The Green Berets Review
Back in the late 1960's the world was a very different place, yet not so different.
We'd had 'The Beatles', flower power, man walked on the moon and America launched headlong into the Vietnam conflict. They confidently expected their superior firepower and training to ensure an easy victory, but things didn't quite go according to plan. The supportive mood of the American public changed when they saw 'their boys' were being mown down on the killing fields and anti-war feeling began to spread.
There can be no doubt that John Wayne was a patriotic American - after all he represented the 'American way' and had been a vociferous campaigner for it during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950's. So much so, that he starred in 'Big Jim McLain', a movie which highlighted everything un-American and is worth watching today as a piece of heavy handed propaganda and a fine example of just how thick an entire nation can have been to have swallowed it.
Clearly 'The Duke' thought it had been effective, for he decided to produce a movie that put forward the reasons for American troops being in Vietnam and hence win the internal war of hearts and minds.
'The Green Berets' was the result. Based on the book by Robin Moore, it tells the tale of a crack team of commandos sent into 'Nam' to set up advance camps and then kidnap one of their high ranking Generals.
Aside from Big John himself, there were many faces from the Batjac (Wayne's own production company) troupe of strolling players including Jim Hutton, Aldo Ray, Bruce Cabot and his own son Patrick (Sinbad) Wayne. David Janssen, fresh from the long running hit TV show 'The Fugitive' appears as a cynical journo and George Takei, on shore leave from 'Star Trek', portrays the excitable Captain Nim.
So dear to his heart was the project that Big John chose to direct the movie himself but pulled in Ray Kellogg, a director of special effects type movies to share the blame. With hindsight this perhaps wasn't such a great idea as The Duke's directorial debut with 'The Alamo' simply gave critics target practice and here he was, just setting the ducks up in a row once again.
Now if 'The Green Berets' had been made by a talented director and written by someone who was less used to writing family oriented Westerns (James Lee Barrett), maybe then it would have succeeded in its task.
It genuinely pains me to say this, as I've been a lifelong John Wayne fan, but 'The Green Berets' is a lumbering piece of PR twaddle that struggles to sound sincere and is about as subtle as a brick through a plate glass window. If anyone has seen 'Avatar' and objected to the 'in yer face' message content then they should take comfort in knowing that John Wayne was doing it over forty years ago.
The movie begins with a rousing title song 'The Ballad of the Green Berets' that's sung by a deeply macho male voice choir and tells of fighting men and honour as well as other worthy values. The lyrics are so cringe worthy that I've forgotten them, but the tune just won't let me get to sleep and is in a continual mind loop even two days after watching the film.
So this is a very old fashioned picture, made in the same style as John Wayne's movies from the Forties and Fifties. Indeed many of the story components are reminiscent of 'The Sands of Iwo Jima'. We're thrown right in at the deep end with the preaching beginning right after the main titles as a group of journos are harangued by military types for being a bunch of mamby pambies and doubting Thomases into the bargain.
It's not long before one of their number (Janssen) is accompanying the 'Green Berets' to find out what it's really like out there and become a convert to John Wayne's way of thinking.
So he's in the company of several stereotypical characters including the con man (Jim Hutton), the orphaned Vietnamese kid who only has a dog for a friend, the Vietnamese captain who hates the 'Cong' - as well as the most enthusiastic bunch of volunteers outside of Nigella Lawson's kitchen. Doesn't life make you cynical?
In its defence, it's actually not such a bad picture in terms of involving the audience with periods of excitement and tension to keep them hooked.
It's just that every so often, a line is delivered in such a monotone manner that, there and then, your brain says they could have done with another take with a bit more feeling.
I was 10 (and yet still so young looking today) when 'The Green Berets' was released and I remember seeing clips on TV 'Film Night' type programmes. It was slated for being violent and, of course, the critics had a field day.
All the same, it still took around $11 million at the box office, so what do critics know?
Now, with regard to the violence, I was surprised that it received only a G (General) certificate for the Blu-ray release as there are a few action scenes that are somewhat graphic and not of the 'Tom & Jerry' variety, so I'd be concerned about younger children seeing them. As an example, I'd cite the scene where a commando impales a Vietcong soldier on the branch of a tree and another where one of the 'good ole boys' is impaled on bamboo spikes. The blood may well be a bright shade of Ferrari red but the scenes are nonetheless shocking. That's the effect the director wanted - to tell it the way it was and to honour the people who were dying for their country.
I'm sure that John Wayne wanted nothing more than to do what he considered the decent thing, but perhaps in his rush to get the movie into the cinemas as soon as possible he accepted more than a few compromises. We also have to bear in mind that the script was vetted by the Pentagon, so maybe many interfering fingers were dabbled in the pie with regard to the way things had to be said if the filmmakers were to be granted use of Fort Benning in Georgia for the production. Even though it wasn't actually shot in Vietnam, to an unwitting audience it's none too apparent.
This was the first time I'd actually seen 'The Green Berets' in its entirety as I'd usually given up on the pan and scan TV screenings after about 20 minutes. I'm glad to have had the chance to see it in a Panavision widescreen version, but it's not really John Wayne's finest hour as director or star. I think he can be forgiven this considering the amount of entertainment he gave us throughout his movie career.
'The Green Berets' is really a movie for John Wayne completists and also as a piece of history that teaches us not to believe our own PR, however well intentioned.
I believe it was Maureen O'Hara (who'd been Wayne's leading lady in many films) who, after the star's death, got together a petition to arrange for a statue with a plaque that read simply 'John Wayne - American'.