Sofia De Vera combines a heartfelt passion for cinema with over 15 years of critiquing for esteemed film publications, wielding academic credentials from the University of Southern California and New York University, to serve as your personal guide through the enchanting worlds of film and television.
War cinema is a realm where myths and legends of formidable figures are not simply penned in ink or sketched in pencil, but vividly recreated and immortalized on the silver screen. And among this genre, Vietnamese war movies hold a distinct place, encapsulating stories of the catastrophic conflict that marked an era and forever changed a nation.
The Vietnam War, one of the most significant military engagements of the twentieth century, has shaped countless narratives of young men who journeyed from the comfort of their American homes to the foreign terrain of the Far East, only to witness the horrors of war. Yet the films we explore here are not just any war movies; they represent the pinnacle of cinematic portrayals of this tumultuous time.
These films are acutely aware of the contentious nature of the Vietnam War, recognizing the widespread public dissent within the United States and the questioning of its legitimacy. They astutely delve into the trauma and tragedy this war inflicted, not just on the United States, but also on Vietnam, revealing the profoundly human consequences of a conflict often seen in stark political terms.
These exceptional films masterfully interweave personal stories with the broader tapestry of the war, creating nuanced narratives that resonate with the audiences on both an emotional and intellectual level. They challenge us to confront the harsh realities of the Vietnam War, showcasing the unvarnished truth of a conflict that reverberates in our collective consciousness to this day.
As we journey through this list of the most compelling Vietnam War movies, we invite you to experience a spectrum of stories that promise to evoke profound reflection, deepen your understanding of the Vietnam War, and underline the enduring power of cinema to illuminate history’s darkest chapters.
These heroes may inspire us to be a better version of ourselves; thus, lessons from the past – taught via war movies such as those set in Britain, Vietnam, China, and Germany – help transform today’s society in a positive way. We also have put together our favorite films set in Vietnam if you would like to learn more about this intriguing nation…
Wondering where to watch? It depends on where you live in the world and which streaming services you have. We link to the streaming service we watch on in each case - be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, or elsewhere.
You can get one month free of Amazon Prime (or a 6-month trial for students) of Amazon Prime and also get immediate access to FREE Two Day shipping, Amazon Video, and Music. While you won't be charged for your free trial, you'll be upgraded to a paid membership plan automatically at the end of the trial period - though if you have already binged all these, you could just cancel before the trial ends.
Apple TV+ also has a one-week trial, and Hulu has a one-month trial (which can be bundled with Disney!). Another option might be using a VPN to access Netflix titles locked to other regions. Netflix is now available in more than 190 countries worldwide and each country has a different library and availability. US Netflix is (understandably) one of the best.
While we wish everything could just be in one place - for now, it seems these are the best streaming platforms to watch on.
By Oliver Stone, Platoon depicts the Vietnam War’s dehumanization and its effect on infantry soldiers. To date, Platoon is the third highest-grossing film dealing with the Vietnam War. It is the first of Oliver Stone’s trilogy of films about the Vietnam War, the other two being Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven & Earth (1993). Not only was it awarded four Oscars, but it was also the definitive boost to Oliver Stone’s career.
During the Vietnam War, in September 1967, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a soldier from a good family recently arrived in Vietnam, had decided to enlist as a volunteer in the army, and is assigned to Bravo Company, belonging to the twenty-fifth infantry division, located somewhere near the Cambodian border.
The film shows how Taylor’s inexperience, coupled with the adversity of the terrain and harsh weather conditions, makes him suffer more than necessary in his first missions as a rookie soldier. After a hard day, Taylor’s squad camps in the jungle. He wakes up in the middle of the night and sees how the take over from him in guarding him, Junior, is asleep. Shortly after, some Vietnamese soldiers discover the American patrol, unleashing a confrontation in which the rookie soldier dies.
After spending time in the hospital, Taylor returns to his unit, befriending veteran King, a no-nonsense and down-to-earth soldier who will help him understand the irrationality of war. Eventually, two platoon members, Sandy and Sal, are killed when a booby trap explodes on them. With the ruckus ensuing, Private Manny disappears, though he is found dead shortly after, tied to a post. These incidents cause hatred to grow among various members of the group.
