Searing Portraits: The Vietnam War as Films Saw It (First 7 Weeks)
S 2018


    The Vietnam War was not only waged by soldiers on the battlefield. Long after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the traumas of war continued in the intimate memories and scarred bodies of those who fought, and in the nightmares of civilians whose lives were destroyed or irrevocably changed. The Vietnam War has also had an enduring and contentious national legacy, which still shapes military policy, political debates, and the way war is portrayed in journalism, literature, and film.  We will explore the creative outpouring of responses to the Vietnam War in film. We will ask how filmmakers represented the experience of those on the battlefield and the home front; how they fought symbolic battles over the interpretation and memory of the war; and what legacy they created for future generations. 
    Michael Cimino’s death in 2016 brought back memories of The Deer Hunter and other impactful Vietnam War films.  It wasn’t until after Saigon’s fall that Cimino and other directors began grappling with the conflict.  Right from the start, Hollywood struggled with the Vietnam War, a conflict that deeply divided public opinion and defied easy representation onscreen.  The 1968 John Wayne film The Green Berets, released at the height of the conflict, was an old-fashioned war drama and ignored the moral gray areas of the increasingly confused war effort.  Other movies dealt with the issues only indirectly or focused on the state side anti-war counter culture that was growing parallel to the conflict. It wasn’t until well after the last chopper left Saigon in 1975 that Hollywood attempted more in-depth and nuanced looks at the conflict, with Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter leading the way.  Things came full circle in January 2014 with Last Days In Vietnam, an American documentary film written, produced and directed by Rory Kennedy—about forty years after Saigon fell.

    Our selected films will be viewed “at home” (using Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or a similar service), and then discussed in class.  Discussion topics for each film will include:

  • How our filmmakers represented the experience of those on the battlefield and the home front
  • How they fought symbolic battles over the interpretation and memory of the war
  • What legacy they created for future generations. 
  • Place within the overall “world of film” and among Vietnam War films
  • Time and place, setting of the film, plot summary, the cast, etc.
  • The film’s unique characteristics, techniques, technology or breakthroughs
  • Key themes, characters, events, symbology, imagery, etc.
  • Messages, political or social commentary, and interpretative frameworks
  • Mise-en-scène, cinematography, editing/montage and music/score
  • Critics’ reviews and commentaries on the film (as available)
  • Important scene viewing from the DVD (Optional—as time allows)

Given the usual S/DG time constraints, this S/DG will take a broad—rather than an overly deep—look at these often challenging films.  At the end of the semester, the desired outcome is to understand better these overall works, within both historical and film studies contexts.

Weekly Topics

1) “The Deer Hunter,” 1978.   The epic, three-act drama takes an intimate look at working-class friends torn apart by war. The still-shocking Russian roulette scene, in which Robert De Niro’s and Christopher Walden’s characters leave their fate to a game of chance at the hands of their Viet Cong captors, served as a metaphor for the war itself but was met with a great amount of controversy for its depiction of Vietnamese forces.  Still, “The Deer Hunter” was one of Hollywood’s earliest attempts to grapple with the absurdities of the war while it was still an open wound for 1970s America. The film took the best picture Oscar and put Cimino on the map as an A-list director.

 2) “Coming Home,” 1978.  Just as the 1946 drama “The Best Years of Our Lives” humanized World War II vets returning state side after surviving the horrors of combat, this Hal Ashby-directed best picture nominee depicted the struggles of a paraplegic Vietnam vet re-adjusting to civilian life and finding temporary solace with another solder’s wife. Stars Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won Oscars, but it was eclipsed by “Deer Hunter” for best picture.

3) “Apocalypse Now,” 1979.   The troubled making of Francis Ford Coppell’s surrealistic, divisive Vietnam-by-way-of-Conrad epic nearly killed the obsessive director, but a Palme D’Or win at Cannes and Oscar nominations for picture and director were only the beginning of the film’s lasting legacy. Portraying America’s time in Southeast Asia as one very bad trip, many of its iconic moments —the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter attack, Dennis Hopper’s hopped-up hippie photojournalist, the deadly river journey—have become some of pop culture’s most recognizable depictions of war.

