The Green Berets Review

If ever an American movie was rendered obsolete by history in the way that a piece of machinery would, it would have to be The Green Berets. Released in 1968, before My Lai, before Kent State, before Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter, this film simply wanted to tell a simple story about John Wayne kicking a little tail in Vietnam. In case any one’s numbers are a little off, this is also well before the conflict was in any way over and Americans were still undecided about whether or not they wanted to commit more forces and firepower to the region. It’s a stretch to say that this film in any way altered the decisions that were made (a charge that many have leveled at Patton, a film Nixon watched repeatedly on the eve of the Cambodian bombing), but it’s certainly a rare and unique glimpse into history, and presents arguments that not even the most lax and biased of historians try to make any more.

Colonel Mike Kirby (John Wayne) is the head of the green berets, the most crack (their word, not mine), disciplined, elite army unit, and he’s getting shipped out to southern Vietnam for an apparent dual mission: to make humanitarian inroads with the southern Vietnamese population, and to defend them from destruction by the Vietcong. He’s aided in his mission by such reliable stalwarts as hamburger faced Sergeant Petersen (Jim Hutton) and local ally Captain Nim (George Takei). But this being the 60s, he is also joined by liberal journalist David Janssen (George Beckworth), who is generally suspicious of U.S. aims in southeast Asia. Luckily, Kirby is there to demonstrate to him exactly what he doesn’t know about Vietnam, and why it is absolutely necessary that the United States commit all of its forces to the area immediately, lest it rue the terrible consequences of international communist rule.

As a movie, The Green Berets is competent without ever being all that compelling. Its structure is episodic, almost like the first few episodes of a television show, as there is never an overarching specific mission to provide some sense of dramatic unity to the nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time of this film (to see a similar structure used to brilliant effect, check out The Hurt Locker, which just came out on DVD). The production values are certainly nice, even if it was shot in Georgia as opposed to a tropical climate (though few people make the same charge against Full Metal Jacket, which was shot in Britain), but that, in a way, seems to underscore the problem with the whole film: none of it, for a second, feels authentic. The battle scenes are sparsely and tamely orchestrated, full of movements and deaths that must have seemed violent for the time, but seem largely choreographed in retrospect. The performances are all reasonably charismatic, but never give off the heat that you’d think men in combat would. If you’re looking for something to fill an afternoon with emotionally and intellectually undemanding entertainment, you could do a whole lot worse than this.

But, then again, if that was all you were looking for, you might want to go with something that represented a little less of a political hot potato. While I’m pretty sure that a number of the film’s claims are in fact true (in an early scene, Sergeant Petersen displays captured artillery to a number of journalists, revealing them to have been made in countries under Soviet control; I’ve heard this claim before, and have never seen it effectively refuted), it’s still difficult to watch something with as convoluted an origin as the Vietnam War represented as a morally binary state. In that way, the film is in fact an invaluable historical document; something that only could have been made at a specific point in history by a specific group of people. Like many people of my generation, I’ve had a hard time understanding why we stayed in Vietnam as long as we did, and, to a degree, this movie shed some light on that by reminding us of one simple thing: nobody knew that it was going to turn out the way that it did. Lyndon Johnon sure didn’t, and, if this movie is any indication, John Wayne sure didn’t, and he makes it look attractive and noble in a way that only seems completely appalling given the media exposure that we had in the region afterwards (even if John Wayne’s particular brand of machismo was already seeming faintly ridiculous by the time this came out; Bonnie and Clyde was already completed the year before). There’s really no argument that this movie perpetuated or even influenced our involvement in the war, but to the people that did make those decisions that led to our ultimate defeat, this was undoubtedly a flag to rally around.

As entertainment, The Green Berets is roughly mediocre (one of the directors is Ray Kellogg, after all, who was also behind the notorious The Killer Shrews), but as an artifact, it’s something that much richer and more exciting; it’s history written by the losers.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The Moviemakers: The Making of The Green Berets - essentially a long trailer with extra behind the scenes footage.

Theatrical Trailer

"The Green Berets" is on sale January 5, 2010 and is rated G. War. Directed by Ray Kellogg, John Wayne. Written by James Lee Barrett. Starring George Takei, John Wayne, David Janssen, Jim Hutton, Aldo Ray, Bruce Cabot.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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