When the documentary "The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick" aired on PBS in 2017, the staff of Military.com compiled a list of our favorite movies about the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
"Full Metal Jacket," "Apocalypse Now," "Good Morning Vietnam," "Platoon" and "The Deer Hunter" are movies you probably already know and will want to watch again. "Hamburger Hill," "Bullet in the Head," "Rolling Thunder" and "First Blood" are more surprising (and possibly controversial) selections.
Check out our recommendations below and share your favorites in the comments.
1. Full Metal Jacket
Besides adding the phrase “major malfunction” to the lexicon of American pop culture, “Full Metal Jacket” gave us the most riveting, foul-mouthed boot camp scene in the history of cinema. R. Lee Ermey’s portrayal of “Gunny Hartman” dominated the movie’s first half. Such a sustained volley of X-rated insults, hurled effortlessly at petrified recruits, could only come from years of experience as a Marine Corps drill instructor – and Ermey had been one. “The more you hate me, the more you will learn,” he tells his Vietnam-bound grunts. Gunny’s six-minute tirade sets the stage for the murderous outcome that closes the first act of Kubrick’s masterpiece. Casting a real-life DI as a DI: Pure genius. -- Marty Callaghan
2. Good Morning Vietnam
One of Robin Williams’s best roles, this movie brilliantly captures the experience of the Vietnam War through the eyes of someone not actively engaged in the fighting: real life Air Force radio personality Adrian Cronauer. His battles against inept leadership and the mindless bureaucracy that survives--even in a war zone--are something many service members can relate to. His rebellion against what he’s told to do is inspiring and then as he seeks to make his tour less of a soup sandwich by engaging with the local population and helping them, he is ultimately reminded that he is there to fight a war and war does in fact rage all around him. -- Sarah Blansett
3. Rolling Thunder
"Rolling Thunder" is neither sensitive to nor concerned with the actual experiences of returning Vietnam POWs. It didn't win any awards or play in any theater more prestigious than the local drive-in. It's a low-budget fever dream written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and directed by the underrated John Flynn ("Out for Justice" starring Steven Seagal and "The Outfit" starring Robert Duvall are both worth tracking down. What you get is a revenge fantasy for every Vietnam vet who felt the hate when he returned from service.
Major Charle Rane (William Devane) and Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) are prisoners of war who get a hero's welcome on the tarmac when they return to Texas, but things come unraveled immediately thereafter. Devane's wife announces on his first night home that she's leaving him for Jody and taking their son. He later gets awarded a Cadillac convertible and a huge box of silver dollars (one for each day in captivity) by the San Antonio city fathers. Some criminal hillbillies see the exchange on the TV news and track him down to steal that money. When he refuses to cooperate, they feed his arm into the garbage disposal and kill his soon-to-be ex-wife and son when they drop by the house to get their stuff.
Rane gets himself a hook to replace his mangled hand and takes up with Linda Forchet (Linda Haynes), a young woman who wore his POW bracelet while he was in North Vietnam. Rane goes on a hunt to deliver justice to the men who killed his family and picks up Johnny in El Paso along the way to help with the mission.
It's lurid and cathartic, tapping into the same frustration and rage that many of the more awards-friendly movies on this list try to highlight. Sometimes primitive and outlandish works just as well as sensitive and thoughtful when you're trying to work things out. -- James Barber
4. Bullet in the Head
Part "The Deer Hunter" (see roulette scene) and part "The Killer" but one hundred percent highly stylized John Woo.
After trouble with local gangsters in Hong Kong, three best friends flee to Vietnam at the height of the war in hopes to profit from black market penicillin and gold. The trio is soon captured by the Vietcong who force them to make a choice that will test the limits of their friendship.
Woo’s subtext to the movie relies on and attempts to recreate (as does "The Deer Hunter") the infamous news photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon. While some scenes seem contrived, when taken in context of the Vietnam war, the chaos feels right at home, even welcome. -- Sean Mclain Brown
5. Hamburger Hill
“Hamburger Hill” is a gritty war film that focuses on the lives of 14 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division’s B Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment during the 12-day battle that occurred May 10-21, 1969, in the northern part of South Vietnam near the A Shau Valley.
