In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Vietnam War in Hollywood Feature Films

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Cultural Studies Context
  • Biographies of Vietnam War Filmmakers
  • Political Content of Films
  • Vietnam War Films in the Context of Cinema History
  • Hollywood’s Initial Resistance to Making Vietnam War Films
  • Film Production Histories
  • Literary Sources for Vietnam War Films
  • Vietnam Films as Autobiography
  • Vietnam Veterans

Military History Vietnam War in Hollywood Feature Films
by
David Luhrssen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0200

Introduction

Vietnam was the focal point of a larger set of conflicts that broke out in Indo-China in 1945 and resulted by 1975 with Cambodia and Laos as well as Vietnam falling under the rule of various Communist parties. The first Vietnam War (1945–1954) pitted French colonists and their local allies against Vietnamese Communist rebels. It ended with the French withdrawal from Indo-China and the partition of Vietnam into two states, Communist North Vietnam and pro-Western South Vietnam. In the second Vietnam War (1955–1975), North Vietnam and Communist rebels in the south fought against the US-backed South Vietnamese regime. No conflict in American history since the Civil War was as divisive as Vietnam, yet the war was widely supported until US ground forces entered the fray (1965). Mounting casualties and the threat of conscription fueled a growing antiwar movement that forced Washington to find a way out of the war. After the United States withdrew in 1973, Communist forces overran South Vietnam and reunited the country under their rule in 1975. Films about the Vietnam War were produced in both North and South Vietnam, the Soviet Union (which armed the North) and South Korea and Australia (both dispatched troops to support the South). With few exceptions, many were seldom seen outside their lands of origin. With Hollywood’s dominance of movie markets in much of the world, American stories about the war dominated the imagination of moviegoers in the United States and most other countries. Hollywood took only slight interest in Vietnam during the war’s early years. The first major motion picture about American combat in Vietnam, John’s Wayne’s pro-war The Green Berets (1968), was a box-office hit but universally derided by critics. With the war’s increasing unpopularity and unsuccessful conclusion, the subject was deemed “box-office poison” by the studios for several years. By the late 1970s a rising generation of filmmakers embraced Vietnam as material for displaying American heroism, explaining the US defeat or exploring the ethical basis for war. The commercial breakthrough for Vietnam War movies was achieved by director Sidney Furie’s The Boys in Company C (1978), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Each reflected in different ways America’s disillusionment and the physical and psychological toll charged to the men who served in the conflict. The theme continued with Platoon (1986), directed by a Vietnam combat veteran, Oliver Stone. A counter-trend appeared with Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo series (1982–2019), which amplified the resurgent nationalism that began under the Reagan administration. Providing a third perspective, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) presented the war unemotionally as a fact of history. In the 21st century, movies on the Vietnam War continue to be made, if in diminished number. Characteristic of recent films, We Were Soldiers (2002) validates the experience of US servicemen while honoring the heroism of the enemy.

General Overview

Despite the importance of the Vietnam War in American history, the number of books specifically devoted to the war’s depiction on film is surprisingly low. Aside from Luhrssen 2019, most were published in earlier years and are focused only on movies released before the mid-1990s, including comprehensive listings in Devine 1995 and Malo and Williams 1994. Dittmar and Michaud 1990 is critical of Hollywood’s representations of the war; Adair 1981 is valuable for focusing on lesser-known films. Lanning 1994 examines Vietnam War films in the context of Hollywood history.

  • Adair, Gilbert. Vietnam on Film: From The Green Berets to Apocalypse Now. New York: Proteus, 1981.

    The descriptive survey of major Hollywood Vietnam War movies from the 1960s through the 1980s also includes a filmography listing many lesser-known titles.

  • Devine, Jeremy M. Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of over 400 Films about the Vietnam War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995.

    An exhaustive examination of nearly every film made through 1995 on the Vietnam War, including films that mention the conflict only tangentially.

  • Dittmar, Linda, and Gene Michaud, eds. From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

    The essays collected in this anthology are critical of Hollywood’s attempt to represent the Vietnam War, claiming that most productions fail to address the causes and outcome of the war and are little better than rewrites of clichés dating from the cinema of World War II.

  • Lanning, Michael Lee. Vietnam at the Movies. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.

    An exploration of the history of American war movies, tracing the roots of Hollywood’s Vietnam films to the beginning of cinema and analyzing a large number of movies focused on or referencing the Vietnam War.

  • Luhrssen, David. The Vietnam War on Film. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2019.

    The historical representation and accuracy of ten prominent Hollywood films is assessed. The films include The Green Berets, Coming Home, The Boys in Company C, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers, The Quiet American, and Rescue Dawn.

  • Malo, Jean-Jacques, and Tony Williams, eds. Vietnam War Films: Over 600 Features, Made-for-TV, Pilot, and Short Movies, 1939–1992. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1994.

    An exhaustive encyclopedia that references hundreds of motion pictures with even tangential connections to the Vietnam War. Along with Hollywood productions, the book includes films from Vietnam, France, Australia, and other nations.

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