Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods has been a runaway success, reviving a genre that had its heyday in the late 70s to 90s. A slew of memorable pictures hit our screens in that era including The Deer Hunter (1978), Coming Home (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), The Killing Fields (1984), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Born on The Fourth of July (1989).
But inevitably viewer fatigue set in and the 90s was full of high profile box office failures such as Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War, John Milius’s Flight of the Intruder (1991) and Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth (1993).
Needless to say, the Vietnamese side of hostilities wasn’t really given that much of a look-in in the majority of the pictures released over the period. The Hughes Brothers Dead Presidents (1996) is something of a precursor to Da 5 Bloods, concentrating as it does on the black experience of the war.
Which brings us to more recent films where the Vietnam conflict is featured, sometimes as the main driver of the action, sometimes as part of the backdrop to the story.
Tigerland (2000), Amazon Prime
Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland was the breakthrough movie for Colin Farrell, who prior to this was best known as bad boy Danny Byrne in the gentle BBC1 ecumenical comedy-drama Ballykissangel.
Tigerland concentrated on the training of raw recruits in an area of Louisiana that resembled the jungles of Vietnam. An unremarkable movie perhaps, but one in which Farrell displayed enough charisma to gain the status of a rising star.
The Quiet American (2002)
A second (and more faithful) take on Grahame Greene’s novel of the same name, Philip Noyce’s movie explores CIA intriguing in the region whilst the French are still trying to hold on to their Indochinese empire.
This aspect was also covered by Apocalypse Now Redux (2001), when Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard encounters a group of holdout French settlers on a remote rubber plantation. Brendan Fraser stars as the CIA spook Pyle, Michael Caine as war reporter Thomas Fowler.
We were soldiers (2002), Amazon Prime
In the same year as The Quiet American, Mel Gibson starred in We Were Soldiers, a very traditional (dare I say cliched?) war movie.
Based on the real life events of the Battle of Ia Drang (November 14, 1965), Gibson plays Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore who holds off overwhelming NVA and Viet Cong forces in a cinematic attempt to portray the action as an American version of Rorke’s Drift (Zulu).
The action is well handled, but it’s all too redolent of John Wayne’s gung-ho The Green Berets (1968) for my taste. If you like this kind of thing (which I do), check out the far superior Siege of Jadotville (2016) currently on Netflix.
Rescue Dawn (2006), Netflix
Rescue Dawn is a movie version by Werner Herzog of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which told the true story of the German-American pilot Dieter Dengler, shot down and held prisoner by communist supporting villagers in Laos.
Christian Bale plays Dengler, who succeeded in his escape from the village only to face multiple terrors in the jungle. Herzog’s most traditionally Hollywood picture, Rescue Dawn gained a measure of critical praise but stumbled at the box office.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Ben Stiller’s meta action comedy spoofed the making of a Platoon-style movie, with director Steve Coogan’s Coppola-lite pretensions swiftly punctured.
The picture gained some notoriety for several reasons, including Robert Downey’s portrayal of a Russell Crowe-type actor who takes method acting to ridiculous extremes.
Stiller as clueless actor Tugg Speedman came in for some stick for his mentally challenged ‘Simple Jack’ character, whilst Tom Cruise won plaudits for his surprisingly funny producer Les Grossman, said to be at least partly based on Harvey Weinstein. I wonder why?
Kong Skull Island (2017), Netflix
OK, the end of the Vietnam War only acts as an introduction to the action of the movie, but the defeat of American forces is a catalyst for the behaviour of Samuel L Jackson’s Ahab-like Lt Col Preston Pickard and his obsessive hatred of Kong.
Tom Hiddleston also stars as a former SAS member, a role with echoes of his turn in The Night Manager (2016), although he does overdo the butch in this one.
The war and its ending also featured in other comic-book style movies, including Watchmen and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (both 2009) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).
The Last Full Measure (2019)
This little-seen picture features an especially strong cast that includes Samuel L Jackson (again), Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, and Peter Fonda, in his final film role.
Another true story, the movie details the quest to secure a posthumous Medal of Honor for William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) a US Air Force Pararescueman who died saving over sixty of his comrades.
Bureaucratic entanglements held up the award for 35 years.
Director Todd Robinson apparently spent twenty years trying to get the film made, which if nothing else is a tribute to his commitment to the project.
V.F.W (2019), Netflix
V.F.W, meaning Veterans of Foreign Wars, is an under-siege movie with definite echoes of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).
A group of US army vets (Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan) fight off drug crazed intruders attacking their hostelry.
The cast includes Stephen Lang (Avatar), William Sadler (Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors) and Blaxploitation King Fred Williamson. George Wendt (Norm from Cheers) props up the bar. For a change.
V.F.W suffers from being a self-consciously ‘oven ready’ cult movie (see also Hobo With A Shotgun, Planet Terror, Green Room), with a lurid blue/red colour palette that could be migraine-inducing to some viewers.
For completists, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) was set in Korea, but this was just a thinly veiled Vietnam.
Likewise, Southern Comfort (Walter Hill, 1981), where Cajuns stood in for the Viet Cong who exact a bloody revenge against Louisiana National Guard members who foolishly play a prank on them.