The Greatest Conservative Films: The Green Berets (1968)
“‘Let them handle it,’ Mr. Beckworth? Captured weaponry: From Red China—Chi-Com K-50. Chinese Communists. SKS Soviet-made Carbine. Russian Communists. Ammunition? Czechoslovakian-made. Czech Communists. No sir, Mr. Beckworth. It doesn’t take a lead weight to fall on me, or a hit from one of those weapons, to recognize that what’s involved here is Communist domination of the world.”
In the general category of “underrated films”, there’s a tragic subset of “misremembered”. The Green Berets is such a film.
Really: Whenever this movie’s discussed, what do we hear (or read)? “Oh, that’s the pro-Vietnam-War film John Wayne did.” Any discussion’s centered on “John Wayne made a pro-Vietnam-War film, and so-and-so didn’t want to take part in it, or so-and-so did take part in it despite disagreeing about the war”…and that’s pretty much it. At best, it’s shrugged off and dismissed. At worst, it’s scoffed at and condemned.
I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of people who talk or write about The Green Berets haven’t even seen it. Or if they have, it was a long time ago. Maybe some of them are just so connected to their own presuppositions about Vietnam that they let that cloud their judgment—and conveniently overlook the fact that the movie’s so much more….
The great Roger Ebert reviewed this film way early in his career…and hated it. His review says something about how the movie’s portrayal of our troops in Vietnam as “heroes” insulted them…somehow…. Needless to say, Ebert probably hadn’t set his One Rule of critiquing “message movies”* just yet, at the time….
Regardless, that war’s long over—and we’re long able to take a step back and evaluate a film for what it is. And so, dear readers, a film some of you may have been eagerly expecting would be on this list. For The Green Berets is indeed a Conservative film…and as it turns out, a great one.
Usually, classic films don’t need “spoiler warnings”, because we all pretty much know what happens in them—whether we’ve seen them or not. (Quick: What’s “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane all about? Half of you may know that one—maybe Family Guy helped out…?) But as I said, this one’s underrated. So…you’ve been warned.
WHY IT’S A CONSERVATIVE FILM:
Well, there’s the obvious, naturally.
A Different Take On ‘Nam:
The Green Berets was actually the first major Vietnam film to ever come out of Hollywood—and about the only one to come out while the war was still going on. Certainly the only one that anyone remembers.**
Why’s that last fact important? Well…as John Nolte pointed out in his classic “25 Greatest Left-Wing Films” series, all the classic Vietnam War flicks that critiqued or condemned the war came out after the war had already ended. As Nolte notes, that stands in direct contrast to the long string of anti-Iraq films made during that war—some of which (e.g. Redacted—by all accounts the great Brian De Palma’s worst film) even got used for Al-Qaeda propaganda!
Basically, that sort of behavior from Hollywood puts troops in danger. So at least, Nolte added, the anti-Vietnam types waited until their films wouldn’t do that.
Meanwhile, the one Vietnam War film to speak of made during the war didn’t stand in opposition. In fact, just the opposite: It provided, no later than the film’s beginning, a verbal defense of exactly why we’re over there:
I admit, the scene’s a bit of a “message dump.” However, to be fair to the film, through the reporters, it addresses all the basic arguments (when they were actually cogent—there’s no “baby-killer” nonsense, here) against the war: the South Vietnamese didn’t necessarily need/want us; Saigon didn’t have a set Constitution or elected government just yet; and besides it’s an internal affair—isn’t it?
John Wayne directed this film with a specific purpose in mind: To provide an alternative perspective on Vietnam to the negative general narrative sensationalized by the press. To The Duke, the whole reason why the war was being fought was lost in all the noise—and he was going to remind people of that reason.
The Press’s Culpability:
Amid the wartime events of the film, and the following of Colonel Mike Kirby’s squadron, perhaps the key arc of The Green Beret involves George Beckworth, the reporter most firm in his critiques of the war in the beginning. Kirby finally dares him to go over to Vietnam himself so he can have a good idea what he’s even talking about. And to his considerable credit, Beckworth dares Kirby right back to let him accompany Kirby’s squad of Special Forces. Beckworth openly wonders if Kirby’s afraid that Beckworth will see something….