The Deer Hunter, by Michael Cimino, is a classic movie about the consequences of the Vietnam War on the men who fought it. It stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and Meryl Streep. In addition to being awarded five Oscars, the film is considered one of the 100 best in American cinema history by the American Film Institute. The film gave Streep and Walken their first Oscar nominations, although the award went only to Walken.
The film is about three steelworkers from the small town of Clairton, Pennsylvania: Michael, Nick, and Steven, whose routine and happy lives are irreversibly transformed amid the tragic devastation of the Vietnam War.
There they are captured by the Vietcong, who keep the prisoners in subhuman conditions and force them to play Russian roulette, betting to see which one will survive. They manage to escape, but the experience causes them physical and psychological injuries that will mark them on their return home.
On his return, Michael (Robert De Niro) is closed off and distant from his friends and loved ones, who are depressed and unhappy about the three of them. At the same time, Mike learns that Steven (John Savage) has also returned and is invalid in a veteran’s administration.
He calls him and tells him that he doesn’t want to return to his wife, whom he married before going to Vietnam and with whom he has a son. The reason is that the amputation of both legs makes him feel physically and psychologically useless. After this, Michael returns to Saigon to find Nick (Christopher Walken) and fulfill the promise he made to him before the trip: to take him home no matter what the circumstances.
Good Morning, Vietnam, by Barry Levinson, is a movie based on the real-life experience of American aviator and broadcaster Adrian Cronauer during the Vietnam War. In the film, Cronauer is played by the late beloved actor Robin Williams.
During the Vietnam War, Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams), a United States Air Force disc jockey, arrives in Saigon to entertain soldiers deployed to Vietnam. He instantly turns the boring radio routine upside down with delightful rock and roll and biting humor, becoming a legend among the soldiers and a headache for the authorities.
In his free time from radio programs, Adrian meets Vietnamese girls, gets a job as an English teacher at an adult school, drinks beer, and has fun, but only until the moment the restaurant that Adrian had just left explodes before his eyes.
He realizes that Vietnam is not a resort; there is a war in which people die and he is strictly forbidden to talk about on the radio due to severe censorship. He tries to tell the truth but is advised not to “spoil the format”.
For the same reason, they decide to expel him and send him back to his home, while on the radio, they place successors who don’t measure up and don’t like him as much as he does. After that, Adrian loses the desire to continue working, but after meeting with “fans”, when he sees what people need, he returns.
His boss, dissatisfied with the return, sends Adrian down a deliberately dangerous road, and he almost dies. Upon his return, he learns that his new Vietnamese best friend, his lover’s brother, who saved his life several times, is his enemy and a terrorist.
Rescue Dawn, by Werner Herzog, is based on the true story of German-American pilot Dieter Dengler (1938-2001), who was shot down and captured by Pathet Lao villagers and supporters during a US military campaign in the Vietnam War. The film is based on a script adapted from the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, also directed by Herzog. For those who don’t know him, Herzog is considered one of the most important film directors of the 21st century.
Lieutenant Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), is a German who grew up in the United States and became a pilot in the United States Army. In 1966 he was shot down over Laos in a secret operation during the Vietnam War. Dengler survives the crash, only to be hunted down and eventually captured by the nationalist-communist Pathet Lao group while searching for water.
Later he is brought before the governor of the province (François Chau), who offers him clemency and freedom if he signs a document condemning the war that the United States is waging in the region, but he refuses.
The pilot is then tortured and taken to a prison camp. There he meets two captive US military pilots, Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies) and Duane W. Martin (Steve Zahn), who has been in captivity for years. Three Thais and one Chinese are also being held captive. Dengler begins planning an escape to the disbelief of his fellow captives, which physical and psychological torture by camp guards have oppressed.
Eventually, all the prisoners agree to escape at the beginning of July 1966 when the rainy season begins; only Dengler and Martin go ahead with the plan, which consists of disarming the guards and entering the jungle. The other prisoners disappear and are not seen again in the rest of the film.
