Platoon remains one of Oliver Stone’s finest films, a powerfully directed and action-packed war movie story depicting a US army unit imploding in Vietnam. Charlie Sheen is the young idealistic recruit who volunteers for the war only to be quickly ridiculed by his less fortunate, often black draftee comrades.
The portrayal of the Vietnam conflict here is of massive racial tension, deadly rivalries between officers and the appalling random violence of fighting the Vietcong in steamy jungles. Sheen’s character goes through the whole gamut of emotions; arriving as an innocent recruit he immediately encounters the brutality and carefree violence meted out by his own men towards each other and the perceived ‘enemy’.
In Platoon Stone goes through most of the well known clichés to come out of the Vietnam war – the polarization of racial groups, the dimwitted officers risking everyone’s lives, the warring officers, and the immoral troopers. More than that, the movie actually becomes a battle between good and evil and charts the death of American innocence in so many ways, large and small.
Apocalypse Now is more legend than film and it remains Coppola’s masterpiece…this movie experience is at once dreamlike and utterly nightmarish, splashed with the green of the forest, the red of blood, the black of the rivers and the darkness of men’s souls. To make this film Coppola drew upon Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, depicting Colonel Kurtz, a once brilliant and patriotic US soldier who seemingly loses his mind and retreats to the jungle to live as a demi-god surrounded by devoted followers.
A wacked out and already deranged Martin Sheen is sent to terminate Kurtz “with extreme prejudice” by the US authorities. Sheen’s trip down the river through the churning ultra-violent landscape of war torn Vietnam gets weirder and darker the deeper he goes, until ultimately he questions his own purpose and mission, feeling the dreadful draw of the looming Kurtz.
This movie is famous for the scenes and characters which include the murderous Lt Colonel Kilgore and his “napalm in the morning” fantasies to the totally insane Marlon Brando and LSD-crazed Dennis Hopper. Apocalypse Now is more tableau than plot, more poem than story and yet the impression left will never leave you. There’s also an unforgettable soundtrack from The Doors…this is the best Vietnam film ever made.
Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick’s look at the dark side of men at war is disturbing, violent and in many ways bizarre – rather than being a plot driven war movie Full Metal Jacket is something more of a tableau of man’s inherent evil…think Lord of the Flies in a boot camp/Vietnam setting. Kubrick has no interest in explaining what is happening at any time in this movie, the viewer is just thrust into the scene and left to make of it what he/she will.
Kubrick’s famous creations in this excellent movie include the utterly merciless and sadistic Gunnery Sgt Hartman, the frightened recruit driven insane Private Pyle and of course Matthew Modine’s Joker, who despite all his attempts to brush it all off is shaken deeply by the savagery of what man can do to fellow man. This film has the best ever recreation of boot camp for marines as we witness the dehumanization of the men as they are shaved, shouted and beasted into killing machines.
Kubrick goes into the personal cost of turning men into soldiers and we see the consequences of when it all goes wrong. The second part of the movie focusses on the marines, especially Joker out in Vietnam. Full Metal Jacket feels very real, the action sequences are stunning and there’s nowhere to hide as the troops get deeper and deeper into a kind of hell. A brilliant, uncompromising film.
The Deer Hunter
Robert De Niro’s Deer Hunter ending up winning 5 Academy Awards and several scenes are etched into movie folklore – who can forget the captured American soldiers made to endure Russian roulette at the hands of the VC?
This 1978 movie was made a scant 3 years after the fall of Saigon and was one of the first to deal with the open wound of post traumatic stress disorder carried by the many veterans trying to reintegrate into normal society. The movie follows three friends from an industrial town in America who go off to fight in Vietnam where they are captured and brutalised by Vietcong. Affecting a daring escape the men manage to get away down a river and get picked up by friendly forces.
However the mental damage of war has been done and one of the friends ends up playing Russian roulette once more back in Saigon before a hall of bloodthirsty bettors. This is a sweeping, thoughtful film which crosses between the jungles and horrors of Vietnam and the dislocation of returning home with all the bad memories and scars. Not a thrill-packed movie, the Deer Hunter is a seminal late 70s take on the suicidal experience of Vietnam.
Hamburger Hill takes its place among the great Vietnam War movies of the late 80s and although it has always been somewhat overshadowed by Platoon and Full Metal Jacket to an extent, this is a simply brilliant war movie. The story focusses on Hill 937 in the Ashau Valley where in 1969 troops from the 101st Airborne launched 11 assaults in an attempt to dislodge the enemy.
This is a bloody and realistic war film, sparing no-one with its intensity and brutality. There’s an interesting rendering of the relationships between the troops, especially highlighting the racial tension that was so evident in Vietnam units and also the conflict between the newbies and the ‘short-timers’ ready to finish their tour and get home.
Hamburger Hill is dead serious and brilliantly executed without any pretence towards overdramatic heroics or glamorization. The battle scenes in Hamburger Hill are somewhat reminiscent of Terrence Mallick’s later movie The Thin Red Line in their gore and intensity. If you want to see what battle in Vietnam was like at its most intense, this is the film for you.
We Were Soldiers
It’s all drama and action in this Mel Gibson war movie which brings home the valour, brutality and comradeship of the American experience in Vietnam. We Were Soldiers begins with Gibson’s character addressing his men warning them of the great perils ahead and that many may not return – the Gibson character is a sympathetic almost fatherlike figure to his troops which is an interesting change from the usual dictators or incompetents favoured by the Hollywood stereotype.
