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John Wayne's The Green Berets had a definite polarizing effect on the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Hollywood pretty much ignored the conflict in Southeast Asia until the middle 1970s. This was not necessarily a political phenomenon, as the movies also paid little attention to big issues like The Space Race -- film projects on topical, "developing" subjects took the risk of becoming obsolete before they could be released.
The up-front motivation for The Green Berets is patriotism. John Wayne's previous outing as a producer-director was the very expensive The Alamo from 1960; he was bitterly disappointed when the critics and his Academy peers didn't greet that hyper-conservative ode to Texas with open arms. James Lee Barrett's screenplay for Berets has it in mind to convince the American public that Vietnam is a righteous cause that needs our support. In the fractious political climate of the late 1960s -- a state of affairs not matched until the Iraq War -- The Green Berets became the symbol of blind American militarism. The Berets tell us that they're non-political soldiers following orders, and then immediately spout impassioned rhetoric about Communist conspiracies and the domino theory.
The Green Berets comes on as if it were a national scandal that Hollywood wasn't supporting the war with dozens of pro-military movies, as was done in WW2. John Wayne made several of the most popular of those "remember Pearl Harbor" epics, and retained both their content and flavor. Wayne's own son Patrick plays a Navy engineer, reminding us of Wayne's starring role in The Fighting Seabees. The production is put together on a grand scale, aided (or underwritten?) with substantial material help from the Armed Forces. It was filmed on military reservations and makes ample use of Army-supplied helicopters, guns and troops.
At an army briefing, an officer points at a map of Vietnam and fires off a short list of important-sounding statements, ending with the assertion that the main trouble with the enemy appears to be in the northern part of the country. Colonel Mike Kirby (John Wayne) is leaving for a tour of duty in Vietnam and asks for a few weeks at a forward firebase to familiarize himself with prevailing conditions. Journalist George Beckworth (David Janssen) doubts the official explanations of why America should be in 'Nam and takes Kirby's curt suggestion to go to the firebase as well, to see the war for himself. Kirby's top sergeant Muldoon (Aldo Ray) behaves like an Irish trooper from one of John Ford's cavalry westerns. Sgt. Doc McGee (Raymond St. Jacques) patches up the wounded, while old hand Colonel Morgan (Bruce Cabot, from Wayne's early days in Hollywood) is another commander in the field. Taking a page from The Great Escape, third-billed Jim Hutton plays Petersen, a 'scrounger' who provides comedy relief while swiping needed items for the outfit.
Kirby takes command of a fortress established smack in the middle of Vietcong territory and resupplied by air. The Vietnamese allies fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the Americans against the dirty V.C.; Captain Nim (George Takei) wants all the commies dead so he can return to his hometown of Hanoi. We learn that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Regulars torture, murder and terrorize the locals. The peasants and Montagnard highlanders love the Americans because they truly care, and offer medical assistance, etc. Reporter Beckworth soon realizes what a vital role America is playing, helping the deserving Vietnamese resist the onslaught of the communists and their atrocities. Colonel Kirby restrains Captain Nim from slapping a captured Viet Cong -- everyone knows that Americans don't mistreat prisoners.
The Green Berets is far better written and directed than The Alamo. The script has plenty of action and avoids declamatory position speeches, although every word spoken has a propagandistic intent. The messages are mostly carried by action -- fairly corny action similar to that in WW2 morale boosters. The combatants all have personal reasons to hate the enemy, and every hero who falls fighting for freedom is another reason to redouble the struggle. Veteran effects man and second unit director Ray Kellogg is afforded co-directing credit, which in Hollywood terms probably means that he blocked the shots and directed the cameras for more than just the action scenes. To Wayne's credit, the ensemble acting is never embarrassing despite the cornball lines and thin characterizations. The lovable slacker Petersen steals supplies, points to his own supposed cowardice and reluctantly befriends Ham Chunk (Craig Jue), a lovable orphan. It goes without saying that Petersen will join the ranks of heroic martyrs.
John Wayne is especially good as the natural leader Kirby, setting up the performances of his co-stars and exuding calm authority in all directions. Too old to play the action star, he doesn't hog the show-off heroics. Wayne's best overall performance as a soldier may still be in Otto Preminger's In Harm's Way, but this gung-ho Kirby is more consistent the Wayne star persona.
