5 Essential Films About the Vietnam War

  • On set of “Apocalypse Now”
On set of “Apocalypse Now”
Credit: Sunset Boulevard/ Corbis Historical via Getty Images

War movies have existed for as long as cinema itself, with 1898’s 38-second Tearing Down the Spanish Flag beginning a tradition that continues to this day. And while World War II has likely inspired more films than any other conflict, the latter half of the Vietnam War took place during an especially fruitful period in the movie industry: the director-driven New Hollywood era, a time when young, ambitious filmmakers were given unprecedented control over their work. As this era was largely youth-driven, it naturally follows that some of its most important movies were about a watershed event in American history that younger audiences had on their mind whether at the movies or elsewhere — especially those who had to register for the draft. 

The list of filmmakers who responded to that growing sense of disenchantment includes Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, and Stanley Kubrick, all of whom contributed to the canon of great movies about the Vietnam War. Here are five of the very best.

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The Deer Hunter (1978)

The first thing to know about The Deer Hunter is its cast, led by Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, and John Cazale — who only appeared in five films throughout his too-short career, all five of which were nominated for Best Picture. The second is how heartbreaking it is. As personal as it is political, The Deer Hunter begins in a small Pennsylvania town before shifting the action to Vietnam, where three close friends from that tight-knit community meet tragically different fates. Not all the tragedy takes place onscreen: Cazale’s scenes were shot first, as he was dying of cancer when production began; the studio wanted to replace the actor, but both Cimino and Steep (who was in a relationship with Cazale) threatened to leave if they did. He didn’t live to see the completed film.

He likely would have been proud if he had, as The Deer Hunter is a powerful reminder that war doesn’t always end on the battlefield. It won five of the nine Academy Awards it was nominated for — including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Walken — and was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1996.

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