Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War begins this week, though the 18-hour series is far from the first about the subject. Unlike Hollywood’s almost 15-year delay, documentary makers started trying to make sense of the war early on.
The Vietnam War has been a cultural touchstone for generations, though it resonates most with the baby boomers who served and protested and with generation X who lost family members and friends or grew up with survivors who struggled afterward.
The war long has been held up as a marker of American failure. George Bush declared in a speech before actions in Iraq and Kuwait, “I’ve told the American people before that this will not be another Vietnam, and I repeat this here tonight.” Similar refrains occurred at the start of military actions following 9/11, as each war invited armchair comparisons. Check out Robert Brigham’s book Is Iraq Another Vietnam for an in-depth discussion.
Starting about 1978, Hollywood’s first films showed the war as chaotic insanity. In his book Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second, Jeremy Devine cites the four horsemen — The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and The Deerhunter — as blazing the trail for bringing the war to the big screen. But unlike World War II films, Hollywood films about the Vietnam War focused on the jungle, the combat, and the overall experience. In production and representation, Apocalypse Now best captures all of these themes, though the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse provides further depth than the usual behind-the-scenes production documentaries.
PBS aired a series titled Vietnam: A Television History. Broadcast in 1983 as part of the American Experience series, the 13 episodes provided a chronology of events that was well received. In 1997, PBS rebroadcast the series, this time omitting episode 2 (“The First Vietnam War”) and episode 13 (“Legacies”). The later released DVD series also excluded these episodes. These omissions drew criticism for their tampering with history, and some criticisms went so far as to call it “censorship.”
Here are 10 documentaries about the Vietnam War and its aftershocks to explore if you seek more information beyond the upcoming Burns and Novick film. Even though it covers an immense variety of perspectives, no single documentary — even at 18 hours — can give voice to everyone.
1. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)
Hearts and Minds is harrowing in its emotion and scathing in its critique. Davis juxtaposes official voices from the U.S. government with those who suffered from their decisions. One sequence features a Vietnamese funeral with families burying multiple dead, and wailing survivors, devastated with grief, attempt to climb into the graves with them. The scene is intercut with comments from General William Westmoreland, who says, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Hearts and Minds struggled for distribution, particularly after former National Security Advisor Walt Rostow attempted to stop its release. Hearts and Minds won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
2. Daughter from Danang (Gail Dolgin and Vincente Franco, 2002)
In April 1975, more than 10,000 children were evacuated from Vietnam. The children were adopted around the world, including the United States. While many of the children were orphans, some, particularly biracial children with American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, were given up by their families. Daughter from Danang tells the story of Heidi Bub (Mai Thi Hiep), who was adopted and raised in Tennessee by a mother who minimized Heidi’s Vietnamese identity. As an adult Heidi receives an opportunity to return to Vietnam and reunite with her biological family. The cameras follow her to the reunion and her return to her own husband and children in Tennessee. The film makes for an interesting meditation on American identity.
3. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003)
If you read any of Robert McNamara’s books, you know he is a highly intelligent and accomplished man. The former U.S. Secretary of Defense wrote In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, wherein he examines the war’s failings. For The Fog of War, McNamara interviewed with director Errol Morris for 20 hours, which was edited down to two hours along with archival materials. Morris won his first Best Documentary Feature Oscar with this film. The Unknown Known, with Donald Rumsfeld, follows a similar pattern.
4. In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968)
Emile de Antonio remains sadly underappreciated or and relatively unknown in today’s documentary popular culture. de Antonio specialized in documentaries about political issues. The Year of the Pig is a compilation film that brought together footage from interviews and archives to show the war’s origins and to critique them as well.
5. Sad Song of Yellow Skin (Michael Rubbo, 1970)
While many documentaries focus on the battlefield and the soldiers, Sad Song of Yellow Skin shows the people affected by the war off the frontlines. In particular, Michael Rubbo observes street children in Saigon, and his voiceover offers his personal commentary and observations on what he witnesses there. This film was made for the National Film Board of Canada.
6. Be Good, Smile Pretty (Tracy Droz Tragos, 2003)
Tracy Droz Tragos was three months old when her father died in an ambush during the Vietnam War. Searching online for her father’s name many years later, she found a narrative (perhaps this one) about the circumstances surrounding his death. That search and the story inspired her to seek more information about the father she knew so little about. Starting the conversation with her mother in Be Good, Smile Pretty, Droz Tragos creates a deeply personal documentary in learning more about him and about the soldiers who served with him.
7. Sir! No Sir! (David Zeiger, 2005)
While we most often think of war protestors as those who remained outside the military,
Sir! No Sir! examines the role of protest and subversion among military personnel during the Vietnam War. It uncovers the overlooked GI Movement, which brought the peace demonstrations to within the military. Movement members produced newspapers, organized protests, distributed leaflets, and engaged other activities. This documentary weaves interviews with print and video archives to create a compelling story.
8. Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Bill Couturié, 1987)
Also a book, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam uses personal letters from American soldiers and archival materials to create an on-the-ground view of the war. Celebrities such as Robert De Niro, Robert Downey Jr., and Michael J. Fox contributed their voices to the project.
9. The Anderson Platoon (Pierre Schoendoerffer, 1967)
The Anderson Platoon offers the cinematic experience of an embedded filmmaker. Pierre Schoendoerffer joined the 1st Calvary Division in 1966 and stayed with them in September and October of that year. He captured the raw events of these soldiers’ experiences, including reconnaissances, battles, and deaths, not to mention their raw fears and hopes as well. Named for platoon leader Captain Joseph B. Anderson Jr., the documentary went on to win the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 1967.
10. Vietnam, Long Time Coming (Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn, 1998)
Vietnam, Long Time Coming follows a team of cyclists who enter a 16-day, 1,100-mile bike ride through Vietnam, an event organized by World TEAM (The Exceptional Athlete Matters). Veterans throughout the United States and Vietnam participated, among them many participants with differing ability levels such as blindness and missing limbs, but all athletes nonetheless. The ride provides some healing for veterans from both sides of the war as they ride together throughout the Vietnam countryside.