Well, he does see and hear things—particularly, a terrible series of atrocities committed by the Viet Cong, culminating in the devastation and desecration of a civilian village before its inhabitants could seek haven at the American base. Bit by bit, we see his resolve crumbling, before humbly admitting that he’d far too often jumped to conclusions about the war.
Alas, he’s just one man. As he notes to Kirby, he fears the media in general is too far gone in America—not that he’s quitting:
“What are you gonna say in that newspaper of yours?
“Well, if I say what I feel, I may be out of a job.”
“We’ll always give you one.”
“Oh, I could do you more good with a typewriter.”
As far as The Duke was concerned, the press bore a lot of culpability for all the misconceptions about Vietnam, for the simple reason that they talked about things they knew nothing about. Or worse, they didn’t see what they didn’t want to see.
Tragic, how little has changed.
Still, Beckworth’s arc shows a bit of hope: Perhaps some in the MSM can be redeemed, opening their eyes to their own biases and limitations.
They just need to be open to it.
After a particularly precise strike by the VC, Nim strongly suspects to Kirby that there must be a spy within their midst. Sergant Muldoon notices suspicious behavior among one of Nim’s men the next day, bringing him in. While at first Nim’s skeptical, a clue found among the man’s person—a lighter belonging to an American soldier killed and dismembered by the VC—proves all. An enraged Nim—held back by Kirby from throttling the man himself—orders the spy’s interrogation.
Beckworth’s disgusted by this, confronting Kirby:
“Is that what you do? Sponsor an inquisition over here?”
“Is that what you’re gonna tell the people?”
“I’m gonna tell the people the facts—the facts of what I saw!”
“What you saw in there was nothing!”
“I don’t call brutality ‘nothing’, Colonel—!”
“That man was lining us up for a VC mortar crew.”
“Yeah, well there’s still such a thing as due process—”
“Out here, due process is a bullet.”
A firm, clear acknowledgment of the dark things that had to be done—with the firm, clear statement that they had to be done.
The Green Berets is often accused of simply being a WWII film set in Vietnam—black-and-white in its outlook, treating the gray areas of Vietnam as nonexistent. If this sequence is any indication, nothing’s further from the truth. It’s just argued that those gray areas needed to be traveled. Against an enemy as ruthless and shady as the VC, nothing less would do.
The Evil Of The Viet Cong:
The Green Berets isn’t the only film to address this. Apocalypse Now, recall, had Marlon Brando reflect on how the VC had attacked a village and hacked off the arms of children that Kurtz’s team had just inoculated for polio. The Deer Hunter emphasized the wide range of atrocities committed by the North against POWs.
Still, the examples in this film bear emphasis. We see a village desecrated, its chief tortured to death—and a little girl our Doc McGee had just tended to “taken away” to be done away with. Soon after, Beckworth’s told that when the VC will soon attack the installation…they won’t intend to leave anyone alive:
“Women…. And children.”
“Charlie” terrorized the South, instilling fear in whatever village might seek or receive help from us. And all the while, LBJ and the Left tied the hands of our boys, never daring to admit they were just prolonging the war…dooming us to what increasingly resembled failure.
A dire word of warning for the War on Terror, today. While we worry about “looking bad” or “going too far”, the enemy has no such qualms—going the extra mile to be cruel and monstrous.
There’s a reason they’re called “terrorists”, after all. And that’s what the VC were: terrorists—not caring about “rules of war”, using any shady method they could.
The movie makes no bones about it.
In The End:
Is The Green Berets “simplistic propaganda”, as has often been accused? I don’t know. Was Coming Home, etc., propaganda for why the (now-concluded) war was wrong? Frankly, The Green Beret is no more simplistic than them.
I’d say even less so.
