For those of us residing in The United States Of America, Wednesday is July, 4th the day we celebrate our independence from England. Patriotism, military service, and historic events all surround the holiday and I thought it was a great opportunity to highlight the best films regarding The Vietnam War. The war shaped the mood and tone of the entire country and that bled into it’s filmmakers and their creative visions, and this was especially true of films directly about armed conflict. Here is a shortlist of the best films about The Vietnam War.
Full Metal Jacket
Broken up into two distinct parts, Full Metal Jacket (1987) was Stanley Kubrick’s vision of what the military and the war do to a human being, turning them into an unfeeling killing machine. Private Joker (Matthew Modine) is our guide through the horrors of life in Vietnam, the only soldier still clinging to whatever humanity remains. Where Full Metal Jacket stands out is in it’s first part which details life through a marine boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina. Vincent D’Nofrio plays Private Pyle, an underachieving screw up who finds himself in the abusive hands of a charismatic and terrifying Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). Private Joker is tasked with looking after Pyle, and through his supervision and guidance Pyle improves in his tasks and duties. Things don’t end well for Pyle and the weight of being unable to help him haunts Joker for the rest of the film and plays right into the ending. Full Metal Jacket isn’t perfect and feels quite fragmented at times, but Kubrick was saying something profound about the nature of war and what it does to anyone infected by it.
The Deer Hunter
There is a mosaic like quality to Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) that focuses on three friends who are all impacted by their time in The Vietnam War. Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Stan (John Cazale) all part of a rite of passage, enlist to serve in the military and fight for their country in The Vietnam War. The three men all go deer hunting before leaving for the war, beautifully captured by Vilmos Zsigmond in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State in one of the most beautiful scenes caught on film. The three men meet up in Vietnam but are shortly captured by Vietnamese forces and held in a prisoner of war camp. For the guards pleasure the three men are forced to play Russian roulette, cruelly laughing at the torment and pain the men are going through. These are among the most disturbing and emotionally intense scenes in the film or in any film, they still echo in my memory. Cimino was criticized when the film was released because all of the Vietnamese are quite mean and downright evil. I’d argue that being in a prisoner of war camp, you’d run into some very cruel individuals. It wasn’t making a sweeping comment on the entirety of the country’s population. The acting performances throughout are something legendary and never fails to be compelling. The Deer Hunter is an epic and sprawling story that captures the encompassing nature that The Vietnam War had on this country.
Hal Ashby has a way on crafting a film in a manner that it completely surprises you with it’s pleasures and twists. Coming Home (1978) fits this description very much, presenting us with interesting characters and surprising narrative choices. Luke Martin (Voight) is a paraplegic from a war injury and recovering at a hospital where Sally (Fonda) is volunteering at. Her husband Bob (Dern) is stationed in Vietnam and she volunteers to help pass the time. Luke has a lot of rage and bitterness over what happened to him and comes to oppose the cause he took up as a soldier. As he spends more and more time with Sally he loses the strong hold he has on his embittered past and begins to open up to her more. Eventually they fall in love but have to deal with Bob, her returning husband who comes back after sustaining a gunshot wound to his leg. He comes back suffering PTSD and is informed by Army Intelligence of the affair between his wife and Luke. Coming Home deftly handles a nuanced and captivating story through the eyes of Sally and how the Vietnam War has impacted her life. I was always so surprised how emotionally taken I was with this film, it really is that good.
Francis Ford Coppola put absolutely everything he had into this film which suffered so many problems and set backs I feel fortunate that we ever got to see it. Apocalypse Now (1979) follows the dark and harrowing journey of Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) and his crew of men as he tries to track down a rogue Army Colonel (Marlon Brando). Using a gritty voice over and unbelievably surreal images, Coppola treats us to a visceral nightmare that truly puts us on a spiritual path towards darkness. The film itself is a journey into the acknowledgement of war equating to insanity, we grasp how unstable this world is, always teetering on disaster. Apocalypse Now is a complete immersion into the atmospheric and mood filled world that Coppola has created and built, you can almost feel the moisture in the air. Sheen gives a grounded and disturbed performance as Willard and we care about him with what little humanity Sheen is able to bring to the role. Apocalypse Now haunts us with it’s vision of The Vietnam War and confronts us with the most difficult of notions. The most disturbing of which is asking ourselves what we are truly capable of.