Appellate Judge Tom Becker conscientiously objects to John Wayne's war movie.
So you don't believe in glory. And heroes are out of style. And they don't blow bugles anymore. So take another look—at the special forces in a special kind of hell.
"Silver wings upon their chest
Facts of the Case
Effete, liberal journalist George Beckworth (David Janssen, The Fugitive) gets greenlit to go to an army base in South Vietnam to see for himself what's "really" happening over there. Beckworth's readers apparently have their doubts about the US involvement in the Vietnam conflict, and Beckworth's mission is to prove those nay-sayers right.
To the relief of every hawk in the Western Hemisphere, Beckworth finds himself at "Dodge City," a Special Forces camp run by Col. Mike Kirby (John Wayne, True Grit) of the elite Green Berets. While Beckworth cynically tries to tear down everything these colorful and dedicated guys stand for, he finds himself being swayed by their bravery and acts of kindness in this place of madness.
And when the base is under attack, Beckworth finds himself pitching in like any good soldier would.
The Green Berets might be one of the most inept war films ever made. John Wayne co-directed with Ray Kellogg (The Giant Gila Monster) and, apparently, an uncredited assist from old-time studio stalwart Mervyn LeRoy (Random Harvest). The sensibilities here are clearly jingoistic '40s heroics, anachronistic, and intentionally or not, condescending. This is Wayne's war, and the film is Wayne's pulpit—he opens with a press conference, in which all those doubts about US involvement are handily dispatched by a couple of Berets so beefy and sincere, you feel lily-livered just watching their clear-eyed, steely, and simplistic explanations.
The decision to make a pro-war film at that point in history is only wrongheaded insofar as one's own belief about the conflict. Wayne's ideological flaw is less his politics than his refusal to recognize any of the complexities of the situation. The Green Berets was the first major studio release to address Vietnam, and rather than approach the material with anything resembling nuance, Wayne steamrolls through a series of clichés and turgid plot devices that make the honorable Berets seem more like superheroic good ol' boys than flesh-and-blood fighting men. His contempt for dissenting opinions on the matter is summed up in a line so inflammatory that the actor practically drools when he delivers it: "Out here, due process is a bullet."
Wayne, of course, did not shoot this epic in Southeast Asia, but rather in Southeast Georgia, whose topography is as similar to 'nam as the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink is to Antarctica. It gives the enterprise a decidedly phony sheen, but that's fine, since this is a decidedly phony movie.
The film is so far afield from anything remotely resembling the Vietnam experience as it's been recounted that you have to believe Wayne planned it this way. The soldiers are not apple-cheeked teens drafted into a service for which they're ill prepared, but guys in their 30s and above—yes, this is about an "elite force," but these guys look closer to the age when men retire from the military. Speaking of the draft…well, actually no one speaks of the draft. It just doesn't come up. In Wayne's world, this looks like an all-volunteer army, with the protagonists driven by a sense of duty for their country rather than a legal obligation to serve.
While at odds with the concerns with much of the country, Wayne could have still made a stirring statement on valor and a pointed rebuttal to the shameful and derisive ways in which returning soldiers were often treated. Unfortunately, this film is a mess. Wayne's idea to humanize the soldiers is laudable, but he fails to present the men as multi-dimensional human beings. The script by James Lee Barrett (Smokey and the Bandit) offers up characters that were hackneyed decades before. Among the stereotypes, we get the charming slacker con man (Jim Hutton, Hellfighters), whose heart is opened by a plucky Vietnamese orphan named Hamchunk; the sensitive, dedicated medic (Raymond St. Jacques, Cotton Comes to Harlem), who's also one of the few African Americans here; and the fierce and nobly ruthless South Vietnamese captain (played by Japanese American George Takei, who missed Star Trek's seminal "Trouble with Tribbles" episode because he was making this); plus the expected assortment of oddballs, straight-arrows, and the quiet, philosophical one who talks a lot about dying, positioning him as the guy with whom you should avoid making long-range plans.
