RogerBW's Blog

The Green Berets (1968) 29 January 2022

1968 war, dir. John Wayne and Ray Kellogg, Wayne, David Janssen: IMDb / allmovie.

This film was widely despised on release, by critics who primarily considered its political outlook. But let's take that as read; how does it work as a film?

Well, John Wayne wasn't known for his cultural sensitivity (a scene change to South Vietnam is heralded by Generic Oriental Music). But as someone who never got closer to war than the USO, he did know what a war film should look like (see Sands of Iwo Jima from 1950, or rather less creditably in The Longest Day from 1962). And that's mostly what this is: a generic war film, complete with special missions which will win or lose the war depending on their success or failure… which happens to have the contemporaneous conflict as the background.

But that awareness is always present as an undercurrent, because after all nobody watching Iwo Jima needed to be told that the Japanese were Bad. There's a comic-relief Vietnamese child whose missionary adoptive family was assassinated; the advance base has all the comforts of home; the Montagnards love America, they're just scared of the North Vietnamese; the Americans win any time they just buckle down to the honest hard work of soldiering, and every one of them is dedicated to the war. (Oh, and torture's just dandy when it's done to people who might be bad guys, but if it's done by the bad guys it's inhuman and horrible.)

And good heavens yes, that really is George Takei playing a South Vietnamese officer, George Takei part of whose childhood was spent in an American internment camp. (Filming this is why he was absent from half of the second season of Star Trek and Walter Koenig was brought on board.) It's frankly embarrassing to see him doing Vietnameseface, but he has a little bit more to his character than "stoic soldier", which helps set him off from nearly everyone else here.

The action mostly works, though there's a profoundly unconvincing helicopter crash which quite killed off my suspension of disbelief. And you can endanger the cutesy kid as much you like, but I at least am just not engaged, even when someone abandons his really quite important role in defending the camp to go and look for him. Wayne himself is of course always in the thick of the action, even though his character's supposedly a colonel – he even acts as jumpmaster at one point.

The side story deals with a journalist who starts off opposed to the war, is taunted into going and seeing for himself, and (inevitably) changes his mind about whether the US should be involved when he sees how horrible the enemy is. And that's embarrassing even by the standards of propaganda films.

Naturally, the US Army and Air Force cooperated very fully as they never would with another Vietnam film, and there's plenty of period hardware on display (including stock footage of an AC-47 gunship and an HC-130 with the Fulton "Skyhook" recovery system) – and even accurate US uniforms. Much of the film was made on or near Fort Benning. But there's no heart to anything here; even if it really were Generic War rather than Vietnam, the story wouldn't hold together. One feels that Wayne made the film because he thought the war ought to be supported, not because he had an interesting story to tell.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes, though we only mentioned this one very much in passing.

See also:
The Longest Day

  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 11:36am on 29 January 2022

    Big Leggy, The Duke. Yes, this film gets a lot of hate, but you really can't emphasize enough that if you're looking for authentic uniforms and gear then this is the best Vietnam movie ever made. Even We Were Soldiers doesn't quite get all the gear right.

    I know, I know this a nerd thing.

    And, when I first saw it when my mum took me to see it, I remember being truly riveted to my seat when Wayne and his team are being chased through the jungle and lose a man to a booby trap.

    Now, much older, I can see the fake M16 Wayne breaks by smashing into a tree. The forest is clearly not a South East Asian jungle etc, etc.

    Still, spooky laying down the rain, and the air-hook are moments that stick in my memory. As is the death of the one of the main characters that leaves the Vietnamese boy heartbroken.

    So, I would disagree that the story doesn't hold together. Instead, I would say this was a story that didn't interest you. YMMV on that. I'm not here to tell you what to think.

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