[April 30, 2020] “Boogie down” and “10-4, good buddy” are slang from the 70s and 80s. It sure is hard to forget them. There were four classic Vietnam War noir films from that era that also helped shape our culture, understanding of the war, and the American way of life. Drenched with atmosphere, suspense, and horror, these four noir films underline the bleak, dark side of war – with some hard-boiled characters.1 I’m separating classic war films and noir films as a way to avoid overload.
The Deer Hunter (1978) tells the story of three friends (played by De Niro, Washburn, & Walken) from a small steel-mill town in Pennsylvania who enlist and go to Vietnam. After they are captured by the North Vietnamese Army and imprisoned in a POW camp, they are forced to play Russian roulette for their captors’ entertainment. After the character Michael returns home from the horrors he experienced, he realizes that his deer hunting outings aren’t the same as they used to be. Michael eventually finds out that Steven is handicapped and Nicky hasn’t returned from Vietnam. Michael heads back to Vietnam to rescue him. I first saw this dark film in 1980, shortly after moving to a small town in Pennsylvania. I found it eerie, depressing, cynical, and bleak. I highly recommend the movie, but I will never watch it again.
Apocalypse Now (1979) is Francis Coppola’s war epic about a disaffected Army Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) who is tasked with a secret “does not exist, nor will it ever exist” mission. The captain is ordered to go deep into the jungle and take out a Green Beret Colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone rogue and established himself as a local god. Willard travels upriver along with a ragtag group of American soldiers. Willard confronts the same horrors and hypocrisy that pushed the level-headed Kurtz over the edge into an abyss of insanity. Captain Willard also experiences the primal violence of human nature and the darkness of his own heart. I found the movie a true dark classic and will watch it again sometime in about 10 years from now. I do recommend the film.
Platoon (1986) is about Chris Taylor (played by Martin Sheen), a young, naïve American who gives up college and volunteers for combat in Vietnam. He quickly learns he is but a number rather than a vital player in the conflict and sees the worst of humanity. Taylor suffers a massive psychological break after witnessing the massacre of a village of innocents at the hands of his platoon. Doing battle with both the Viet Cong and with fear, exhaustion, and anger, the platoon must walk the line between the war against the enemy and the one they fight with each other. The chaos, conflict, and hatred permeate the soldiers, suffocating their realities and numbing their feelings. I discovered this movie accidentally when a buddy of mine (a Vietnam War vet) and I walked into a mall movie theater and said, “what the heck, let’s watch it.” We were a bit traumatized and relieved when the film ended. I do recommend it, but I won’t watch it again.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) is director Stanley Kubrick’s take on a war film. I recommend his films to the unfamiliar audience and I may devote a future article just to his films alone. The FMJ film has a two-segment look, first as a group of young recruits go through U.S. Marine basic training and have to deal with a demanding, sadistic Drill Instructor (played by R. Lee Ermey). And second, as one of them, J.T. ‘Joker’ Davis (played by Matthew Modine) finds himself in the Vietnam War as a combat journalist where he gets to see the horrors of war first-hand during the Tet Offensive. Joker initially joins the Marines to become a killer, but his job as a journalist does not suit him well. When the Tet Offensive begins, he is thrust into real combat and must ultimately decide if he really is a killer. I watched the movie shortly after the Panama Peacekeeping Mission kicked off at the end of 1989 and, at the time, found the film familiar in the first part but a bit uneasy in the second segment. I will recommend the film and might watch it again.
- I was inspired to write this article when I read a Paulina Enck article titled “3 Classic Film Noir Choices To Add Some Glamour And Suspense To Quarantine.” Published on the Federalist website, I find much of what is written by her both educational and occasionally entertaining. Here the article is linked: https://thefederalist.com/2020/04/29/3-classic-film-noir-choices-to-add-some-glamour-and-suspense-to-quarantine/