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The Vietnam War occupies its own genre in Hollywood. This article examines the best dramatic Vietnam War movies, spanning the 1960s to the present day. Incoming!
Apocalypse Now (United Artists, 1979)
Francis Ford Coppola’s surreal Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux is the granddaddy of Vietnam War films. Initially budgeted at $12 million, Apocalypse Now eventually cost $31 million to make.
Francis Ford Coppola produced, directed and co-wrote (with John Milius) Apocalypse Now for his own Zoetrope Studios. Martin Sheen (Captain Willard), Marlon Brando (Colonel Walter E. Kurtz), Robert Duvall (Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore) and Dennis Hopper (Photojournalist) head the cast.
Captain Willard, attached to the 505th Battalion, 173rd Airborne, Special Operations Group, embarks on a perilous river journey into Cambodia where he is to terminate the command of renegade Green Beret officer Walter E. Kurtz. Along the way Willard encounters a surfing-mad Air Cavalry colonel, a riot at a USO show, fierce Montagnard tribesmen and a gonzo American photojournalist.
Apocalypse Now earned eight Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Cinematography and Best Sound.
- Great line: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning…The smell, you know that gasoline smell…It smells like — victory.” – Robert Duvall.
The Deer Hunter (Universal, 1978)
Pennsylvania steelworkers Robert De Niro (Michael), John Savage (Steven) and Christopher Walken (Nick) head off to Vietnam where their lives are forever changed by the war. Also on board are John Cazale (Stan), Meryl Streep (Linda) and George Dzunda (George).
Michael Cimino produced, directed and co-wrote (with Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker) The Deer Hunter, which won five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Walken), Best Film Editing and Best Sound. The film also copped another four Oscar nominations.
The Deer Hunter is alive with the sights and sounds of Vietnam. Especially brutal is the POW scene, where captured soldiers De Niro, Savage and Walken are forced to play Russian roulette by their Viet Cong masters.
- Great line: “One shot. That’s what it’s all about. One shot.” – Robert De Niro.
Born on the Fourth of July (Universal, 1989)
Tom Cruise stars as Ron Kovic, a paralyzed Vietnam vet who is haunted by his combat experiences in Southeast Asia. Oliver Stone produced, directed and co-wrote (with Ron Kovic), with Raymond J. Barry (Mr. Kovic) and Caroline Kava (Mrs. Kovic) also in the cast.
Perhaps more than any other Vietnam War film, Born on the Fourth July examines the brutal aftermath of combat as seen through the eyes of ex-marine Kovic. His post-war life is not a pretty one, comprised of an agonizing stay at a VA hospital and a troubled adjustment back to civilian life.
Tom Cruise, who garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, is positively riveting as Kovic. The picture also received another seven Oscar nominations.
- Great line: “Sometimes, Stevie, I think people, they know you’re back from Vietnam, and their face changes: the eyes, the voice, the way they look at you, you know.” – Tom Cruise.
Platoon (Orion, 1986)
Vietnam vet Oliver Stone directed and wrote Platoon for Hemdale Film and Cinema 86 Productions. Tom Berenger (Sgt. Barnes) and Willem Dafoe (Sgt. Elias) play dueling Army noncoms, with Charlie Sheen (Chris) as a newbie infantry grunt.
Platoon constitutes one of Hollywood’s more realistic Vietnam War films. The battle scenes — expertly staged by technical advisor Dale Dye — are especially good. Oliver Stone, who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in Vietnam, briefly appears as an officer whose bunker is hit by a Viet Cong attack.
Platoon won four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound.
- Great line: “Snakebite leader, Ripper Bravo Six, we’re gonna need you soonest be advised I’ve got zips in the wire down here, over!” – Dale Dye.
Full Metal Jacket (Warner Bros., 1987)
Mathew Modine (Pvt. Joker), Adam Baldwin (Animal Mother) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Pvt. Pyle) head this Vietnam War entry produced, directed and co-scripted (with Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford) by Stanley Kurbrick.
R. Lee Ermey (Gunnery Sgt. Hartman) prepares his young marine recruits for combat at Parris Island. The virgin leathernecks arrive just in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive and the brutal urban combat at Hue.
Full Metal Jacket — which takes its name from a full-jacketed 7.62 millimeter small arms round — garnered one Oscar nomination for Best Writing.
