Movies about the Vietnam War aren’t hard to come by, but much of the established Hollywood canon – We Were Soldiers, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket – has so far told only one story: that of American soldiers. Many of these classics also tell the same story in much the same way, often taking the form of buddy movies (albeit tragic ones).
There are, of course, a multitude of other perspectives that deserve cinematic consideration, but the voices most sorely lacking from the chorus are those of Vietnamese people: the civilians, the refugees, and the ones who fought for the North and the South. Often reduced to nameless, voiceless extras in movies about American soldiers, it might surprise you to know that Vietnam had its working film industry in the War, although most of its output was of a non-fictional nature until the early ‘70s.
Of the fewer-than-a-hundred Vietnamese features produced during the period, there are several stand-outs that deserve audiences as big as Hollywood’s classics enjoy. We’ve selected the best of these movies to help fill in the gaps of the Vietnam War movie canon and, with the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre coming up on March 16, to serve as a reminder that the Vietnam War didn’t simply bring tragedy down on young American men: it was, first and foremost, a tragedy for the people of Vietnam.
(Side note: it’s worth recognizing the work of the people behind the 1988 US-based Vietnam Film Project here, as most of the Vietnamese movies included in this list were only subtitled as a result of their efforts. The Project sought to reclaim the narrative of the War for Vietnamese people and publicise the country’s rich culture in the US, counter to the impressions left by Hollywood blockbusters. For readers in the LA area, the UCLA Film & Television Archive holds more subtitled Vietnamese movies from the period that can’t be seen elsewhere, including tragic romance Fairy Tale for Seventeen Year Olds and the Taxi Driver-esque Brothers and Relations.)
Also included in our list of recommendations are under-seen English-language movies that offer a fresh take on the conflict — including horror’s answer to Taxi Driver — as well as a landmark documentary series that offers a breathtakingly comprehensive examination of the War.
When the Tenth Month Comes
Often cited as the best Vietnamese movie about the War, Dang Nhat Minh’s 1984 feature When the Tenth Month Comes is strikingly devoid of any scenes of combat. Like many of the other films on this list, it adopts the perspective of a young Vietnamese woman, who here struggles to protect her vulnerable family from the dreadful news of her serving husband’s death. Swapping guns and gore for poetry, this is a stunning melodrama about the impact the conflict had on families left behind by Vietnamese soldiers.
Overwhelmed by the knowledge that her much-adored husband has been killed in battle, Duyen (played by Le Van) enlists the help of aspiring poet and local teacher Khang (Huu Muoi Nguyen) in forging reassuring letters from her husband so that Duyen can preserve the innocence of her doting young son Tuan (Le Phong Trinh) and protect her ailing father-in-law (Phu Cuong Lai) from the crushing – likely fatal – blow that the truth would bring. Duyen’s self-smothered mourning is a moving testament to the wartime experiences of Vietnamese women that also lays bare Hollywood’s lack of equal attention towards Duyen’s American counterparts.
Inspired by a spiritual Vietnamese legend, When the Tenth Month Comes seamlessly segues between the supernatural and the normal thanks to its realist black-and-white cinematography. Importantly, it shines a necessary light on the unique wartime experiences of civilian women, many of whom, like Duyen, are burdened with added strain and sacrifice on top of their already taxing domestic responsibilities.
The Vietnam War
For a documentary take on the conflict, look no further than the encyclopedic The Vietnam War, which aired on PBS in September last year. Co-directed by celebrated documentarians Lynn Novick and Ken Burns (the namesake of the oft-used cinematography technique) this is a ten-part epic series that encompasses the breadth of experiences — Vietnamese included — depicted in the other films on this list with an astonishing amount of depth that won’t come as a surprise to fans of the filmmakers (The Civil War, Baseball). Of equal interest, it also deals with the anti-war movement that raged in the US alongside the military conflict and tells the specific story of the tragic Kent State protest shootings (which were immortalized in this photo).
Its lengthy run-time – all ten episodes add up to eighteen hours – helps it avoid the pitfalls of cinematic dealings with the War, which often conflate viewpoints so that they form a binary (American vs. Vietnamese) for the sake of brevity or simplifying the narrative. Interviews with US soldiers, civilians, protestors and their North and South Vietnamese counterparts earn the series a sense of nuance that lacks elsewhere, making this the ultimate critical primer for anyone seeking a comprehensive consideration of the War.
There is no making sense of what happened in Vietnam, but, like all Burns and Novick’s work, The Vietnam War conveys the messiness of its subject material with paradoxical clarity, something else it owes to its chapterized, multi-episode format. But more than the duo’s other work, The Vietnam War is extraordinary for achieving an assured sense of timeliness, offering an exceptionally invaluable opportunity for reflection considering the palpable role the conflict still plays in the politics of today.
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The Little Girl of Hanoi
Filmed on location in the rubble of a recently-bombed Hanoi, Hai Ninh’s The Little Girl of Hanoi is evocative of post-WW2 realist films like Germany, Year Zero and Fred Zinnemann’s The Search. As such, if you were more interested in the city setting of Good Morning, Vietnam than the oppressive tropical forests of most of Hollywood’s other Vietnam War movies, then The Little Girl of Hanoi is for you, as all of the action takes place in Hanoi’s concrete jungle rather than the leafy kind. Unlike the aforementioned movies, however, this one was produced before the War’s end, as director Ninh was moved to express the horror inflicted on unsuspecting residents of the city after witnessing it first-hand. (Although unconfirmed, the film’s production date almost guarantees that its entire cast also lived through the War, like many of the actors featured in the other Vietnamese films on this list.)
