John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968) 2 hrs 20 mins

The Director: John Wayne (1907-1979)

Born Marion Michael Morrison in Iowa 1907. Unlikely name for an actor who was to be identified with "tough guy" movies about cowboys and marines. One critic called him "(a)n American icon and a powerful symbol of post-war American masculinity." Moved to California and won a football scholarship. Began career in movies as a prop man for Fox Studios in 1927. Film debut as an extra in "Brown of Harvard" in 1926. Early stage name was "Duke" Morrison. In 1930 had a feature role in "Men without Women" directed by John Ford (who directed many of JW's movies). JW's role in Ford's "Stagecoach" (1939) (regarded by many as the best western ever made) as the "Ringo Kid" turned JW into a leading man and Hollywood star. During WW2 JW did not serve in the army but made a radio series. In 1944 co-founder of the "Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals." From 1950 to 1965 was the biggest male box office star in America. Nominated for Academy Award as best actor in "The Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949). Academy Award for "True Grit" (1960). Directing debut with "The Alamo" (1960). In his later years he became identified (or identified himself) as a national institution, the personification of American values (as a cowboy or marine): conservative political views, militarism, adherence to tradition, emphasis on doing one's duty. Died in Los Angeles of cancer in 1979.

The Film

Based on a novel by Robin Moore. Directed by and starring JW. Came late in JW's career when he was visibly aging, overweight, and ill with the cancer which was to later kill him. He made the film in the hope that it would be viewed as his "Personal Testament of Honour" or, as the publicity would have it, "A Forceful Statement on the Nature of Duty and Courage." JW's son Patrick Wayne, who assisted in the making of the film and appears in it as well, said at the time the film was made that his father was very patriotic (JW demonstarated this in a number of films such "The Alamo") and supported the US role in Vietnam. He took the unusual step of visiting VN in 1967-8 and came to the conclusion that the US combat units in VN were the best the US had ever fielded. JW believed that the media and the anti-war movement hid this fact from the American people, thus the aim of the film was to redress this imbalance. The film is unusual for being one of the very few films about VN made during the conflict and for getting the full cooperation of the State Dept. and the Defence Dept. In fact, the army was criticised for the amount of men and equipment made available to the filmmakers at a time when the war was escalating in VN and when the US was badly stretched financially and militarily. As you will understand after seeing the film, it was not well received by the critics, who rejected its simple-minded political viewpoint and its apparent praise of violence. Typical is view of Gilbert Adair:

What is so repugnant about "The Green Berets" is not its politics (nor even, politics apart, its total ineptitude purely as an adventure war movie) but the fact that, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, evidence that by the late 1960s had already filtered through to the US, its makers were still determined to reduce Vietnam to simple-minded Manichean antitheses: good guys vs bad guys, cowboys vs Indians, white men vs "natives." (Gilbert Adair, Hollywood's Vietnam).

At the opening, anti-war groups picketed the cinemas. The public found it acceptable (probably because it starred JW) and it took a solid $8 million domestically.

The plot is about a team of US Speical Forces (the "Green Berets), led by Col. Mike Kirby (played by JW). Film opens at the "John F. Kennedy Centre for Special Warfare" at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where a press conference is under way. Sgt Muldoon defends the US presence in VN to the journalists. The critical comments by a journalist, George Beckwirth (played by David Janssen), provoke MK into challenging GB to come to VN with him to see for himself what the US is doing there. The anti-war GB is forced to re-evaluate his views as he sees for himself the true nature of the Viet Cong enemy: they set bamboo booby traps, they murder a village headman, 5 VCs rape his daughter (her rape is coyly referred to as "abuse"), and "40" (sic!) VC rape his wife. GB abandons his anti-war stance and literally and figuratively takes up a rifle to defend himself . He is now eager to fight the barbaric VC enemy. The film ends with MK explaining to an orphaned VN kid (with the very un-VN name of "Hamchunk") why the US cause in VN is just.

