If a movie poster hasn’t stopped you in your tracks it’s failed at its first selling point to get you interested to see it. It’s like an ad, your first glimpse at what’s to come. Often the best posters use specific colour schemes and visuals to catch your eye. Sometimes they feature a character or illustrated film scene. Sometimes they are so plain, abstract or weird that in itself is intriguing enough to further more investigation. Below are five iconic Vietnam War movie posters which reflect various moods of one of the most controversial wars of the twentieth century.
When I first saw the movie poster for Platoon (1986) with Sgt. Elias’ (Willem Dafoe) arms raised in the air, I was gobsmacked by its graphic nature but at the same time I was also somewhat intrigued. Was this a scene from the film, I thought. Even its tagline… ‘The first casualty of war is innocence’ aroused my curiosity, which didn’t make much sense to my teenage self at the time. Of course, it was only after I had seen the film that I was able to understand its underlining message. (Interestingly, “The first casualty of war is innocence,” grew from Progressive Republican Senator Hiram Johnson’s 1917 assertion that “The first casualty of war is truth.”)
This incredible poster would later in Platoon‘s theatrical run replace Bill Gold’s original upturned text-covered helmet and ironic peace symbol poster which the studios felt wasn’t marketable enough. Cinephiles might also be interested to know that this iconic poster took its inspiration from Vietnam War field photographer Art Greenspon’s most famous photo of an infantry sergeant with hands in the air signalling a rescue helicopter.
Full Metal Jacket (1987).
The British illustrator Philip Castle, who had created the iconic poster for Stanley Kubrick’s film Clockwork Orange was asked by Kubrick to design the now iconic helmet poster art for Full Metal Jacket. Though he wasn’t the first choice the director had in mind. Kubrick rang Castle and wanted someone like Saul Bass (who famously created Hitchcock’s vertigo poster) to design the poster art. Castle was somewhat bemused and told Kubrick “why don’t you let me have a go?” The rest they say is history as Castle would go on to design the “Born To Kill” helmet. The iconic poster art shows the US infantry helmet tilted as if it sits on an invisible G.I.’s head with the tagline “In Vietnam The Wind Doesn’t Blow It Sucks”. (There are many theories as to what the tagline means but personally I don’t get it. If you have a theory please enlighten me in the comments.) The slogan “Born To Kill” (with an ironic peace symbol besides it) is what everyone remembers best about the poster more than the tagline itself. In the film Private Joker (Matthew Moline) wears the “born to kill” helmet and the peace symbol on his body armour. It is directly referenced in one of the key scenes in the film in an amusing exchange which is meant to be serious between Private Joker and a US Colonel.
Born On The Fourth of July (1989).
There is so much I fondly remember about Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July that it still gives me goosebumps some thirty plus year’s after its original release. From John Williams emotive score to Ron Kovic’s (Tom Cruise) “I love America” speech where he was thrown out of the 1972 Republican convention, this film is both a tragedy and triumph of the spirit. The movie poster alludes to this in its tagline: “A true story of innocence lost and courage found.” It sits above a patriotic image of Tom Cruise with an American flag that runs across his face.
Tom Cruise was at this point in his career at the height of his fame. He used his movie star charm to advance his career in a series of films from Risky Business to Top Gun and Cocktail to Rain Man. When Born On The Fourth Of July was released in 1989 many Tom Cruise fans were unprepared for the transformation Cruise was about take as a dramatic actor and the lengths he went to turn his movie star image on its head. When the first posters hit the theatres, Cruise is depicted as a patriotic young American and not as the long haired resentful Veteran who comes to hate the war. It’s an important image that maybe cynically helped sell Oliver Stone’s new anti-war drama. I believe Stone successfully show us a Tom Cruise we all want to see, a willing poster boy or participant, an all-American who wants to serve his country in Vietnam. That said, the poster (unlike the film trailer) cleverly disguises the horror that is to come and the betrayal Cruise as Kovic will feel when he returns home as a deeply troubled and wounded veteran. Interestingly, the movie poster I believe shares similarities to the power of persuasion World War Two posters used in recruiting drives in the 1940s. It might be a stretch to say Oliver Stone is advocating for war here, far from it, but it is an awe inspiring poster nonetheless. A propaganda movie poster to rally the American public to the theatre to show them the real cost of war.
Good Morning Vietnam (1987).
Time Magazine called Good Morning Vietnam “The best military comedy since M*A*S*H”. Even Roger Ebert thought so with his praise that “Good Morning, Vietnam” works as straight comedy and as a Vietnam-era “MASH”. Of course praise for Good Morning Vietnam (1987) can be assigned primarily to both its director Barry Levinson and its star Robin Williams. (Williams puts in one of his career best performances in this acclaimed 1987 war comedy. He brilliantly wavers between outrageous comedic flair and poignant drama with ease.)
