It is hard to tackle the story of the Vietnam War and especially a challenge to do so on film. The complex guerilla war lasted for nearly 20 years and direct American involvement for at least 10 years.
It is impossible to say that a single movie captures the essence of the Vietnam War given the war experience is different for every person. And there is creative license that needs to be considered, that is, the creativity of the director and writer and whether or not they had military technical advisers on their sets to help make the movie more real.
That said, it is impossible for us, or anyone for that matter, to say that the movies we’ve selected here are the best or the top 10 Vietnam war movies. However, we are a company with a lot of veterans and many of us belong to veteran service organizations and we know what veterans like.
So, we compiled what we thought were Vietnam war movies that people should see. They are presented, in no particular order, but at least half of these are based on real events and real people.
Here is USAMM’s list of 10 Vietnam war movies that are worth watching.
1. We Were Soldiers
This movie stars Mel Gibson as Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore. The 2002 movie is based on Moore’s best-selling book “We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young” written by Moore (who would retire as a three-star general) and journalist Joseph L. Galloway. It is no secret that Moore did not like the way Hollywood portrayed the American fighting man in Vietnam. His book presents a different image of Vietnam warriors. The movie depicts the true story of the first major battle between the United States and North Vietnam in the Ia Drang valley. Of all the Vietnam war movies, this film portrays American soldiers as brave, willing to fight, and highly professional.
This 1986 movie directed by Oliver Stone tells the story of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen). The idealistic Taylor drops out of college and enlists as an infantryman to serve in Vietnam. The movie is based on Stone’s experiences as a soldier in the jungles of Vietnam. Stone, received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart during his tour in Vietnam. The movie stars Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger (and a young Johnny Depp) amongst others. This is one of a few Vietnam war movies that won Oscars. It won four Academy Awards.
3. Full Metal Jacket
No list of Vietnam war movies would be complete without Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 classic, Full Metal Jacket. The film stars Matthew Modine and it follows him from his early days of recruit training on Parris Island, to the Battle of Hué where he loses his best friend from basic training who is killed by a sniper. This military classic sets an early tone and easily draws a viewer in thanks to the presence of R. Lee Ermey, a Marine turned actor who convincingly plays the part of the drill instructor.
4. Apocalypse Now
The 1979 epic, Apocalypse Now, features one of the most beloved military characters to ever grace the screen. And we’re not talking about Capt. Willard the Green Beret assassin played by Martin Sheen. Nor are we talking about Col. Kurtz played by Marlon Brando. The two main characters are upstaged by the brief appearance of Robert Duvall playing a surfing Air Cavalry officer who has some memorable lines to include “Charlie don’t surf!” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
The film is based on Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness. Like other Vietnam war movies, this film won two Academy Awards.
5. The Deer Hunter
By the time The Deer Hunter came out in 1979, Americans were licking their wounds over U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The film, unlike other Vietnam war movies, is unapologetically anti-war. The movie tells the story of three steel workers in 1968 who are played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage. The friends are sent to Vietnam and their service leads to drug addiction, permanent disabilities, and mental health issues. The film won five Academy Awards, the most of any of the Vietnam war movies.
6. Hamburger Hill
This 1987 movie is based on the real life 1969 battle of Hill 937, fought between the U.S. Army and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam against the People's Army of Vietnam. The heavily-fortified hill in Central Vietnam had little strategic value, but American commanders ordered its capture by a frontal assault. The hill was abandoned not long after it was captured. The 10-day battle killed 72 Americans and wounded 372. This is also one of the few Vietnam war movies based on real events.
7. Born on the Fourth of July
This is another one of the Vietnam war movies based on real events and adapted from a book written by Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. Kovic is played by Tom Cruise in the movie. The film shares the story of an idealistic teenager who enlists in the Marine Corps and is sent to fight in Vietnam. During a firefight in his second tour in Vietnam, Kovic (Cruise) accidentally shoots one of his own men. When he tries to do the right thing and report it, his commander refuses to accept Kovic’s admission. Later, Kovic (Cruise) is wounded in battle and permanently paralyzed.
The movie is Oliver Stone’s second foray into the Vietnam War and shows what veterans faced when they returned home from Vietnam. While anti-war in sentiment, the movie is based on a book written by a combat veteran who lived it, and the movie is based on the book, directed by a man who also served in the war and lived it.
8. Good Morning Vietnam
There are few Vietnam war movies considered comedies and this 1988 film is one of them. Although it has clear dramatic moments, the movie tells the comedic tale of real-life military DJ Adrian Cronauer, played by funny man Robin Williams. Cronauer is on a one-man mission to put smiles on the faces of military personnel who are in the middle of fighting an unpopular war. The movie is loosely based on Cronauer’s time in Vietnam. Cronauer would say about half of the movie was accurate and not fiction.
9. Bat 21
This is one of those Vietnam war movies based on real life. The 1988 movie tells the tale of Air Force Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton, played by Gene Hackman. Hambleton is shot down behind enemy lines and in order to survive he stays connected to Capt. Bartholomew “Bird-Dog” Clark (Danny Glover), over the radio. Because it is a Hollywood product, the movie strays on occasion, but for the most part tells the story of Hambleton’s fight to survive.
10. Flight of the Intruder
This is one of two Vietnam war movies with actor Danny Glover. The 1991 film also stars Willem Dafoe and Brad Johnson. The movie is based on the book written by real U.S. Navy A-6 Intruder pilot, and Vietnam veteran, Stephen Coonts. While a work of fiction, like the fact that an aircrew goes off mission to freelance and bomb targets of their own choosing, the movie is entertaining mostly because of the characters.