It is very appropriate that JW made this film. He starred in a number of heroic war movies in late 1940s and 1950s in which the US opposed oriental enemies ("Japs" and Koreans). Especially "The Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949) in which JW plays Sgt Stryker. S's toughness creates an undefeatable army out of weak enlisted men in the war against the Japanese. Only war film in which JW is killed by the enemy. Sgt S killed taking Mount Suribachi upon which US flag is placed (US Marines lent the filmmakers the actual flag used in the battle). His death is "Christ-like" in his sacrifice leads his men onto courageous and heroic deeds. When JW made his early war movies it was clear exactly who the enemy was (Asian and in uniform) and what "victory" was (the taking of clearly defined territory such as Pacific islands held by the Japanese). Powerful image created by JW of heroic US soldier was influential in thinking of young US troops in VN, who had been brought up with JW movies on TV. (See the numerous references to JW in Baker's Nam and other accounts). Many imagined themeselves as JW heroes pursuing glorious victory. One of the tragedies of VN was that it was difficult to determine who the enemy was (often did not wear uniform) and the inconclusive nature of the war (not about territory).

Things to Note

1. The opening sequence when Sgt Muldoon explains to the journalists why the US is fighting in VN. Note that the highly trained Special Forces speak European and not Asian languages in a public demonstration of their skills. When Sgt. M is asked why the US is "waging this useless war?" he lamely answers that "A soldier goes where he is told to go; fights where he is told to fight." The very interesting and unusual comparison of US and VN history. Sgt. M gives the journalists a civic lesson after a question about why the US will not allow a free election in VN (because the VC would win). He says that it took many years after the beginning of the US war for independence (or revolution) before a constitution and stable government was created (1776-1787). Likewise it would take a long time for the VN. This is the only Hollywood movie to tackle these important and interesting questions head on.

2. The image of journalists as "left wing" and critical of the US government's involvement in the war, thus turning the public also against thte war. According to JW, their criticism is not based on personal experience but prejudice. Once they see for themselves (like GB) they quickly change their minds and support the war. Note the lessons leaned by the US military in the Gulf war concerning the control of the media.

3. The explicit link JW makes between the war in VN and the war against Indians in the Western film. Note the name above the US army camp in VN: "Dodge City."

4. The image of the VC as an enemy. Shown in very black and white terms. VC not effective fighters when besieging camp, but ruthless in guerrilla and jungle fighting. Suggestion that in fighting this way the VC are "cheating." If only they would fight head on, like the Americans, they could be defeated "honourably." VC rape, torture, pillage, murder their opponents. Contrast with decadent leaders who drink champagne, eat caviar, drive in limosines. Although the fighting methods of the VC are discussed, no mention is made of the American weapons and tactics: use of napalm and defoliants, search and destroy missions, strategic hamlets, body counts, body bags, free-fire zones. Blandness about the horrors of war.

5. No attempt made to "realistically" portray conditions in VN. Filmed on location at Fort Benning, Georgia. There is no jungle, the climate is not humid, the men do not sweat, the trees are obviously pine trees. Contrast with "realism" of Stone's "Platoon" with rain, humidity, insect life which made life so difficult for US soldiers. Although the platoon of US soldiers contains the usual ethnic cross-section (made into a cliché by WW2 movies) there is no evidence of drug use, the counterculture, rock music, rebellion against authority, or any indication that the soldiers are living in the 1960s.

6. Note the way American soldiers are shown as heroes. Character of Sgt. Provo who volunteers for front-line duty and dies a "hero's death." Early in the film we see various buildings named after "heroic" US soldiers (the "Arthur E. Fuller Field" and the "William J. Wallace Building"). Sgt P wants a memorial erected to himself. Rejects idea of "Provo's Barrack's." On his death bed he whispers to MK his last wish: he wants to be remembered with a sign announcing "Provo's Privy." What was JW trying to achieve with this absurd, stupid and unintentionally funny scene?

7. The famous closing scene in which the sun sets in the east. Sums up the general ineptitude of the filmmakers.

8. The theme song "The Ballad of the Green Berets" with the line "Fearless men who jump and die."