbing interactions and has to piece together his life and mental state.
The film’s mixture of grisly war scenes and frightening visions ventures the film slightly into the horror genre as well, including several instances of disconcerting body horror and an overall creepy atmosphere. The political message against the war still shines through, however, and due to the atypical content of the film, the horrors of war and its effect on men is conveyed stronger than many movies that take a more traditional approach.
Tim Robbins gives a thoroughly moving and depressing performance as the central veteran with a decent life haunted by inner demons. He balances the desperation of his condition while trying to maintain a pleasant life in the face of all his problems.
The film draws its inspiration from the actual experiences of screenwriter Bruce Rubin in the Vietnam War as well as the frightening imagery of the modern painter Francis Bacon whose aesthetic style can be seen throughout the film. Successful as both a brain-bending psychological thriller as well as a powerful critique of the war, Jacob’s Ladder is a unique entry in the cinema of the war and the era.
8. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)
Hearts and Minds is one of the most polarizing and controversial documentaries of the Vietnam era. Through several interviews with high powered officials, much footage from the battlefield and elsewhere, the film depicts the war in a particularly negative light, condemning the government and the military for the widespread violence and death that they caused.
The criticism of the film is not in its editing or production, which is all of high caliber for a documentary, but in its biased and heavy handed approach. Some call it one of the greatest triumphs of the anti-war movement, exposing the evil truths behind the war. Others call it pure propaganda and a film that has lost its legitimacy by only providing part of the story.
There are no doubt both moments of bias and brilliance in the film, making it at times very powerful and emotionally convincing. Even the supposed instances of propaganda are expertly handled, creating a persuasive argument that are very believable to those who don’t know the truth.
The various innovative cinematic techniques that Davis used to convey his message have been used by many persuasive filmmakers ever since. Although not the most complete or reliable analysis of the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds is a gripping and powerful documentary of the circumstances surrounding the events.
7. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)
Based on the events detailed in Herzog’s previous documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the film is a dramatization real events. Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a German-American pilot who, during a flying mission, gets shot down and is taken prisoner in Laos by villagers who are against Americans. He is thrown in a makeshift jail filled with other prisoners of war where the conditions are inhumane and brutal.
The jailers try to get Dieter and the other prisoners to denounce America and leak information through starvation and torture but they do not break. Soon the situation becomes unbearable and Dieter plans an escape attempt with some other prisoners.
Christian Bale and his co-stars, including Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, all went through drastic physical changes for the role, losing dangerous amounts of weight to play the undernourished prisoners.
The raw and desperate performances given by these actors are some of the most effective aspects of this film, conveying the soul-breaking conditions of the camp and their drive for escaping. The volatile chemistry between the prisoners also shows how poor conditions made soldiers on the same side could turn on each other.
Herzog’s riveting and brutal portrait of the condition of prisoners of war is one of the most effective of its type. The film shows the triumph over adversity in the worst conditions showing the strength of the soldiers in addition to the horrors that they faced. While very much an anti-war film it is also an inspiring tale of heroism. Partially due to it being significantly after the anti-war movement, the film is also much less critical of the government and army than most Vietnam films.
6. Good Morning, Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1987)
Comedy legend Robin Williams, in an Academy Award winning role, plays DJ Adrian Cronauer of the Armed Forces Radio Service stationed in Vietnam during the war. Based on the exploits of the real Cronauer, the film follows the DJ as he broadcasts his controversial humor and music to the troops, and makes enemies with his commanding officers who prefer a more traditional approach.
Cronauer becomes very popular with the troops, as well as local Vietnamese to whom he teaches English. He becomes especially close to a girl Trinh and her brother Tuan. As the war goes on, complications in his career and with his friends arise and the environment becomes more violent.
Williams’s performance is one of the most brilliant combinations of comedy and drama in cinema. The trademark manic and adult comedy of Williams is at full force in this movie during his hilarious broadcasts and his jovial interactions with the troops. His dramatic acting is just as impressive and is shown the best through the struggle over his conflicting allegiances to the United Sates army and the Vietnamese that he teaches.
The adept melding off these two differing acting styles make Williams’s performance one of the greatest and most iconic of his career. The film also features solid performances from Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby and the Vietnamese actor Tung Thanh Tran.
Like Robert Altman’s MASH which was set during the Korean War, Good Morning, Vietnam is an intriguing mixture of war and goofy comedy. The brightness of the comedy contrasts heavily with the jarring violence of Vietnam, accentuating the fact that the soldiers are generally good-hearted people put into a terrible situation.
The film is also a unique and powerful look at both sides of the conflict in Vietnam, showing how the war is perceived from the different cultures. Carried by a tour-de-force performance by Williams, Good Morning, Vietnam is an entertaining as well as emotional look at the war and its affect on the spirit of those involved.