Men On A Mission Film Theater: The Green Berets (1968)
John Wayne was pissed. Those pinko Hollywood commies weren’t supporting the Great Amuuurican Police Action In ‘Nam by aping the good ol’ days and releasing a flood of patriotic war films. Every Gawd Damn film was about Vietnam in one way or another, and Wayne passed on THE DIRTY DOZEN — after all, our boys weren’t psychotic killers! He would show those Reds that audiences were hungry for a stirrin’, rip-roarin’ lesson in Cong ass-kickin’…And he would star and co-direct it as well..Fill your hands, you Mao sonofabitches!
Using the number one hit song by SSgt Barry Sadler to provide emotional ballast, The Duke had a long road trying to get this film made. Ostensibly based on the best-selling non-fiction account by Robin Moore, the Pentagon wasn’t happy with the book since they plausibly denied the Berets did what the author — and former Beret — claimed they did. Shocking that. Wayne personally wrote to Lyndon Johnson seeking the full co-operation of the US military and despite even his unassailable patriotic credentials, the top brass rejected script after script until it was diluted to the most simplistic plot imaginable, not that it ever would have been clouded by subtlety.
In a nutshell, the A-B-C plot deals with your typical left-wing MSM journalist (David Janssen) following the travails of The Green Berets, led by Colonel Mike Kirby (Wayne) into the heart of Cong territory where only a few brave hearts and minds dare to journey. We’re introduced to your stock 1940’s World War II cast of characters, slightly updated for the 60’s. The actors must rely on whatever personal charms they have since the script isn’t there to service character. Aldo Ray plays Master Sergeant Muldoon, the gravelly voiced tough guy determined to stop “worldwide Communist domination” and sadly, this would be the tragic Ray’s last big studio film role before alcoholism doomed his career. Ex-heartthrob Jim Hutton supplies “comedy” relief as a clumsy but dedicated soldier determined to prove himself in battle while becoming reluctant surrogate father to one “Hamchunk” (thas right), the movie’s archetypal Vietnamese grating little boy-symbol.
Wayne shows his democratic side by including Raymond St. Jacques as the black medic plus Jack Soo and George Takei as bad-ass South Vietnamese fighters. The great Bruce Cabot is in there as well, still in supporting actor career mode long after KING KONG (1933) and there’s Luke Askew, one year before hippie immortality as the Nameless Hitchhiker in EASY RIDER. The screenplay makes sure that each character is nothing but the finest cardboard stock, with no conflict as to the war or the mission. Only the cynical journalist is allowed a change of heart, not to mention joining in the combat, and just you try to guess what change that is, pilgrim.
Renata Adler of the New York Times launched the most critical offensive on THE GREEN BERETS when it was released, and her opine reflected the majority of the scathing reviews:
“…a film so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail that it passes through being fun, through being funny, through being camp, through everything and becomes an invitation to grieve, not for our soldiers or for Vietnam (the film could not be more false or do a greater disservice to either of them), but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus in this country. Simplicities of the right, simplicities of the left, but this one is beyond the possible. It is vile and insane. On top of that, it is dull.”
And she’s right. As directors, Wayne and Ray Kellog have the taste and depth of Spam. Filmed in Georgia due to the availability of free military helicopters, the production looks like it was shot on a Hollywood backlot in 1957, just switch wars and add some of that New Cinema brutality — the Vietnamese spike traps are used to particularly gruesome effect as is some nifty burning of Cong bodies along with general bloodletting. Apparently, Bruce Lee was the film’s Action Director (utilizing Chuck Norris), and though I’ve read scant info on this awesome factoid, the fight staging is quite good though limply shot. Still, the jingoistic propaganda is so upfront it’s startling at first, then laughable, exactly as Adler suggested. I do get choked up when Hutton rescues Hamchunk and never underestimate John Wayne as THE GREEN BERETS took in 11 million dollars, one of the top hits of the year. Good panoramic action packed poster too.
I try to watch the film from the viewpoint of my dad, who served in Vietnam. I don’t think he even liked this one if our movie watching youth had any relevance (he prefered DR. STRANGELOVE and THE GREAT ESCAPE). I can appreciate Wayne wanting to honor the troops, who always seem praised most but served least by our government, but when I watch these cinematic aw-shucks leaders then think of Agent Orange and other toxins that infected our soldiers, then flash on Major Calley’s My Lai slaughter of men, women and children and I call “Bullshit.” THE GREEN BERETS ends with one of the most derided shots in film history, with Sergeant Kirby and Hamchunk walking hand-in-hand against the Vietnamese sun wrongly setting in the East as he tells him, “You’re what this is all about…” It’s the only visual poetry in the film and so politically ludicrous you can’t but admire Wayne’s uber-American fervor: kind, naive, arrogant — and destructive.