My list of he best movies in English about Americans warring in/on Vietnam includes some that are not “about” combat. I’ve mostly excluded portrayals of blowback (heroin trafficking, PTSD of survivors). I have not seen any Vietnamese movies about repelling the marauding would-be conquerors (French or American) and Vietnamese (allies or enemies) are rarely characters in the American movies about the stresses and discombobulation American soldiers experienced in a misconceived military intervention.*
Go Tell the Spartans (1978), directed by Ted Post
Set in 1964, it manages to provide a remarkable cross-section of the difficulties faced by American soldiers in Vietnam. Burt Lancaster is the star, as a grizzled major who has survived two wars to take up a command that “thankless” does not begin to sum up. Evan C. Kim is also notable for vividly portraying a very complex ARVN interpreter who is a sadist, but also a brave and effective leader. (Post was a tv director whose only other remotely notable movie was the Clint Eastwood vehicle “Hang ‘Em High.”) The title alludes to the defense of Thermopylae, but that mattered to the course of the Greek/Persian war, while this doomed stand (like those portrayed in “Hamburger Hill” or the Korean War “Porkchop Hill”) had no real strategic importance.
I think that “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” (1978), directed by Karel Reisz, based on one of the best books focused American soldiers in Vietnam, Robert Stone’s Dog Soldier,s is the best Vietnam blowback movie, though including some combat in Vietnam, too. It has one of the best performances from Nick Nolte and one from Michael Moriarty, and shows paranoia as well as heroin “coming home” to these United States.
I like both adaptations of Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel The Quiet American a lot. The black-and-white 1958 version, shot by Robert Krasker (The Third Man), with Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy belies the rap against Joseph Manckewitz as uncinematic or visually deficient. Greene’s critique of dangerous American innocence/willful ignorance was less watered down in the 2002 color remake, directed by Phillip Noyce with Michael Caine taking on the cynical long-term resident Thomas Fowler and Brendan Fraser taking on the gung-ho American newcomer know-it-all Alden Pyle role (showing Americans’ dangerous —to themselves and others — ignorance about the world, before the buildup of US troops in Vietnam).
Casualties of War (1989) directed by Brian De Palma, shows stressed-out American soldiers running amok and then attempting to cover up their atrocities. It has compelling performances by Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn.
Rescue Dawn 2006 Werner Herzog’s expansion/enactment of his 1997 talking-head documentary “Little Dieter [Dengler] Needs to Fly” is more survivalist epic than a war movie, though it starts on an aircraft carrier and follows downed US flyers escaping a Viet Nong prison, played superbly by Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, (there is another pair going off separately). More a survivalist tale than a “war movie.”
Platoon (1986), written and directed by Oliver Stone, based on his experiences as an infrantrtyman in Vietnam. College dropout army volunteer Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) and other soldiers in his unit are torn between the idealistic pothead Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and the cynical, hardened Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger). It includes execution of a civilian, and murder of one sergeant by the other. Both Berenger and Dafoe were nominated for Oscars. Neither won. Stone won the best director award and the movie won best picture, plus best sound and best editing (Claire Sumpson) Oscars. Along with some late-60s soul music, the soundtrack employed Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” to haunting effect. Speaking for Vietnam veteran Stone, Taylor (a character pretty like Michael J. Fox’s in “Casualties of War”) concludes that “t he enemy was within us.”
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), directed by Barry Levinson, is set in Saigon (ca. 1965) with a bravura performance by Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer, an insubordinate Armed Forces radio dj, who goes to entertain troops (without the riot of the Playboy bunny show in “Apocalypse Now”), and makes connections with some Vietnamese, one of whom (Tuan, played by Tung Tranh Tran) he learns is a covert Viet Cong operative (and who saves Cronauer’s life twice).
Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Francis Ford Coppola has a lot of delirium and befuddled American troops. I think that the mission portrayed is preposterous, and the bloated Brando’s (Green Beret Col.) Kurtz as an independent warlord also preposterous, but there is some amazing stuff in the movie, including the more believable PT-boat crew (as disparate as units in Hollywood WWII and Korean movies).
Full Metal Jacket (1987), directed by Stanley KubrickThe stateside, basic training of Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie’s first half is superbly disturbing (also see Robert Altman’s “Streamers,” Coppola’s “Gardens of Stone,” Sidney Furie’s “The Boys of Company C,” and Joel Schumacher’s “Tigerland”), the Vietnam combat second half shot in the UK not great.
Heaven & Earth (1993), Oliver Stone’s movie about a Vietnamese woman is not a “war movie” in the sense of being about combat. Also it follows her to America. (It is also runs 140 minutes.) If it is disqualified, the harrowing battle movie “Hamburger Hill’ (1987), directed by John Irvin, can be substituted to fill out the list, though half of it is also away from combat.
Aside from being set in Cambodia, “The Killing Fields “(1984, directed by Roland Joffe, with an Oscar-winning performance by Haing S. Ngor), mostly takes place after the war, during the genocidal misrule of the Khmer Rouge.
There are also many worthy and interesting documentaries. In chronological order of their release dates, I’ll mention
The Anderson Platoon (1967)
I Was a Soldier (1970)
Hearts and Minds (1974)
The Soldier’s Story (1981)
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
Regret to Inform (1998)
Sir, No Sir! (2005)
Oh, Saigon (2007)
Soldiers of Vietnam (2016)
*I think that after WWII the US should have continued to work with and try to influence Ho Chi Minh. It is certainly possible that he would have established a Stalinist state in the 1940s, but after all the blood shed between then and the mid-1970s, the North Vietnamese overlords inflicted one on the South Vietnamese. The Truman administration’s support for reestablishing French colonial (or the attempted restoration, one that fizzled at Dienbenphu) rule was IMO a mistake that was exacerbated by the US (Eisenhower administration) blockage of the plebiscite it had agreed to in Geneva, and the support (JFK and LBJ) for unpopular South Vietnamese governments with more and more troops on the ground winning battles while losing the war (ye olde “hearts and minds”). Without the secret bombing of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge would almost certainly not have come to power. (Not that Sihanouk was a saint, but had he been supported rather than destabilized by Kissinger et al., Cambodians would surely have suffered less.)
©2017, Stephen O. Murray