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Vietnam and Hollywood: The realism quotient

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL S. DARNELL/STARS AND STRIPES

By MARC LEEPSON | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: October 24, 2017

As far as authenticity is concerned, Hollywood’s Vietnam War films have run the gamut from uncannily realistic to cartoonishly foolish.

The producers and directors of the most realistic films have gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure that the uniforms, weapons and materiel, scenery and dialogue you see and hear on screen are as close to the real things as possible.

We asked you to pick the most and least realistic movies made about the Vietnam War. You responded in droves. Click here to follow through and read what your fellow veterans thought about Hollywood's take on Vietnam. Continue down below to read about some of the most popular Vietnam War movies ever made.

Those in charge of the less-realistic films seem not to have given a lot of thought to that aspect of movie making — or, if they did, decided to not to care about what’s realistic.

Getting the details right is only one part of what makes a worthy war movie. But to a lot of us who served in the Vietnam War, even small inaccuracies — mispronouncing a commonly used GI word, for example, or showing the wrong insignia on a uniform — raise enormous caution flags. And, as it often turns out, those missteps signal that the movie is not worth much.

What follows is an alphabetical list of some of the most popular Hollywood movies with in-country Vietnam War scenes, along with brief synopses on how they measure up in the realism department.

It’s a subjective list. We welcome your comments on what we got right -- or what we missed.

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Air America (1990)

Set in Laos during the war featuring the adventures of a bunch of undercover American agents, much of the military hardware and scenery feel real. The dialogue? Hey, it’s a comedy.

Air America (1990)

Set in Laos during the war featuring the adventures of a bunch of undercover American agents, much of the military hardware and scenery feel real. The dialogue? Hey, it’s a comedy.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola’s bombastic opus gets a lot of military things right, but the plot is an over-the-top allegory that has little to do with real life. Some consider the movie a surreal masterpiece of irony, the quintessential anti-war movie. Others say it’s completely unrealistic and oversimplified.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola’s bombastic opus gets a lot of military things right, but the plot is an over-the-top allegory that has little to do with real life. Some consider the movie a surreal masterpiece of irony, the quintessential anti-war movie. Others say it’s completely unrealistic and oversimplified.

Bat*21 (1988)

Based on the true story of the daring, behind-enemy-lines rescue of a downed Air Force officer, much of the story rings true — given the fact that it’s a Hollywood movie.

Bat*21

Based on the true story of the daring, behind-enemy-lines rescue of a downed Air Force officer, much of the story rings true — given the fact that it’s a Hollywood movie.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Oliver Stone’s sequel to “Platoon” focuses on the post-war life of Ron Kovic. The in-country flashback scenes, under the eye of ace military technical adviser Dale Dye, stand with the most realistic on film.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Oliver Stone’s sequel to “Platoon” focuses on the post-war life of Ron Kovic. The in-country flashback scenes, under the eye of ace military technical adviser Dale Dye, stand with the most realistic on film.

The Boys in Company C (1978)

Before shining in the drill instructor role in “Full Metal Jacket,” R. Lee Ermey did his first acting turn in this Stanley Furie movie. Ermey also did a good job as the military technical adviser, although he probably didn’t have much control over the ARVN-Marine Corps soccer match scene.

The Boys in Company C (1978)

Before shining in the drill instructor role in “Full Metal Jacket,” R. Lee Ermey did his first acting turn in this Stanley Furie movie. Ermey also did a good job as the military technical adviser, although he probably didn’t have much control over the ARVN-Marine Corps soccer match scene.

Casualties of War (1989)

This execrable Brian De Palma film perpetuates the bankrupt Vietnam War stereotype that American GIs were rapists and murderers. It’s a gruesome, not very realistic, bad movie.

Casualties of War (1989)

This execrable Brian De Palma film perpetuates the bankrupt Vietnam War stereotype that American GIs were rapists and murderers. It’s a gruesome, not very realistic, bad movie.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

This Michael Cimino film won three Academy Awards, including best picture of 1978. The Vietnam War scenes were not its strong point, however. The Viet Cong were depicted as clichéd, blood-thirsty killers and the Americans as innocents in a corrupt land — as well as made-up (albeit allegorical) Russian roulette scenes.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

This Michael Cimino film won three Academy Awards, including best picture of 1978. The Vietnam War scenes were not its strong point, however. The Viet Cong were depicted as clichéd, blood-thirsty killers and the Americans as innocents in a corrupt land — as well as made-up (albeit allegorical) Russian roulette scenes.

