1) “The Deer Hunter,” 1978. The epic, three-act drama takes an intimate look at working-class friends torn apart by war. The still-shocking Russian roulette scene, in which Robert De Niro’s and Christopher Walden’s characters leave their fate to a game of chance at the hands of their Viet Cong captors, served as a metaphor for the war itself but was met with a great amount of controversy for its depiction of Vietnamese forces. Still, “The Deer Hunter” was one of Hollywood’s earliest attempts to grapple with the absurdities of the war while it was still an open wound for 1970s America. The film took the best picture Oscar and put Cimino on the map as an A-list director.
2) “Coming Home,” 1978. Just as the 1946 drama “The Best Years of Our Lives” humanized World War II vets returning state side after surviving the horrors of combat, this Hal Ashby-directed best picture nominee depicted the struggles of a paraplegic Vietnam vet re-adjusting to civilian life and finding temporary solace with another solder’s wife. Stars Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won Oscars, but it was eclipsed by “Deer Hunter” for best picture.
3) “Apocalypse Now,” 1979. The troubled making of Francis Ford Coppell’s surrealistic, divisive Vietnam-by-way-of-Conrad epic nearly killed the obsessive director, but a Palme D’Or win at Cannes and Oscar nominations for picture and director were only the beginning of the film’s lasting legacy. Portraying America’s time in Southeast Asia as one very bad trip, many of its iconic moments —the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter attack, Dennis Hopper’s hopped-up hippie photojournalist, the deadly river journey—have become some of pop culture’s most recognizable depictions of war.
4) “Platoon,” 1986. Veteran-turned-filmmaker Oliver Stone — who earned a bronze star and a purple heart during his infantry stint in Vietnam — turned his real-life experiences into Oscar gold with this caustic best picture winner. Taking place entirely in-country — there are no homecoming sequences or flashbacks to civilian life here — “Platoon” examines the conflict from the point of view of foot soldiers, including dissent among the ranks, corrupt officers, friendly fire and brutal war crimes.
5) “Full Metal Jacket,” 1987. For his first film in seven years, Stanley Kubrick turned his perfectionist’s eye on the chaotic nature of Vietnam for “Full Metal Jacket.” Essentially two films in one, “Jacket” is most famous for the boot camp sequences in which real-life drill instructor R. Lee Ermey terrorizes a batch of recruits in the most dehumanizing ways possible. The film’s second half sends Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) into the abyss of hellish warfare, with the English countryside amazingly standing in for Hue, Vietnam.
6) “Born on the Fourth of July,” 1989. After tackling the culture of greed in 1987”s “Wall Street,” Stone returned to the Vietnam War era, this time with a portrait of the controversial soldier-turned-activist Ron Kovic (who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script based on his autobiography). A critical and commercial success, it earned Tom Cruise his first Oscar nomination. Stone was also nominated for direction, and he would finish up his loose “Vietnam trilogy” with 1993”s lesser-known “Heaven and Earth,” although the war’s specter was never far from his subsequent films.
7) “Last Days In Vietnam”, 2014. This 2014 American documentary film written, produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, premiered at 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Forty years after the fall of Saigon, debate continues concerning the reality on the ground in Vietnam in 1975. In April 1975, the North Vietnamese Army was closing in on Saigon as South Vietnamese resistance crumbled. Approximately 5,000 Americans remained with roughly 24 hours to get out. Their South Vietnamese allies, co-workers, and friends faced certain imprisonment and possible death if they remained behind, yet there was no official evacuation plan. On the ground, American soldiers and diplomats confronted the moral quandary: whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only—or to risk punishment and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they can. Over the last days in Vietnam, with the city under fire, 135,000 South Vietnamese managed to escape with help from heroic Americans who engaged in unsanctioned makeshift operations in a desperate effort to save as many people as possible.
Optional Viewing. Heaven & Earth, 1993 American biographical war drama film written and directed by Oliver Stone, and starring Tommy Lee Jones, Haing S. Ngor, Joan Chen, and Hiep Thi Le. It is the third and final film in Stone's Vietnam War trilogy, which also includes Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. The film was based on the books When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace, which Le Ly Hayslip wrote about her experiences during and after the Vietnam War.
There are many histories and expositions of Vietnam War films available, as well as numerous books, articles, reviews and websites/webpages. The list is quite endless... some relevant examples:
Linda Dittmar (Editor), From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, Rutgers University Press, 1990 (Available Used)
Michael Anderegg (Editor), Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television (Culture And The Moving Image), Temple University Press, 1991 (Available Used)
Jeremy M. Devine, Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of 360 Films About the Vietnam War, Reprint Edition, McFarland, 2013 (Available Used)
How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond