Alongside Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, released the same year, Michael Cimino’s 1978 Vietnam war epic The Deer Hunter marked the first serious attempt by a Hollywood studio filmmaker to explore the conflict’s lasting consequences from the perspective of surviving veterans. Both films were decidedly anti-war in their outlook, reflective of a broader growing consensus in America that the country’s involvement in Vietnam had been largely unjustified.
The two films, both major critical and commercial hits, went head-to-head at the 1979 Oscars, and jointly dominated the major categories: The Deer Hunter took home five awards, including best picture and director, while Coming Home was recognised for its screenplay and lead performances by Jon Voight and Jane Fonda.
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Over the course of the following decade, American filmmakers lined up to dissect the war and its aftermath, with results ranging from Francis Ford Coppola’s ostentatiously ambitious Apocalypse Now (1979) to Barry Levinson’s crowd-pleasing comedy Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). The war has served as inspiration for less ‘respectable’ genre fare, from the gung-ho antics of Rambo to the schlock horror of House (1986). And, of course, the 19-year conflict has also provided rich material for documentarians, including pioneering work by heavy-hitters such as Errol Morris and Werner Herzog.
What follows are 10 films that deserve consideration alongside The Deer Hunter as Vietnam war greats. Notably absent from the list are any films from Vietnam itself. While the likes of Dang Nhat Minh’s When the Tenth Month Comes (1984) and Ho Quang Minh’s Karma (1985) have screened internationally to general acclaim, and offer valuable insight into the war from a domestic perspective, neither is currently available on DVD in the UK.
Deathdream (aka Dead of Night, 1972)
Director: Bob Clark
This scuzzy 70s shocker is a bracingly inventive rumination on what would in years to come be recognised as combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Inspired by W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, the film depicts a small-town family struggling to cope with the bizarre and erratic behaviour of their soldier son Andy (Richard Backus), who arrives home from Vietnam shortly after being declared missing in action and presumed dead. It soon transpires that Andy is more than simply war-weary – he can in fact only maintain the façade of humanity by feasting on flesh and blood.
Deathdream may be hokey and riddled with baffling plot holes, but viewed today it seems remarkably prescient. The film was completed a full five years before the issue of US veterans reintegrating back into society would be tackled more directly in The Deer Hunter and Coming Home. The imaginative way in which director Bob Clark riffs on vampire mythology also anticipates George A. Romero’s cult masterpiece Martin (1976).
Hearts and Minds (1974)
Director: Peter Davis
Peter Davis’s Oscar-winning documentary is an anguished but lucidly reasoned plea for America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, completed and released shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975. The film received some criticism at the time for its unabashed one-sidedness, but with hindsight its approach seems reasonable, given the nobility of its intentions and the severity of the matter at hand. Michael Moore has cited it as the biggest single influence on his career, and the parallels between this and his anti-Bush treatise Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) are striking.
While Davis’s technique may occasionally dilute the strength of his argument, by and large his footage speaks for itself. A scene in which former War General William Westmoreland boldly asserts that “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a westerner” is both grotesquely amusing and chilling to the core. Meanwhile, shots of decimated family farms and napalm-scarred Vietnamese children make it difficult to imagine how one might begin to form a sensible rebuttal to the filmmaker’s case.
Coming Home (1978)
Director: Hal Ashby
It’s all too easy to sneer at Hal Ashby’s melodramatic, sometimes earnest tale of a woman (Jane Fonda, whose controversial activism had made her a right-wing hate figure during the war) torn between loyalty to her conservative military captain husband (Bruce Dern) and her growing affection for a paraplegic Vietnam veteran (Jon Voight). Yet while the film’s vehement anti-war sentiment is hammered home with the occasional overwrought monologue and some heavy-handed use of 60s pop staples, there’s also a great deal to admire here.
