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The Right Stuff
John Wayne & Co's The Green Berets is a Dud of a Vietnam War Film
Of the few films to actually depict the Vietnam War as it raged in the 1960s, The Green Berets is the worst.
Since the mid-1950s, a time when the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union was at its coldest and the threat of a third world war seemed to loom behind every crisis, the United States Army has deployed very highly trained commando/special warfare teams to Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and other regions to assist and train local military forces and to fight against conventional and irregular forces (such as communist guerrillas in Southeast Asia and Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere).
And ever since President John F. Kennedy authorized the various Special Forces Groups to adopt a previously frowned-upon bit of headgear, the Army's SF troops have been popularly known by the nickname "Green Berets," a term made famous by Barry Sadler's one-hit wonder song, Robin Moore's best-selling book, and, of course, the 1968 film that starred and was co-directed by John Wayne.
Although many films have been made about the Vietnam War since the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975, most of them by liberal-leaning filmmakers who were against American involvement in Southeast Asia, only a few movies dared to depict the conflict while the troops were fighting and dying. And given the caliber of the people involved (Wayne, Ray Kellogg, an uncredited Mervyn LeRoy) plus the Army's desire to gain some popular support, The Green Berets was supposed to be the Vietnam era's equivalent of such John Wayne films as They Were Expendable and The Sands of Iwo Jima.
Unfortunately, what screenwriters James Lee Barrett and Col. Kenneth B. Facey concocted wasn't a realistic - if supportive - movie about a small Operational Detachment of Special Forces as they carry out various missions that lead to a fictionalized account of the Nam Dong incident. Rather, it is, in the words of conservative author Tom Clancy, "little more than a World War II-era propaganda film wrapped in a Vietnam suit of clothes." (Clancy, in his non-fiction book Special Forces, goes even further to point out that the media portrayal of SF operators is "contrived crap.")
The Green Berets features Wayne as Col. Mike Kirby, a highly decorated combat officer apparently in his third war and now the incoming replacement CO of a Vietnam-based SF unit now led by his old friend Col. Morgan (Bruce Cabot). The combined forces of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong are making a push against America's South Vietnamese allies, and the Green Berets have to carry out several crucial missions, including the defense of Camp A-107 west of Da Nang and the capture of a North Vietnamese general who is masterminding the offensive.
Wayne and Co. start the film at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina; there, a select group of civilians, including a very skeptical and (we can assume) liberal journalist named George Beckworth (David Janssen). Beckworth's role in this film is to be the devil's advocate for the anti-war movement until he sees the light after witnessing the SF soldiers in action, and this is clear from the way in which he and another reporter practically badger Sgt. Muldoon (Aldo Ray) into a bitter lecture about how the Communist conspirators from Red China and the Warsaw Pact are arming the North Vietnamese and their Southern sympathizers.
Reporter: Could you answer a question that all of us are asking?
Sergeant Muldoon: We'll try.
Reporter: Why is America raging this ruthless war in Vietnam?
Sergeant Muldoon: Foreign policy decisions are not made by the military. A soldier goes where he is told to go, and fight whom is told to fight.
The film's first act also veers into WWII-war movie cliches when it introduces a soldier named Petersen (Jim Hutton), a member of another SF unit who has been raiding Col. Kirby's unit's supply depot and stealing such things as gallon cans of paint. In what is supposed to be a humorous-yet-inspiring scene, Kirby and his staff catch Petersen as he tries to make off with a jeepful of supplies, but instead of having him sent to the guardhouse pending a court martial, the Duke (who seems a bit too old to be playing soldier in this flick) not only transfers Mr. Artful Thief to the group, but also gives him an on-the-spot promotion to sergeant.
War movie buffs know, of course, that characters that are given meaty roles are often the ones that the screenwriters will, by the end of the film, kill off in such a way that the audience will be upset, and if the redemption of Petersen as a soldier isn't a big enough clue, then the fact that he will be "adopted" by a war refugee named Hamchunk (Craig Jue) is a dead giveaway. In fact, some of the Green Berets which get some of the best lines also get offed by the last reel, including the soldier (Luke Askew) who wants a latrine named after him ("Provo Privy").
The film's biggest set-piece battle, the attack on Camp A-107 near Da Nang, is, as mentioned in Tom Clancy's non-fiction book Special Forces, based on the Battle of Nam Dong, which took place in the night of July 6, 1964. Two Viet Cong (VC, or "Charlie") battallions attacked a small outpost defended by Capt. Roger Donlon's Detachment A-726 and a mixed bag of natives, South Vietnamese regulars, and a contingent of Australians. Although wounded in action, Donlon successfully defended the outpost and earned the Medal of Honor for his courageous stand.
In the movie, an all-night battle rages on, with hordes of commies swarming over the barbed wire and sandbags like so many Native Americans in a bad Western film. Things get so hairy that journalist Beckworth, who has come to Vietnam to see the real war for himself, finds himself helping man a mortar. And in the fictionalized battle of Camp A-107, the Reds seemingly win the day, only to learn that their general was snatched in a Dirty Dozen- style raid; when daybreak comes and Kirby comes to the camp's outskirts, the Charlies get blown away by "Puff the Magic Dragon," a C-47 armed with deadly Gatling miniguns.
I suppose the Army was hoping the film would result in more public support for the war, but it might have asked the writers to at least do some research into combat tactics, especially special operations in irregular conflict. Instead, we are saddled with characters and situations from such flicks as Objective Burma! and every war movie starring the Duke. The unit is made up of every war movie cliche type...the Irish top sergeant, the slacker-turned-hero, the virtuous and token African American, and the tough-but-caring CO who stands tall and yet has the time to talk to a grieving kid. The troops move exactly as they do in World War II movies but wearing 1960s camouflage utilities and carrying M-16s instead of M-1 rifles. And, yes, that pesky liberal reporter, now a bit more impressed by the men of the Green Berets, has seen the light and wants to tell the Army's side of the story.
The movie's ineptitude also extends to such gaffes as having John Wayne carry a rifle with a speaker on the stock, revealing the Duke's weapon to be a toy, or my favorite, the walk into the sunset at the Da Nang base. Designed to be a stirring moment - Wayne leading the little kid along a beach before the end credits roll - it is the worst goof of the film, since Da Nang is on the east coast of Vietnam...and the sun sets on the west.
Whether or not one thinks the Vietnam War was a worthy conflict or an ill-considered use of American military power at the wrong place and the wrong time, the fact is that The Green Berets is a very bad film. If you want to watch a more fair and balanced account of soldiers in Vietnam that counterbalances the more liberal versions of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, skip this silly and jingoistic movie and watch We Were Soldiers instead.
John Wayne .... Col. Mike Kirby
David Janssen .... George Beckworth
Jim Hutton .... Sgt. Petersen
Aldo Ray .... Sgt. Muldoon
Raymond St. Jacques .... Doc McGee
Bruce Cabot .... Col. Morgan
Jack Soo .... Col. Cai
George Takei .... Capt. Nim
Patrick Wayne .... Lt. Jamison
Luke Askew .... Sgt. Provo
Irene Tsu .... Lin
Edward Faulkner .... Capt. MacDaniel
Jason Evers .... Capt. Coleman
Mike Henry .... Sgt. Kowalski
Craig Jue .... Hamchunk
Fighting soldiers from the sky. Fearless men who jump and die.
Men who mean just what they say. The brave men of the Green Beret.
- Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, "The Ballad of the Green Beret."