THE GREEN BERETS would be all right, even accorded some respect—had it been made in 1943, and was about World War Two. Arguing to be The Truth About Vietnam, belly-flopping into the overheated summer of 1968, it is almost a monument to mendacity, so far from anything like reality about that horrid conflict that it commands a watch not for its ham-handed (“Ham-chunk!”) tribute to the US Army’s elite soldiers but as a head-wounding reveal of how crucially far apart half the country was from the other: politically, philosophically, rationally, ethically. *
James Lee Barrett’s troglodytic screenplay was a Pentagon-approved modification of Robin Moore’s 1965 best-seller, a novelization paean to the Special Forces and their off-the-grid exploits in SE Asia’s expanding battle zone. With the beleaguered Johnson government co-operatively making equipment available, John Wayne (his son Michael credited as producer) used mocked-up woodsy Georgia locations to pass (half-close your eyes) for Vietnam’s jungles. Wayne co-directed with Ray Kellogg and some uncredited assistance from Mervyn LeRoy. $7,000,000 was expended.
Doubting journalist ‘Beckworth’ (David Janssen) is shown around assorted ‘Nam hot spots by ‘Col. Kirby’ (Wayne), whose overage Berets include dog-tag (dog-tired) cliché’s like a scrounger (Jim Hutton), ‘Muldoon’ (Aldo Ray, back in action) and a South Vietnamese Commie-hater (George Takei) who expresses “My home is in Hanoi. You see, first I kill all stinking Cong, then go home.” Other hardies spout similar gibberish, get killed heroically, taking nameless hordes of VC and NVA with them. Plenty of furious, noisy action, with a lack of realism that’s noteworthy.
The script is junk, the situations are ridiculous, the characters one-dimensional, the supposed heart-tugging stuff with ‘adorable’ orphan ‘Ham-Chunk’ (Craig Jue) and his destined-to-die dog is risible. 142 minutes worth of bloody embarrassment.
What does work? The acting is acceptable. Miklos Rozsa’s old-fashioned score is sufficient, with a rousing variation of Barry Sadler’s hit song used over the well-done titles sequence. Jim Hutton has a startling death scene. Otherwise….
Liberal critics tore it to smithereens (read the write-up from Roger Ebert or Renata Adler’s classic screed for prime outrage) but the faithful lined up to see 60-year-old Duke bat the Reds into submission to the tune of $21,707,000 domestically, the years 10th most successful haul, with another $11,000,000 raked in abroad. The war, meanwhile, dragged on…
With Raymond St. Jacques, Bruce Cabot, Patrick Wayne, Jack Soo, Edward Faulkner, Luke Askew, Mike Henry and the tres-sexy Irene Tsu (sultry spy bait for a slimy Vietcong general). Richard Pryor has a bit.
* Moore’s book sold 3,000,000 copies, but the Pentagon was irked by it enough to sue him. The 1966 Barry Sadler song “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” was a huge crossover hit, #1 for five weeks; ultimately the single and album sold 9,000,000 copies. Wayne’s politics were simple-minded but sincere: Janssen, Hutton, St.Jacques and Takei were all against the war. He endured guilt for the rest of his life after not serving in WW2, trying to make up for it on-screen. This awful time-capsule turned off many of his long-time fans (most rallied later for True Grit). I love the Duke, but The Green Berets is a p.o.s.