For Bonus Points:
During his introduction, Captain Nim notes that his home was in Hanoi—which, as most of us know, was the site of the notorious POW camp where those on our side were tortured and defiled relentlessly. John McCain, of course, was held there.
Nim’s noticeably grieved by the fact that Hanoi’s in Communist hands—and filled with resolve to destroy the VC, so he can go home:
WHY IT’S A GREAT FILM:
The Green Berets is one of three films that John Wayne actually directed. Well, two-and-a-half, I suppose—The Comancheros was initially directed by Michael Curtiz (he of Casablanca, the true Greatest Movie Ever Made), but Curtiz fell seriously ill (and soon died), and The Duke took the reins and finished production. Then, Wayne went on to direct The Alamo, another underrated classic—one he risked his fortune to see through.
Wayne had a production company of his own—Batjac, where many of his latter-day films came from. But he typically limited his role behind the camera to producer. He only took the director’s chair when he had a solid motivation to. As such, we can pretty much infer how much it meant to him, making a film like The Green Berets.
He felt he owed it to the boys in uniform—those who did what he never could (though as I noted elsewhere, not for lack of trying)—to build them up a bit, when the rest of the culture seemed bent on tearing them down.
That’s what Ebert and the other critics, bless their hearts, could never understand. The Green Berets wasn’t a “simplistic” puff piece. It was an attempt to provide some balance—a firm raising of the hand to point out, to invoke Paul Harvey, the rest of the story.
And he did a darn good job of it.
Reading and hearing all the stuff that’s been said about this film, you’d probably think it was just a “fun”, rah-rah action flick where the heroes ride high and let nothing get them down.
The truth is, we see a lot of the hardships the soldiers go through—and the civilians, too. Throughout, there’s a constant reminder of the death toll. Amid the defense of our fighting the war…there’s still a firm acknowledgment that it doesn’t come without a cost—in so many ways:
Throughout the action, and the derring-do of the last act as the Berets set out to capture the VC Chief of Operations in the South, there’s still pathos, throughout—sad acknowledgments, not only of death, but of things that have to be done. Lin, a lovely young Vietnamese woman whose lost family to the VC, eagerly joins in the effort to get some kind of revenge…but to do so, she has to compromise her own dignity and seduce the man she most despises in all the world. The arc she goes through doesn’t have many scenes, but it’s enough to have an impact, all its own.
And there’s also Sergeant Peterson forming a charming bond with an orphan boy—and the boy calling for him, in the final sequence…struggling not to realize that it’s to no avail. Kirby can only help so much.
Further, as we come to grasp the full depths the VC proves willing to sink, it makes it all too clear how our heroes have to go all the way—and accept whatever sacrifices may come.
Yes, there is fun to be had, in this film. Particularly the trickster antics of Peterson—driving Muldoon nuts. There’s almost a Bugs Bunny quality to him. Although…it’s not enough to keep him from being discovered by Col. Kirby and crew, in his intro:
There’s wit galore, as one can always expect of John Wayne. A running gag about naming things after fallen heroes (and how most of the monikers don’t “sing”) has a priceless payoff. Hamchunk and Sgt. Peterson have their moments—as does Sgt. Muldoon, finding himself the straight man to Peterson too often for Muldoon’s comfort. And a village chief’s bewilderment over a certain concept—and the reaction to it—is worth quite a snicker.
The best part is, the comedy and the drama don’t fight each other—there’s a time for one, and a time for the other.
Far too often, we look back at the action scenes of older films and find they don’t quite hold up—too distant, too cold for today’s audiences to feel much.
Not if The Duke had anything to say about it. The nighttime VC attacks on the installation are absolutely harrowing in their editing and pacing, as we realize that anything could happen to these characters.
Besides…audiences had seen John Wayne die in enough movies so that, when Kirby’s Huey gets hit, we genuinely fear he just might not make it.
And with Capt. Nim’s sacrifice, it’s solidified that anyone could die in this film. And this injects even more tension in the final act—the covert op—as we wonder just who will survive, and who won’t.
