Most Memorable Vietnam Vet in War Movies

I actually had a discussion yesterday about this topic. Which is the most memorable Vietnam vet in any movie? De Niro in Taxi Driver? Ron Kovic in Born on the 4th of July? Or even Rambo? The one I prefer is Jacknife. He is the most touching and likable. But I think not necessarily the most memorable. The most memorable for me is de Niro in Taxi Driver. Anyway, I want to hear what you think, which is the most memorable and which one did you like the most?

Here are a few to refresh your memory (and yes, indeed, Robert de Niro is certainly THE Vietnam vet actor)

Robert de Niro in Jacknife

Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter

Sylvester Stallone as Rambo: First Blood

Tom Cruise (in one of his best roles) in Born on the 4th of July

Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage in Birdy

James Cann in Gardens of Stone

Jack Dunne in Heroes

Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack

James Woods in The Visitors

Bruce Willis in In Country

John Lithgow in Distant Thunder

One little confession, I haven’t seen the last four… Did I miss something?

Alan Parker’s Birdy (1984) A Tale of Friendship, War and Being Different

What took me so long to watch this astonishing movie? For odd reasons it is hardly on any war movie list, not even in Russell’s book on Vietnam movies although he included Forrest Gump. Maybe because Birdy is so much more than just a Vietnam vet movie?  I don’t know. I urge anyone who likes movies that are not ordinary to watch Birdy. Birdy has a lot to offer. A beautiful story, a powerful anti-war statement, a tale on friendship, an exploration of madness, a character sturdy of a non-conformist and two famous actors, Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine at their very best. I truly liked every minute of it.

Birdy is based on the novel by William Wharton. It tells the story of two friends Al and Birdy who meet each other when they are still children. In flashbacks we see their teenage years in Philly and how, despite being total opposites, they become best friends. Birdy is an outsider. He hardly talks to anyone but he opens up to Al. Birdy is more interested in birds and flying than in other things, unlike Al who wants to meet girls and have fun.

They have all sorts of adventures together, from raising carrier pigeons to rescuing stray dogs and some aborted attempts at flying.

But this is the past. The present is quite a different one. Both young men did enlist when the war started. While Al comes back injured and scarred for life, Birdy is said to have gone missing for a month. When they find him he is catatonic. He is brought to a mental asylum where he mostly sits on the floor in bird-like positions. He has to be fed and hardly moves.

The psychiatrist sends for Al hoping he will get through to his friend and they will be able to heal together. Even though his scars seems to be more on the outside, it is obvious, Al is not less psychologically wounded.

The story is told in flashbacks. Step by step Al struggles to reach Birdy. He fights for his friend, their friendship and his own survival.

Of course we wonder during the movie if Birdy became that way because he was already a bit crazy to start with but Al, a seemingly healthy young man, does also come back “crazy” and we soon realize this label is by far too narrow.

Birdy reminded me a bit of Big Fish. This gentle tale of two wounded soldiers would appeal to many people who never watch war movies as well as to those who do. The score has been written by Peter Gabriel which was one of the reasons the movie was quite successful when it came out. 5/5

Gardens of Stone (1987) Coppola’s Vietnam Oddity

What the hell was that? Sorry but I did not get this movie. I was so thrilled when I heard from one of my readers about this a while back and thought that would be just the movie for me. I was always fascinated by military cemeteries. Those rows and rows of crosses. Each cross a life. Each cross a story. To dedicate a movie to those who bury the dead seemed so worthwhile. But somehow Coppola‘s Gardens of Stone doesn’t keep the promise it makes. Instead of an in-depth exploration of what it means to be the one to bury those who come back in caskets we get a little bit of everything which sums up to nothing. The acting is quite good, James Caan, Anjelica Huston and James Earl Jones do a good job but the story is too predictable. The movie starts with a funeral and then rewinds so we know already what is going to happen.

Sgt Hazard (James Caan) and Sgt Goody Nelson (James Earl Jones), two  Korea veterans and close friends, are Honour Guards at Arlington military cemetery. Hazard wants nothing more than going to Vietnam and teach the young soldiers how to survive over there. When a friend asks them to look after his son Willow who joins the unit, it seems to be Hazard’s mission to keep him from harm. As the funeral of the beginning  shows us, all his endeavors are futile.

It is exactly this predictability that finishes off this movie. And then there is the relationship of Hazard with the anti-war Washington Post correspondent Samantha. Their discussions pro or contra war are so boring. And totally without any consequences as she keeps on dating him… Of course there is also the young man who want to fight for his country and who is exemplary for so many who died doing just that.

The movie intersperses actual TV footage in order to give a bit of  “real war movie” flavor.