Ashby’s riff on the ‘meet cute’ convention is as sly and subversive as anything in his earlier black comedy Harold and Maude (1971): a gurney-bound Luke (Voight) hurtles down a hospital corridor, ranting about mistreatment by ward staff. He careers straight into Sally (Fonda) and sends his catheter bag flying, which bursts all over her pristine outfit. It serves as a pleasingly unconventional visual metaphor for the sudden disruptive effect the pair will have on one another. The couple’s explicit sex scene seems radical even today, focusing unflinchingly as it does on both the challenges faced by Luke as a wheelchair user, and Sally’s first orgasm. Ashby’s unobtrusive, leisurely directorial style gives the story plenty of breathing space, allowing it to build gradually towards a tense, emotionally potent, and hauntingly ambiguous climax.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
“My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam… We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
Francis Ford Coppola’s précis of the making of Apocalypse Now, delivered to press at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival shortly after its first preview screening, has, like the picture itself, passed into movie folklore. This loose, psychedelic reworking of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness stands as one of the last great triumphs of the ‘movie brat’ era, that all-too brief period in which mega-budget adult drama was as viable in Hollywood as kid-friendly franchise films.
As Apocalypse Now was produced by Coppola’s own studio, American Zoetrope, the filmmaker enjoyed a huge degree of creative and financial freedom. Said freedom ultimately saw Coppola allowing an obese Marlon Brando to ignore his script and improve his role as the semi-psychotic Colonel Kurtz, while the production teetered on the brink of drug and booze-addled chaos, and the budget escalated to almost three times that of Star Wars (1977). By rights the finished product should have been a bloated, self-indulgent mess. Instead, it stands up to this day as a lucid and eloquent expression of the insanity of war, and as one of the most thrillingly deranged films produced within the Hollywood studio system.
Director: Oliver Stone
The first of Oliver Stone’s trilogy of films about the war, modelled closely on his own experiences as a soldier, remains the most potent and provocative. While the vision of Vietnam presented in Apocalypse Now is nightmarish, Coppola undeniably allows us to revel in the depravity – the film’s thrillingly bravura set-pieces, elegantly wasted cast of larger-than-life characters, and rousing rock soundtrack conspire to make our journey to the dark side rather enjoyable. We are offered no such respite here. From the moment fresh-faced recruit Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) begins his tour of duty, he suffers not from existential ennui, but as the consequence of a constant barrage of everyday torments – searing tropical heat, dehydration, mosquito bites, giant biting ants crawling all over his body. When he writes to his grandmother to explain that Vietnam feels like hell, he means it earnestly.
While most of the fiction features in this list take great pains to portray US soldiers as victims first and foremost, Stone refuses to offer such comfort to his audience. Over the course of a single horrifying scene, inspired by the notorious My Lai massacre, we see one young American bludgeon a disabled Vietnamese man to death, while another holds a girl at gunpoint in front of her mother, and others still lurk in the woods and rape a young woman. The director was compelled to make Platoon in part to counter the flattering portrayal of the US army in John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968). On that front at least, the film is an unequivocal triumph.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Of all the major films made about the war, Stanley Kubrick’s remains in many ways the hardest to fathom. Like almost all of the director’s work, it was greeted on initial release with a certain amount of critical hostility: Pauline Kael suggested “this may be his worst movie”, while Roger Ebert dismissed it as “a strangely shapeless film from the man whose work usually imposes a ferociously consistent vision on his material”. But as is usually the case with Kubrick, these dissenting voices have faded over time, to the extent that the film is now generally regarded as a fascinating and singular riff on the familiar ‘war is hell’ refrain.
The very things that troubled those early detractors – its uneven structure; its atmosphere of artificiality, heightened by the fact that it was filmed entirely in east London – are in fact the film’s greatest strengths. The widely praised opening sequence, in which a group of new recruits are brutalised at boot camp by the unhinged Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), remains an abrasively funny skewering of macho military culture. But it’s only over the course of the ambling, surreal second act that we come to see just how pathetically pointless it is to try and ‘prepare’ a young man for the disorienting unreality and nihilistic savagery of warfare.
