When things were looking the bleakest in Vietnam, the U.S. Army drafted a legend in hopes of turning the tide. After all his rousing heroics done during World War II cinematic spectacles, John Wayne returned to the battlefield in The Green Berets. Would he pull off victory in Southeast Asia like he did in the Pacific theater or the beaches of Normandy? Could he instill the patriotic fever with cinematic battles that would make Americans forget the real footage they were seeing on the evening news?
The film lays out its mission in the opening scene from Fort Bragg, NC (really Fort Benning, GA). The Green Berets give a demonstration of their skills to the public during an open house. A skeptical newspaper reporter (David Janssen) asks Master Sergeant Muldoon (Aldo Ray) about the reason we’re fighting in Vietnam when it’s a civil war. Ray points out all the weapons being used by the North Vietnamese are produced by communist countries. This isn’t a local affair. America can’t just watch the Vietnamese in the South become enslaved by Ho Chi Minh’s forces. Janssen doesn’t accept this logic. But he can’t sway the soldier’s opinions either. Sgt. Muldoon’s job is to defend America with military might. It doesn’t hurt that his commander is Col. Mike Kirby (John Wayne). He’s the tough leader that won’t let his troops down or suffer fools. He also knows a soldier that needs to join his elite unit. He nabs Sgt. Petersen (Jim Hutton) for his talent to procure items that can’t be timely requisitioned. He has his crack crew ready for a wee hours flight to Vietnam.
There are plenty of great things about seeing all the fresh detail in a high def transfer of a film on Blu-ray. However way too many movie magic secrets are given away in The Green Berets. When their plane touches down in Vietnam, it’s obvious that this film spared all expenses in taking us into a foreign land. In the 1080p image, you can see every pine tree near the air strip. Just for verification, I called up my father. He’s a decorated Vietnam vet who fought during the time John Wayne filmed this movie. He assured me that he has zero memories of pine trees during his tour of duty. He remembers plenty of pine trees from his time at Ft. Benning. Instead of hauling a movie crew out to Hawaii or a peaceful Asian location, John Wayne decided it was easier to take advantage of the Army’s cooperation in making the film. He got free use of Ft. Benning, military aircraft and plenty of extras. Who cares about authenticity when you can save major dollars on the budget.
The action in the fake Vietnam has Colonel’s troops taking control of a remote camp. This is a dangerous land. The guy he replaces gets a nasty bon voyage gift from the Viet Cong. Hutton uses his guile to snag provisions for the camp. He also hooks up with a local boy that becomes the base mascot. The skeptical reporter joins up with the Berets. He endures the first fire fight with the Viet Cong and learns quickly what the fighting is about in the countryside. The Green Berets aren’t alone. There’s a contingent of South Vietnamese troops led by George Takei (Star Trek). The big mission is going after a North Vietnamese leader who is living the good life in his fortress while others starve. Can John Wayne and Sulu win the war? Will the reporter be swayed that this is a noble and winnable war?
The Green Berets is seen by many as pure propaganda. It’s hard to take such a mean view of the movie. John Wayne wanted to inspire the troops and let them know they were doing important work. He met many of them before the production. However he forgot the one element that made his best war films: his death. Instead of the noble sacrifice, we get the Duke telling the camp mascot, “You’re what this is all about.” This was not the glorious call to arms. Timing didn’t help since between the start of production and it’s release, the North Vietnamese staged the Tet Offensive. Much of the optimism about American involvement was destroyed in the all out attack. It was going to take more than a movie to change to opinions of many Americans. The Green Berets might have finished their mission, but it wasn’t mission accomplished for the Duke.
The video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The transfer in the upper 30 Mbps boosts the image quality so you quickly learn that this international film was located completely in Ft. Benning. There is nothing tropical about this place. The audio is Dolby TrueHD 1.0. You don’t get surrounded by the action. The dubs include French and Spanish in both Castillian and Latin dialects. The subtitles are English, French and Spanish.
The Moviemakers: The Making of the Green Berets (7:08) is a vintage production featurette that exposes the production being shot at Ft. Benning. Although the producers want us to think that Georgia is the perfect substitute for Southeast Asia.
Original Trailer (2:59) hints at what John Wayne wanted this film to accomplish. There’s lots of big explosions and heroic actions by his troops. They attempt to rework lines from Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Beret.”
The Green Berets will never be considered a great war film. It’s about an authentic in its depiction of the war as the location John Wayne used. Yet with all its faults, Wayne’s heart is in the right place. He wanted the best for our troops. He didn’t want them to think there would be other great movies coming out of their fire fights. There would be cinematic masterpieces in the form of Apocalypse Now and Platoon, but they wouldn’t try to simplify the confusion in the jungle.
Warner Home Video presents Green Berets. Directed by: John Wayne & Ray Kellogg. Starring: John Wayne, David Janssen, Jim Hutton, Aldo Ray and George Takei . Written by: James Lee Barrett. Running time: 141 minutes. Rating: G. Released on Blu-ray: January 5. Available at Amazon.com.
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.
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