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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Green Berets (1968) review


John Wayne (Colonel Mike Kirby), David Janssen (George Beckworth), Jim Hutton (Sergeant Petersen), Aldo Ray (Sergeant Muldoon), Raymond St. Jacques (Sergeant Doc McGee), Bruce Cabot (Colonel Morgan), Jack Soo (Colonel Cai), George Takei (Captain Nim), Patrick Wayne (Lieutenant Jamison), Luke Askew (Sergeant Provo), Irene Tsu (Lin), Mike Henry (Sergeant Kowalski)

Directed by John Wayne and Ray Kellogg

"...I agreed with them. It was an American film about American boys who were heroes over there. In that sense, it was propaganda."--John Wayne when asked if he resented critics labeling his film as propaganda.

The Short Version: John Wayne's war epic stirs a great many things in those who've seen it. Some see it as little more than escapist entertainment while others see it as offensive "propaganda". The reality is this picture is no more propagandist than most other movies made about this subject. Wayne and company shot THE GREEN BERETS before the downturn in public opinion towards the Vietnam War, but released at the absolute worst time when US casualties were at their highest and morale at its lowest. It's actually a pretty damn good action film--campy in places--and with a bit of spy intrigue thrown into it. Since it deals with the early years of America's involvement, and made while the war was taking place, Wayne's clearly defined USA/ARVN good guys vs. Vietcong bad guys look awkward next to the role reversal of later 'Nam flicks when it was de rigueur to paint America as some sort of villain and its returning soldiers as disturbed killers. Despite the critical Offensive against it, these soldiers managed to triumph at the box office both here and abroad.

Colonel Mike Kirby is sent to South Vietnam with two specially selected Special Forces units. Tagging along is anti-war journalist, George Beckworth who plans to report his findings on what is going on over there. Kirby's first mission is to aid in finishing the construction of base camp, Dodge City, and to replace the unit already stationed there. After a massive assault on the unfinished base, the Green Berets manage to hold their ground and repel the VC forces. Meeting with his ARVN counterpart, Colonel Cai, Kirby and his men next launch a secret mission to kidnap a North Vietnamese general in an effort to cripple the enemy forces.

For all its good and bad points, John Wayne's THE GREEN BERETS is not an expansive view of the war effort in Vietnam; nor is it told from the perspective of a young grunt and his experiences in the field. It's a movie with a three tier structure starting with the assemblage of an elite team of commandos set to embark on what will be two very different missions over the course of 142 minutes--the two missions that make up the 2nd and 3rd tiers of the films storyline; one of which is based on the Battle of Nam Dong that took place in July of 1964. The film was made during the time media support for the war was dwindling and the propaganda charges leveled at the movie were likewise being aired on television in as grisly a fashion as possible. Taken into context for when it was made, and not just its politics, THE GREEN BERETS is reflective of the policies and support of the war during its early days of American involvement.

"Working with John Wayne, he still is an icon and when I went to that interview it was a heady experience. He is exactly like he is on and off screen. Usually actors vary greatly from their characters and John Wayne was John Wayne. He squinted at me in the interview and I felt like I was in the movie and we shot the film in Georgia and you saw him in his true elements. He survived cancer surgery two years prior and he was still energetic. He was directing and acting and on the set 20 hours a day with boundless energy. Filming on location, the cast becomes a big extended family and being able to work with other actors such as Jim Hutton, David Janssen, Bruce Cabot, Jack Soo and Irene Tsu, it was a great experience. I remember that experience with a glowing halo around it."--George Takei in 2004 talking about working with John Wayne on THE GREEN BERETS.

Quite possibly the single most hated film of leftists and communists the world over, John Wayne's glorification of American Special Forces commandos, his 163rd movie, THE GREEN BERETS (1968) was the first film to be made about the war in Vietnam--notably the early part of the war before the public soured on it. It was also the first, and only pro-war picture in its depiction of US intervention to quell the spread of Communism and oppression of the South Vietnamese. Aside from BERETS, no other major Hollywood film was made about the war while troops were on the ground over there. Everything that came after it was vastly different in tone and approach. One of the darkest periods in American history (history that has repeated itself in a variety of ways), Wayne's film, based on the 1965 book of the same name by Robin Moore, still managed to be a box office hit despite being critically tarred and feathered.

