Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Green Berets

When I reviewed The Train last month, I realized that it was the first war movie I had watched in about a year.  I decided to amend my unbalanced film diet by filling up my Instant Queue with war movies and gathering my own collection of classic war DVDs together.  Despite the intention of going ahead and watching some of the true genre classics, I hit a snag: I really wasn't in the mood for a classic war movie.  I did, however, manage to watch The Green Berets.  Why did I opt to watch this one over, say, The Thin Red Line?  I'm not sure.  Maybe because I had never seen John Wayne outside of a Western?  Maybe because I have heard such strong opinions about the film, both for and against?  Or maybe I just didn't feel like watching a three-hour long film that would make me think.  Whatever my reasons were, in retrospect, I think they weren't good enough.

Green Beret Colonel Mike Kirby (John Wayne) is in Fort Bragg, preparing to ship out for another tour of Vietnam.  As he's preparing and selecting the men for his Special Forces unit, a tour is being conducted through the base for civilian reporters.  When the tour stops for a little Question-and-Answer session with some Green Berets, the (stinkin' liberal) reporters fire both proverbial barrels at the nice Green Berets.  Why is the US fighting another nation's war?  Why do we support a country with no constitution?  Why can't we let the South Vietnamese handle their own problems?  To answer, the Green Berets dump a bunch of weapons in front of the reporting crowd, proof that the Viet Cong are getting their weaponry from Czechoslovakia, China, and Russia --- all dirty Communist countries!  Well, I suppose it's proof, since we're kind of taking their word that A) the weapons really are from those countries and B) that the weapons really were captured in Vietnam.  But let's not open that door, because this movie is already over two hours long.  One reporter, George Beckworth (David Janssen), still isn't convinced that Vietnam is a necessary war for the US, and he tells Col. Kirby so; Kirby simply asks if Beckworth has seen the war firsthand, and dismisses him with contempt when Beckworth admits that he hasn't.  After that opening salvo, the film breaks up into two acts.  The first has Beckworth accompanying Kirby's team to Vietnam.  Will Beckworth learn the error of his ways?  Is changing the mind of a reporter really the point of this film?  The second act has Kirby and his men on a mission to kidnap a Viet Cong commander, who lives in splendor at the expense of the neighboring communities.  But at what cost?
Please tell me that George Takei's hat survives!

The acting in The Green Berets is about what you might expect from a war movie; many actors play small parts, and they are all suitably brave.  Jim Hutton provides the comic relief and the emotional weight in this story; he's not very good at either.  Aldo Ray plays Col. Kirby's right hand, and I think he did a pretty good job as a gung-ho soldier --- exasperation and deep emotions were beyond him, but I thought he fit the tone of the script very well.
Guess the emotion: constipation or mourning?
There are a few other recognizable supporting actors --- Bruce Cabot and son of the Duke Patrick Wayne --- but they play fairly interchangeable military guys.  It is interesting that Japanese-American actors Jack Soo and George Takei were the face of the South Vietnamese forces; while I thought both actors were decent enough, their casting struck me as a little odd (more on that later).  Of course, being a John Wayne movie, John Wayne is the main actor.  He was as traditionally John Wayne-y as you might expect.  He's too old to actually partake in any action scenes, but he is still pretty damn macho.  David Janssen's performance as the mean liberal reporter was decent, but his character was unintentionally hilarious.

John Wayne and special effects man Ray Kellogg share credit for directing The Green Berets, although it doesn't seem to be a secret that Mervyn LeRoy gave some uncredited help.  I'm not sure how I feel about the direction in this movie.  It is certainly not outstanding; the cinematography and the acting are nothing special.  This is a mostly competent directorial effort, I suppose, in the fact that this movie fits the style and tone of most war movies that had preceded it for the past two decades.  There are some critical problems, though, with the biggest being how incomprehensible the big battle scene at the fort is.  Let's just ignore how abruptly it switches from night to day and focus on the battle narrative itself; if it wasn't for the actors shouting "Fall back!" I would have never known that they were being overwhelmed by the Viet Cong.  That's a problem.
"Um...fall back!  We've got VC somewhere in the vicinity of this scene!"

Personally, I don't have much of a problem with The Green Berets being a pro-Vietnam War propaganda piece.  I don't agree with it, but I'm willing to listen.  It is worth noting that this is one of the few Vietnam War movies that casts the South Vietnamese army in a positive light.  It is also the only film about 'Nam I have seen that has no shades of grey; the soldiers are all heroes, happy to fight the enemy their government has assigned them, while the enemy are savage monsters that prey on the weak.  Why wouldn't America want in on a fight like that?  Right...?  After all, this is the only film that was made about Vietnam while the war was still in progress; if any movie sets the record straight about how the war really was, it should be The Green Berets.
"I think it's time to win this war.  Set phasers to 'boomsplosion'"

And yet, it is not.  You can begin to pick away at the problems with The Green Berets early and often.  I'm pretty sure Vietnam has jungles, or at least tropical plants.  This film has pine trees and the actors don't appear to be sweating at all.  The film wants so badly to show this war in a patriotic light, but it undercuts itself frequently.  For example, if the filmmakers wanted to make the South Vietnamese forces more credible, they should have cast Vietnamese actors; casting two actors of Japanese heritage seems to imply that the American audience won't care which Asian people they are supposed to root for.  And did they have to name the child character "Ham Chuck"?  If you ever wished you could see a really offensive version of Short Round, just watch a few of Ham Chuck's scenes.  Ugh.  The production values aren't great, either.  There is a helicopter crash (which everyone survived) that clearly showed a model chopper on fire.  The film's score insults the intelligence of the viewer, too.  If you're not sure whether you are supposed to be laughing, frowning, or feeling patriotic, don't worry --- The Green Berets provides musical cues, so you don't have to think!

The biggest problem with The Green Berets is not that it is a blatant and heavy-handed pro-war propaganda piece.  No, the problem is that it takes an issue that was famously complicated and uses machismo and patriotism to make its point.  If you question the message, then you are a coward who hates brave soldiers that are risking their lives.  That sort of rhetoric just pisses me off.  This could have been the film that John Wayne clearly wanted it to be --- a film that showed how brave American soldiers are and how important the fight against international Communism is.  Instead, he just takes cheap shots at civilian critics and dehumanizes the Viet Cong.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Wayne, that I doubted the usefulness of this conflict."

I could have handled The Green Berets if it ended when the reporter changed his attitude about the war (oh, I'm sorry...SPOILER) and claimed that he would lose his job if he tried to publish pro-war news articles.  Never mind that the comedy relief included in the film isn't even wah-wah worthy, or that American soldiers don't die in battle.  The first half is quaint and purposefully anachronistic, but it's somewhat decent at what it wants to do.  The second act is completely unnecessary and just stretches the story out past the point where anyone could possibly care about these bland characters.  It's all capped off by one of the biggest bullshit closing lines of all time.  On the one hand, I admire The Green Berets for going balls to the wall with its patriotic premise.  On the other hand, I hate being insulted by a bad movie.

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