84 Charlie MoPic

Written and directed by Vietnam War veteran Patrick Sheane Duncan, this small-budget independent film is a unique, realistic, and affecting look at a group of men who go through the worst the Vietnam War had to offer. It’s told through the black-and-white lens of a fictitious Army documentary photographer (“MoPic’), which adds to the strikingly real combat (and noncombat) scenes.

84 Charlie MoPic (1989)

Written and directed by Vietnam War veteran Patrick Sheane Duncan, this small-budget independent film is a unique, realistic and affecting look at a group of men who go through the worst of the Vietnam War. It’s told through the black-and-white lens of a fictitious Army documentary photographer (“MoPic’), which adds to the strikingly real combat (and noncombat) scenes.

Flight of the Intruder (1991)

A gung-ho “Top Gun”-like look at the air war based on the Stephen Coonts bestseller in which A-6 pilots hit the enemy. Director John Milius got full cooperation from the Navy, so the planes, ships, and military hardware you see are the real deal.

Flight of the Intruder (1991)

A gung-ho “Top Gun”-like look at the air war based on the Stephen Coonts bestseller in which A-6 pilots hit the enemy. Director John Milius got full cooperation from the Navy, so the planes, ships, and military hardware you see are the real deal.

Forrest Gump (1994)

The scenes with Gump in basic training and in the Vietnam War are startlingly well done. No surprise as Dale Dye did the military technical advising. The in-country sequences, shot in swampy South Carolina, feel very real, especially a scary firefight climaxed by a tower of menacingly exploding napalm.

Forrest Gump (1994)

The scenes with Gump in basic training and in the Vietnam War are startlingly well done. No surprise as Dale Dye did the military technical advising. The in-country sequences, shot in swampy South Carolina, feel very real, especially a scary firefight climaxed by a tower of menacingly exploding napalm.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film rates high on the realism scale, even though the entire movie was shot in and around London. The believable outdoor sets include downtown Da Nang and the 1st Marine Division base camp. Kubrick even imported hundreds of palm trees to simulate the terrain of Vietnam. R. Lee Ermey did the first-rate technical advising, including making all the weapons look and sound like the real things.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film rates high on the realism scale, even though the entire movie was shot in and around London. The believable outdoor sets include downtown Da Nang and the 1st Marine Division base camp. Kubrick even imported hundreds of palm trees to simulate the terrain of Vietnam. R. Lee Ermey did the first-rate technical advising, including making all the weapons look and sound like the real things..

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

The war’s first comedy starred Robin Williams as a whacky GI disc jockey in Vietnam. The laughs work, but the movie falls apart when Williams wanders into the jungle and little that follows seems like anything close to real life.

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

The war’s first comedy starred Robin Williams as a whacky GI disc jockey in Vietnam. The laughs work, but the movie falls apart when Williams wanders into the jungle and little that follows seems like anything close to real life.

Go Tell the Spartans (1978)

Director Ted Post, in this low-budget film, does a decent job in the realism department, although no troops in Vietnam in 1964 had the longish hair and sideburns sported by the actors playing GIs. That said, Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of a hard-bitten, cynical Army major who comes to realize early in the war (1964) that the U.S. effort probably is doomed, rings true.

Go Tell the Spartans (1978)

Director Ted Post, in this low-budget film, does a decent job in the realism department, although no troops in Vietnam in 1964 had the longish hair and sideburns sported by the actors playing GIs. That said, Burt Lancaster’s portrayal of a hard-bitten, cynical Army major who comes to realize early in the war (1964) that the U.S. effort probably is doomed, rings true.

The Green Berets (1968)

The movie was shot in Monument Valley in Arizona and looks it. Not once is the feeling of Vietnam even remotely approached. The troops, led by the overweight, aging, toupeed John Wayne (who also directed) posing unconvincingly as a Green Beret colonel, are as unconvincing as the special effects. One egregious example: the sun setting in the South China Sea.

The Green Berets (1968)

The movie was shot in Monument Valley in Arizona and looks it. Not once is the feeling of Vietnam even remotely approached. The troops, led by the overweight, aging, toupeed John Wayne (who also directed) posing unconvincingly as a Green Beret colonel, are as unconvincing as the special effects. One egregious example: the sun setting in the South China Sea.

The Hanoi Hilton (1987)

Lionel Chetwynd’s captivity movie contains much wooden dialogue and less-than-sterling acting, but does more than adequately bring across the conditions faced by American POWs held in the infamous North Vietnamese prison camp.