The movie follows the true story of the 400 strong unit who touched down in the Ia Drang Valley, nicknamed the Valley of Death, and faced down wave after wave of assaults from a 2000 strong NVA force. Similar to Hamburger Hill, We Were Soldiers focusses mainly on some stunning and violent battle sequences which leave nothing to the imagination, filled with all the courage and horror of modern conflict.
There’s portrayal of the suffering from both the men at the front and those left at home as the action moves back to the military base in Georgia where wives anxiously await news. This is moving and affecting drama brilliantly acted and directed.
Born on the Fourth of July
Adapted from Ron Kovic’s brilliant autobiography, Born On The Fourth of July is another late 80s reassessment of Vietnam, starring Tom Cruise in the lead role. Just as Oliver Stone’s previous film, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July looks at the human cost of the Vietnam War dealing in particular with the experience of wounded veterans and their return to American society.
In the first part of this film we see a motivated and patriotic Kovic with his unit in Vietnam coming upon what they believe to be an enemy position. It turns out to be a massacre of innocent civilians and later in another confusing battle scene Kovic himself is shot and passes out. Now effectively crippled, Kovic returns to the States and goes through a heartbreaking rehabilitation and disillusionment for the cause he gave so much for.
Born On The Fourth of July plumbs the depths of human despair as Kovic sees all his illusions of patriotism and pride stripped away as he witnesses America itself turning against the war. This veteran’s journey film contains one of Tom Cruise’s best performances and is a perfect companion piece to the wholly Vietnam-based Platoon.
Rescue Dawn is an intense human drama and like Coppola before him, you sense Werner Herzog is as much interested in what humans are capable of as in the Vietnam War backdrop. This is the story of US Air Force pilot Dieter Dengler, who is shot down over Vietnam and captured by villagers sympathetic to the Pathet Lao.
There he encounters a downtrodden and near-insane group of fellow POWs who become incredulous at his desire to escape captivity. Herzog deeps dig into the panic and fear of men in captivity but also the ingenuity and will to survive that seems to come to the surface in some men in such situations.
Christian Bale is scaringly convincing as the somewhat unhinged but determined Dengler, willing to do anything to escape and survive death, even if it means catching and eating a snake. Herzog in the making of Rescue Dawn went to any length to capture the authenticity of the fear and dread of the POW experience and it shows – some of the actors in this film look dangerously close to starvation and insanity.
Casualties of War
In another late-80s soul-searcher on Vietnam Michael J Fox plays the soldier whose conscience leads him to rebel against the cruelty shown by his own squad leader and comrades. Casualties of War is powerful and sometimes uncomfortable viewing and deals with themes of morality within a warzone – what happens when the basic rules of humanity no longer apply?
Fox plays a trooper who is saved from almost certain death by his squad leader, Senn Penn’s Sergeant Meserve, but then goes on to protest when the leave-deprived squad decide to take a Vietnamese girl to use as a sex slave. What most unsettles in this movie, expertly filmed on location and with war scenes realistically filmed, is how the vast majority of normal men acquiesce to horrific cruelty when faced with peer pressure in combat.
Although Fox’s character goes on to seek redress against the crimes committed by his comrades we see the heavy cost to the man himself, and it all poses the question what price a moralistic stand in a situation where morality is non-existent? Casualties of War is an affecting and tough movie with a message, and Penn is excellent as the cruel and violent Meserve.
Good Morning, Vietnam
Good Morning, Vietnam is Robin William’s 1987 bittersweet Vietnam war comedy with Williams nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of armed forces disc jockey Adrian Cronauer. All the laughs come from Cronauer’s rebellious stance towards his superior officers who take umbrage at his black style and ironic news updates, all of course loved by the troops.
Cronauer’s irreverence towards life, war and Vietnam in general sets up the inevitable clashes with superiors looking to ‘keep up the lie’ and play things by the book, but there’s also some touching and thought provoking scenes in this movie.
There’s an interesting portrayal of the American GI/Vietnamese woman relationship and some hilarious scenes as Robins takes the mantle of English teacher, teaching his students American slang instead of polite phrases. While Good Morning, Vietnam deals with the standard issues for a Vietnam film – corruption, betrayal, idiotic leadership and tragedy – there’s also plenty of laughs and a real story to follow.
This 1995 film is an unsung Vietnam Vets’ classic that deals in particular with the story of inner city black kids. Based on the real life experiences of Haywood Kirkland, author of oral histories on the black experience in Vietnam, the movie focuses on Anthony Curtis’ journey from high school, through the meat grinder of ‘Nam, then back home, and ultimately into crime.
This super action-crime-war movie is really pacey but also delves into the broad spectrum of experience affecting black vets returning from war in south east Asia. Brutalised and made experts at murder, young men struggle to regain their place in the community and face psychological trauma, ostracization and economic hardship. As Curtis struggles hard to live clean and support his family, he sees former comrades and people around him reduced to drug addiction and crime.
After losing his job in a butchers shop, and having run-ins with a local crime baron, Curtis finally “has enough”, and acquiesces to take part in a massive heist with comrades and friends, all of whom paint their faces in blacks and whites to take down an armoured bank truck.
There is some great war-film footage in this, a movie which has a sweeping scope of political, racial and social perspective. Like I say, I really enjoyed the fact this was a ‘black’ film and dealt with the specific challenges of the great many African Americans who fought for their country in Vietnam.
As a stand alone action movie, it’s cool and exciting but there’s also a hell of a lot of social comment here. Dig under the surface and you’ll find Dead Presidents is actually a keen study of war, race and society in America in the 60s, 70s and 80s.