Overview for films in Vietnam War
(Digital History ID 2965)

Ironically, the most controversial issue of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Vietnam War, only began to be seriously examined on the screen in the late '70s. Although many films of the late 60s and early 70s embodied the bitter aftertaste of the war, the conflict itself remained strikingly absent from the screen, as Hollywood, like the country as a whole, had difficulty adjusting to the grim legacy of a lost and troubling war. During the conflict, Hollywood produced only a single film dealing with Vietnam--John Wayne's The Green Berets. Modeled along the lines of such World War II combat epics as The Sands of Iwo Jima and earlier John Wayne westerns like The Alamo, the film portrayed decent Americans struggling to defend an embattled outpost along the Laotian border nicknamed Dodge City.

Although America's active military participation in the Vietnam War ended in 1973, the controversy engendered by the war raged on long after the firing of the last shot. Much of the controversy centered on the returning veterans. Veterans were shocked by the cold, hostile reception they received when they returned to the United States. In First Blood (1982), John Rambo captured the pain of the returning veterans: "It wasn't my war-- you asked me, I didn't ask you...and I did what I had to do to win....Then I came back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me, calling me a baby- killer...."

During the 1970s and '80s, the returning Vietnam War veteran loomed large in American popular culture. He was first portrayed as a dangerous killer, a deranged ticking time bomb that could explode at any time and in any place. He was Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a veteran wound so tight that he seemed perpetually on the verge of snapping. Or he was Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), who adjusted to a mad war by going mad himself.

Not until the end of the '70s did popular culture begin to treat the Vietnam War veteran as a victim of the war rather than a madman produced by the war. Coming Home (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1978) began the popular rehabilitation of the veteran, and such films as Missing in Action (1984) and Rambo: First Blood II (1985) transformed the veteran into a misunderstood hero.

Where some films, like the Rambo series, focused on the exploits of one-man armies or vigilantes armed to the teeth, who had been kept from winning the war because of government cowardice and betrayal, another group of Vietnam War films--like Platoon, Casualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July--took quite a different view of the war. Focusing on innocent, naive "grunts"--the ground troops who actually fought the war--these movies retold the story of the Vietnam War in terms of the soldiers' loss of idealism, the breakdown of unit cohesion, and the struggle to survive and sustain a sense of humanity and integrity in the midst of war.

Recommended Film


Advertised with the tagline “The first casualty of war is innocence,” this film, based on director Oliver Stone’s firsthand experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam, offers an unflinching look at a platoon’s experiences and the moral dilemmas that the soldiers face.

Copyright Digital History 2021