4 Classic Vietnam War Film Noir Choices

By | April 30, 2020

[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.


  1. 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/
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

34 thoughts on “4 Classic Vietnam War Film Noir Choices

  1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    Great films. Thanks Gen. Satterfield. I will note for all who’ve not seen them, that they are indeed dark films.

    1. Georgie B.

      Yes, great movies to watch but also to give some thought about the content. Yes, the actual cinematography is excellent and the actors are great but its the message that counts. There are many.

  2. Valkerie

    Hey buddy! Classic war movies from a couple of decades ago. Loved them all. Would watch them again anytime. General Satterfield has given us something to think about here.

  3. Anthony "Tony" Benson

    Hi folks, I’m not new to the leader site but first time in forum. I read this forum religiously and really like it because it adds an understand to the articles; more in depth and detailed. Thanks all.

    1. Martin Shiell

      Yes, welcome Mr. Benson. Glad to have you on board with us. ?

  4. Army Vet

    Okay guys and gals. Pay attention. The vast majority of people don’t know crap about combat or about military training. What you see in a movie or on television or hear on the radio about combat is a bunch of lies packaged to look good. I’ve seen no war film that ever came close to what it’s like in close combat with the enemy on the ground. Well, Saving Private Ryan came close. These four movies I did not like. Yep, they were not just unreal, they played on our emotions almost like being raped; the result is bad and the process is even worse. Take your money and see another movie that makes you laugh. But hey, if you want to waste your time and money, go see ’em. I’ll be sitting out in my backyard getting some rays.

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Hi Army Vet. Great review and thanks. Hope you write for our blog by Gen. Satterfield soonest. We all want to hear what you have been doing to crush the commie cockroaches down south.

    2. Greg Heyman

      Great to see you here today, Army Vet. ????
      I love your comments today. Thanks.

  5. Randy Goodman

    I saw all four and agree that these are noir choices. I have seen each at least twice and would watch them again. Seeing them in the theater on a big screen is much better as it allows the action to come to you in a bigger format that television can never duplicate.

    1. Karl J.

      I agree about the big screen experience. That is how I saw “Apocalypse Now” and it scared the sh## out of me and my date. Last I ever saw of her.

  6. Sally

    Great list of some of the most classic war movies in recent memory.

  7. Janna Faulkner

    These films! What can I say? I watched them years ago in theaters shortly after their release and before I read anything about them. I felt really strange watching them and afterward promised myself each time that I would not watch another war movie of that period. Of course, I violated that promise to myself but these are films I will never watch again.

    1. JT Patterson

      I’m with you, Janna. I watch movies for entertainment and hope to see a good ending. Entertainment is what it’s all about, not some message from a demented director.

    2. Wendy Holmes

      Thanks Janna, exactly what I was going to write. However, Gen. Satterfield does have a point and I might watch one of these. I’ve never seen them but my curiosity is peeked.

  8. Wilson Cox

    Platoon, great movie no matter how much you may like or dislike it. Oliver Stone based his movie on his own experiences and attempted to make a more “realistic” Vietnam movie, simpler and more grounded than things like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter… and he succeeds, truly making this war look like hell. Just my thoughts and that of my friends who were in the Vietnam War.

    1. Tony Custer

      Yes, but Platoon is not the easiest film to watch. It makes me want to look away at several points.

    2. Lynn Pitts

      The utter chaos of war in Vietnam is brilliantly portrayed. No one can deny this film the power of its images and the weight of all-pervasive terror it creates.

      1. Mr. T.J. Asper

        I agree with you Lynn. Yet, no sane person should want to get any closer to war than this film.

      2. Yusaf from Texas

        — or frankly, any of these films. Realism? We could argue that. For realism watch the into to Saving Private Ryan or We Were Soldiers Once and Young. Now those are really the best war movies of the century.

  9. apache2

    Vietnam War movies of any kind are hard for me to watch. I grew up during those times.

  10. Dennis Mathes

    Platoon is the BEST. Roger Ebert gave it four stars. Here is his main thought about the movie.
    “It was Francois Truffaut who said that it’s not possible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun. If Truffaut had lived to see “Platoon,” the best film of 1986, he might have wanted to modify his opinion. Here is a movie that regards combat from ground level, from the infantryman’s point of view, and it does not make war look like fun.”

  11. Tom Bushmaster

    None of the performances are especially good in Full Metal Jacket, aside from R. Lee Ermey; whose performance as a drill sergeant has become iconic.

    1. Doc Blackshear

      I disagree Tom. Full Metal Jacket, produced, directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, is not an easy film to watch, but from the first frame to the last, it is a riveting one. Of all these above, I liked it the best. Maybe that’s just the way I’m wired. I like these type of movies, the darker the better for me. My friends and I at least monthly get together to watch an old war movie. All of us regularly agree that these are some of the best made.

    2. monica

      What gives this story its power is not really its originality, but the relentlessness of Kubrick’s black-comic vision and the tightness of his focus.

    3. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      Gunnery Sgt. Hartman: What is your major malfunction numbnuts? Didn’t mommy and daddy show you enough attention when you were a child? I just loved this part. IMO, the first section of the film was the best. I agree with you somewhat Tom but overall Gunny Sgt H. was the best.

  12. The Kid 1945

    My favorite of these four is FMJ. I watched it at least five times. The others, I didn’t like so much. Made me feel strange after watching them. I guess that’s why Gen. Satterfield has referred to them as “noir films.” Personally, I like to see films that have a good ending. These don’t

  13. Eric Coda

    Classic war films are a favorite of mine. While my wife likes to watch Little Women and such tv series, I’m into war movies and such action-filed type of shows I can watch anytime (on demand, in new tv jargon).

    1. Joe Omerrod

      My wife was into “Little House on the Praire.”
      I see what you mean Eric. I too like action movies and tv shows. The British detective shows are really really good. You might consider watching some of them.

      1. Eva Easterbrook

        Thanks Joe. One of my favorites as far as series go but none of these mentioned so far are anything like the choices made here by Gen. Satterfield. I watched them all at one time pretty far in the past. I remember them as eerie and I had nightmares for a few days after.

      2. Dead Pool Guy

        I’m a war movie junkie. Ha Ha Ha Ha. I never was in the military so these movies help me see what it might have been like.

  14. Army Captain

    I would call them GREAT MOVIES, but they scare the hell out of me whenever I watch them. “Noir” films? Yes. Dark, scary, and yet great in a weird sort of way.

    1. Anthony "Tony" Benson

      Thanks you for your service to our nation. Also for your comments on these movies. I was never in war but your confirmations are always helpful.


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