One of America’s most iconic and well-loved actors, John Wayne was never one to pull punches, especially when it came to his personal politics and beliefs. Nowhere was that more evident than his 1968 film The Green Berets, a film that earned a fair amount of money and has been ripped pretty uniformly in the almost 50 years since its release.
As the fighting intensifies in Vietnam, Colonel Mike Kirby (Wayne), a Green Beret officer, is prepping to go in-country with two A-Teams of Special Forces soldiers. Also along with the troops is an American journalist, George Beckworth (David Janssen), who questions why American troops are even involved in Vietnam to begin with. He tags along with Kirby and the Green Berets as they build a base camp near the border between North and South Vietnam. As the new arrivals help strengthen the camp, Beckworth is in for an eye-opening trip.
I wrote a review for this 1968 movie years ago on Amazon and struggled then with what to see about it. After watching Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about Vietnam these past few months, I’m struggling even more. I’ll watch any Wayne movie basically – and this one is entertaining – but it’s tough to watch. You don’t think a lot about propaganda movies from the 1960s, but this certainly qualifies. Its views on the war are uncomfortable and entirely one-sided, clearly an effort to convince American viewers what the fighting in Vietnam was really like. The results? Mixed to negative to hated depending on the reviews.
The only solution I can come up with? ‘Berets’ is more watchable if you look at it as an effort to highlight the ability of our Special Forces soldiers and their varying capabilities. It is a heck of a time capsule to the late 60s, dated and somewhat blind to just about anything going on in the world. Still, certain moments resonate, most of them having to do with the heroic actions of our soldiers. Heavy-handed? Obvious? Rigid? Yeah, ‘Berets’ bats 3-for-3 in those departments.
Some of the more superficial complaints about the movie are the ages of the cast. Wayne was almost 60 at the time, and yes, obviously a 59-year old man wouldn’t be leading a Green Beret team into combat. The same for the entire cast. If that’s your deal-breaker, you’re already in trouble here. Wayne is okay as Kirby, but it’s nothing flashy. Janssen is us, the viewer, questioning and struggling to grapple with any potential moral dilemmas. Wayne’s Kirby is telling us which way to think, detailing the horrors of war and the atrocities committed in a war unlike the world had ever seen.
The supporting cast has some interesting faces, but the movie isn’t really interested in hard-hitting, in-depth characterizations. Jim Hutton plays Sgt. Petersen, a scrounger attached to Kirby’s A-teams. Some lighter comedic moments, including one especially heavy-handed effort as Petersen quasi-adopts an orphaned Vietnamese boy (Craig Jue). Subtle it is not! Aldo Ray and Raymond St. Jacques play veteran Green Berets, Muldoon and Doc.
Plenty of other familiar faces rounding out the troops, including Bruce Cabot, George Takei, Patrick Wayne, Luke Askew, Edward Faulkner, Jason Evers, Mike Henry, Chuck Roberson and Rudy Robbins. Takei delivers an interesting part as a South Vietnamese officer with Askew also memorable as Sgt. Provo, a volunteer on the team with an interesting conundrum.
Watching ‘Berets’ is easier when you try and ignore the Vietnam War angle and just look at the story as a more traditional war story with plenty of stock characters, story conventions and genre features. An attack on the fire-base camp by thousands of VC and North Vietnamese troops highlights the middle of the movie, an extended sequence that runs about 25 minutes. Uncomfortable, violent and with some shocking moments to boot. A later mission to kidnap a North Vietnamese general feels tacked on to end the story on a more pleasant note, featuring supporting parts for Jack Soo and Irene Tsu.
Also, worth mentioning is composer Miklos Rozsa’s score with some familiar notes from King of Kings and Ben-Hur (listen HERE). I’m not going to completely rip this movie. I’ve always found it entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way. It hasn’t aged well and was released at the height of the American involvement in Vietnam. In fact, it was filmed before the Tet offensive when American opinion truly started to shift against involvement in South Vietnam. Timing? She can be a bitch to deal with!
The Green Berets (1968): ** ½ /****