The original one-sheet movie poster tells us almost everything we need to know about the film. Like Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth of July the use of the American flag behind Robin Williams is meant to conjure an aura of patriotism. Holding a 50s era microphone and pointing his finger at the viewer, Robin Williams with a child-like grin is inviting you to his new movie. That alone tells us this is going to be no ordinary Vietnam War era movie. The tagline also pretty much sums up what we can expect: “In 1965, military D.J. Adrian Cronauer was sent to Vietnam to build morale. His strategy: keep ‘em laughing. His problem: staying out of trouble. The wrong man. In the wrong war. At the right time.” Personally, I believe it a little long-winded but nonetheless it hits home what the film is about.
Apocalypse Now (1979).
Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s epic psychological Vietnam War drama Apocalypse Now (1979) is one of the greatest and most influential (and controversial) war movie ever made. It’s next to impossible to never have heard of this movie or seen at least its most iconic scene the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence or heard quoted Robert Duvall’s famous line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. But for those who are still oblivious to its cultural influence, if you were to stumble across the movie poster, I’m sure its haunting, surreal and eye popping images would definitely have your attention. The poster (created by Bob Peak) I believe successfully illustrates both the pending doom and horror of Coppola’s Vietnam War screen odyssey. Most striking is Marlon Brando’s sweat drenched head which glows blood-red like the sun behind him. In the film Brando plays the mysterious and insane Colonel Kurtz, who is in essence the devil in human form. Interestingly, the threat of war looms ominous with the line of helicopters which stretches across the poster. It is also mirrored below with the navy patrol boat heading up river towards a bridge lit up by fireworks. Almost unnoticed is Martin Sheen, who is tucked in the top right corner of the poster. As the film’s main protagonist (Captain Willard), here he is seemingly staring into space, haunted by what he has seen and what he must do (kill Kurtz).
All great !
And what about this one ?
That’s a good one. The big red and black Hamburger Hill poster is ace too. My Dad took me to docklands London to see Kubrick filming Full Metal Jacket in the 80’s. Platoon is my favourite though. Or Apocalypse Now. I’ve spent a lot of time in HCM in my working life. Fascinating country
How lucky you are to have seen Master Kubrick at work. I’m so jealous of that.
Oh we saw smoke and wobbling trees about half a mile away. It was trill thrilling
There are several really cool documentaries about how the Docklands became Vietnam. I understand they shipped in over a 100 palm trees and in a closed set got permission to blow everything up for real. That entire Battle of Hue scene is extraordinary. I sure as hell didn’t know that London doubled as Vietnam (except Steve) back in the late 1980s. I wonder if Kubrick didn’t have such a hangover about traveling and filmed Full Metal Jacket somewhere else on location would it have looked as good? The fact that the disused gas station was there for the picking was a stroke of genius on Kubrick’s part.
Kubrick couldn’t trip very far from London anyway. And my point is that Vietnam during war time is no longer Vietnam, it’s more like some Dante’s circle from hell. And that’s what it looks like on screen.
The Hamburger Hill movie poster is interesting too. I like how it copies or maybe a better word is pays homage to the Apocalypse Now poster with the red sky and the helicopters.
The splash of red highlighting Deniro’s bandanna against the black and white artwork is intimidating. It’s likely no mistake that the bandana in the artwork is red despite Deniro not actually wearing a red bandana in the film. If my memory serves me correctly, it’s Christopher Walken’s who wears a red bandana later in the film, but not in the infamous Russian Roulette scene. Red can signify a few different things, so I’m sure Michael Cimino approved of this poster and the red bandana for a reason. Surely it wasn’t just for visual effects? It’s interesting that there is no mention or visual references to Vietnam in this poster. I guess that’s why despite it being an iconic poster I did not include it here.
I must admit I didn’t think about the red ribbon. You’re certainly right, I have to go back to the movie for a check. And indeed there’s no Vietnam on the poster, certainly because it’s not all about Vietnam.
Of course, most of the story takes place back in the US in a small town in Pennsylvania. It’s a great exploration of the consequences of war on three friends. Interestingly, the premise of returning Vietnam veterans and their struggle is littered in many films of that 70s and 80s era when Vietnam War movies were fashionable. Some of the films that come to mind that explore this theme that I really like are Born On The Fourth of July (1989), Heaven and Earth (1993), Rolling Thunder (1977) and Coming Home (1978).
I have Rolling Thunder on dvd but not seen yet.
And do you know Ted Post’s “go tell the Spartans”? Not a masterpiece but the first interesting vision of a conflict that goes wrong.
No I haven’t seen it. I’m a big fan of Burt Lancaster, so I’ll put it on my watch list.
If you’d like to know more 😉
This one is even better https://www.vintagemovieposters.co.uk/shop/the-deer-hunter-movie-poster/ 🙂
A great post Robert.