4) “Platoon,” 1986.  Veteran-turned-filmmaker Oliver Stone — who earned a bronze star and a purple heart during his infantry stint in Vietnam — turned his real-life experiences into Oscar gold with this caustic best picture winner. Taking place entirely in-country — there are no homecoming sequences or flashbacks to civilian life here — “Platoon” examines the conflict from the point of view of foot soldiers, including dissent among the ranks, corrupt officers, friendly fire and brutal war crimes.

5) “Full Metal Jacket,” 1987.  For his first film in seven years, Stanley Kubrick turned his perfectionist’s eye on the chaotic nature of Vietnam for “Full Metal Jacket.” Essentially two films in one, “Jacket” is most famous for the boot camp sequences in which real-life drill instructor R. Lee Ermey terrorizes a batch of recruits in the most dehumanizing ways possible.  The film’s second half sends Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine) into the abyss of hellish warfare, with the English countryside amazingly standing in for Hue, Vietnam.

6) “Born on the Fourth of July,” 1989.  After tackling the culture of greed in 1987”s “Wall Street,” Stone returned to the Vietnam War era, this time with a portrait of the controversial soldier-turned-activist Ron Kovic (who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated script based on his autobiography). A critical and commercial success, it earned Tom Cruise his first Oscar nomination.  Stone was also nominated for direction, and he would finish up his loose “Vietnam trilogy” with 1993”s lesser-known “Heaven and Earth,” although the war’s specter was never far from his subsequent films.

7) “Last Days In Vietnam”, 2014.  This 2014 American documentary film written, produced and directed by Rory Kennedy, premiered at 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Forty years after the fall of Saigon, debate continues concerning the reality on the ground in Vietnam in 1975.  In April 1975, the North Vietnamese Army was closing in on Saigon as South Vietnamese resistance crumbled. Approximately 5,000 Americans remained with roughly 24 hours to get out. Their South Vietnamese allies, co-workers, and friends faced certain imprisonment and possible death if they remained behind, yet there was no official evacuation plan. On the ground, American soldiers and diplomats confronted the moral quandary: whether to obey White House orders to evacuate U.S. citizens only—or to risk punishment and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they can. Over the last days in Vietnam, with the city under fire, 135,000 South Vietnamese managed to escape with help from heroic Americans who engaged in unsanctioned makeshift operations in a desperate effort to save as many people as possible. 

Optional Viewing.  Heaven & Earth, 1993 American biographical war drama film written and directed by Oliver Stone, and starring Tommy Lee Jones, Haing S. Ngor, Joan Chen, and Hiep Thi Le. It is the third and final film in Stone's Vietnam War trilogy, which also includes Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.  The film was based on the books When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace, which Le Ly Hayslip wrote about her experiences during and after the Vietnam War.


Since it covers many of the same events and situations, or provides a historical perspective to these films, "The Vietnam War" PBS television documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will be used as a reference work in the film discussions.

Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, Knopf, 2017.  the companion volume to the major, multipart PBS film.  (Available Used)

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, PBS, DVD set, 2017.  (Available Used)

There are many histories and expositions of Vietnam War films available, as well as numerous books, articles, reviews and websites/webpages.  The list is quite endless... some relevant examples:

Linda Dittmar (Editor),‎ From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam War in American Film, Rutgers University Press, 1990 (Available Used)

Michael Anderegg (Editor), Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television (Culture And The Moving Image), Temple University Press, 1991 (Available Used)

Jeremy M. Devine, Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second: A Critical and Thematic Analysis of 360 Films About the Vietnam War, Reprint Edition, McFarland, 2013  (Available Used)

Mark Philip Bradley, Vietnam at War, Oxford University Press, 2012 (Available Used)

General References on Film Studies

Monaco, James, How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009  (Available Used)

Giannetti, Louis, Understanding Movies, 11th Edition (Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2008) or 12th Edition (Allyn & Bacon, Boston, 2010)  (Available Used)