- The 1980s brought a new wave of Vietnam War films, with Platoon leading the way and inspiring renowned filmmakers to produce their own depictions of the war.
- Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July, and Casualties of War are highly acclaimed films that explore different aspects of the Vietnam War, from intense battles to the personal struggles of veterans.
- Good Morning, Vietnam and Full Metal Jacket provide a different perspective on the war, using comedy and satirical wit to examine the power of humor and the absurdity of war itself.
This article contains references to sexual assault.
Hollywood had pretty much given up on making movies about the Vietnam War by the time the 1980s rolled around, but the mid-to-late ‘80s gave way to a new wave of Vietnam War films. The 1970s saw the release of a bunch of classic Vietnam-based war films, from Coming Home to Rolling Thunder. Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter were considered to be the peak of the genre. After Francis Ford Coppola’s gonzo, surreal Heart of Darkness epic and Michael Cimino’s shocking examination of the psychological impact of warfare, there seemed to be no point in trying to make a new Vietnam War movie, because they already perfected it.
However, when real-life veteran Oliver Stone turned his own experiences from Vietnam into Platoon, and Platoon became a hit, it led to a new Vietnam War movie boom in the ‘80s. Renowned filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma threw their hat in the ring with their own cinematic depictions of the horrors of the Vietnam War. Even Stone himself cashed in on this trend as Platoon became the first chapter in a Vietnam War trilogy. From Full Metal Jacket to Good Morning, Vietnam, some of the greatest movies about the Vietnam War were released long after the war’s end in the ‘80s.
7 Hamburger Hill
John Irvin, 1987
With a rare 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Hamburger Hill is one of the most highly acclaimed war movies ever made. The film dramatizes the Battle of Hamburger Hill from 1969 and is essentially a feature-length battle scene. Rather than trying to convey the scope of the entire war, Hamburger Hill focuses on one specific platoon to personalize its portrayal of the conflict in Vietnam. The star-studded ensemble features such renowned actors as Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott, and Courtney B. Vance, and director John Irvin does a terrific job of showing the devastation of war through their characters’ traumatized eyes.
6 Born On The Fourth Of July
Oliver Stone, 1989
The life story of Ron Kovic, covered in the biopic Born on the Fourth of July, is a poignant microcosm of the injustices of the Vietnam War. Kovic grew up as a jingoistic young patriot who couldn’t wait to join the Marines, but when he was paralyzed in the Vietnam War, he returned to the United States and became a staunch anti-war protester. Tom Cruise gives one of the most underrated performances of his entire career as Kovic, earning his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The horrors of war are perfectly encapsulated in the story of a man who loved his country until they sent him to fight overseas.
5 First Blood
Ted Kotcheff, 1982
The Rambo sequels went on to glorify warfare with their triumphant tales of John Rambo going behind enemy lines to liberate P.O.W.s, but the first movie – adapted from David Morrell’s original novel, First Blood – was an incisive critique of America’s treatment of Vietnam War veterans. When a crooked small-town sheriff pushes Rambo to his breaking point, Rambo takes his entire police force and the National Guard on a wild goose chase through the neighboring woodland. First Blood condemns everything from the dismissal of returning Vietnam veterans to the many deaths that occurred as a result of exposure to Agent Orange.
4 Casualties Of War
Brian De Palma, 1989
When Brian De Palma branched out from his traditional Hitchcockian thrillers in the mid-1980s, he tried his hand at the war genre with Casualties of War. Casualties of War isn’t about the conflict between the forces of America and the Viet Cong; it’s about the conflicts amongst the American soldiers themselves. The story is based on the 1966 incident on Hill 192, in which a Vietnamese woman was abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered by a squad of American troops. Sean Penn gives a shocking performance as the squad’s remorseless, reprehensible ringleader, while Michael J. Fox plays their conflicted comrade with a conscience.
3 Good Morning, Vietnam
Barry Levinson, 1987
Whereas most Vietnam War movies focus on the horrific brutality and bloodshed of the conflict, Good Morning, Vietnam is a comedy set amidst the war. Robin Williams stars as real-life radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, whose zany broadcasts keep the troops’ spirits up throughout their service. Williams walks the line between laugh-out-loud hilarity and heartfelt drama in the way that only he can, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actor with his earnest portrayal of a wartime entertainer. Good Morning, Vietnam doesn’t shy away from showing the horrors of war, but it focuses on the power of humor in times of crisis.
Stanley Kubrick, 1987
Based on war correspondent Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, Full Metal Jacket is Stanley Kubrick’s darkly comedic take on the Vietnam War. Much like in Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick uses his satirical wit to point out the absurdity of war itself. Kubrick covers the entire Vietnam War experience, with the first half of the film taking place in a grueling boot camp and the second half sending its protagonists to fight in Vietnam. Matthew Modine takes the audience on a tragic journey into a warzone, eroding his sense of humor, and real-life drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey gives one of the most memorable performances in movie history as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.
Oliver Stone, 1986
After feeling disillusioned with the whitewashed version of the Vietnam War he saw in films like the sensationalist John Wayne vehicle The Green Berets, Oliver Stone set out to show audiences the conflict as he remembered it from his own experiences in Vietnam. Stone is one of the few Hollywood filmmakers to have actually served in the war he was portraying on-screen, and it resulted in a harrowing war movie like no other. Platoon has one of the most realistic portrayals of the Vietnam War – and of warfare in general – because it’s a first-hand account based on true experiences on the battleground.
Platoon revolves around the wartime experiences of a U.S. Army volunteer named Chris Taylor, a stand-in for Stone himself (and for the American everyman who was shipped off to fight in Vietnam), played by Charlie Sheen. Throughout the film, Taylor is torn between his Platoon Sergeant and his Squad Leader, played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe respectively, who argue over the morality of their platoon and the war they’re fighting in. This isn’t just a gritty, visceral depiction of the Vietnam War; it’s an ethical exploration of the conflict itself. It’s no wonder it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.