Bring The Boys Home: 10 Movies About The Vietnam War
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Many movies and documentaries explore the horrors of the Vietnam War. To learn more, these are the ones to check out.
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The Vietnam War and its legacy left an indelible mark on American culture. Also known as the Second Indochina War, the conflict raged from 1955 until the fall of Saigon in 1975. The war was technically fought between the U.S.-backed South Vietnam and Communist North Vietnam, but the bloodshed spread into Cambodia and Laos. In total, well over 1 million people died during the 20-year war, the vast majority of them innocent civilians.
The war was very unpopular in America, and nearly 60,000 soldiers died over its course, many of whom were forced to participate after being drafted. Those who survived the ordeal returned home with physical wounds and mental scars. The films on this list, some documentaries and other fictional, explore the various ways the horrific nature of the Vietnam War changed those who were involved in it.
10 The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
This documentary from revered filmmaker Errol Morris is focused around former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, considered by many historians to be the architect of the Vietnam War. Filmed when McNamara was 85-years-old, the film is structured around McNamara’s 2001 book Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century.
Morris recorded over 20 hours of footage with McNamara, which was condensed into a few hours. McNamara worked under both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, and his insights into the nature of modern warfare provide profound insight into how the U.S. Military functions.
9 The Deer Hunter (1978)
Written and directed by Michael Cimino, this film about three Pennsylvania steelworkers who fought in the Vietnam War won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1979. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage play the men, who are captured and tortured by the Viet Cong. While imprisoned, they are forced to play Russian roulette over and over again for their captors’ amusement.
The movie is told in 5 parts that weave in and out of each other. From their friend Stan’s wedding day to a deer hunting trip they embark upon before leaving for Vietnam, scenes from the pre-war lives of these men slice into their experiences at war in brutal ways. Both De Niro and Walken won Oscars for their roles.
8 Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Stanley Kubrick already made strong statements about war and violence with Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, and 1987’s Full Metal Jacket is a rough and bleak feature about the experiences of a handful of Marines who are sent to Vietnam. The first half of the film takes place at the infamous Parris Island Marine Corps boot camp in South Carolina, where a drill sergeant played by Lee Ermey breaks them down before they are sent to battle.
One of the characters, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, suffers a breakdown while on Parris Island and takes his own life. The second half of the film takes place in Vietnam, where the transformed men come face to face with the terror of war. Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, and Arliss Howard also star.
7 Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s dreamlike tale of the Vietnam War, inspired by Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, is considered a surreal masterpiece. This epic stars Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper. The action revolves around Sheen’s character, Capt. Willard, who is sent on a mission into the heart of the jungle to track down Brando’s character, Col. Kurtz, who has gone AWOL.
The movie descends into madness as Willard gets closer and closer to his target. Apocalypse Now won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Coppola has since provided endings to his complex, layered narrative, including 2001’s Apocalypse Now Redux.
6 Platoon (1986)
The first of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War trilogy, Platoon is considered the director’s breakthrough film, solidifying his melodramatic and bombastic approach to molding history into cinema. Charlie Sheen stars as a college student named Chris Taylor who quits school to join the military.
Once he’s shipped to Vietnam, Taylor’s initial excitement about participating in war is quickly eradicated when members of his platoon use an offensive attack as an opportunity to maim and assault innocent people, including women. Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe also star in the film as the platoon’s leaders.
5 Hearts and Minds (1974)
The title of this harrowing documentary comes from a popular line espoused by those responsible for the Vietnam War: “In order to win the war, we must win the hearts and minds of the people.” Made in the few years before the war officially ended, director Peter Davis sought to trace, using archival footage and interviews, just how far off course the war veered from this objective.
The film strong anti-war message garnered a lot of criticism when it was released. Despite this, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary.
4 Coming Home (1978)
This movie from Hal Ashby, known for quirky classics like Harold & Maude, stars Jon Voight as a soldier who returns home from the war a paraplegic. Jane Fonda plays a woman named Sally who volunteers at the hospital where Voight’s character, Luke, is recovering. Sally, whose pro-war Marine husband Bob is overseas, strikes up a friendship with Luke.
As they get closer, Sally starts to reexamine her views about the war, realizing that the men participating in it are being taken advantage of by a system that has no value for human life. In the process, Sally and Luke fall in love.
3 Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Robin Williams plays a hyper disc jockey who takes over AFR’s Saigon radio broadcasts during the Vietnam War. With his animated style and good taste in music, Williams’s character Adrian becomes extremely popular. When his jealous superior tries to have him fired, the support of Adrian’s friends save him.
However, after Adrian sees the horror of the Vietnam War firsthand, he ditches the government-sanctioned script to talk about the real problems soldiers are facing. When this happens, there’s nothing his fans can do to save him from the proverbial boot.
2 Rolling Thunder (1977)
William Devane plays Maj. Charles Rane in this dark tale of revenge. After returning home to Texas from Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war, Rane is greeted by a wife who no longer loves him, a son who can’t remember him, and a town full of people who resent him for participating in the war.
Rane acquired silver coins in Vietnam, and a group of thieves targets him in order to steal his loot, murdering his family in the process. Rane decides to do whatever he can to track down and kill the men responsible, and he recruits his best friend, played by Tommy Lee Jones, to help.
1 Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
A supernatural take on the effects of the Vietnam War, Tim Robbins stars in this film as a former soldier who experienced some severely traumatic events while overseas. Now home in New York City, Jacob Singer’s grasp on reality is tenuous, and he has a hard time remembering exactly what happened to him.
As his mental health continues to deteriorate, Jacob has run-ins with demons, monsters, and various creatures that seek to torture him. Seeking the aid of a counselor played by Danny Aiello, Jacob tries his best to make sense of what’s happening to him.