8 Vietnam Movies That Fudged the Truth for Narrative Convenience
Films make mistakes. Conveying something as massive and intricate as a war requires some creative license just to make the mess manageable. In reality, wars have a cast of millions and run times only measurable in years, if not decades. Add the contentious nature of historical accounts and you have a recipe begging for bias, spin, and flat-out egregious errors. So it shouldn't really come as a surprise there are so many inaccuracies about the Vietnam War in film.
Yeah, there are a lot of things movies got wrong about the Vietnam War. Even the official historical account is a matter of controversy (was the Gulf of Tonkin, for instances, a false flag operation?). Beyond the hawk vs dove bias, there are some things movies just missed, be it a minor bend of the truth or a significant alteration to truth done in the service of narrative.
Some films on this list are among the worst depictions of Vietnam in movies, steaming piles of cinematic excrement shat out by greedy incompetents hoping to take advantage of the rampant stupidity of the masses and cash a check written by misguided patriotism. Others stand among the greatest American films ever made, yet took creative liberties to service the vision of a filmmaker over strict adherence to the truth. Hell, Oliver Stone, write and director of Platoon, served in the Vietnam War, so probably knows more about it than you do. But the fact remains, all these movies fudged the truth for the sake of narrative convenience.
The Green Berets is full of inaccuracies. It's been called a propaganda piece, and is so unrealistic even supporters of the Vietnam War were embarrassed by it. It seemed so out of touch upon release, the New York Times called it "the end of the traditional war picture." Roger Ebert had equally scathing things to say:
"The Green Berets simply will not do as a film about the war in Vietnam. It is offensive not only to those who oppose American policy but even to those who support it... what we certainly do not need is a movie depicting Vietnam in terms of cowboys and Indians. That is cruel and dishonest and unworthy of the thousands who have died there."
The film ends with John Wayne walking off into the sunset with Vietnamese orphan Hamchuck. Because he's John F*ck Yeah USA Wayne and walking off into the sunset is what he f*cking does. As is pointed out Gustav Hasford's novel The Short Timers, on which Full Metal Jacket was based, the South China Sea sits to the east of Vietnam. This means, if you were watching a sunset from the beach, it would be over land, to the west, not over the sea, ot the east (remember, kids, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west). You'd have to be in the Philippines to see the sunset as depicted in Green Berets.
This detail is very telling about the film as a whole; it is about a Vietnam that doesn't exist.
The iconic scene of friends being forced by Viet Cong to play Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter is pure Hollywood make believe. There is not a single documented case of any person being forced to play the deadly game during the war, which makes sense given that it isn't a traditionally Vietnamese game. It's not like it's called Vietnamese roulette.
Nevertheless, director Michael Cimino defended his artistic interpretation to reporters, saying:
"War is war. Vietnam is no different from the Crusades. It's a question of survival, friendship and courage, and what happens to these things in people under stress."
Life as a Vietnam POW was brutal. Granted too, The Deer Hunter is a pretty darn good movie, and the Russian roulette scene is obviously a metaphor for the lives of the central characters. But a lot of viewers took this sequence very seriously, and it should be understood as creative license, not a factual depiction of the war.
Much of We Were Soldiers is accurate, with the notable exception of a climactic bayonet charge. The filmmakers missed the mark by about 100 years, but, to be fair, director Randall Wallace also made Heaven Is for Real, which perhaps isn't totally accurate, so maybe it's a miracle this movie turned out the way it did. The final charge is reminiscent of a real bayonet charge, but one that happened during the American Civil War, and not the Vietnam war.
During the battle of Gettysburg, there was a fierce struggle over high ground on the Union extreme left flank located on Little Round Top. If Confederates had managed to capture that ground, the Union line would have likely collapsed. The ground was held by the 20th Maine under Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The regiment was besieged by a fierce southern assault led by General James Longstreet. As Union troops ran out of ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a desperate bayonet charge. The tactic took the Confederates by surprise; they were driven off long enough for Union reinforcements to arrive and reform the line.
Such tactics were made obsolete by the invention of the machine gun. World War I was one failed charge into a machine gun nest after another. During WWII, there were some suicidal charges from Japanese forces in the last desperate phases of the war, but they were tactically pointless. By Vietnam, asking your troops to fix bayonets and charge would essentially be asking them to commit suicide rather than surrender.
In fact, the actual Colonel Moore, upon whom Mel Gibson's character is based, used modern military tactics to drive back enemy forces in the battle depicted. The last major bayonet charge in US history took place during the Korean War.
Platoon is a gritty portrait of grunt-level life in the jungles of Vietnam. Director Oliver Stone did a great job drawing from personal experience to make a believable war film. There is one point, however, at which he asks for a bit too much suspension of disbelief.
When someone takes three M-16 rounds to the chest, he's not getting back up. Everybody likes Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), and nobody wants to see him go out like that. It's a great scene, and one the film wouldn't have if it were being totally accurate about the damage done by those M-16 rounds, because Elias's insides would've been scrambled to goo by the three bullets. Rest in peace, buddy.
Apocalypse Now is more Heart of Darkness than Vietnam War. Of course, no one believes there was a real Colonel Kurtz operating an independent guerilla war from Cambodia, but the film makes quite a few other obscene errors. Although the fictional Nung River serves as a stand-in for the Mekong River, many of the locations in the film never existed. Of course, the movie, which is fictional, is about a war waged by soldiers on copious amounts of drugs, was made by people on copious amounts of drugs, and aims to capture the hallucinogenic quality of being at war while stoned out of your mind. So maybe don't get too upset it isn't 100% accurate.
That said, there's one mistake that succinctly indicates this is not a realistic portrayal of the Vietnam War. Patrol boats didn't run alone. They always operated as part of patrol groups. Sending a lone swift boat or PBR through the heart of Viet Cong territory isn't something that would've happen. It did, however, happen in the book, albeit on a different continent and with a riverboat. To be fair, the mission in the film is a top secret one ordered by shady military brass and intelligence personnel, so it probably wasn't going by any on-the-books rules.
Director Barry Levinson and writer Mark Markowitz definitely took some liberties in their portrayal of Air Force DJ Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams). The most notable example is the entirely fictional account of Cronauer befriending a Vietnamese boy who turns out to be a Viet Cong agent. The character never existed. Also inaccurate is the ending, when Williams's character is forced to leave Vietnam before his tour is over. This never happened to the real Cronauer.
That said, the real Adrian Cronauer approves of Williams' portrayal of him.
"It was never intended to be a point-by-point accurate biography. It was intended to be a piece of entertainment, and it certainly was that. It was nominated for an Academy Award and you don't get much better than that."
Indeed, life is random and war is chaotic, while movies are tightly controlled and deliberately crafted narratives often designed to make points, so sometimes you have to finagle things a little to hit the nail on the head.