The Top 10 Best Vietnam Films of All Time

01
of 10

Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Apocalypse Now.

is one of the most famous Vietnam films of all time. If you haven't seen it, and you're a war film aficionado, then you are withholding from yourself one of the great cinematic experiences. The film follows a Special Forces soldier sent on a secret mission to assassinate a Green Beret commander deep in the jungle of Vietnam who has gone crazy and set himself up as a king among the indigenous tribes. The film never tries to be a realistic tale of the war, rather it's a metaphorical parable and one that comes across as a jarring hallucinatory experience that gets exceedingly darker, both as the protagonist goes further "down river" and as the film's running time continues. This isn't just my favorite Vietnam film, it's my favorite war film of all time. (This is an opinion shared by my critics, as it's the top rated war film among critics of all time!)  It's filled with excellent performances, fantastic production values, more than a number of very famous scenes, and, most of all, the film disturbs something in the core of the viewer and refuses to let go, making it memorable and reverberate in one's memory, long after the credits have rolled.

(Click here for the Top 10 Critically Acclaimed War Films.)

(Want to read about the worst Vietnam war movies?  Click here for the Best and Worst Vietnam War Movies.)

02
of 10

Rescue Dawn (2006)

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Rescue Dawn.

Rescue Dawn is my second favorite Vietnam film of all time. It was barely noticed in U.S. cinemas, lasting only about a week and opening in last place at the box office before it quietly was sent to DVD. This is a shame, as it's one of the best Prisoner of War movies ever made. Rescue Dawn was directed by Werner Herzog, a documentary filmmaker, and is one of the few Hollywood productions that takes place in the real world of war. 

Most films, even the serious dramatic ones, play by the rules of fictional films—they have guards that can be knocked out with a single punch, and protagonists that will kill someone and they moments later act like nothing happened—not this film. This film purely exists in the real world, and that makes the film extremely tense. When the protagonist plans his escape, and starts to execute his plan, you will scarcely be able to breathe, because unlike with most Hollywood fables, in this film, you know the consequences of failure will be dire.

Based on a true story.

(Click here for the Best and Worst Prisoner of War Movies.)

03
of 10

Born on the 4th of July (1989)

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Born on the 4th of July.

The second in Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy is the best. While Platoon focused on troops in combat, Born on the 4th of July focused on Ron Kovic's (Tom Cruise) return from Vietnam, at first as a disaffected Marine angry with the war protesters, who slowly begins to realize that he agrees with them, eventually completing his transformation as one of the leaders of the anti-war movement. The film adeptly handles issues such as post traumatic stress syndrome, and being an injured Vietnam vet. The film's best scenes though are filmed in the VA hospitals of the era, which were filled with disinterested staff, failing equipment, and rats! Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but he delivers an intense and riveting performance in this movie.

04
of 10

Hamburger Hill (1987)

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Hamburger Hill.

Nothing like a little suicide mission to get the ol' blood pumping!  

The soldiers of the 101st Airborne were given orders to take Hill 937, a small hill—just a kilometer high—heavily fortified with Vietcong defensive emplacements. It was steep, and the route to the top meant crawling through mud feet thick. It took 11 assaults over 10 days for the soldiers to take it, equating to about 100 meters a day, each meter costing the lives of a great many soldiers.

Hamburger Hill is one of the great under appreciated war movies. It doesn't waste a minute of it's running time, effectively dealing with PTSD, the effect of war protesters on troop morale, racial tensions among the troops, the fear of imminent death, how class and wealth affected who got drafted... and that's all before the assault on the hill begins.

Ultimately, the film is about the idea of sacrifice, but more succinctly, the idea of sacrificing for strategically unimportant positions, such as Hill 937. The American commanders wanted it taken simply because the Vietcong had it, but the hill itself didn't seem to have any real value. And as soon as it was captured by American forces, they promptly abandoned it.  

Oh yeah, and it's a brilliantly intense action film, with some great battles showcasing the best the infantry have to offer.

