“Most of ’em got nothing. They’re poor. They’re the unwanted. Yet they’re fighting for our society and our freedom. It’s weird, isn’t it? They’re the bottom of the barrel, and they know it. Maybe that’s why they call themselves grunts, ’cause a grunt can take it, can take anything. They’re the best I’ve ever seen.” — Pfc. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), “Platoon”
In honor of that group — and all Vietnam vets on Vietnam War Veterans Day — we put together a top-10 list of films, excluding documentaries, we felt best tell the story of those who went through hell, both abroad and when they returned home.
From 10 (10th best) to 1 (best):
10. Casualties of War (1989)
A young Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn are immersed in a moral struggle after Penn’s character takes a young Vietnamese teenager as a prisoner. The girl, who Fox attempts to help in the face of vehemently opposed comrades, is repeatedly beaten and raped. The blurred lines depicted force the viewer to wrestle with the notion that the casualties referenced in the title extend well beyond troops in combat.
9. Rescue Dawn (2006)
German-American Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was a U.S. Navy pilot when he was shot down near the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1966. Tortured for months and emaciated, Dengler eventually escaped his captors, fleeing into dense jungle and evading capture for over three weeks before being rescued by U.S. forces. Bale and director Werner Herzog spare no realism in depicting the horrors of being a prisoner of war.
8. We Were Soldiers (2002)
While much of this list centers around psychological battles in extreme circumstances, “We Were Soldiers” is carried by intense action sequences that give credence to the total disarray of the Vietnam War’s first major battle — Ia Drang. The film is based on a book written by then-Lt. Col. Hal Moore (portrayed by Mel Gibson), who, as the commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, earned a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. Moore passed away in 2017 at the age of 94.
7. Hamburger Hill (1987)
“Hamburger Hill” had the misfortune of being released the same year as notable Vietnam War films, “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Full Metal Jacket.” Despite its relegation to an oftentimes under-the-radar status, it remains a film that should be on everyone’s must-watch list. Based on the 101st Airborne Division’s push to take Hill 937, the film expertly depicts the physical and mental exhaustion experienced by the battle’s participants. Despite sustaining massive losses in taking the hill, the U.S. abandoned the high ground only weeks after the battle ended, prompting severe criticism of military leadership and a reassessment of overall war strategy.
6. Born of the Fourth of July (1989)
The true story of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), gung-ho Marine turned anti-war activist, won Oliver Stone an Oscar for Best Director. In a firefight in Vietnam, Kovic mistakenly kills one of his own men. He’s then shot and left paralyzed from the chest down. Despite the gravity of the moment, the scene is ultimately where the film kicks into gear. Cruise, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, brilliantly portrays Kovic’s collapse into depression, post-traumatic stress, alcohol abuse and horrifying stints at a veterans’ hospital. It remains a psychologically trying-yet-identifiable film for veterans of all wars.
5. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Robin Williams was flawless as charismatic radio DJ Adrian Cronauer, who broke the mold of the stereotypical, dry Armed Forces Radio broadcaster, infuriating his superiors in the process. Many of the broadcasts featured in the film were improvised by Williams, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for the role. The film shows that despite the ongoing carnage awaiting in every direction, even war can have its lighter moments.
4. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Most veterans would agree the bootcamp sequence of the film — most notably, R. Lee Ermey’s portrayal of Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman — makes “Full Metal Jacket” the classic that it is. Given director Stanley Kubrick’s track record (”The Shining“, “A Clockwork Orange,” “Eyes Wide Shut”), the dehumanization and unhinging psychological effects of war, and military life in general, were guaranteed to be a central focus going in. No matter the takeaway, it’s hard to find a list of the best Vietnam War films not featuring this gem.
3. The Deer Hunter (1978)
The top three of this list was difficult to group because of the vastly different experience each film offers. At number three is “The Deer Hunter,” which took home five Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Film Editing and Best Sound. Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and Walken steal the show in a story about friends from western Pennsylvania who ship out to Vietnam together. If you haven’t seen it yet, make time for it. The term “Russian roulette” will never be the same.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Adapted to Vietnam from the story “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, Francis Ford Coppola’s portrait of the Vietnam War is a head-first dive into the nightmarish devastation of war and an exploration into the breaking point of human sanity. No one is immune to destruction, and masterful performances by Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen and others force any viewer to question their own mental fortitude.
1. Platoon (1986)
Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” delivered Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, and its cemented status as an authoritative Vietnam War film makes it No. 1 on our list. (Really, any of the top-three could have landed here.) Moral strife is at the heart of “Platoon,” and the cast gracefully meanders on a tightrope between good and evil while posing questions of conscience at almost every turn. Poetic narrative provides compassion in the midst of human depravity. The story of “Platoon” gets to our core as human beings as only tribulations experienced by Vietnam War veterans can.
How would you rank these 10 films? Any additional films you think deserve to make this list? Take our poll below or comment to let us know.
Observation Post is the Military Times one-stop shop for all things off-duty. Stories may reflect author observations.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.