War movie fans get plenty of action in The Green Berets, all very colorful and much of it at night. As in Wayne's Fort Apache, the army has the thankless job of facing down America's enemies on "the frontier". We wonder exactly what the strategy is for the advance base in enemy territory, as the Yankees are pretty much in the same situation as the French, drawing enemy fire in a mostly defensive situation. North Vietnamese fighters are felled by the bushel, but that's okay because they are all subhuman butchers, like the infiltrator who chopped another Beret hero to bits. VC perfidy is represented by gargantuan man-impaling traps that look like the work of Fu Manchu. Possibly authentic, the devices nevertheless have "yellow peril" written all over them. The Viet Cong don't fight clean, you know, just like those Nazzies and "Japs" in war films of yore. It's therefore appropriate to cut them down in mass quantities with high-tech weaponry.
The Green Berets patronizes the friendly South Vietnamese peasants, treating them as childlike savages. The VC wipe out the men of a tribe befriended by the Berets, and rape and murder an adorable girl because she proudly wore a gift medallion given her by the journalist. Yet the film still makes jokes about brothels in Saigon.
Kellogg and Wayne stage plenty of firefights with big explosions, etc. After all their sneaky guerilla tactics, the VC attack in suicidal waves and die in old-fashioned arm-flinging anonymity. This is what combat fans come to see, and it doesn't matter if the movie is this one or Apocalypse Now. The Berets fight a losing battle to hold their fort, evacuate it, and then destroy the enemy from above with an air strike. The dozens of Army dead and maimed seem wasted: as Col. Kirby could have achieved the same effect by retreating before combat and temporarily giving the base to the enemy.
Instead of being sent home for incompetence, Kirby then accompanies commandos kidnapping a North Vietnamese general, with the help of a sexy double agent (Irene Tsu). It all seems far too easy. After we mourn our losses and eulogize the new crop of dead heroes, Wayne walks off into the sunset with young Ham Chunk, who asks, "What's going to happen to me?" Kirby tells the kid -- as if speaking to Vietnam in general -- to let him worry about that. Ham Chunk is the future of Vietnam, and, you know, he's what it's all about! 1
Warner's Blu-ray of The Green Berets is a crisp and colorful HD transfer of a movie that's mostly been seen Pan-scanned on TV; the John Wayne faithful will love it. Winton Hoch's camera work is always attractive although a few night shots are troubled by a bum lens with focus issues. It's odd to hear Miklos Rozsa's underscore carpeting scenes with riffs that sound like they belong in old Film Noir movies, but the recording is very good. The main titles are animated in staggered steps, which at first may make Blu-ray viewers think that something is wrong with their disc. You'll know what I mean when you see them.
Sgt. Barry Sadler and Robin Moore's martial title tune "The Ballad of the Green Berets" sets the tone immediately: virtue and heroism are military qualities, and our job as patriots is to revere our soldiers without question. If one really thinks about what it means, the song is a celebration of a death cult. It was a number one hit for five weeks in 1966. The Green Berets immediately came to represent the establishment's inflexible view of the War. As one can imagine, the film is pretty consistently despised by everyone to the left of Richard Nixon and the American Legion. But it's a mostly competently made movie, and needs to be seen if one wants a full understanding of the country in 1968.
The extras are a trailer and a featurette from 1968 showing Wayne and company filming on location in Georgia. It would have been fun to hear a John Milius commentary, as this seems to have been a title that spiked his imagination. Milius' original Apocalypse Now script is very much like The Green Berets, only with exaggerated war-fantasy elements. Milius named his movie company A-Team productions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Green Berets Blu-ray rates:
1. Much comment is made on the fact that this final scene is filmed at sunset, with the sun apparently setting into the East (all the open sea water around Vietnam is to the East or South). That observation has provided plenty of ammo for critics claiming that The Green Berets' visuals are as cockeyed as its politics. In reality, I'm sure there are a number of places in Vietnam (look at a map) where the sun might set over water.
2. What makes The Green Berets so annoying to liberals is its hectoring, lecturing tone. Very few movies are as openly pro-war as this. David Janssen's reporter-of-straw asks soldiers policy questions that should be directed toward politicians. The Berets counter with aggressive, intimidating non-answers, at one point tossing a bunch of captured VC weapons onto a table in front of the journalist. Colonel Kirby practically sneers, snubbing Janssen's insensitive questions with a disdainful, "Have you ever been in Vietnam?" The movie has a sharp rebuke for any who DARE question the militarist line.
The Green Berets now stands out like a propaganda eyesore. Wayne clearly fashioned his film as a response to what he would call Commie propaganda, the strong current of pacifism in the culture in the late 1960s.
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