The conflict in Vietnam spanned decades of fighting, from the outbreak of the war with France in 1946, through to the political and ideological division of the country into north and south which formed the foundation for the US involvement in Vietnam. That involvement escalated through advisory roles through the early 1960s, until emerging as full conflict around 1965.
For the USA, the era of the Vietnam War is surrounded by socially and culturally significant events in the homeland, the passage of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon through the presidency and a rich depiction in a wide range of movies. There are a vast number of productions that owe their stories Vietnam, from the Rambo series, to Forrest Gump, the characterisation of The Simpson’s Principal Skinner – “I was in ‘Nam” – to those movies that actually tell the stories of Vietnam itself.
Here we present many of the best films that address Vietnam. We think the best order is chronological, based on the dates of the events depicted. But we’re also giving a number of different approaches, which you can jump to in the table below, avoiding spoilers if you want to.
The best Vietnam movie viewing order (spoilers)
These are the movies we consider to be essential viewing not only for the stories that they tell, but how they tell those stories. They are ordered to fit the unfolding of events in the Vietnam War, although in some cases we deviate from that timeline when the emphasis of the film is on the return home, for example. Where there’s no clear event being portrayed – because it’s a fictionalised work – we’ve placed that movie in its position based on its content and context in the passage of the conflict.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Good Morning, Vietnam tells the story of Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) and Armed Forces Radio Service DJ, joining the service in Saigon in 1965. While the story focuses on Cronauer’s comedic radio delivery, with a strong and cheeky performance from Williams, this sets the scene for the start of the US land war in Vietnam. The story evolves against a backdrop of increasing troop numbers, with an escalation from a fairly safe Saigon, to one that’s experiencing civil unrest and terrorism. It reflects on the changing relationship between the US forces and the Vietnamese people. While this isn’t the most gung-ho start any Vietnam War series, it’s a gentle easing in, before hitting those movies that are far more centred on the actual fighting. Watch out for Forest Whitaker who also stars in Platoon.
We Were Soldiers (2002)
We Were Soldiers is one of the most recent Vietnam films on our list, released in 2002, but deals with the la Drang battle in November 1965, one of the first of the US Vietnam War. The story is intrinsically linked to Lt Colonel Moore’s (Mel Gibson) validation of helicopter assault with the 7th Air Cavalry, something that would define the conflict; the story is based account of an embedded journalist Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), with Galloway saying the movie is 80 per cent authentic. We Were Soldiers tells a bloody tale in which there are no real victors, but does so without dehumanising either side, while also reflecting on the impact on the war on those left at home. Its most shocking moment is the use of napalm, a theme that runs through pretty much all Vietnam movies. Technically, the la Drang battle in We Were Soldiers happens during Adrian Cronauer’s service in Vietnam portrayed in Good Morning, Vietnam.
Casualties of War (1989)
Casualties of War takes us into 1966, telling a true story reported by Daniel Lang in The New Yorker in 1969. Michael J Fox plays Max Eriksson, a “cherry” in Vietnam who joins a squad to head out to Hill 192. Squad leader Sergeant Meserve, played by a powerful Sean Penn, has other ideas for the mission, kidnapping a Vietnamese girl to take with them for a little “R&R”. It’s a haunting tale, depicting the breakdown of any sort of moral standards and the conflict between comrades that ensues. The 1989 film from director Brian De Palma pulls at many of the threads we see across Vietnam movies, particularly the dehumanisation of the Vietnamese reflected in the US GIs. Watch out for Dale Dye’s appearance, who also stars in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.
Rescue Dawn (2006)
Rescue Dawn tells the story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) a US Navy pilot shot down during a black ops mission over Laos. Directed by Werner Herzog, the 2006 movie is based on the true-life experience of Dengler through his time in captivity, escape and eventual rescue. Set in 1966, Dengler is held captive with a few other POWs and the movie touches on the desperation and resourcefulness of the prisoners, reflecting on the jungle being the real enemy. Bale’s character becomes more admirable through the movie, and trivia fans will enjoy the fact that the actors lost weight before shooting started to get the emaciated look, before returning to full weight to shoot the opening scenes.
Oliver Stone’s Platoon is the very much the centrepiece of the Vietnam film genre. Released to critical acclaim in 1986, it’s based around Stone’s own experiences in Vietnam. Charlie Sheen’s Private Chris Taylor is drawn into the conflict between Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sergeant Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe), who differ in their approach to how the war should be fought. Platoon grasps the slipping morality of war, tackling the release the soldiers seek from the strain they’re under, culminating in a battle based on the New Year offensive of 1968. The characterisation and performances are a masterclass, making this one of the most important Vietnam films out there.
Full Metal Jacket (1986)
Full Metal Jacket returns us to the training ground, with R. Lee Ermy’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman instructing the marines as they prepare for war in Vietnam. The film, based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, neatly falls into two halves, at Parris Island for the USMC training and in Vietnam for the second half, around the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Stanley Kubrick’s 1986 movie is most notable for its script, the institutionalised patter from Ermy (much of it ad lib from his own experiences as a Drill Sergeant) against the “normality” of Joker Davis (Matthew Modine) who comes across as much more grounded; you can’t help but chuckle at the dialogue. Full Metal Jacket takes you to a dark place, but will leave you with a smile on your face.
