By Ann Silverthorn
The decade most often associated with the Vietnam War is the 1960s, but during that time, movie fans weren’t flocking to theaters in patriotic fashion to see what it was like “over there.” Television satisfied that curiosity, as news networks updated the nation with casualty statistics each evening. A half-century later, it’s possible to obtain a wide spectrum of impressions of that era from the films and documentaries made during the war and in the decades since.
The number of American troops deployed in southeast Asia totaled fewer than a thousand in 1960 and mushroomed to more than 500,000 in 1968. It was an unpopular war, so while the country polarized itself, Hollywood made few movies about Vietnam, and none of them figured prominently at the Academy Awards.
In the years since, dramas, action movies, and documentaries have paid keen attention to the Vietnam War and its effect both in southeast Asia and at home. Here are seven films and documentaries that provide a varied view of the war.
Although the action-packed The Green Berets grossed nearly $10 million at the box office, it did not receive a single nomination for a 1969 Academy Award. The legendary, John Wayne plays a tough colonel on a mission to take control of a Vietnamese camp and kidnap a North Vietnamese general.
An examination of the Vietnam War at its most-intense period, In the Year of the Pig reflects the sentiments of many at that time. This provocative, subjective film, nominated for an Oscar in 1970, combines news footage, interviews, and disturbing images to make its argument for Vietnamese independence. Film critic Steven Schneider included this documentary in his 2005 book, “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
The late Robin Williams received a best-actor nomination for his leading role in Good Morning, Vietnam. In it, he plays a popular Armed Forces Radio DJ, who is stationed in Vietnam to raise the troops’ morale. He fulfills that mission, but not without ruffling the feathers of his commanding officers.
Taking place during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam war, The Siege of Firebase Gloria tells the story of a U.S. Marine in charge of defending a base against the Viet Cong. His counterpart, the enemy commander, learns that he has been manipulated by his government and both officers find themselves reevaluating their roles in the war.
Based on the memoir by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Hal Moore, “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young,” the film version tells the story of the Battle of Ia Drang, one of the first major battles involving American troops. Mel Gibson plays Moore, who led more than 400 men in battle against the enemy in an area where the French forces had been defeated a decade before.
This three-disc documentary combines boots on the ground views with interviews and newsreels. Not as graphic as some accounts of the war, it prefers to focus on the history of the war and the technical details of weaponry. The news footage depicts what the relatives and citizens back home were seeing at the time by which the war had split the nation’s sentiments.
The most recent Ken Burns documentary is the most comprehensive treatment of the Vietnam War, with the benefit of 50 years’ of reflection. This 10-part, 18-hour series, which aired on PBS, includes interviews with veterans from the war who have had time to consider their own roles and those of whom they were fighting in the war.