We Were Soldiers, by Randall Wallace, is about the Battle of la Drang in 1965, which marked the first major encounter between the United States Army and the North Vietnamese Army, and the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War. It is based on the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, written by Lieutenant General Harold Gregory Moore, Jr. and journalist Joseph L. Galloway, both of whom were present at the battle.
Harold G. Moore (Mel Gibson), a father of five and US Army Lieutenant Colonel, is sent to South Vietnam with a battalion of four hundred soldiers. The mission aims to locate and destroy enemy forces. For this purpose, Moore and the experienced Sergeant Major Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott) train the soldiers beforehand.
Many are still very young, too young. Moore complains to his superiors that most of his experienced troops have been withdrawn and that he is fighting with too many inexperienced men. Conversely, the opponent has had 20 years of combat experience and is defending his ground.
After there had been no major combat operations up until then, they were ambushed. Moore anticipated this after the enemy scout retreated into the mountains early in the battle. He is, as he promised his men, the first to set foot on enemy territory.
For landing zones, Moore chooses a flat meadow, referred to as the “X-Ray” landing zone, surrounded by small trees. In their defense, the GIs shoot immediately, although nothing moves anywhere. The soldiers succeeded in capturing a North Vietnamese soldier. From him, they learn that the place they were sent to is the base camp for a Vietnamese army division of four thousand men.
Hamburger Hill, by John Irvin, tells the story of the Battle of Hamburger Hill in 1969. The soldiers were supposed to take this hill in Vietnam by themselves, a more difficult task than expected due to the extreme conditions in which the group of soldiers had to fight.
Despite the latent racial and social conflicts that break out among the department members, after ten long days of fighting the sergeant succeeds in the enterprise, but arrives at the top of the hill with only three men.
The Bravo Company is tasked with taking Hill 937 in the A Shau Valley. Among the “Screaming Eagles” are also fourteen newcomers, so-called “Fucking New Guys”. With the help of his medical officer Doc Johnson (Courtney B. Vance), Sergeant Frantz (Dylan McDermott) tries to introduce the newcomers to the ins and outs of jungle warfare. The soldiers are flown into the combat zone, while at home student peace movements condemn the war in Vietnam—and with it the soldiers.
The storming of the hill becomes a personal hell for the soldiers on the front lines, where they feel as if they are being thrown into battle with no regard for their lives and are being processed into hamburger patties by the enemy.
The GIs are not only troubled by the fierce resistance of the North Vietnamese, but the nightly loudspeaker propaganda, the extremely bad weather, accidental shelling by their units (friendly fire), and ruthless superiors also make the battle a fight for mere survival.
After ten bloody days, the hill is stored. By the end, almost all of the named protagonists have died or are badly wounded. Shortly after reaching the summit, the strategically insignificant hill is abandoned again.
Casualties of War, by Brian De Palma, tells the story of the incident on Hill 192. We must tell readers that this film deals with a subject that can be triggering, so please be warned. This incident is a recorded case where the US military committed heinous crimes in Vietnam during the war. The story became known thanks to Daniel Lang’s article published three years later.
Private Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) serves in a unit on patrol during the Vietnam War in 1969. The Vietcong fired at the men with mortars. Eriksson breaks into a tunnel; his body is stuck underground. A Vietnamese approaches Eriksson underground through the tunnel with a knife between his teeth. Eriksson’s supervisor, Sargeant Meserve (Sean Penn), pulls him out, saving his life.
Eriksson appears as a sensitive character as he graciously accepts food offered by Vietnamese that he dislikes. He tells his comrades that he doesn’t want to appear rude, but only gets incomprehension and ridicule. In a village, Meserve’s unit is ambushed, Specialist Corporal Brown is badly wounded and flown out by helicopter. In the evening, the comrades learn that he did not survive.
The soldiers are given the order to inspect the following morning – shooting is only allowed for defense. In the evening they want to leave the camp and have fun, but going out into town is forbidden because of the Vietcong activities.
