Up until its end, Vietnam represented the longest running conflict in U.S. history. Of course, for perspective, we’ve now been in Iraq and Afghanistan 50% longer and with no end in sight (I mean, once you’ve spent $1,000,000,000,000 on a couple little wars, what’s another $1-2,000,000,000,000 among taxpayers, right?). Given the way Vietnam tore American society into polarized bits, I guess it should be no surprise that the same has happened to our society over the past fifteen years.
It got me thinking–what films are the best representation of the Vietnam conflict? Do they tell us anything about the era in which they were made–and that time’s opinion of the Vietnam conflict? Are we able to learn from them anything useful to inform us on American society of today? The films here below don’t always do that, but I consider them significant for something or another.
The Green Berets, 1968: At the height of the war, this John Wayne film was released and is ultimately the only gung-ho, pro-war film out there. It’s over the top in being pro-American, but it’s the only movie I can think of that shows ARVN Rangers in action (with George Takei taking time away from his role as Lt. Sulu to play the Ranger leader).
Go Tell the Spartans, 1978: One of the best anti-war films of the post-WW2 era. It is a twist on the tale of the 300 Spartans (hence the title). It is worth taking the time to seek out.
The Deer Hunter, 1978: Really, the first movie to deal brutally with the effects of coming home and the aftermath of combat. He had a short career because he died from cancer–but ANYTHING with John Cazale in it is great (every movie he did was nominated/won an Academy Award)
The Odd, Angry Shot, 1979 An Australian Vietnam movie–it’s more about the boredom of being on a base and only rarely fighting. It pokes a finger in the eye of Americans though and ultimately, the stupidity of fighting in South Vietnam. People forget that the Vietnam War saw commitments from other nations allied to the US such as Australia or South Korea.
Apocalypse Now, 1979: A modern retelling of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” It’s horror at a more personal level. You’re either going to think this is brilliant or despise it. For me, I can’t help but think of Martin Sheen playing this character in every role he does later throughout his career. There are great one-liners in this, but it isn’t a realistic Vietnam. Is it?
It’s a few more years down the road until you get to the next batch of great Vietnam movies. Those would be:
Full Metal Jacket and Gardens of Stone in ’87 and then 84Charlie MoPic two years later. All three are radically different films. Full Metal Jacket is two halves, one of Marine training and men pushed to their limits in one form, then the second is Hue during the Tet Offensive and men pushed a second way to the breaking point. Gardens of Stone is about soldiers guarding Arlington just after Tet and the desire of a younger soldier to see fighting before its over and an older one knowing that war is not glorious and that there are thousands of young soldiers who were itching to see combat now buried under Arlington’s white stones.
84 Charlie is the first ‘first-person’ movie I can remember. The film is told from the lens of a military cameraman (his designation is ’84C’, thus the movie’s title), so you are limited to seeing what the camera sees. People give horror movies credit for this, but it’s really 84 Charlie that went there first.
The last two are different as well, each focusing on a single ‘battle’.
We Were Soldiers, 2002: Mel Gibson starring as Hal Moore in a role based on his book “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young.” It’s about a nasty battle in the Ia Drang Valley in the fall of 1965, less than six months after the first US forces have officially entered South Vietnam. Unlike a lot of war movies since it is 30+ years from its subject, it presents both sides fairly and also tries to show the cost back home. It doesn’t glamorize war. It is really the point where the war is portrayed as history rather than a visceral reliving of events for people who actually participated in the war.
The Post, 2017: Wait, what? Yes, a newspaper movie’s here. This is the story about the Washington Post’s fight to have the Pentagon Papers see the light of day (the leaked papers showed the government had been dishonest and was fighting beyond SVN in Cambodia, Laos, and even the coastal waters of North Vietnam).
All of these are ways to learn more about a war that is now more than 40 years in the past. The youngest American combat veterans are now all 65 or older. Vietnam continues to affect America–look at the divisive politics…it’s no coincidence that the main actors all were 16-24 or so during the height of the Vietnam war, so it is important to understand the conflict and the ripples it still generates in US society.
If you like history stuff, it’s a different war, but consider reading my The Five Days of Osan. It’s a fictional account of men in Task Force Smith during the first five days of American involvement in the Korean War…and it’s $4.99 on Amazon. Really.