Hamburger Hill (1987)
Hamburger Hill sees the 101 Airborne assaulting Hill 937, in what was a costly and brutal wave of 11 assaults up hill against the North Vietnamese, in 1969. The human costs on both sides is severe, with the fighting getting increasingly desperate, while having to deal with things like torrential downpours turning the hillside into what is effectively a mudslide. Hamburger Hill doesn’t have the accolades of the Vietnam films it followed – Platoon and Full Metal Jacket – but it tells an important story: despite the sacrifice, Hill 937 had no real strategic importance and was abandoned soon after the US victory. Between the brutal fighting, the film comments on the view of the war in the homeland as well as racial discrimination, again a common theme of these movies, tangled in the cultural revolution of the late 1960s.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse Now is one of the seminal Vietnam movies, but is fairly hard to place in the timeline, because it’s actually based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Apocalypse Now follows Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin Willard as he tracks down the rogue Colonel Walter Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. What’s characteristic in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is the chaos that Willard encounters on his quest, which feels like it falls into the latter stages of the war. From the iconic Ride of the Valkyries air assault through to the face down with Kurtz, you can’t help but be gripped by this 1979 masterpiece. It’s believed that Kurtz’s character draws on the real-life Tony Poe, a CIA operative who ran a secret army out of Laos during the Vietnam War.
Tigerland, from Joel Schumacher, is set in 1971, and looks at Vietnam from a latter viewpoint than many others in the genre. It’s based on the screenwriter – Ross Klavan’s – own experience at Tigerland, drawing on real characters to create those in the movie. It is centred around US infantry training at Fort Polk, preparing grunts to go to Vietnam. A young Colin Farrell plays Private Bozz, who presents a particular problem for the training staff. Negativity surrounding the war is rife, with real pessimism; while the camaraderie we’ve seen in other movies persists, it also revisits division and bullying, pulling on that stereotype of training seen in Full Metal Jacket.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Part of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, Born on the Fourth of July is perhaps the most moving film on this list. It tracks the life of Ron Kovic from All-American boyhood dreams, to Vietnam, injury, the experiences of a veterans hospital through to campaigning against the war. It’s easily Tom Cruise’s most impactful performance, supported by some familiar faces – Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe – playing very different characters to Platoon. Born on the Fourth of July tackles the notion of patriotism, the anti-war feeling of the homeland and the civil rights movement. It’s hard not to be moved by the story, which falls naturally towards the end of the Vietnam watching list, although the Vietnam combat itself takes place in 1967.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
The Deer Hunter follows the story of three friends – played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage – from steelworking in Pennsylvania to fighting in Vietnam. It’s an adaption of The Man Who Came to Play, a story about Las Vegas and Russian roulette, using Vietnam as a setting, rather than being related to anything reported to have happened in Vietnam. In that sense, this is less a Vietnam war film and more the tale of those three friends; indeed, there’s over an hour of story before you get to Vietnam. But in terms of a Vietnam timeline, the end of the movie sees Mike Vronsky (De Niro) returning to Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon in 1975, to find their missing friend (Walken). There are powerful performances from the likes of Walken and De Niro that really make the film, although some might find it a little ponderous by modern standards.
The best Vietnam movie viewing order (no spoilers)
Here’s the timeline order for many of the big Vietnam War films. Some – like those at the end – span a period time from the war into the return home, which is why we’ve put them at the end. Otherwise, the order is based on the year of the events they depict.
- Good Morning, Vietnam
- We Were Soldiers
- Casualties of War
- Rescue Dawn
- Tour of Duty
- Full Metal Jacket
- Hamburger Hill
- Apocalypse Now
- Born on the Fourth of July
- The Deer Hunter
Just the action movie order
The full list won’t be to everyone’s taste. Indeed, some of the older movies like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now can be a little slow. Those movies from the 1970s take a lot more time to get anywhere and while the reward is a couple of really powerful scenes, for some viewers, you might just want to get to the action.
So we’ve trimmed the selection and ignored the timeline to present a Vietnam movies order that’s purely for the military action entertainment:
- We were Soldiers
- Full Metal Jacket
- Hamburger Hill
- Casualties of War
The bonus round – for a longer watch
Outside of cinema, there are some other areas you might want to explore.
The Vietnam War
While there are lots of documentaries, we’d recommend you dive in for Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War – available on Netflix. This documentary is epic in its own right, with scope and coverage that few others approach. There are 10 episodes, running at over an hour each, following the timeline from the French defeat through to the Fall of Saigon – the entirety of the US involvement. It’s set in the context of the shifting political and cultural landscape of the USA in the 1960s and 70s and deserved of the accolades it has won, it’s gripping.
Tour of Duty
Tour of Duty was a TV series running from 1987-1990 emerging from the same era as many of the big Vietnam movies, like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. While Tour of Duty only ran for three years, the feel of this TV series reflects much of what you see elsewhere, most memorable for the use if The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black as its theme tune. The CBS series follows the lives of second platoon, Bravo company starting in 1967. Trivia fans will be happy to know that the filming of the second and third series used the old set of M*A*S*H, the Korean War medical comedy series.