Hollywood has long held a fascination with the Vietnam War. From films that were released while the war raged, like John Wayne’s The Green Berets, to the popular 1980s hits, like Oliver Stone’s Platoon, America’s role in the war has been documented—accurately or not—on the big screen for decades.
Growing up in the 1980s, Brian Raftery encountered these combat films left and right, bringing Vietnam to life right before his eyes. Fast-forward to today, and Brian’s ready to take a deeper look into these films and how they still resonate today, both culturally and politically.
In his new podcast from The Ringer, Do We Get To Win This Time? How Hollywood Made the Vietnam War, Brian chronicles and dissects some of the most seminal movies that reflect the war. Throughout the eight-episode season, Brian talks with filmmakers, experts, and veterans who discuss what these movies tell us about “the most divisive conflict in our country’s history and America’s perception of it.”
For the Record caught up with Brian to learn more.
What made you want to cover the Vietnam War—and how Hollywood approached it—specifically?
I didn’t grow up under the shadow of Vietnam—I was born after the war—but I did grow up under the shadow of Vietnam movies. When I was a kid, it seemed like every other weekend saw the release of an intense R-rated film about the war, like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. And even as a preteen, I’d heard of some of the major Vietnam movies of the seventies, like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. Vietnam was, strangely, a major part of popular culture back then.
I watched as many of these films as I could—and I devoured the countless Vietnam-related TV shows, books, and even comic books that arrived in the eighties and early nineties. And I wasn’t alone: These were huge movies, especially for Gen-Xers. We were being inundated with stories about a war we hadn’t witnessed—and that we barely understood.
For the podcast, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the making of these films, because, frankly, we don’t get many like ’em anymore: These are epic, highly ambitious combat films, all of them made before the CGI era, and the stories behind these productions are amazing. But I was also interested in how Hollywood’s depiction of Vietnam changed over the years, and how it reflected how America felt about a very controversial and disturbing war. This was a war that deeply divided the country, and sometimes one of the best ways to understand a moment in time is to look at the movies it inspired.
Why do you think Hollywood’s fascination with the Vietnam War was different from other major historical events?
Vietnam wasn’t like World War II. That conflict, as horrific as it was, had a definite ending—and a victorious one, at least for America. As a result, some of the movies Hollywood made about World War II in the forties and fifties were celebratory and deeply jingoistic. Not that I mind—I love a good rah-rah moment as much as anyone—but these were movies made at a time of peak national pride, and they could be a bit bloodless, literally and figuratively.
By contrast, Hollywood had no idea what to do with Vietnam at first. This was a divisive war—and the big studios don’t do “divisive.” So they spent years avoiding it, until the late seventies, when it became clear that some veterans were struggling to deal with the aftermath of the war, resulting in movies like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. By the eighties, there was even greater recognition of what America’s vets had gone through. That helps explain how a movie like Platoon can become such a phenomenon. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a great film, no matter when you see it! But Platoon happened to come at the exact moment that millions of Americans—young and old—were trying to understand what had happened in Vietnam.
As a result, Platoon kicked off a wave of Vietnam films, one that would peak in the late eighties. I can’t even count how many Vietnam films were made during that time. But after the Vietnam wave ended in the nineties, moviegoers would soon lose their interest in war altogether: The conflicts of the last few decades—most notably Iraq and Afghanistan—haven’t produced anywhere near as many films as Vietnam did. It was the last war Hollywood re-created in a major way.
How do you think these films shaped the view Americans had of the war?
I can only speak for myself—and a lot of the people I knew!—but I think movies like Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July had a huge impact on how young people in the eighties and the nineties perceived Vietnam vets. How could you not have empathy for what they’d gone through, during and after the war, after seeing the struggle depicted in those films?
And I think ground-level movies like Platoon and Hamburger Hill really opened young Americans’ eyes to the horrors of combat. Those movies didn’t make fighting look glamorous in any way. They were gory and terrifying and heartbreaking; they were horror movies, in their own way. I think they made moviegoers understand what happened to those who’d gone to Vietnam.
What movie did you find particularly compelling and knew it had to be covered for the podcast?
We have entire episodes dedicated to both Platoon and Apocalypse Now, which are probably the two best-known Vietnam films ever made. There’s no way you can ignore Platoon—it brought the war to vivid life for millions of moviegoers, and it kicked off an entire movement of Vietnam films. And Apocalypse Now might be the most over-the-top movie production in history: An Oscar-winning superstar director goes into the jungle with millions of dollars and some of the biggest stars of the world . . . and winds up in a swirl of chaos, egos, and explosions. How can you not try to bring that story to life?
What’s something surprising you learned from your interviews or while researching the podcast?
There are a lot of specific stories that amazed me, like when Courtney B. Vance told me that, in order to create enough smoke for Hamburger Hill, the producers actually burned tires all day, which I’m hoping is illegal nowadays. Or when Dale Dye, a lifelong military man, explained how he trained the Platoon actors for the movie by forcing them to endure a brutal bootcamp. Like I said, these movies were made by filmmakers who’d do anything to get their story on the screen. And a lot of stuff was blown up along the way.
But I was also surprised by how many Vietnam movies we were able to cover—and how many genres of Vietnam movies. It’s not just combat films—there are Vietnam-related horror films, comedies, family dramas, revenge fantasies, and so many more. I don’t think any single modern event has found its way into as many stories, and as many kinds of stories, as much as the Vietnam War did.
At the end of the series, what do you hope listeners walk away with?
I hope they’re entertained by it. And, of course, I also hope they come away feeling a little bit smarter! But mostly, I’d love it if the series inspires listeners to add some Vietnam movies to their Letterboxd lists.
Why did you choose a podcast as the medium for best telling this story? How did inserting audio clips from films complement the project?
Audio brings these movies to life in a way that no other medium can. Even a few seconds of movie dialogue plugs audiences directly into a scene—something that’s hard to do in a book. Plus, we get to play a lot of old movie trailers, some of which are very over-the-top. There were entire afternoons in which I spent hours watching old movie trailers, which I can’t believe is an actual job.
Ready to dive into Hollywood’s relationship with the Vietnam War? Join Brian as he digs into the films in his podcast from The Ringer Do We Get to Win This Time?