Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, American cinema has given us a steady stream of stories based on and around the ten-year conflict that saw America’s first significant military defeat. They’ve ranged from classic examples of New Hollywood with Apocalypse Now, to heartfelt action adventures like Rambo, and attempts at re-fighting the war in Missing In Action.
This list presents five of the best movies about Vietnam that you may not have seen or even heard of, obscured from the public’s conscious but still worth giving your time to. Each takes a different viewpoint, and a different narrative style and each is a singular movie in its own right. None are especially “fun” to watch, but then, as Larry Wayne Chaffin’s helmet in the classic photo said, “War is hell”
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A mockumentary following a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol on a five-day mission behind enemy lines, predating The Blair Witch Project’s usage of shaky first-person camera work to create intimacy and confusion by a decade. The “fly on the wall” approach, combined with a small and well-written cast, allows the viewer to see a more intimate side of the conflict and to understand the range of pressures and motivations for professional soldiers. It also presents a highly realistic depiction of what it’s like to be engaged in combat, with the action being confusing and disorientating, combat happening at long ranges against an unseen enemy, and the end results being frustratingly inconclusive. It’s been quietly hailed as a masterpiece, both by the critics and US combat units, but never quite the exposure of other, more glitz productions. Even now, it still holds up as a ground-breaking work and an evocative look at modern combat.
Following the life of U.S. Marine Corps enlistee Anthony Curtis, this film focuses on the black post-Vietnam experience. Starring Larenz Tate, in one of his greatest performances, and written & directed by the Hughes brothers straight after Menace II Society, it’s a grim insight into both the effects of war on an individual and the impact of Vietnam on the marginalised civilian population. The film unrepentantly addresses the racial divides of American society, including the additional pressures and emotional conflicts of African American servicemen, in a manner that few others have tried. Some criticised the ending, and overall narrative structure, as being disjointed and without a cohesive message, but that is also the films strength as not all tales have a glorious conclusion.
Coming off the tail of the mid 80s Vietnam ‘boom’, John Irvin used the real story of the 7-day long Battle of Hill 937 and the fictional account of five new recruits to give insight into the harsh, meat grinder realities of the conflict in post-Tet Offensive 1969. The first act is the introduction of the ensemble to actual fieldcraft, along with the internal conflicts within the armed forces, and establishes the dirt and dissolution setting in. The second and third act are pure combat, as the brigade assault the hill. Heroics, panics, grim and bloody violence explode all around the main characters, whilst being part of the larger, indifferent conflict around them. Exhaustion, bad weather, and – most notoriously – “friendly fire” incidents take their physical and emotional toll on troopers and audience alike.
Dead Of Night
On the outside, this is a cheap and cheerful horror B-Movie about a dead son returning to, and then terrorising, his family and hometown. It should have been only noteworthy as the debut of Tom Savini’s makeup work, but through some inspired scripting and directorial decisions, it becomes about the treatment of soldiers returning from the war and the impacts of what would become known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Written and produced in 72, it mixes the macabre with the all to relatable and provides a number of surprises that bring it above just being a genre twist on social issues.
We Were Soldiers
Whilst not always fashionable in film making, without going into flag-waving revisionism territory, it’s important to remember that many of the soldiers who went to fight in Vietnam did so willingly. They went in, sure of purpose, to do a professional job of solidary and to fight for their country. This film, based on the book by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore on the battle of La Drang in 1965, attempts to present this world view whilst also being as honest about the realities of conflict as it can be. Mel Gibson leads the cast on the battlefield, in the role of then Lt Colonel Moore, knowing that he is putting his troops into danger, and is pitted against Đơn Dương, as Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Hữu An, commanding NVA forces in a similar manner. The combat is well shot, mostly historically accurate, and surprisingly balanced in showing each side as fighting for what they believe in. However, it is the home front, with Madeleine Stowe as Julia Moore, that knocks an otherwise straightforward story up another level as we see the wives of these soldiers coping as their husbands do their job of dying.