Apparently – I am speaking as a total layman – this movie is highly appreciated by people in the military. It is said to be very accurate and true to military life and rites.

Before I give you my final statement here is what  Jamie Russell writes:

Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted (Caan and Jones’ performances offer a truly outstanding sense of military camaraderie), Gardens of Stone remains one of the most problematic films to have come out of the war – part pro-military, part peacenik, 100% pro-American. (Vietnam War Movies, p. 46)

In my own words: It’s deadly boring hotchpotch.

Here’s the trailer

The Messenger (2009) or Fighting, Dying, Notifying

Some people say that The Messenger should have won the Academy Award instead of  The Hurt Locker. It is very possible that they are right.

As long as there are wars there will be fighting. As long as there is fighting there will be dying. And as long as people die in combat someone will have to notify the families. This difficult duty is the job of the Casualty Notification Officer. The Messenger explores this difficult task. To notify people is difficult for many reasons. Some are devastated and the their grief is unbearably raw. Others can´t even accept it. Some turn against the messenger, some are openly aggressive. Some are kind and caring.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) comes back from a tour in Iraq badly injured. He is said to be a hero even though he can’t accept this. He gets appointed to assist Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) who has done the job as Casualty Notification Officer for a very long time. He tells Will to strictly follow procedures. Don´t touch the relatives. Inform them directly. Be clear and precise and leave again.

The first job they get is already a harrowing one and Will realises that it might be even more difficult than he thought it would be. After their job is done, they go for a drink. Tony is a AA, so all he drinks is hot water with lemon. He asks Will very direct questions about everything. At first Will is reluctant to answer but he has no choice.

One day the two have to inform a young woman of the death of her husband. Will is very touched by her and her reaction and contacts her again later and they start to form a bond.

There are many different stories and storylines that are interwoven which is the strength of this movie. In it´s essence I would say, yes, this is a movie about war, but it is even more a movie about relationships. Deep relationships. Each and every single person in this movie carries a deep wound, either physical or psychological. Injuries, heartbreak, loss, betrayal. They have endured a lot and try to cope and heal by opening up to each other.

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are remarkable. Remarkable is actually and understatement.

I think The Messenger achieves a very rare thing. It gives us real people. Courageous and open people. And it says a lot of profound things about war and its consequences. Ultimately when there is a war, there will be death and dying. No one should forget this.

10 Vietnam War Movies You Must See Before You Die

The following 10 Vietnam War Movies are the ones you absolutely must see. There are more. Many I have seen, some I have not. You may be astonished that one of the most famous ones, Apocalypse Now, is not among them… I wanted to stick to 10 and these are my 10 choices. I always found Apocalypse Now slightly dubious. Whatever.  The list is in chronological order. I did not want to weigh them against each other as they show quite different aspects of the same war.

The Deer Hunter (1978):  Young second generation Russian-Americans volunteer to prove themselves and serve their country. In Vietnam they are  captured and suffer as POWs and are forced to play Russian roulette. They come home disillusioned and physically and psychologically broken.

Platoon (1986): Infantry combat. A young man volunteers to go to Vietnam and soon sees his dreams shattered. He gets caught between two antagonistic officers, the ultimately good Sgt. Elias and the mean Sgt. Barnes.

Hamburger Hill (1987): No-nonsense infantry combat at its toughest. A group of soldiers of mixed social backgrounds and ethnic origins must fight a senseless battle for a hill.

Full Metal Jacket (1987): Artsy movie. First part is an unforgettable look at boot camp horrors. The second centers on  street fighting in Vietnam. Unusual setting. Vivid, haunting pictures.

Jacknife (1989): A brilliant De Niro in the role of a memorable Vietnam vet. (More details on this movie in my post).

Born on the 4th of July (1989): Maybe the ultimate anti-war statement and a in-depth exploration of masculinity. A movie that makes you cringe.

84 Charlie MoPic (1989): Documentary style but much better than the Iraq movie Redacted. Embedded journalists follow an infantry combat unit in the bush.

Heaven and Earth (1993): A look at the other side. What was the meaning of this war for  Vietnamese civilians?

Tigerland (2000): Boot camp. We see the soldiers train long before they are shipped out. Tensions rise until a drama unfolds.

We Were Soldiers (2002): The only Vietnam War Movie that truly attempts to show more than one side. Close look at the Vietnamese command. Heavy combat. Story switches between battle field and home front where the wives wait for the letters who will inform them they have become widows. Very emotional but not unproblematic movie. Too much trying to make us believe it was  a “good war”.

Maybe you disagree with this list. Let me know which ones you would choose. Which one do you really prefer?