The 1968 Exhibit: John Wayne in 1968: The Green Berets

John Wayne’s The Green Berets

As you probably know–those of you, that is, who have not been sleeping under a rock recently–there’s a new version of John Wayne’s Oscar-winning True Grit opening this week, here in 2010. It’s directed by the Cohen Brothers, and stars Jeff Bridges as eye-patched Rooster Cogburn, and, like the 1969 original, is based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis.

In spite of my political leanings, I am an unrepentant John Wayne fan, and although True Grit is far from his greatest movie, or even the greatest “late-Wayne” movie (The Shootist takes that honor), it’s still enjoyable, especially when the (bad) child-actress protagonist is off-screen. True Grit was a real western, and so were most (not all, unfortunately) of Wayne’s last movies; he died in 1979.

greenberetsBut in 1968, Wayne was not fighting any Far West personal vendettas; he was fighting the Commies in Vietnam. John Wayne felt so strongly about filming the story of “The Green Berets” (based on a popular, violent 1965 book by Robin Moore, and Barry Sadler’s pop anthem of the same name, a huge hit from 1966) that he chose to produce, direct, and star in his version. Wayne had been fuming for years about the leftward tilt of American opinion about the Vietnam War, and was determined to throw his enormous Hollywood resources into telling “the other side” of the story–the one about vicious, sub-human Vietcong, about the domino effect, about the need for America to be in Vietnam to save the world.

The movie (available for Instant Viewing on Netflix, by the way) begins delivering these messages in the first few minutes. Skeptical newspaper reporter, played by the huge TV star (”The Fugitive”) David Janssen, along with dozens of other newsfolks and visitors, are taking a tour of the Special Forces (i.e., Greet Berets) base in Georgia. At a demonstration of Beret capabilities, Janssen and others ask tough questions: ”Why is the United States waging this ruthless war?” and “Do you mean you do what you’re told to do, without any personal feelings or opinions?” and “Terrible things happen in war; that doesn’t mean the South Vietnamese need us, or even want us.” ”How do you know we should be fighting for this present government? They’ve had no free elections, no constitution. . . . There are a lot of people believe that this is simply a war between the Vietnamese people; it’s their war, let them handle it.” And the answer from the Green Berets officer: “What’s involved here is Communist domination of the world.”

Janssen tells the men’s colonel: ”Your brainwashed sergeant didn’t sell me . . . on the idea that we should be involved in Southeast Asia.” Predictably, the journalist ends up going with Wayne’s bunch to Vietnam, and ends up seeing the light. The truth, as revealed in the rest of the movie (filmed in Georgia), is about the animal-like viciousness of the Vietcong, their hideous traps and tortures and atrocities. South Vietnamese people (played by a boatload of mixed-Asian actors, none of them actually Vietnamese) are innocent and timid and immensely grateful for the chocolate and health care provided by the Americans. There’s a cute orphan-mascot subplot. There are many scenes with helicopters (the U.S. military gave an enormous amount of free assistance to Wayne and his “Batjac” film company.) There are borrowings from hardened-commando movies (The Dirty Dozen, released a year earlier), hopeless assault movies, clever caper movies, even a little musical number thrown in (a sexy Vietnamese singer in a nightclub). There’s a little comedy (Jim Hutton as a wacky misfit, doomed to die a hideous death by the end), some gruesome struggles (with some odd neon-red blood), a bit of the Tet Offensive, and the chance to see two Asian-American actors better known for TV roles–Star Trek’s George Takei and Barney Miller’s Jack Soo (both Japanese) on the big screen.

For Vietnam-movie “completists,” The Green Berets is a must-see, because of its stridently conservative, “patriotic” point of view, and because of the all-consuming involvement of John Wayne (though he gives an oddly detached, if self-directed, walkthrough of a performance). It’s also useful for historians of the 1960s because it was released on the 4th of July, 1968–just a few weeks before the two presidential nominating conventions, and dead-center in the single worst year for American casualties in the Vietnam War, the year that public opinion on the homefront was turning decisively away from support for the war.