There have been many, many movies made on the subject of the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, not all were created equal. While there are some less good ones out there, today I’m going to talk only about the best 3 (to my knowledge).
From what I understand, the movies that I’m going to talk about today are the most decorated, and watched, Vietnam War movies.
Because Vietnam was a really contentious issue for Americans, these films unabashedly handled certain truths about the war that maybe the Americans at home weren’t ready to accept.
The films I’m going to talk about today are not for the faint of heart. They are dense think pieces and the directors involved can all have said to have created art, not just a movie.
I’m going to go through the movies in chronological order because it would be damn near impossible to order them by quality (they are too damn good).
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The First movie that I will talk about is…
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Many actors who appeared in this film got mega famous as a result. It stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and Meryl Streep, all before they were the stars we recognize today.
It was directed by notoriously hard to work with Michael Cimino.
In the process of making this movie, he re-wrote the script, went way over budget, and way past deadline. But in the end he did the right thing since this movie was named (in 2007) the 53rd greatest movie of all time by the American Film Institute.
If you haven’t seen the movie I’ll try and give you the quick run down (it’s a long movie).
Three men (Mike, Nick, Steven) from a rural Pennsylvania town go off to fight in the Vietnam War. When there they are captured by the Vietnamese.
As captives they are generally mistreated, and eventually one day are forced to play Russian Roulette with their captors.
In one particular game, they turn the guns on the guards and manage to escape. They float down a river on a branch when they come across an American helicopter. Only Nick (Walken) is able to make it onboard. The other two (Steven (injured) and Mike) are forced to walk through the jungle until they reach friendly territory.
Nick is taken to a hospital where he tries to recover from memory loss and after sometime he goes AWOL. He wanders around the Red Light district in Saigon until a french man offers him a chance to play some high stakes Russian Roulette. He reluctantly accepts and goes into a gambling den.
Mike (De Niro) just also happens to be there, but they don’t notice each other at first. When Mike finally sees Nick, he tries to get his attention, but Nick fires the game’s gun at another contestant and then his own temple, causing a scene and Nick has to flee with the french man before Mike can talk to him.
Back in America, Mike goes to visit the injured Steven (Savage) in the VA hospital. Steven tells Mike that someone has been mailing him large sums of money from Saigon. Mike knows this is Nick.
Mike goes back to Vietnam and tracks down the french man who works the Russian Roulette games, and he finds Nick in a gambling den.
Nick still doesn’t remember him, so Mike enters the game against Nick to jog his memory and convince him to come home. Nick is doped up on drugs and still is missing parts of his memory. That is until Mike reminds him of the hunting trips they used to take together. Nick remembers, picks up the gun, fires it, and a bullet hits him in the head killing him.
The film ends back in America at Nick’s funeral.
Awards and reception
I don’t know if I did the film justice with my quick rundown but it is really god damn good. I know I mentioned already that it was admitted to the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best movies of all time, but the Oscars also rained down praise on the film.
The movie won most of the heavy hitting awards at the 51st Academy Awards, which include Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Walken), Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.
It was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (De Niro), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Streep), Best Cinematography, and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.
Additionally, in 1996 the film was selected by the National Film Registry for preservation by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
So whether or not you believe this is one of the best Vietnam War movies, certainly the rest of the world does.
But if you haven’t seen this movie already, go out and see it!
Apocalypse Now (1979)
This film was written, produced, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (also known for being hard to work with). It also features some big names at the beginning of their careers as well as some seasoned movie stars. The cast includes Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, and Dennis Hopper.
The production of this movie was so plagued with problems that it has actually spawned it’s own documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991).
Problems included, an overweight Marlon Brando showing up on set completely unprepared, Martin Sheen having a breakdown and a heart attack, as well as serious weather destroying most of the set. Additionally, when production was over the problems persisted as Coppola had produced over a million feet of film and went way past deadline to edit it all.
However, despite all of this, the movie has successfully made its mark being known as one of the best films of all time.
Colonel Kurtz (Brando) goes rogue (and insane) at an outpost in Cambodia. He’s amassed a following of Montagnard (indigenous Vietnamese from the mountains) troops who revere him as God-like.
Concerned with the vigilante activities of Kurtz, a high ranking Colonel and a General send Captain Willard to terminate Kurtz with extreme prejudice.
Willard joins a river boat patrol and heads down river, not before having an encounter with the surf loving lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Duvall).
On his journey Willard learns that he is not the first one that has been sent to exterminate Colonel Kurtz. A Captain Colby was sent on an earlier mission but ended up joining him.