Aside from the vitriol spit at it, BERETS uniqueness stems largely from the fact it was made while the war was going on; a war that grew increasingly unpopular the longer America was involved in it. With the aid of the Army and in agreement with president Lyndon Johnson (D), Wayne's intention was to counter all the protestations happening in the USA at that time while championing the Special Forces branch of the military. It wasn't only a pro-war picture, but a pro-military one. Wayne was taking a huge gamble making the picture, and it was a gamble that paid off in the end. THE GREEN BERETS was the 13th highest grossing film of the year.

Public support for the war was strong early on, but by 1968 it was evaporating quickly. In 1966, patriotism was alive and well as Barry Sadler's song, 'Ballad of the Green Berets', hit #1 on the Billboard charts for five straight weeks. Sadler, a real Green Beret, wrote and sang the song. It wasn't originally intended for radio play, but was acquired through RCA and sold over a million copies. Wayne uses this song as the main theme, heard during the opening credits and closing scene.

To get a feel for what he wanted to achieve, John Wayne visited the troops in Vietnam (including those on the front lines) for a three week tour in 1966 (see above photo). From there, Wayne would use America's war effort in Southeast Asia as a visual aid to push the importance of stopping the oppression of South Vietnam much like had been done when the USA went to war to stop Nazism and the Axis Powers in WW2.

Often described as a western in militaristic attire, Wayne was the archetypal frontiersman; it becomes near impossible to envision him as anything else. However, considering the narrative structure of your average sagebrush saga, most story lines with action in them could be viewed as "Cowboys and Indians". Wayne did films deviating from pure prairie epics, but it was those pictures he is most closely identified with. For THE GREEN BERETS, he's got a cadre of able performers at his side, too--David Janssen, Jim Hutton, Aldo Ray, George Takei, Raymond St. Jacques, Irene Tsu, Bruce Cabot, and former Tarzan, Mike Henry among them.

With everything pro or con written about this movie, it's nigh impossible to even discuss it without inserting politics into the discussion since virtually everyone on the left side of the room enjoy using THE GREEN BERETS as a pontificatory dartboard. Looking back, it unwittingly walked right into a critical ambush that continues to this day.

At first glance, THE GREEN BERETS seems better suited to a WW2 scenario than it does Vietnam. Unlike previous wars, there was no media picking out which images of contextually barren atrocities to display for horrified American viewers watching and waiting at home; and unlike WW2, the war in Vietnam was not a unifying conflict. When placed next to other films made afterward about this subject, it looks jarring in comparison. Having been hammered over the head with subsequent films that depict the American soldier in a less than honorable light, seeing something like THE GREEN BERETS is bound to provoke any number of emotions in those watching it. Still, Wayne's movie paints its picture in a discernible, black and white format. There's no denying who the good guys and bad guys are; unlike the distorted, murky colors of the later, increasingly gloomy interpretations that, much like the media did during the time, conveniently left out much of the atrocities being committed by the North Vietnamese.

Violence in film had accelerated by the time the next wave of 'Nam movies began appearing in the late 1970s. In hindsight, Wayne's movie is surprisingly brutal in places. How the hell it got a G rating is anyone's guess. THE GREEN BERETS is possibly Wayne's bloodiest movie. It has some striking scenes of brutality ranging from waves of Viet Cong set aflame atop spiked barricades along the perimeter of the aptly named Dodge City; a brutal bare-handed battle between Mike Henry and a handful of Charlie that ends in an impaling, a slit throat, and stab wounds; and a gruesome end to a main character towards the end.

Mike Henry, formerly of three Tarzan movies, gets one of, if not the best scene in the whole movie. How this man didn't go on to a major career as a big screen Tough Guy is one of action cinemas unanswered questions. He shows a lot of power in his one moment to shine. Attacked on all sides by a handful of attackers, Sgt. Kowalski (Henry) takes them down with a flurry of martial arts maneuvers, picking one guy up like a sack of potatoes and impaling him on a tree branch. A shame there weren't a few more bits like this one.

Still, compared to later 'Nam films the violence is mild if a bit strong for a G rated picture. These later films, despite their status among critics, weren't without their enhancements. One example being THE DEER HUNTER (1978); considered a classic, its depiction of Russian Roulette occurring in Vietnam has proven to be false. It doesn't take away the fact it's a provocative movie. The iconic image of Robert De Niro with the gun to his head did inspire a number of inadvertent suicides after its release. Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), like BERETS, was also based on a novel, and was seen as an absurd representation of the war by some veterans. Yet Wayne's movie opened itself up to a critical savaging unlike any movie before or since.

