Probably not too controversial to say that the Vietnam War was bad. Countless poor Americans lost their lives while their minted counterparts draft-dodged, loads of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian civilians were murdered by indiscriminate bombing campaigns (the aftereffects of which are still being dealt with to this day) and the criminals responsible got away with it scot-free.
That being said… films about the Vietnam War tend to be pretty good. Gunfights… breath-taking Tropical scenery getting torched… packets of cigarettes stuffed into helmets… helicopters swirling around… actors revelling in the stolen valour… that’s the stuff cinema is made of baby.
So, considering Oi Polloi has come into a fair few variations of the humble tropical combat jacket, which saw plenty of action during the Vietnam War, here’s a few decent films about ‘Nam.
Stick ‘Prodigal Son’ on the ol’ hi-fi and read on…
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, APOCALYPSE NOW – 1979
Let’s not beat around the bush – Apocalypse Now is surely the first film that pops into your head when you think of ‘Nam, right?
So instead of boring you with a plot rehash, permit me to regale you with a personal anecdote about the picture that may or may not be of interest to you.
My dad is a classic stiff-upper-lipped Englishman, the type that are (perhaps fortunately?) in rare supply these days. Being such a prim and proper gentleman, the conditions imposed on my movie watching as a nipper was stringent to say the least. No swearing, no violence, no silly jokes… in other words, none of the ingredients that make a young boy’s heart sing.
That being said, if I was curious about a film he liked, the rules were thrown straight out the window. I may not have been able to watch Thunderpants (2002) due to the juvenile flatulence humour, but Alien (1979) was fair game. Apocalypse Now was one such film.
A lot of “the horror… the horror!” may have gone over my head when I was a kid, but the distinct, other-worldly vibes definitely did not. The image of the cow being airlifted by a chopper to safety is one that will continue to beguile and mystify me until I’m old and grey – I suspect partly due to seeing it so young.
OLIVER STONE, PLATOON – 1986
Here’s another quintessential ‘Nam film – Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
Set during the height of the war, Platoon is the tale of wide-eyed, idealistic volunteer Chris Taylor, who learns that it’s apparently innocence that bites the dust first in war.
I’ve never been too hot on this, despite its esteem among film heads and war hounds, and it’s taken me this long to figure out why – when I was a young buck, going down my first Vietnam War movie wormhole, I watched this in close succession to the massively-inferior We Were Soldiers (2002), and now have trouble distinguishing the two.
That’s the trouble with the Vietnam War movie wormhole – as soon as you get sucked in, everything blurs into the same camouflaged paste, especially when you go full beast mode and start watching a mammoth documentary series to supplement the fiction.
What it is about Vietnam War films that inspire this kind-of frenzy? Answers to the usual place.
STANLEY KUBRICK, FULL METAL JACKET – 1987
Slotting itself nicely in the middle of this rundown is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a film containing some of the most memorable insults put to celluloid.
Following a harem of recruits from their first buzz cuts to their first firefights, Full Metal Jacket, with its unrelenting cynicism and misery, might just be the nastiest film about the war… which in my eyes, might make it one of the funniest too.
I think this nastiness is why the second half of the film divides opinion. Not that the first half is… errr… pleasant in its comedy, but it’s a lot easier to laugh at a meat-headed drill instructor bullying an overweight grunt than it is to laugh at a squad singing the ‘Mickey Mouse March’ immediately after murdering a teenager.
I think this nastiness is why the second half of the film divides opinion
Fun fact, it’s common knowledge that the boot camp segment of the film was shot in England. But did you know that the Vietnam portion was also shot in England, in a disused gasworks site just outside of London? You do now.
SAMMO HUNG, EASTERN CONDORS – 1987
Next up, we’ve got big man on campus Sammo Hung and his action-packed ‘men on a mission' film Eastern Condors.
A tad more light-hearted than some of the PTSD-inducers on this list, Eastern Condors follows a rag-tag band of Asian-American prisoners who’re sent by the U.S. military into Vietnam to destroy some missiles they forgot to tidy up before their hasty pull-out.
Out of the “Three Dragons” of Hong Kong action cinema, Sammo Hung is definitely my favourite (the other two are Yuen Biao and Jackie Chan, in case you were wondering). Why? Jackie’s stunts are the stuff of legend, and Yuen Biao’s acrobatics remain unrivalled, but there’s just something about seeing Sammo, a man who’s never not been overweight during his entire career, kick as much ass as his compatriots despite being double (or sometimes triple) the girth of them that’s truly special.
This clip from Eastern Condors (also featuring Yuen Biao) is a prime slice of Sammo’s particular brand of body positivity, proving once and for all you needn’t be a stick figure to be a kung-fu savant… you just need years upon years of borderline-abusive martial arts training.
JOHN WOO, BULLET IN THE HEAD – 1990
Let’s go out with a bang, shall we? To round things off, here’s John Woo’s explosive Bullet in the Head.
Bullet in the Head is the traumatising odyssey of three mates who escape Hong Kong to war-time Saigon with the intention of making a quick buck smuggling contraband, but things quickly go south, and the three boys end up captured in a Vietnamese prison camp.
Middlebrow cinema bores will often dismiss due to its admittedly-glaring similarities to The Deer Hunter (1978) – there’s an extended Russian Roulette sequence in this too – and Woo’s maximalist Gun-Fu, but these people are idiots. Not only is Bullet in the Head the much superior film (no disrespect to The Deer Hunter, but it doesn’t have anything as dope as Tony Leung flying through the air guns akimbo while blasting baddies), it’s a brave bit of work that used the Vietnam War as a lens to comment on the Tiananmen Square massacre (a year after it happened, no less), which, as we all know, is a bit of a touchy subject in Hong Kong and China.
Mr. Woo, I doff my cap to you. Please make another film soon.
Right, that should about do it. If you want to look like a grizzled vet yourself, keep on scrolling to see what BDU beauties we’re offering in the proverbial mess tent. Stay frosty gents.