Green Berets,The (1968): Vietnam War as Agit-Prop from John Wayne as Director and Star

The two mainstream cultural works about the Vietnam War in the 1960s were the publication of Robin Moore’s “The Green Berets” in 1965, and the release of John Wayne’s film version of the book in the summer of 1968.  The accessibility of both products benefited from the public’s familiarity with the unit of the Green Berets.

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It was President Kennedy who had perceived the need to fight the Communists in Asia with guerrilla forces, calling for the use of a new breed of American fighters: the U.S. Army Special Forces. The Green Berets were perceived to be Kennedy’s idea because the values they embodied–energy, vigor, devotion, and commitment–were congruent with the young president’s “New Frontier” doctrine.

Green Berets: The Book

Robin Moore, co-author of an earlier book on guerrilla war in the Caribbean, wrote The Green Berets as a tribute to the Special Forces. He himself took a training course of counter-guerrilla fighting, donned a uniform, armed himself with a rifle, and went to Vietnam. Moore’s book was based on his experience, which he fictionalized to avoid secrets of national security. Some critics complained that the book’s real villains were “counterpart” Vietnamese officers, presented as coward, hostile, corrupt, and inept. Others noted that Moore displayed in his book “contempt of most Vietnamese.”

The fact that The Green Berets became a best-seller surprised intellectuals of left-wing persuasion. Moore attributed the book’s success to the American people’s need for a hero image at times that lacked such heroes. The book also inspired a song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” whose sales topped 3 million copies in a few weeks, and it persuaded an influential movie star, John Wayne, to go to Vietnam and collect information for a movie.

Green Berets: The Movie

John Wayne’s view of Vietnam was rooted in his old hatred of Communism. Pragmatic, Wayne wrote to President Johnson that it was important that “not only the people of the U.S., but those all over the world should know why it was necessary for us to be there.” The star’s view of the conflict was even harsher than the Administration’s, because the screenplay’s first draft was rejected as being too strongly anti-Communist. Jack Valenti, then the President’s communications assistant, reportedly told Johnson: “Wayne’s politics (are) wrong, but in so far as Vietnam is concerned, his views are right. If he made the picture he would be saying the things we want said.” Batjac, Wayne’s production company, thus received the Administration’s blessing and support.

James Lee Barret’s screenplay was only loosely based on the novel. Many changes, Moore claimed, were imposed on the script by the Department of Defense in order to keep up an unpopular war. Wayne said his motive was to glorify American soldiers as the finest fighting men “without going into why we are there, or if they should be there.” His “compulsion” to do the movie was based on his pride of the Special Forces, determined to show “what a magnificent job this still little-known branch of service is doing.” “I wasn’t trying to send a message out to anybody,” he reasoned, “or debating whether it is right or wrong for the United States to be in this war.”

Wayne was accused, however, by liberal groups of glorifying an unpopular war, which irritated him: “What war was ever popular for God’s sake those men don’t want to be in Vietnam anymore than anyone else.” “Once you go over there,” he said, “you won’t be middle-of-the-road.” However, even Wayne set his film cautiously in l963, when the war was less controversial and the issues clearer. At that time, the official role of the U.S. was limited to “advise” the South Vietnamese Army. The narrative starts with the Green Berets’ training at the John F. Kennedy School for Special Warfare in North Carolina. Wayne’s Colonel Michael Kirby, a dedicated career officer, is contrasted with a pacifist war correspondent (David Janssen) who has doubts about the involvement in Vietnam. But at the end, the correspondent changes his mind and pitches in with the fighting men, committed as they are to its noble cause.

A simplistic tale, The Green Berets was modeled on conventions of the Western formula, used by Wayne and others in countless features.  The outpost was named Dodge City, after a popular Western staring Errol Flynn. And Wayne delivers such lines as “Out here, due process is a bullet,” in a vein similar to his Westerns. He plays yet another cavalry officer, this time fighting the North Vietnamese (instead of the Indians), but the morality is basically the same. Wayne’s motives for making the picture also seemed to be taken from one of his Westerns. “This is the right course” for the U.S. because “we gave our word,” a phrase taken from “Fort Apache,” in which Wayne’s hero is engaged in conflict with Henry Fonda, because he gave his word to the Indians.

Though thematically flawed and ideologically dubious, technically speaking, the movie was well mounted due to producer Wayne’s recruitment of top Hollywood craftsmen, Oscar winning cinematographer Winton Hoch and composer Miklos Rozsa.

Rózsa came up with a powerful and varied musical score, which included a night club vocal by Vietnamese singer Bạch Yến.

As a title song, Wayne selected the Ken Darby choral arrangement of Barry Sadler’s 1966 hit song Ballad of the Green Berets, co-written by Robin Moore, author of the original Green Berets novel.

Other ingredients that made the picture more acceptable included the casting of likable actors, such as Jim Hutton and Aldo Ray, and as usual in Wayne films, assigning significant roles to children, in this case Vietnamese.

Most critics panned The Green Berets, as a film and as politics, but it was extremely popular, proving again that critics had no impact on Wayne’s commercial standing.  Made on a budget of $7 million, the movie was popular with audiences, earning over $30 million at the box-office.

Wayne attributed the success to the negative reviews and the press that he got, which he saw as criticism of the war and of him being a chauvinist Republican rather than the film: “The critics overkilled me, the picture and the war. As a result, so many people went to see it that I had a check from the distributors for $8 million within three months. That’s the cost of the picture, so we moved into profit the next day.”

Cast

John Wayne as COL Mike Kirby (Group Commander)

Jim Hutton as SGT Petersen

David Janssen as George Beckworth

Aldo Ray as MSG Muldoon (Senior NCO)

Raymond St. Jacques as SFC “Doc” McGee (Medical Sergeant)

Bruce Cabot as COL Morgan

George Takei as Captain Nim (ARVN)

Patrick Wayne as LT Jamison (USN)

Luke Askew as SGT Provo (Heavy Weapons “but not if he can find a light one”)

Irene Tsu as Lin

Credits:

 

Directed by John Wayne; contributions from Ray Kellogg, Mervyn LeRoy, John Ford (uncredited)
Produced by Michael Wayne
Screenplay by James Lee Barrett, based on The Green Berets novel by Robin Moore
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch
Edited by Otho Lovering
Production company: Batjac Productions
Distributed by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts
Release date: June 19, 1968
Running time: 141 minutes