Considered the most accurate, or one of the most accurate interpretations of Vietnam is Oliver Stone's PLATOON (1986). It, too, portrays US soldiers as on the unstable side. Some vets, including those who served with Stone, have stated he didn't show enough of the American troops being maimed, killed, or tortured. Still, the general consensus is that the film is predominantly authentic; which is surprising considering Stone, a far-left guy, has made the type of mythical movie he portends BERETS to be.

Many of BERETS detractors (there's legions of them), who seem to reside primarily on the left, despise the picture because, in their eyes, it falsely represented America's role in Vietnam; nor did it portray the US as the bad guys. To many leftists, US troops were little more than savages on butchering sprees or getting high out in a field somewhere. Any time there's a war film that portrays US soldiers in some sort of positive light, the liberal knives are drawn. Two recent examples are LONE SURVIVOR (2013) and AMERICAN SNIPER (2014). The latter is especially potent. Both based on books, both box office hits, and both came under fire from leftist critics that labeled the films as propaganda. SNIPER was particularly troublesome since it made hundreds of millions of dollars around the world. To put so-called propaganda into perspective, many left-wing websites selected certain passages from Chris Kyle's book, 'American Sniper', removed some of the wording to make it appear he was a racist, and ran with it; whatever it took to paint this guy as anything but a hero while the late sniper's movie made buckets of cash.

Moreover, THE GREEN BERETS was made before the false or unverified stories, and the all too real atrocity that was the My Lai Massacre. The positive view of the war was drastically altered by, but not exclusive to, the media that, for the first time, had been granted full access to the events as they unfolded. BERETS take on journalism comes in the form of David Janssen as George Beckworth. Skeptical, and initially against US involvement overseas, by the end of the film, he's made an amazing turnaround from his anti-war stance to a man who has since come to understand why they're fighting. Not even bringing the media's role in morale erosion into the equation, it's difficult to fathom that such a change of heart would occur; not impossible, but wholly unlikely. In lieu of how things turned out, this scenario is arguably the single most outrageous bit of scripting in the movie. Had Wayne made his film after the pullout in 1975, his picture would have turned out differently; if he'd of bothered attempting it at all.

Wayne's movie began life as early as 1965, with shooting taking place in the summer of '67, and eventual release in July in '68. One event would undermine his intentions for making it; while emboldening the media's role in formulating public opinion. To further put this movie in perspective, it's beneficial to give mention to a critical event prior to its theatrical showing. Ostensibly, the release of THE GREEN BERETS was a miscalculation akin to the moment that it became doubtful a win for the United States and liberation for South Vietnam was forthcoming.

The Tet Offensive of early 1968 was a massive turning point in the war. Despite devastating losses to the Viet Cong, the offensive was surprising to the allies as to the strategics involved on the part of the Russian and Chinese backed North Vietnamese. In the aftermath of Tet, the war effort was under a lot of scrutiny and much doubt was cast as to whether or not the war could be won. Amidst increasing protests and a media that focused more on what the American military was doing as opposed to the VC, morale plummeted. Americans at home grew increasingly disenchanted with what they were seeing via selective and sensationalized reporting by the news media. Making matters worse, the My Lai Massacre occurred in March of 1968, but went unreported till sometime in 1969. Whatever wins the US and ARVN incurred were instantly lost via a deluge of grim photographs with little to no context as to what was really happening.

Astonishingly, the nosedive of public opinion didn't seem to hinder the films success despite it standing out like a sore thumb. The film was presenting US soldiers as heroes with the VC as the butchers, while in reality, the media was manipulating public perception to swap the two out. It's debatable if BERETS would have done even better had public support remained strong. Further, the backlash did nothing to hinder Wayne's career. HELLFIGHTERS (1968) was released near the end of the year, and 1969 brought Wayne the Oscar for Best Actor as Rooster Cogburn in TRUE GRIT (1969).

As a piece of entertainment, THE GREEN BERETS has about as many positives as negatives. Much of the film was shot at Fort Benning in Georgia resulting in critics pointing out geographical inaccuracies--such as the lack of palm trees and preponderance of pine. To be fair, Vietnam does have pine forests. Having seen so many of the tropical variety in the later movies, it's odd to not see them here. Another supposed mistake is the last scene on the beach with the sun setting in the East over the ocean. Vietnam does have a west coast so it's not like this is an impossibility. 

The 30 minute battle that begins around the 75 minute mark is packed with guns, explosions and dummy deaths; as well as the start of a string of heroic demises for the title commandos. The sequence suffers an additional casualty in the form of a poorly rendered miniature effect. In it, the chopper carrying Wayne and some others is shot down. It couldn't be anymore obvious it's a model helicopter with its nose on fire. It goes down in such a way, everyone tumbles out once it crashes! One man is burned alive, though.

