Thursday, June 4, 2015

HOW BAD IS IT? The Green Berets (1968)



                “The Green Berets” is considered THE WORST VIETNAM WAR MOVIE EVER MADE.  Let’s see if that is an exaggeration.  The movie was a project dear to John Wayne’s heart.  He got the idea to make a positive movie about the Vietnam War during a trip to the Nam to entertain the troops.  He was determined to make a movie that supported American involvement and reflected his belief in military preparedness.  Wayne was famously conservative and a staunch proponent of “America right or wrong”.  One must be reminded that at the time that the movie was made (pre-Tet Offensive), most Americans agreed with Wayne.  That does not mean that the movie was an easy sell.  In fact, only Wayne could have gotten this film made.  Once he got Warner Brothers to buck the Hollywood aversion to making a major Vietnam War movie, he easily got significant Pentagon cooperation with the production.  The military was enamored with the project and Wayne’s letter to President Johnson was not necessary.  The only caveat the Army had was with the script.  The movie was loosely based on the eponymous novel by Robin Moore.  The military had disavowed the novel because it had a Special Forces unit going into North Vietnam for a raid.  The Pentagon insisted that the movie keep the raid within South Vietnam.  The change was worth it because seldom has a movie had greater support from the Pentagon.  The movie was filmed at Fort Benning, Georgia.  There were plenty of helicopters available, for instance.  The movie spent $150,000 on a village set that was used after by the Army for training.   The movie was directed by Wayne, but after the disappointing performance of his debut “The Alamo”, the studio insisted on a co-director in Ray Kellogg.

"the only good Indian or Commie is a dead one"
                The movie does not claim to be based on a true story, but it seems to be set in circa 1966.  America is clearly in the “hearts and minds” phase and the Green Berets are in their early days.  The movie leaves no doubt where it is coming from by leading off with a choral arrangement of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”.  Hippies, leave the theater now!  A presser is being held at Fort Bragg to introduce America to the Green Berets.  Press:  why are we fighting?  Answer:  the commies are killing all the good people in Vietnam.  Press:  why are we involved in a civil war?  Answer:  it’s not a civil war, the commies are on the march.  One journalist in particular is a panty-waisted liberal America-hater.  Col. Kirby (Wayne) challenges Beckworth (David Janssen) to come to Vietnam to see how wrong he is.

                Our framing device takes up the challenge and arrives at a camp the Special Forces are building in the jungle (actually the forest of Georgia) in the middle of Viet Cong territory.  The camp is named “Dodge City” because “The Alamo” would be too obvious.  Kirby has brought the obligatory scrounger Peterson (Jim Hutton) who bonds with an orphan named Ham Chung (which is Vietnamese for Short Round, I guess).  The movie clearly delineates the good guys (candy and medical care) from the bad guys (punji stakes and boobie traps).  When we torture it’s justified because the suspect killed a good guy and besides, the VC are ruthless killers who do not deserve legal protections.  Beckworth questions this method of interrogation until a trip to the local Montagnard village finds all the people killed, tortured, or taken captive.  The corpse of a cute little girl that Beckworth had befriended tips the scale.  Before the movie is over, he will be a commie killing SOB.  That’s because the fort is about to be swamped by Indians.  I mean the camp is about to be assaulted by the VC and North Vietnamese Army.

                Now that it’s clear who to cheer and who to boo, the movie enters its balls to the wall action segments.  The night attack on the camp features human wave attacks and ridiculous deaths.  The funniest moment occurs when a traitorous South Vietnamese soldier opens fire from a tower, but an ARVN officer blows him up because he had anticipated the development!  The battle culminates with the arrival of a C-47 “Puff the Magic Dragon” which contrary to its nickname, does not drop joints on the enemy.  Nudge your girlfriend awake for the ten second demise of every commie in the camp.  The movie should have ended here, but we still have a Special Forces style raid to kidnap a VC general resulting in the death of a beloved character.
was my Peter-san brave?
                If you love mindless action and don’t mind the heavy-handed propaganda that goes with it, you might find things to like in this movie.  After all, it was hard by 1968 to make a Western with the Indians depicted as evil.  Plus how are you going to fit boobie traps, napalm, and “Spooky” gunships into a cowboy movie?  The movie is basically a Western updated with many of the cool over the top aspects of twentieth century warfare.  So turn off your brain and try to overlook all the stuff that drove critics catatonic.  Granted, they were predisposed to hate the movie, but you did not have to be a dove to see faults in the movie.

                The acting is average with Wayne being rather wooden.  George Takei makes an impression as the ex-Viet Minh who is now only interested in torturing and killing stinking communists.  (He missed nine episodes of “Star Trek” including the Tribbles one to make the film.)  Janssen and Hutton make the best of stereotypical roles.  (Both actors disagreed with Wayne’s take on the war, but a pay checks a pay check, right?)  Aldo Ray is there to add beef.  The studio left Kirby’s wife on the cutting room floor, but allowed a lame subplot involving a beautiful, vengeful Vietnamese girl.  Otherwise there would have been no females speaking in the movie.  By the way, the dialogue is not terrible, although the soldiers do not talk like soldiers.

sorry ladies, Aldo Ray keeps his shirt on
                The movie is very simplistic and full of clichés.  The enemy are loathsome, ugly, and bestial.  We are bludgeoned with how evil they are.  Hell, they even kill Ham Chung’s dog! There is a racist tinge to the depiction of the North Vietnamese as neo-redskins.  On the other hand, the people of South Vietnam are innocent seekers of independence.  It goes without saying the movie is pro-Green Berets.  They can do no wrong.  They make even torture right.  The clichés include the scrounger, the observing journalist, the child mascot, and the cavalry riding to the rescue.  Speaking of which, the movie borrows two Western scenarios.  One is the storming of the camp by the savages.  It adds the war movie trope of the commando raid to seize an enemy VIP.  (“The Dirty Dozen” does it similarly, but much better the same year.)
luckily, Wayne does not fire a shot in the movie

                In conclusion, it would be hard for “The Green Berets” to be as bad as its reputation.  It is certainly not a good movie.  You have to be an ultra-conservative to nod knowingly while you watch it.  But if you are a Wayne fan, there is a lot to take comfort in.  If you are just an average war movie lover, you can enjoy the action and laugh at the ridiculous moments that make it something of a camp classic.  It is definitely not the worst Vietnam War movie, but it is probably the worst big budget one.

the infamous sun setting in the east scene

GRADE  =  D

the trailer

2 comments:

  1. I recommend a book you would find useful, "Vietnam at the Movies," by Michael Lee Lanning, who was an infantry platoon and company commander in Vietnam. Lanning has written numerous military histories, several concerning Vietnam.

    He reviews nearly 400 films which concern the Vietnam War in some way. Most are very inaccurate and The Green Berets is far from the worst. Lanning wrote in a footnote on page 50:

    "Anyone who ever wrote or reported that uniformed members of the military did not agree with the content of the film or were embarrassed by it, never sat in a post theater at Fort Benning or Fort Bragg or others around the world and heard the wild cheering that accompanied much of the movie-especially the opening scenes."

    That being said, I never liked the film, but I'm not a veteran. A friend who was a veteran (late in the war) told me he saw it on a military base and they laughed at its lack of realism but did appreciate what John Wayne was trying to do.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. All of that makes sense. Now that you mention it, I saw it for the first time on an air base, but I do not remember the audience reaction. No one booed.

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