When he finally arrives at Kurtz’s outpost, they encounter a catatonic Colby and some of Kurtz’s men.
Eventually, Willard is taken prisoner and tortured and bound for several days. When one day they untie him and allow him to wonder the compound. Kurtz uses this as an opportunity to lecture Willard on his belief system and praises the Viet Cong for their ruthlessness.
That night Willard sneaks into Kurtz’s room and kills him with a machete. The film closes off with Willard leaving down the river as Kurtz’s final words echo through his mind.
Awards and reception
A three hour version of the film was met with tremendous applause at its first screening at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. It was however, met with mixed reviews.
But the major reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, concluded that the film was indeed significant. And it received recognition to that fact.
Apocalypse now was added to the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best movies of the last 100 years at number 30. It was also added, in 2000, to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally significant.
It won Best Sound and Best Cinematography at the 52rd Academy Awards, but was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Duvall), Best Writing, Best Art Direction, and Best Film Editing.
Even though it didn’t win most of the heavy hitting awards at the Academy Awards it did go on to win many others. Such as a Palm D’or (Cannes), Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Duvall), and Best Original Score.
Platoon was written and directed by Oliver Stone (difficult to work with, recognize a theme?). The movie was inspired by Stone’s actual experiences in Vietnam. Being the only director who actually spent any time in Vietnam serving in the military gave this movie added legitimacy that the other films discussed here today might not have.
The movie starred some big names, including Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Keith David, Kevin Dillon, Forest Whitaker, and Johnny Depp.
Of the three movies discussed here today, this one might be my particular favourite. But like the other two, it is also a long ass movie.
Like Apocalypse now the production of this film also encountered many problems. The major one being that it was filmed in the Philippines during a time of political and social upheaval.
In 1967, an army volunteer, Chris Taylor (Sheen) is sent to fight for the 25th Infantry Division. What he finds is that the platoon’s leader, Lieutenant Wolfe is often side stepped by two Sergeants, Barnes (Berenger) and Elias (Dafoe).
On his first patrol he is wounded and goes to hospital to recover.
When he returns he bonds with the more idealistic Elias and his crew of pot smoking subordinates.
However, after the platoon loses some men to booby traps set by the NVA they head into a village, where barnes illegally executes the wife of the village chief.
Elias walks into the situation and is angered by what Barnes has done, a fight ensues.
Later, a superior officer tells both men that if an illegal killing took place there will definitely be a court martial. Fearing that Elias will testify against him, the division in the platoon deepens significantly.
On their next patrol, Elias takes some men, including Taylor, to head off some NVA soldiers. They get separated and Elias ends up alone. It is then that Barnes goes looking for him and when he finds him, he shoots him.
When Taylor encounters Barnes, Barnes tells him that Elias was killed by the enemy.
The platoon is being extracted via helicopter when they see Elias running through the jungle being chased by NVA soldiers. Elias is killed and Taylor suspects without a doubt that Barnes is the cause.
Taylor approaches some of his friends in the platoon to try and kill Barnes. Barnes overhears and a fight breaks out. Both men part with tensions still very high.
The platoon is sent back to the front line, where at night the NVA overcome the Americans. Taylor finds himself confronted with Barnes in the jungle and Barnes is definitely about to kill him when an airstrike hits their vicinity knocking them both unconscious.
When Taylor wakes up, Barnes orders him to call in a medic. Assessing that Taylor is just not going to do that, he dares him to kill him. Taylor uses an enemy weapon and fires, killing Barnes.
Because Taylor was wounded in the airstrike it’s his ticket out of the war. He is being helicoptered out where he sees many craters littered with bodies and he recognizes that even though the war is over for him, it will be with him forever.
Awards and reception
Roger Ebert gave Platoon four out of four stars and called it the best movie of the year and the ninth best of the 1980’s. Critics generally accepted this film as being a honest portrayal of what happened on the ground in the War in Vietnam.
Additionally, it is ranked 83rd on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best films of the last 100 years. It however, has not been registered in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
But it was nominated and won many, many awards, particularly at the Academy Awards.
It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. It was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Dafoe, Berenger), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography.
This was not a contest to see which of these movies was better. Because they are all undeniably great, that would have been a hard thing to do. While Platoon is the only one not admitted to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, it still took home the heavy hitting awards at the Academy Awards, including awards that Apocalypse now was unable to get.
But all these movies were iconic for when they came out, and told the story of a war that many would not accept.
All three films have certain things in common. They were all directed by ego maniacs, all had problems in production, and all exceeded expectations, including mine.
If you disagree with this list please let me know in the comments!