For an action movie, there's surprisingly little action. The obscenely bloated 140-minutes-and-change running time is padded with expository scenes of soldiers setting up the base while things are explained in jargony military talk. We get what's going on, but we're never quite clear why it's going on. To spare you forgetting that this is, at its heart, a pro-war propaganda piece, every few minutes, someone—Wayne, a soldier, a stray orphan—says or does something that humbles milquetoasty reporter Janssen.
At about mid-point, everything grinds to a halt while the soldiers survey the aftermath of a massacre at a friendly village, and Wayne recounts a horrifying list of Commie atrocities to newly patriotic reporter. This sequence, with its descriptions as gruesome as anything Tom Dooley wrote in The Night They Burned the Mountain, along with a fairly bloody battle—albeit, with blood so red it looks like the causalities were the result of a fingerpainting rampage—make me wonder how this thing was awarded a G rating. The battle itself is confusingly shot and edited; it fails as an action sequence, as a depiction of the horrors of war, and as an example of cohesive filmmaking.
As bad as the first two-thirds are, it's the final act that takes The Green Berets into the netherworld of cinematic sideshow. Up to this point, Wayne has presented a bad yet standard war movie that's trying to get the country to reconsider the war effort. Fine. But then, Wayne sends his troops on a bizarre, pre-adolescent-boy fantasy mission to capture an enemy general. Their trump card? A foxy Vietnamese singer (Irene Tsu, Airport 1975) whose own family was slaughtered on orders of this self-same Commie bastard. Apparently, on those nights when the general gets lucky, everything else goes slack around his "heavily guarded" fortress, since our Berets have virtually no trouble picking off a handful of enemy soldiers and whisking the general away in the trunk of a car. I'll leave it to you to be astounded by how they actually get him out of the area into the arms of justice.
Frankly, this sequence is inexcusable, pulverizing any notions Wayne could have had that he was making an honest or honorable film, and certainly shattering any pretense that this might be a definitive statement on the war. This would have been an idiotic interlude in the most jaded WW2 propaganda film, and 20-plus years later, it's just appalling, a testament to just how out of touch the Duke was on the subject of Vietnam.
The transfer here looks very, very good, clear and overall sharp. The Dolby True Audio is crisp and well serves Miklos Rosza's rousing, if dated (even at the time), score, though it's a bit thin during the battle scenes. Besides a trailer, the lone extra is a puffy, seven-minute, "behind-the-scenes" EPK featurette lauding Wayne, the project, and the Berets.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Blu-rays don't come cheap. This one carries a suggested retail price near $30, while you could pick up the old standard DVD for under a sawbuck. I'm sure the picture here is much better than the old DVD, but it didn't blow me away to the point that I'd spend four or five times more to own it.
The draw here, I would think, isn't just the new technology, but the chance to incorporate new bonus material and create a more meaningful package. "Meaningful" might seem an odd word to describe Wayne's bloated and absurd Vietnam fantasy, but while The Green Berets fails on almost every level as moviemaking, politically and socially, it's a significant film. Critically assailed at the time—often with outrage aimed at the message as much as the filmmaking—it would certainly be interesting to see how contemporary critics and filmmakers view it. I'd love to hear Quentin Tarantino and Michael Bay talk about it, and wouldn't it be great to hear Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius, director and writer of that other landmark Vietnam film offer up some insights? Maybe a featurette on the real Berets or some background on a war that lots of people are too young to remember would have been helpful. Also, it would have been interesting to note that the film's release in summer of 1968 came just months after a pair of events that helped fuel the country's divide on the war: The Tet Offensive in January 1968, and the My Lai Massacre that March.
The Green Berets is also one of the few films of its time to attempt to present the soldiers with humanity. "Crazed Vietnam vet" became an axiom before the US had pulled out of the conflict, and the representative war films of the '70s—The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now—only added to this view, while soldiers-as-civilians were folks like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), and the more sympathetic but no less insane John Rambo. Comments from actual vets would have offered some context and made this a compelling buy. As it stands, it's just another catalogue title pushed into the Blu-ray market.
I thought I'd be watching one of the great "bad movies," but all I got was this sad, slow piece of propaganda. Wayne's attempt at making an effort and swaying the hearts and minds of the American moviegoing public fails with a fizzle, not with a bang, but a whimper. For fans and the curious only.
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