John Wayne, of course, plays Col. Kirby—weather-beaten, a bit worn out by the all the tolls of war and life, but still keeping his wit—and his grit, leading all around him. In other words…John Wayne. But he plays it well—and we see the pain when the toll increases, the sadness:
“Yeah…. All the way.”
George Takei—yes, Sulu of the original Star Trek—plays Capt. Nim. And though, as his intro begins, we wonder if he’ll just be glorified window dressing…we soon see a flesh-and-blood character shine through. We see his rage at the VC—particularly when interrogating a traitor in his ranks. And we see an intellect, figuring out certain facts vital to the plot. He’s a subordinate only in rank—and it’s clear Col. Kirby respects him—and what’s more, that Nim’s earned that respect.
Veteran actor Aldo Ray (yes, he was the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino coining Brad Pitt’s Inglourious hero “Lt. Aldo Raine”) brings both toughness and endearing awkwardness to Sgt. Muldoon. Jim Hutton brings a boyish nice-guy element to con-man Sgt. Peterson, so we can believe his opening up to that kid. Raymond St. Jacques brings a humorous warmth to Doc McGee, especially as he tends to the kids from a nearby village.
Jack Soo and Irene Tsu play Col. Kai and Lin—two “Southerners” fighting the war in their own ways, Col. Kai as a soldier, Lin as a spy. All while fighting their own demons—and vulnerabilities coming out over the course of the final act.
David Janssen plays reporter George Beckworth—the observer, watching and commenting, thinking…reacting to all going on around him. All the while, we see his struggling with whether he was wrong, all along.
By The Way…
Understandably, the politics of the film caused some tensions, especially during pre-production. Wayne originally wanted Elmer Bernstein to score the film, but Bernstein declined as he didn’t support the war. Interestingly, Elmer was later surprised when The Duke called him up to score another film—he’d feared that Wayne wouldn’t want to work with him again. Of course, Wayne was above that sort of thing.
That was why he insisted George Takei take the role of Capt. Nim—even though George was against the war, himself. Wayne noted to him that their political differences mattered a heck of a lot less than George being the absolute best guy for the job. Touched, George took the role.
Incidentally, the shooting schedule for The Green Berets happened during the second season of Star Trek. The show-runners took advantage of that to put the new character of Chekov into the limelight—supposedly giving him lines originally meant for Sulu. Takei became, well, concerned—but he got over it rather quickly after striking a friendship with Walter Koenig (Chekov).
*(Basically, Ebert’s rule for “message movies”, as he often explained, goes “Don’t judge a ‘message movie’ by what the message is, but by how well or badly the message is delivered.” A movie can have the best message in the world, and still be a mess—see: far too many Christian-studio films. By contrast, a movie can have an awful, disgusting, evil message and still be a beautifully-made masterpiece—see: Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation.)
**(Apparently there were a couple of minor flicks that nobody saw, which Ebert described as neutral on the war.)
Buy the film here. And stay film-friendly, my friends.
THE SERIES SO FAR:
Rio Bravo (1959)
Man of Steel (2013)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Fight Club (1999)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Jackie Brown (1997)
Apocalypse Now (1979/2001)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Dirty Harry (1971)
Magnum Force (1973)
The Enforcer (1976)
Bridge Of Spies (2015)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Any recommendations for films to make this series? Read the rules, here, and let us know!
Eric was raised by Conservative Christian parents, but first became especially passionate about politics in high school, through reading up on economic theory. He also first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged around this time, for the ARI's essay contests. He now owns a great deal of Ayn Rand's work. Also included in his library are the collected works of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, etc.
Eric is no stranger to writing commentary, as the writer of the Conservative Considerations column on CampCampaign.com, and as a film critic and commentator on FlickRev.com. He has also carried on the Conservative tradition of talk radio commentary, as the host of "Avengers of America" for the USF student radio station, Bulls Radio. In the meantime, he is practicing what he preaches: Striving to enter the professional realm of Hollywood, he has already written and directed short films for the Campus MovieFest, which can be found on his YouTube channel, Hard Boiled Entertainment.
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