Seeing a destination on the screen instead of actually going there has several advantages. You won’t be scammed, spend thousands of dollars that could have gone on clothes, coffee and nights out and the language barrier won’t be a problem (unless it’s a foreign film and you hate reading subtitles). There are heaps of movies set in Vietnam to sink your teeth into, ranging from films about the war to films about the time before the war. Who am I kidding — almost all movies set in Vietnam are about the war (or wars, including the fight against the French), so if you’re going to make your way through this list you’d better be prepared for some dark and depressing material.
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
From the opening scene featuring a Captain Willard’s hotel room meltdown while the Doors “This is the End” plays to the surreal and horrific depiction of the madness of war, Apocalypse Now is one of the most brilliantly directed films of all time. Willard’s (Martin Sheen) journey upriver to find Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), who has taken over a section of rural Cambodia, is full of drama, tragedy and drug-fueled weirdness. Also check out Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse for a fascinating look at the difficulties Francis Ford Coppola and his crew faced while shooting the film in the Philippines.
It’s hard to believe it now, but Charlie Sheen was once a talented and respected actor. He was great in Platoon, an action-packed Vietnam War movie from the 80s. Directed by Oliver Stone, it’s another dark journey into the depths of war.
FULL METAL JACKET (1987)
Another film in my personal top 5 of all time, Full Metal Jacket starts off as a hilarious boot camp romp featuring the funniest drill sergeant ever seen on screen (the man who played him, R. Lee Ermey, died recently) and turns into something else entirely. If you’re only going to watch one Vietnam War movie this should be it (or maybe Apocalypse Now). The battle scenes are tense and take place in Hue, a popular stop on the modern day Vietnam tourist trail.
GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (1987)
I’m not a big fan of Robin Williams’ comedy (but try telling that to the 10 year old me who loved Mrs Doubtfire) but I did enjoy Good Morning Vietnam. It shows the lighter side of the war while giving an insight into what life was like in the relative calm (the emphasis there being on relative) of Saigon. The film centres on a radio DJ who takes it upon himself to add a bit of humour to the lives of the American soldiers stationed in Vietnam.
CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989)
Michael J Fox clashes with an army ambivalent to the harsh and demeaning treatment of the very people they were allegedly there to help. Sean Penn plays the menacing Sgt. Meserve perfectly and Fox is well cast as one of the few people in the film with a conscience. It’s dark stuff but it’s a well made film.
HAMBURGER HILL (1987)
The pointlessness of a lot of the Vietnam War battles is well depicted in this harrowing, action-packed film. Almost the entire 112 minutes is dedicated to the task of taking “Hamburger Hill”, a fairly insignificant piece of territory which was given up not long after. It’s based on a true story, which makes it all the more hard-hitting.
THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002)
Brendon Fraser and Michael Caine are involved in a gentlemanly love triangle with a Vietnamese woman in Saigon. Set in the 1950s, a complicated time with the impending fall of French colonial rule and growing American influence in Vietnam. It’s a decent movie and is a definite change of pace from the more action-packed war movies set in the 60s and 70s.
TROPIC THUNDER (2008)
This comedy features Robert Downey Jr in blackface and Ben Stiller murdering a panda. It follows a group of actors who get lost in the jungles of Vietnam (or possibly Laos or Myanmar) while making a movie about the Vietnam War. It’s an enjoyable and pretty light-hearted film (although there are some dark parts) – it’s good to see a fresh take on the Vietnam War genre.
THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
The Deer Hunter starts off slowly (the leaving party scene seems to take forever) before delving into the life as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It features some of the most iconic scenes in film history and it’s worth watching for that alone (I won’t ruin it here). It’s a good (if a little long) movie with some great acting by Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken.
TUNNEL RATS (2008)
This low budget, ultra violent film shows the claustrophobic experience of fighting (and living) in the vast network of tunnels in southern Vietnam. You can visit some of these tunnels (Cu Chi) if you’re visiting Saigon. The movie kind of sucks but I guess it’s unique enough to warrant a watch.
WE WERE SOLDIERS
Before all the anti-Semitic stuff Mel Gibson was pretty cool (and made great movies). We were soldiers might not be a “great” movie, but honestly I can’t really remember. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep halfway through this movie around a decade ago, and I completely forgot about it on my original post (thanks to the magic of the internet it’s now here!). I thought about watching it again but was a bit burnt out on Vietnam war movies so gave it a miss!
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)
The true story of Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise), who was wheelchair bound after serving in Vietnam, is depressing in a different way to the other movies on this list. It mostly deals with the struggles Vietnam vets faced once they returned home, and the anti war movement many of them aligned with. Also, Charlie dressed up as Ron Kovic in an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (obviously for cynical reasons), so that lightens things up a bit! Coming Home and Deathdream also explore this side of the war but didn’t seem to feature Vietnam much so I skipped them (there are only so many depressing movies a man can take!).
HEAVEN AND EARTH (1993)
I remember half watching this 1993 drama on TV while marking homework in Taiwan. It’s the third installment of Oliver Stone’s “Vietnam War Trilogy” (The other two being Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) and is notable for being told from the perspective of a local woman while the war rages around her.
THREE SEASONS (1999)
I’m not a massive fan of subtitles, so I mostly kept this list to movies set in Vietnam that didn’t require me to read. This was one of the exceptions though, and I did quite enjoy it. Four Seasons features several intertwined tales set in modern day Vietnam (if you time travelled back to 1999 when the film was released). One involved Harvey Kietel, who didn’t appear to speak Vietnamese, meaning I could occasionally take a break from reading.
THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA (1993)
I was recommended this movie by a friend but my attempt to watch it was foiled by tired eyes (and subtitles) — I’ll get to it one day though. It seems to be about a slightly dodgy romance between a servant girl and her boss — let me know if you’ve seen it!
THE BUFFALO BOY (2004)
Another Vietnamese language film, The Buffalo Boy is an entertaining tale about a boy who herds buffalos (the clue is in the title). It shows what rural life might have been like for people in the flood-prone Mekong Delta.
THE FOG OF WAR (2003)
This film is basically just an interview with Robert S. McNamara, the American Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam War. It shows the thinking of a man who was involved in key decisions (and key mistakes) that contributed to the ultimate failure to win the war.
WINTER SOLDIER (1972)
Not to be confused with the underwhelming Captain America sequel, Winter Soldier is a Vietnam War documentary featuring interviews with former American soldiers who fought in Vietnam. It’s pretty harrowing stuff — consider this your warning!
THE VIETNAM WAR (2017)
This 10 part TV series (which obviously isn’t a movie) gives a great overview of the war, from its origins through to the “last chopper out of Saigon” and the lasting ramifications of such a brutal conflict (or series of brutal conflicts). It features interviews from all sides and is extremely thorough in its presentation.
I’m done! I never have to watch another movie set in Vietnam again (unless someone makes a new one) — I can go back to watching wholesome animated family movies and Adam Sandler comedies.
What is your favourite movie about Vietnam? Let me know in the comments below!