- Great line: “Today, you people are no longer maggots. Today, you are Marines.” – R. Lee Ermey.
Hamburger Hill (Paramount, 1987)
Hamburger Hill dramatizes the May 1969 battle for Hill 937 in South Vietnam. James Carabatsos and Marcia Nasatir wrote the screenplay and John Irvin directed, with Dylan McDermott (Sgt. Adam Frantz), Steven Weber (Sgt. Dennis Worcester), Courtney B. Vance (Medic Abraham Johnson) and Don Cheadle (Pvt. Johnny Washburn) heading the cast.
Hamburger Hill comprises one of the genre’s more gritty films, depicting a brutal, relentless charge by American troops to take a Vietnamese hill of little strategic value. The combat scenes are impressive, the pro-Vietnam War bias less so.
- Great line: “We had a short-timer once. Johnny I-forget-his-name. He wore a flak jacket, two helmets and armor underwear. Ashau Valley…Your time’s up, your time is up.” – Steven Weber.
The Boys in Company C (Columbia, 1978)
Sidney J. Furie co-wrote (with Rick Natkin) and directed The Boys in Company C, with Stan Shaw (Tyrone Washington), Andrew Stevens (Billy Ray Pike), James Canning (Alvin Foster), Michael Lembeck (Vinnie Fazio) and Craig Wasson (Dave Bisbee) playing the “boys.”
The Boys in Company C begins in Marine boot camp and ends in Vietnam at a soccer match violently interrupted by a Viet Cong attack. By this time the former recruits are disillusioned with the war and the officers running it.
- Great line: “Here’s your body count, Captain. Three chickens and a duck!” – Stan Shaw.
We Were Soldiers (Paramount, 2002)
Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young by Lt. General Harold C. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, this extremely bloody film dramatizes the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965. Randall Wallace produced, wrote and directed, with Mel Gibson (Lt. Colonel Hal Moore), Madeleine Stowe (Julia Moore), Greg Kinnear (Maj. Bruce “Snake” Crandall), Sam Elliott (Sgt. Major Basil Plumley) and Barry Pepper (Joe Galloway) heading the cast.
Surrounded in “The Valley of Death” by some 2,000 North Vietnamese troops, Lt. Colonel Hal Moore and his fellow Americans engage in one of the most savage battles of the Vietnam War. The combat scenes — definitely not for the squeamish — are among the most realistic ever filmed.
- Great line: “We who have seen war, will never stop seeing it. In the silence of the night, we will always hear the screams. So this is our story, for we were soldiers once, and young.” – Barry Pepper.
The Green Berets (Warner Bros./Seven Arts, 1968)
Big John Wayne (as Colonel Mike Kirby) stars in this slam-bang Vietnam War film based on the novel of the same name by Robin Moore. Co-directed by Wayne (with Ray Kellogg and Mervyn LeRoy) and scripted by James Lee Barrett, The Green Berets also features David Janssen (George Beckworth), Jim Hutton (Sgt. Petersen), Aldo Ray (Sgt. Muldoon) and Raymond St. Jacques (Sgt. Doc McGee).
Filmed in Georgia, The Green Berets serves up a healthy dose of action, intrigue and blind patriotism. The best scene is saved for last as the American defenders repel a vicious Viet Cong assault.
- Great line: “Out here, due process is a bullet.” – John Wayne.
The Siege of Firebase Gloria (Fries Entertainment, 1989)
A “sleeper” in the genre, The Siege of Firebase Gloria was scripted by William L. Nagle and Tony Johnston and directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith. R. Lee Ermey stars as Sgt. Major Bill Hafner, with Wings Hauser (Cpl. DiNardo), Robert Arevalo (Col. Cao Van), Mark Neely (Pvt. Murphy), Gary Hershberger (Capt. “Bugs” Moran) and Margi Gerard (Capt. Kathy Flanagan) also on board.
Ermey leads a small band of marines who make their way to Firebase Gloria, defending the installation from repeated assaults by North Vietnamese troops. The battle scenes are outstanding, as is R. Lee Ermey (who had served 14 months in Vietnam with the Marines) as the tough, foul-mouthed sergeant major.
- Great line: “A little religious communication might not be a bad idea at this stage of the game. Now myself, I don’t take chances, I talk to Mohammed, Buddha, Mr. Jesus H. Christ Himself and any other religious honchos I can come up with.” – R. Lee Ermey.