Meserve suggests that the unit’s soldiers go out an hour early the next morning and kidnap some Vietnamese girl to sexually abuse her. Eriksson is shocked when he hears this. The film will cover the incident on Hill 192 and the trial that would take place, thanks to Eriksson’s testimony.
Bullet in the Head, by John Woo, is a classic Hong Kong crime film. The film, however, doesn’t take place in Hong Kong (at least for the most part). If you’ve never seen a John Woo movie, you might as well start with this one: it shows his ability to tell great stories through incredible action.
Ever since young Ben (Tony Leung) killed a gang leader in self-defense in 1967 in Hong Kong, he and his best friends Frank (Jacky Cheung) and Tom (Waise Lee) have been on the run. The three arrive in Vietnam, where the war is raging.
When they try to sell contraband weapons, there is a wild shootout and they manage to steal a box of gold. Tom, Ben, and Frank can flee at first but are later taken prisoner in North Vietnam. There they are asked about the origin of the gold. The camp guards are extremely cruel and force the prisoners to shoot each other.
When Frank is supposed to kill Ben, they can break free and are saved by American troops. Frank is shot while he is running away. Tom, dragging the gold greedily, shoots Frank in the head instead of helping him.
However, Frank does not die but is saved and since then lives a life as a drug addict, since the foreign body could not be removed from his head and he could not bear the pain associated with it without taking painkillers. To get money, he commits murder. Ben, unable to bear to see Frank in this condition, kills him to relieve his suffering and then finds and kills the traitorous Tom.
Full Metal Jacket, by Stanley Kubrick, is one of the most important films that tell and critique the United States’ actions in the Vietnam War. The film centers on the character of J.T. Davis, nicknamed “Joker” (Matthew Modine), a young volunteer enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War.
The film describes his journey within the army, from his entry to the training camp of the Marines of Parris Island, in South Carolina. Along with the other recruits he is a part of, Davis is taken in hand by the ruthless Sergeant Hartman, an instructor with virile and direct methods who practices an art of instruction based on insult and humiliation.
Hartman focuses his attention on rookie Lawrence, a flabby young man, whom he nicknames “Gomer Pyle” a because of his physique. Indeed, because of his overweight, Lawrence struggles during the physical exercises given to the soldiers and seems to have a limited intellectual capacity.
During the last night spent at the training camp, before being deployed to Vietnam, Lawrence descends into madness and shoots Sergeant Hartman, under the eyes of Guignol, before turning his M14 rifle towards him and suicide. The film’s action then moves to Vietnam, in the full conflict between the US Army and the Viet Cong. We see Sergeant Joker, now assigned to a unit of military journalists from Stars and Stripes magazine.
Apocalypse Now, by Francis Ford Coppola, is another of the quintessential movies about the Vietnam War. The script is based on Heart of Darkness, a short novel by Joseph Conrad set in Africa at the end of the 19th century, although moving the action to the Vietnam War.
The film won two Oscars, for best cinematography and best sound, and received six nominations, for best director, best film, best-supporting actor (Robert Duvall), best-adapted screenplay, best artistic direction, and best assembly. It was also awarded the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival.
The story begins in Saigon, South Vietnam, in late 1969. US Army Captain and special operations veteran Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) returned to Saigon on another combat tour during the Vietnam War, casually admitting that he cannot rejoin society in the United States and that his marriage has broken down. He drinks a lot, chain smokes, and hallucinates alone, in his room. He gets very angry and hurt when he breaks a big mirror.
One day, two military police officers arrive at Williard’s apartment in Saigon and, after cleaning it up, escort him to an officers’ trailer where military intelligence officers Lieutenant General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford) approach him with a top secret. mission to follow the Nung River into a remote jungle, find ex-rebel Green Beret Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), and kill him.
Kurtz has gone mad and now commands his Montagnard troops inside neutral Cambodia. They play a recording of Kurtz’s voice, captured by army intelligence, where Kurtz rambles on about the destruction of war and a snail crawling on a razor’s edge.