The Hanoi Hilton (1987)

Lionel Chetwynd’s captivity movie contains much wooden dialogue and less-than-sterling acting, but does more than adequately bring across the conditions faced by American POWs held in the infamous North Vietnamese prison camp.

Hamburger Hill (1987)

In terms of combat realism, this movie gets just about everything right. The credit goes primarily to writer (and Vietnam War veteran) Jim Carabatsos, director John Irvin and technical adviser Command Sgt. Maj. Al Neal. The crew was immensely aided by the Pentagon — and by the Department of Defense in the Philippines, where it was shot.

Hamburger Hill (1987)

In terms of combat realism, this movie gets just about everything right. The credit goes primarily to writer (and Vietnam War veteran) Jim Carabatsos, director John Irvin and technical adviser Command Sgt. Maj. Al Neal. The crew was immensely aided by the Pentagon — and by the Department of Defense in the Philippines, where it was shot.

The Iron Triangle (1989)

All the Vietnamese characters in this movie speak English, which strains the credibility quotient to a high degree. Beau Bridges as an American grunt looks a bit too well fed and could have used a few days of actor boot camp.

The Iron Triangle (1989)

All the Vietnamese characters in this movie speak English, which strains the credibility quotient to a high degree. Beau Bridges as an American grunt looks a bit too well fed and could have used a few days of actor boot camp.

Missing in Action (1984)

Do not look for accuracy in these popular revenge fantasy movies in which a ripped Chuck Norris ventures into Vietnam after the war to free American POWs.

Missing in Action (1984)

Do not look for accuracy in these popular revenge fantasy movies in which a ripped Chuck Norris ventures into Vietnam after the war to free American POWs.

Operation Dumbo Drop (1995)

This is a big-budget, feel-good, fairy tale involving a boy, his elephant and a bunch of good guys and bad guys. It’s based on a true story by former Green Beret Jim Morris, who served as the movie’s military technical adviser with Jared Chandler. They did well in that department, making Thailand stand in well for Vietnam in 1968.

Operation Dumbo Drop (1995)

This is a big-budget, feel-good, fairy tale involving a boy, his elephant and a bunch of good guys and bad guys. It’s based on a true story by former Green Beret Jim Morris, who served as the movie’s military technical adviser with Jared Chandler. They did well in that department, making Thailand stand in well for Vietnam in 1968.

Platoon (1986)

The first Vietnam War film to be written or directed by a Vietnam veteran (in this case both), Oliver Stone’s movie broke new ground in the realism department thanks to Stone and first-time military technical adviser Dale Dye, who invented the actors’ boot camp with this movie.

Platoon (1986)

The first Vietnam War film to be written or directed by a Vietnam veteran (in this case both), Oliver Stone’s movie broke new ground in the realism department thanks to Stone and first-time military technical adviser Dale Dye, who invented the actors’ boot camp with this movie.

Purple Hearts (1984)

Sidney Furie’s attempt at portraying love in the war zone falls flat, but the war scenes are generally well put together.

Purple Hearts (1984)

Sidney Furie’s attempt at portraying love in the war zone falls flat, but the war scenes are generally well put together.

The Rambo movies (1982)

See the “Missing in Action” film capsule above and substitute Sylvester Stallone for Chuck Norris. Little here resembles anything in real life.

The Rambo movies (1982)

See the “Missing in Action” film capsule above and substitute Sylvester Stallone for Chuck Norris. Little here resembles anything in real life.

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Werner Herzog’s gritty Vietnam War POW film, based on the true story of German-born flyer Dieter Dengler, is painfully realistic. The jungles of Thailand perfectly masquerade for the squalid Viet Cong POW camps where Dengler and other Americans were held and mistreated.

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Werner Herzog’s gritty Vietnam War POW film, based on the true story of German-born flyer Dieter Dengler, is painfully realistic. The jungles of Thailand perfectly masquerade for the squalid Viet Cong POW camps where Dengler and other Americans were held and mistreated.

We Were Soldiers

Based on the seminal book We Were Soldiers Once and Young by Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, this Randall Wallace movie contains more than an hour of some of the most horrifying and frighteningly realistic battle footage ever made—in this case of the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. Jason Powell did the military technical advising.

We Were Soldiers (2002)

Based on the seminal book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” by Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, this Randall Wallace movie contains more than an hour of some of the most horrifying and frighteningly realistic battle footage ever made — in this case, showing the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang Valley. Jason Powell did the military technical advising.


Historian and Vietnam veteran Marc Leepson is senior writer, books editor and columnist for the VVA Veteran, the magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America. His latest book is “Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death.”

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