Hamburger Hill (1987)
Director: John Irvin
John Irvin’s elegant combat drama keeps its focus restricted to the experiences of a single American platoon during a single arduous, bloody mission. When US military leaders ordered the capture of Hill 937 in May 1969, they did so primarily as a diversionary tactic. The area, later nicknamed Hamburger Hill, was of next to no strategic value, and was abandoned shortly after the mission proved successful. A sense of utter futility permeates this fictionalised account of the battle. Our handsome young protagonists are acutely aware of both the pointlessness of the mission and their powerlessness to question orders. This is compounded by a growing realisation that anti-war sentiment is rapidly spreading at home – if they’re lucky enough to make it back alive, they’re more likely to be greeted as dumb political pawns than returning heroes.
Vietnam veteran-turned-screenwriter James Carabatsos delivers a lyrical script, packed with rousing monologues and poetically profane one-liners (“Will you stop finger-fucking his dreams with your chicken shit details?”). Meanwhile Irvin uses eye-popping horror movie violence – exploding heads, ruptured organs, fountains of blood – sparingly, to truly shocking effect.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Director: Barry Levinson
Barry Levinson’s good-natured comedy-drama was the third major Vietnam-set film to be released in 1987 (after Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill), and proved by far the most commercially successful. It remains to this day unmatched as a vehicle for the particular talents of Robin Williams, who stars as motor-mouthed military DJ Adrian Cronauer. While Cronauer’s livewire broadcasts prove an instant hit with Saigon troops, his irreverent attitude soon lands him in trouble with stern superior officers.
Levinson’s masterstroke is to confine Williams’s zany schtick, which can grow exhausting over the course of an entire film, to short, exhilarating bursts. Off air, Cronauer is an altogether more subdued character, who is forced to confront the grim realities of war after falling for a Vietnamese girl and befriending her brother. This move towards more dramatic terrain isn’t altogether smooth, but a brilliantly executed, genuinely shocking terrorist attack sequence around the halfway point ensures that the film remains engagingly unpredictable, all the way through to its moving conclusion.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
Director: Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s extraordinary documentary tells the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born US naval aviator whose plane was shot down over Laos in February 1966. He was promptly captured by Pathet Lao troops and taken to a prison camp, where he was brutally tortured over a period of six months. Against all odds he eventually escaped, and was rescued by a passing American Air Force pilot after spending 23 days lost in the jungle.
The film is a prime example of Herzog’s career-long quest for “ecstatic truth”, which the director has claimed can “be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation”. The often harrowing reality of Dengler’s story is embellished with poetic flourishes, such as a scene, partially scripted by Herzog, in which he compares the certainty of impending death to the serene sight of an aquarium tank full of jellyfish. Herzog returned to the story in his 2006 drama Rescue Dawn, which stars Christian Bale as Dengler.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Director: Errol Morris
Errol Morris’s insightful portrait of former US Defence Secretary Robert S McNamara offers the perfect counterpoint to the view of the war presented in Hearts and Minds. While Davis’s film does a fine job of documenting its heart-breaking human cost, it makes no serious attempt to interrogate why American authorities persisted in keeping troops in Vietnam. Here, McNamara is given ample space to calmly reflect on his role as one of the war’s chief architects, with the benefit of decades of hindsight.
While he refuses to admit guilt or directly apologise for his actions, he freely admits that he made grave mistakes during his time under both Kennedy and Johnson. His conclusions are often disarmingly frank and piercingly incisive: “In the case of Vietnam, we didn’t know them well enough to empathise, and there was total misunderstanding as a result.” While the film essentially takes the form of a feature length to-camera interview, it’s also gloriously cinematic. Morris seamlessly and playfully integrates arresting archive footage, while a stirring Philip Glass score lends a sense of high drama to proceedings.
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