05
of 10

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

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Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket is a flawed film, but an important film in the genre, nonetheless. The film is about the dehumanization that occurs to Marine Infantrymen, spending the first half of the film at a training depot in Paris Island where the Marine recruits meet one of the most memorable drill sergeants in war movie history.

The film's second half occurs in Vietnam, with the film's central character—and resident pacifist (a strange role for an infantryman)—coming to terms with his role as a killer, and the competing desires inside of him: his fear of killing and his desire to have a confirmed kill.

Although, ultimately, a film by filmmakers who never set foot near the war, itself (you can sort of imagine them well into their third mixed drink imagining what soldiers go through and how their screenplay should read), it's nonetheless one of the most famous Vietnam films of all time, and one that has many powerful scenes, even if the sum total of their parts isn't always clear.

06
of 10

Platoon (1986)

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Platoon.

Oliver Stone's Platoon is, perhaps, the most famous Vietnam film of all time.  The film follows new soldier Charlie Sheen into a platoon divided into two tribes: the predatory tribe, which inflicts violence on the local population and is led by the psychopathic Sergeant Barnes, and the "Good" tribe, led by Sergeant Elias. The film, which is ultimately about the duality of man, is loosely based on Stone's own experiences in Vietnam. Not only does Platoon feature one of the all-time best villains in war movies, it also went on to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

07
of 10

Hearts and Minds (1974)

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Hearts and Minds.

Hearts and Minds is the best documentary about the war in Vietnam. It was highly controversial and shocking upon its release, as the footage within is violent, intense, and sometimes shocking.  

While Americans were being led to believe by their government that the war was winnable, and that victory was always just around the corner, this documentary told a different story:  That the awesome violence being unleashed by the Americans had an adverse effect on Vietnam.  

The film essentially asks the question: how can you win hearts and minds when you're busy blowing everything up?

08
of 10

First Blood (1982)

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First Blood.

Can the first film in the Rambo franchise even properly be called a Vietnam film?  Especially, considering that it takes place in the American Pacific Northwest and that, save for a couple of flashbacks, none of the film occurs in Vietnam?  I say, yes!  

First Blood is a Vietnam film because its protagonist is a Vietnam vet with severe PTSD, and one who is having difficulties re-adjusting to regular life in the United States. Sure, the film is a bit silly: Rambo is a drifter who gets on the wrong side of a small town Sheriff and ends up eventually taking on the entire National Guard (and mostly, winning!).

However, the film's serious underlying themes are about the effects of the Vietnam war on soldiers. Moreover, it was one of the first films to introduce the idea of the wounded Vietnam vet and PTSD to popular culture.

That, and it's a really great action film!

09
of 10

Winter Soldier (1972)

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Winter Soldier.

In the early 1970s, the Winter Soldier investigations began investigating the occurrence of war crimes by soldiers in Vietnam. The documentary about them, largely exists as a sort of "found footage" from the event, with former soldiers testifying to acts they either witnessed and/or participated in. It's a controversial film, mostly because many of the claims have not been investigated; watching the film, one wonders about the veracity of some of what is being said. How much is being exaggerated? How much is still being concealed? Either way, it's compelling viewing, and for that reason, makes number nine on my list.

 

10
of 10

Bat 21 (1988)

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Bat 21.

Bat 21 is a largely forgotten Vietnam film from the 1980s, but it deserves some recognition.  It tells the true story of Colonel Hambleton who, like many aviators in Vietnam, was shot down over the jungle. The film tells the story of his daring race through the jungle to avoid capture, his constant struggle for survival, and his ultimate miraculous rescue. It's competently done, well acted, and exciting. Not the best Vietnam film ever made, but a solid effort, and compelling enough to make it to number ten on my list.

 

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Rico, Johnny. "The Top 10 Best Vietnam Films of All Time." ThoughtCo, Oct. 20, 2016, thoughtco.com/best-vietnam-films-3438758. Rico, Johnny. (2016, October 20). The Top 10 Best Vietnam Films of All Time. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/best-vietnam-films-3438758 Rico, Johnny. "The Top 10 Best Vietnam Films of All Time." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/best-vietnam-films-3438758 (accessed November 24, 2017).