“Fighting soldiers from the sky. Fearless men who jump and die. Men who mean just what they say, the brave men of the Green Beret. Silver wings upon their chest. These are men, America’s best. One hundred men will test today. But only three win the Green Beret.”
The Ballad Of The Green Beret has become one of America’s most famous marching songs. It has been heavily parodied. The words were written by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler while he was in the hospital recuperating from a leg wound he received in Vietnam. The music was composed by Robin Moore, who went on to pen the book The Green Berets, on which this film was based.
It was John Wayne himself who decided to make Moore’s book into a motion picture. Wayne had had a tremendous amount of success in war pictures. After his Western cycle had ended, he appeared in quite a few World War II films, usually as the gung ho leader who puts it to the enemy with plenty of bravado and determination, most often against incredible odds. He thought he could bring that same style to a film about the Vietnam War. Wayne was very much mistaken.
Before you begin to question Wayne’s sanity, you have to put the film in some historical perspective. It was 1968, and most of the protesting and rebellion at home against the war had not yet begun. Certainly, there were detractors. All wars have them going back to our own Revolutionary War, and a group that called themselves “loyalists”. From today’s perspective the idea appears to be madness, but in 1968 it was not so far fetched as you might assume. The problem wasn’t doing a film on the conflict in Vietnam, although none had before been attempted. The mistake was Wayne’s feeling that the clichés of the World War II films would easily translate into Vietnam. The film is as gung ho as ever, and Wayne fills it with what today looks very much like propaganda. To Wayne’s credit, he was always heard to say that the film was not a statement for or against the war, merely intended as a tribute to our boys who were fighting and dying in Southeast Asia. That may very well have been his intention. Who’s going to tell The Duke to his face that he’s a low-down lying scoundrel? I’ve seen too many examples of what happens to those folks. Wayne’s intentions not withstanding, it’s hard to watch this film and see it as anything but an endorsement of the war.
“Trained to live off nature’s land. Trained in combat, hand-to-hand. Men who fight by night and day. Courage peak from the Green Berets. Back at home a young wife waits. Her Green Beret has met his fate. He has died for those oppressed, leaving her his last request.”
The Green Berets was the first of its kind. It was the first feature film set in the Vietnam War. It would not, however, be the template followed by later filmmakers on the subject. It was very much a bridge, to be sure. It bridged the traditional war film to that of Vietnam and future unpopular wars. It was Wayne’s second attempt from behind the camera, following his equally controversial The Alamo. Wayne felt strongly enough about the material to write a personal letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson for White House and Pentagon support, which he did in fact receive. That helped his film achieve a rather stunning look of reality even if the script was not so realistic. The vehicles and equipment were the genuine article, at least.
The film follows the exploits of Col. Mike Kirby (Wayne) and his attempt to put together a crack unit to take to Vietnam. Once he’s assembled his team, we join them in Asia. There Kirby and his team help set up a floundering base and eventually get involved in a special rescue mission. There is actually little fighting in the film. Instead of grand battles, we get small instances of swift firefights or artillery barrages. The film is overlong, however, and gets stuck in the mud with a lot of talking and sidetrack missions. In the end it’s not really a good action war movie, whatever the subject. Wayne doesn’t even appear to be his full-on self here. I imagine the battles he fought getting the picture made had caused him to be weary by the time he had to step in front of the camera.
“Put silver wings on my son’s chest. Make him one of America’s best. He’ll be a man they’ll test one day. Have him win the Green Beret.”
The movie does feature a rather impressive cast. Jim Hutton, yes that’s Timmy’s daddy, plays Petersen who is the team’s scrounger. Remember Klinger in MASH? This was Klinger before Klinger was Klinger, minus the dresses. He adopts a local Vietnamese boy who provides many of the films brighter moments and some of its saddest. David Jannsen plays George Beckworth, a reporter who is very much against the war. He joins the team “to see what’s really going on”. Obviously, he has his share of epiphany moments. The Duke’s son, Patrick, has a small role in the film and acts as one of the producers. Of special note are two rather iconic television stars. Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu in the person of George Takei and Barney Miller’s gambling addict detective Yemana in the person of the late Jack Soo each have reasonably crucial parts in the film.
The Green Berets is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with a VC-1 codec at an average 26 mbps. This is an older film and does not benefit a ton from the high definition treatment. Colors are soft, and everything has a rather drab feel to it. Of course, much of this is intended, but the jungle locations appear rather flat and not very high definition. The print has some serious wear issues as well. On the plus side, the film does have solid black levels and can at times look pretty stunning. There is plenty of detail to go around. The age of the film taken into consideration, the presentation looks about as good as it might have originally looked, albeit with a somewhat worn print.
The mono track is a complete letdown. Everything sounds muddied and very heavy in the mid ranges. Dialog is fine, but action scenes sound muffled. The score often warbles and sounds like it’s being produced inside a tomato can. There is nothing high def about this audio nightmare.
The Movie Makers – The Making Of The Green Berets: (7:11) SD More or less a vintage promo piece that merely offers a narrated hype for the picture’s release.
Whatever you might say or feel about John Wayne and the views you might feel you’ve gleaned from watching the movie, you should also remember that Wayne put his own life on the line to practice what he preached. He often volunteered to visit the troops in Vietnam, but he didn’t go to artificially safe zones for the cameras. Wayne insisted on being right there at the front and saw his share of action in the process. If anything at all, he earned the right to say what he wanted. After all we don’t live in the kind of place where, “due process is a bullet.”