After the aforementioned one against four battle between Sgt. Kowalski and Charlie, Wayne and his remaining Green Berets come across his body. Angered, Wayne picks up his gun and smashes it against a tree. Like the chopper in the earlier battle sequence, it's blatantly obvious this is a toy gun he's holding.

The subplot involving Hamchuck and Jim Hutton's Sgt. Petersen is unnecessary, but does heighten a shocking bit of violence during the closing minutes. Hutton's character is possibly the most vivid out of them all. He's sort of an outcast when compared with the hardened Tough Guys of Kirby's crew. He becomes more hardened as the story progresses. The addition of the kid is yet another aspect of this movie that stands in stark contrast to other 'Nam movies; but again, THE GREEN BERETS has the unfortunate distinction of bad timing in terms of its making and subsequent release.

"I told him that 'I'm one of your opponents in the political arena. I'm opposed to the war, and I've been active in the peace movement.' And John Wayne gave me that famous squint of his that I remember seeing in all the big closeups that he got -- whether it’s FORT APACHE or the WAKE OF THE RED WITCH. And he said, 'George, I want the best actor I can get. You know, we're American citizens, and we have our right to our opinions. I have mine, and you have yours. And I respect that. But I want the best actor I can find.' And so, he cast me in that. And I thought that was very revealing of the kind of man John Wayne is. He’s a very decent guy."--George Takei on John Wayne in 2014.

As for the films star, John Wayne, he seems to be walking through his role; stoically, yet somewhat detached from the action. Wayne carries the movie, even though as old as he was at this time, he wouldn't have been out there on the front lines, anyways. Curiously, he doesn't fire a single shot in the entire movie. He's always there leading the men into action, carrying a machine gun for the bulk of the movie, but never actually firing it.

Interestingly enough, much has been written by far-left writers about John Wayne's alleged draft dodging despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, such as his application to the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Services) in 1943.

As recently as 2014, THE GREEN BERETS still has the power to infuriate the liberal crowd. Whether it's a good or bad film is subjective. Some just cannot put politics aside and view a film for its merits, or lack thereof, but use politics as a crutch to tear something apart they disagree with. John Wayne had a lot of balls mounting such a production considering the deck was stacked against him in that his picture might sink at the box office. It didn't, but continues to be a celluloid pinata to be whacked at over and over again. It's not one of the actors best movies, but much like the lyrics in Barry Sadler's rousing tune, THE GREEN BERETS (1968) has been tested and managed to live on long after the box office smoke has cleared.

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers Blu-ray. Extras and Specs: 1080p 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen; 142 minutes; The Making of The Green Berets; Original Theatrical Trailer


Dick Vincent said...

Really nice and informative write-up Brian. I remember going to see this with my Dad in theatre when I was about 9 years old (and went back next week to see it with my best friend and his Dad). Along with seeing THE WILD BUNCH the next year this was one of those cimematic experiences that really made a wrinkle in my little brain (the death of Jim Hutton, Mike Henry's final stand and of course Irene Tsu). It has its faults, but its still one I put on to watch about once a year. And for whatever faults and political views it has you may or may not agree with, its a monumental example of the box office power Wayne still had at the time to be able to get this made.
Whenever's there's a new video format from VHS to Laser to DVD to Blu this is always one of the first catalog titles Warners puts out, so it must be a consistent seller for them. I'm also glad that with the current blu that went with that tremendous U.S. one sheet art by Frank McCarthy

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Dick. This was a first time watch for me, and I enjoyed it a lot. Granted, it was jarring considering everything that came later, but putting it into context made a lot more sense to me. But perusing a lot of reviews on this one, there was this scathing hatred for the film, and the few reviews I found that were positive were almost apologetic for it. That blu was really nice, too. I've never been a huge Wayne fan, but recently I've been opening up to more of his work that I have never seen.

Gerald Martin said...

Thank you for the thorough and thoughtful review. I saw the movie at the drive-in during its initial release and felt it was an embarrassment: a comic book version of the war, particularly David Jansen's cringeworthy role and that snotty kid. I knew it was pro-war before I saw it and was hoping for something less superficial. (Time Magazine voiced the same disappointment.) Three years later I enlisted anyway. Incidentally, the drill sergeants' mantra during basic training was, "Don't try to be John Wayne!"

The enduring hate for this movie is silly. Save that vitriol for Gone With the Wind, which has more serious baggage.

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