I saw the movie when it came out in 1987 as a young infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division. I still remember that the film’s depiction of the actual battle left me, and other members of my platoon, in awe of how these Screaming Eagles endured an up-hill fight against a well-entrenched enemy under the most miserable conditions.
The movie features a young Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott and Steven Weber, who later played Brian Hackett in the 1990s sitcom “Wings.” One of the most powerful performances came from Courtney B. Vance who played Spec. Abraham “Doc” Johnson.
The real battle of Hamburger Hill left about 500 enemy soldiers dead. Taking the hill claimed the lives of 39 soldiers from the 187th and left 290 wounded.
To me, “Hamburger Hill” stacks up to “Platoon,” “We were Soldiers” or any other film out there that focuses on the sacrifices infantrymen made during the Vietnam War. -- Matthew Cox
6. First Blood
When you think of Vietnam war movies you generally don’t think about Rambo. But the first movie in the Rambo series, "First Blood," was in my opinion one of the best Vietnam war movies made.
Rambo meets a megalomaniacal small town police chief who doesn’t want any long-haired drifters hanging around his town, veteran or not. Rambo just wants to be left alone, the police chief wants to make a point, and you know the rest of the story.
Many people around today don’t remember when every veteran wasn’t told “thank you for your service”, or given discounts at every store. This movie shows much of the hate and discontent that returning veterans faced after Vietnam.
Vietnam veterans were drafted and sent away to somewhere that even today 90% of Americans couldn’t find on a map. The war dragged on forever and many think that we could have won.
This movie educated the general public to the fact that Vietnam veterans lived through hell, both in the war and when they came back home, for that it deserves to be watched again and appreciated as a statement on the reality that all veterans face when they return to civilian life. -- Jim Absher
7. Apocalypse Now
"Apocalypse Now" contains a lot of things I love in film - heavy use of symbolism and themes as well as exceptional acting and cinematography. Coppola does a great job of reworking Conrad's Heart of Darkness for the Vietnam War, extending the themes of imperialism to include the madness of war, while also mixing in Dante. However, the movie feels like an abstraction, not a realistic depiction, and you could easily adapt the same script to our current involvement in Afghanistan. — John Rodriguez
"Platoon" on the other hand plays like a more realistic depiction of the Vietnam War from a soldier’s perspective, which makes sense as Oliver Stone is a Vietnam combat vet. In general the characters are more fleshed out than in similar movies like "Hamburger Hill," although I do have a hard time taking Charlie Sheen seriously; he’s no Martin. — John Rodriguez
9. The Deer Hunter
Other Vietnam War movies have more grandeur or explosive moments, but Michael Cimino’s "The Deer Hunter" cuts the deepest. Never before had a movie about the conflict tackled head-on the emotional issues that afflict those who serve, come home, and struggle to find a place for themselves -- and it’s fair to say no Vietnam War movie has ever captured the rhythms and sorrows of small-town life in the US as well as "The Deer Hunter "does.
The cast alone elevates the movie to among the best ever made: Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken in a star-making performance, and John Cazale (Fredo from the "Godfather " movies) in his very last role before his tragic early death from bone cancer.
Looking for memorable moments? Just utter the words “Russian roulette,” and any movie aficionado will recall the harrowing POW sequences in this film. "The Deer Hunter" is not without controversy -- director Cimino reportedly claimed he was in an Army Green Beret unit, but records show he only served briefly before the war started -- and watching the movie can be a punishing experience. But as a lyrical, moving piece of cinema that sticks with you, very few movies can come close. -- Ho Lin
Keep Up With the Best in Military Entertainment
Whether you're looking for news and entertainment, thinking of joining the military or keeping up with military life and benefits, Military.com has you covered. Subscribe to the Military.com newsletter to have military news, updates and resources delivered straight to your inbox.