One thing my reviews are not known for is controversy. I review perfectly ordinary, if sometimes obscure, material and I don’t pass any radical judgments on any of it, even if I dislike it intensely. So it is somewhat unusual for me to tackle something like the John Wayne movie, The Green Berets, and doubly unusual because I’m going to express an unpopular opinion about it. Which is: I like it.
The Green Berets came out in 1968 at the very height of America’s involvement in Vietnam. John Wayne, who co-directed this very loose adaptation of the Robin Moore non-fiction book of the same title, felt that both the war and its soldiers were being unfairly castigated by the American public. In response, he crafted this film which is unabashedly pro-military and pro-Vietnam. It’s really small wonder that the movie has had such a negative reaction, both at the time and in the years subsequent to its release. It is worth pointing out, however, that the film did make $21 million on a $7 million investment, so it can still be classified as a minor hit.
The year 1968 was a bad time to be of John Wayne’s mindset. The Vietnam War would become even more unpopular as it wore on, but it was already the hottest of hot buttons. The positive feelings engendered by America’s involvement in World War II had been all but replaced with hostility from the Baby Boomers. Interestingly enough, it would be these same Baby Boomers who would fuel the rampant militarism of the Reagan years less than 20 years later, but in 1968 there was essentially one way to look at the war and if you dared deviate from the conventional wisdom, you would be subject to brutal excoriation.
A little about the movie itself. Robin Moore’s book had been a bestseller in 1965, so even though the military at large was viewed with (sometimes) outright hostility, there was respect for these highly accomplished men. Those who served in the Special Forces, and those who serve today, were the best of the best, trained in a bewildering variety of areas, often fluent in multiple languages and were some of the hardest fighters we had. It was a smart move basing The Green Berets around this group, if only to capture some of the shine they put off.
John Wayne plays a Special Forces colonel named Kirby who is set to take a command position in Vietnam. He is, as you can probably guess, a plain-spoken and direct fellow in the classic John Wayne mold, so if you’re expecting an acting revelation from Wayne in this part you’re going to be disappointed. The film begins in the United States, where Kirby is preparing to leave the country, but before he goes we must be introduced to a tough-but-fair sergeant — Aldo Ray, playing another classic war movie type — and a world-class scrounger who treats military service like a vacation (Jim Hutton). We also meet a newspaper reporter named Beckworth, played by a typically intense David Janssen. Beckworth and his paper are singularly unconvinced of the need for America’s involvement in Vietnam and Beckworth signs on to accompany Kirby overseas to have a look at the situation for himself.
The Green Berets is actually two stories in one movie, neither of which are really connected to the other. The first half of the movie is by far the most interesting, as Kirby takes the opportunity to leave the relative safety of his rear echelon position and travel into Viet Cong country where he visits a Special Forces base hanging on by its fingernails against the enemy. At this encampment we are introduced to a war orphan named Hamchunk — Craig Jue, a child actor who disappeared from the business after 1972, though I’ve often been curious whatever happened to him — and a South Vietnamese officer named Captain Nim (none other than George Takei).
The Special Forces are doing their best to protect the native population and eliminate the VC, but they are outnumbered and outgunned. When the North Vietnamese Army gets involved, the situation goes from bad to worse and things turn out surprisingly more bleak than you might expect from a war-positive movie like this one. All of the characters are interesting and understandably motivated as human beings and that makes the impact of the inevitable battle sequences that much greater. It’s good stuff.
The second half of the movie is far more problematic, as Kirby gets involved with a Special Forces mission to penetrate behind enemy lines and kidnap a North Vietnamese general. Now there’s nothing particularly wrong with the mission itself, as I’m sure such things were actually done, but there’s precisely zero reason for John Wayne’s character to be a part of it. What’s more, the tone of the two halves of the film could not be more different, as the first portion of the movie is more hard-edged and (dare I say it) realistic, while the cloak-and-dagger stuff in the second portion feels completely divorced from the war action we’ve just seen. The Green Berets runs over two hours, but if you cut the kidnapped-general section you’d have a lean, effective movie that’s about 90 or so minutes. Surely that could have been done.
Despite the letdown of the film’s second half, The Green Berets is mostly good. John Wayne was way, way too old to be an actual Special Forces officer, but if you’re able to let little details like that slide, you’ll have no problem with the movie at all. The key factor, as mentioned at the top of this review, is whether you can stomach a film that fails to conform to the standard of every other Vietnam movie ever made.
Understand that I like the Vietnam War classics as much as anyone else. I think Apocalypse Now is one of the best war films ever made. At the same time, I can see exactly where The Green Berets is coming from and I don’t necessarily disagree with its viewpoint. The war in Vietnam was frequently an ugly business, but war is always ugly. The question was not whether America could win a bloodless victory on behalf of the South Vietnamese people, but whether the country was willing and able to take a stand against Communist expansionism. As it turns out Ho Chi Minh had America’s number: he predicted that as soon as the going got tough enough, the United States would balk from its commitments, and that’s exactly what happened.
Denigrate The Green Berets for being old-fashioned in its storytelling and unacceptable in its political leanings, but at least give it credit for being a (mostly) well-made war film. Even if you don’t come away with your mind changed about the rectitude of America’s involvement in Vietnam, if you allow the movie to make its case unimpeded you will be entertained, and at the end of the day that’s what a film is meant to do.