To capture a humanist interpretation of the conflict, The Little Girl of Hanoi follows the headstrong young violinist Ha Ngoc (Lan Huong Nguyen) as she searches for her family following a particularly brutal bombing that has separated them, aided in her quest by compassionate neighbors and one particularly helpful soldier (The Anh). Unlike When the Tenth Month Comes, we get brutal scenes of violence here, one of which includes the actual shooting-down of a real B-52 plane.
With its focus on a young girl doing her best in dire circumstances and a dream-like ending sequence, it reminded me somewhat of The Florida Project, although there’s a more explicitly political edge to this film. What few moments in The Little Girl of Hanoi can be characterised as anti-American are only mildly so, however, and given the circumstances the movie depicts (and the racist way Vietnamese people were portrayed in lauded Hollywood classics like The Deer Hunter) it would be silly to turn your nose up at a film like this – especially when it also takes pains to appreciate the work American nurses were doing to help the Vietnamese.
Dead of Night/Deathdream
Before Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter explored the psychologically ravaging effects the War had on young American soldiers, there was Dead of Night (or Deathdream), a fascinating cult horror retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw” from A Christmas Story director Bob Clark. Even if the aforementioned movies have eclipsed it in popularity over the years, Dead of Night remains one of the most remarkably original films about the War to date (it was also one of the first to tackle the effects of Vietnam on soldiers’ mental health, being released in 1974).
Set in the US, it tells the cautionary tale of Andy Brooks (Richard Backus), a young US soldier who is killed in Vietnam only to return safely home after his mother’s grief wills him back to life. Like many young men were at the time, Andy is psychologically scarred by his Vietnam experiences, but the framework of the movie’s genre turns his zombie-esque PTSD into something far more sinister, as bodies drained of blood begin to turn up in Andy’s sleepy Southern town.
War makes men into monsters, the film says, with that last part being made literal thanks to striking prosthetics by Tom Savini (who worked on many of George Romero’s movies). Clark’s movie is also interested in how contemporary ideas about masculinity contributed to the creation of a nation of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), and as such Dead of Night is even more resonant today.
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Journey from the Fall
Journey from the Fall is a much more recent addition to the catalog of Vietnamese films about the War than the others on this list, having been selected as part of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in 2006. Unlike the movies mentioned above, it isn’t set during the War; instead, it follows the contrasting post-war fates of Vietnamese people who had fought against the ultimately successful communist forces during the conflict itself.
Vietnamese-American director Ham Tran manages to avoid an over-ambitious scope by adopting a tight focus on what happens to one particular family, which is headed by Long (Long Nguyen), a husband, father, and son who fought in the South Vietnamese Army. While Long is made a political prisoner in a harrowing “re-education” camp where torture and starvation are commonplace, his wife (Diem Lien), son (Nguyen Thai Nguyen) and mother (Kieu Chinh) become “boat-people” and escape the country on an equally haunting refugee route that eventually sees them arrive in California. The plot is informed by Tran’s extensive research, and as such, the family’s arrival in the US doesn’t play like a Disney ending; there is as much nuance in the way each member of the family adjusts to their new life as there is in the film’s earlier acts.
Banned in Vietnam because of its depiction of the government-run re-education camps, Journey from the Fall is a necessary watch to round off any cinematic education on the War’s life-changing impact on Vietnam’s people. With substantial financial backing from Vietnamese-American communities, a diasporic director and a cast that includes non-professional actors who lived the movie’s reality, consider watching this authentic, moving reminder that, for millions of Vietnamese people, the battle didn’t end when US troops packed up and went home.
The Abandoned Field: Free Fire Zone
Directed by Hong Sen Nguyen with a nuance that was severely lacking in many Hollywood films of the time, the FIPRESCI-winning The Abandoned Field: Free Fire Zone depicts the day-to-day life of a young family in the wetlands of the Mekong Delta. Enlisted by the Viet Cong to maintain guerrilla communication lines in return for food, the couple and their baby find the tranquillity of their rural lives violently disrupted by incessant American strafing from overhead. Shot in black-and-white documentary style and with a true-to-life sense of pacing, you might have to remind yourself you’re watching fiction here.
The Abandoned Field goes out of its way to express lament at the losses brought by the War on both sides: when an American soldier is killed to avenge the death of a Viet Cong-aligned father, it is revealed that the American’s wife had recently given birth, too, with both babies now being tragically fatherless. Its humanist theme is also borne out in a score by the “Bob Dylan of Vietnam” Trinh Cong Son, a celebrated musician who faced censorship from the Vietnamese government for the pacifist songs he wrote during the War.
In 1997, Werner Herzog produced Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary telling the extraordinary story of one of his compatriots, Dieter Dengler, who had emigrated to the US at the outset of the Vietnam War. Ten years later, Herzog revisited Dengler’s experience with Rescue Dawn, a dramatic rendering of the same true story starring Christian Bale in the lead role.
On a classified US Navy flying mission for over Laos, the young German-American pilot Dengler is shot down and captured by a Laotian group aligned with Vietnamese communist forces. Facing torture and execution, Dengler and his campmates – including a serious Steve Zahn as Duane Martin and a scrawny Jeremy Davies as the controversy-stirring Gene DeBruin – plan an ambitious escape that only partly goes to plan.
Although easily discernible from Herzog’s more enigmatic oeuvre, Rescue Dawn still feels eccentric in places, and as such makes for a striking dramatic retelling of one of the most unbelievable individual events of the War. Its depiction of the tender bonds of human friendship – forged in captivity rather than conflict – makes it stand out from the Hollywood canon on Vietnam, which tends to imagine that positive relationships between men can only be borne out of shared experiences of violence, not hope.
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