Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Reviews That Time Forgot: The Green Berets (1968)

In which John Wayne wins Disney Vietnam and walks heroically into a sunset on the wrong horizon.

From the New York Times:
The Green Berets (1968)
Screen: 'Green Berets' as Viewed by John Wayne:War Movie Arrives at the Warner Theater

Published: June 20, 1968

"THE GREEN BERETS" is a film so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail that it passes through being fun, through being funny, through being camp, through everything and becomes an invitation to grieve, not for our soldiers or for Vietnam (the film could not be more false or do a greater disservice to either of them) but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus in this country. Simplicities of the right, simplicities of the left, but this one is beyond the possible. It is vile and insane. On top of that, it is dull.

The film, directed by John Wayne and nominally based on a novel by Robin Moore, has no hero. It is vaguely about some Green Berets, led by John Wayne, trying to persuade Wayne's idea of a liberal journalist (David Janssen) that this war is a fine thing for Vietnam and for America. The movie has human props taken from every war film ever made: a parachute jump; an idea of Vietcong soldiers, in luxury, uniform, champagne and caviar, apparently based on the German high command; a little Asian orphan named Hamchunk, pronounced Hamchuck but more like Upchuck than anything; battle scenes somewhere between "The Red Badge of Courage" and "The Dirty Dozen"; a pathetically dying dog.

There is inadvertent humor: "He's dying," a Negro medic says, thoughtfully spooning Jim Beam bourbon down the throat of an elderly Oriental. "Poor old thing can't even keep his rice down any more." What is clearly an Indian extra in a loincloth somehow straggles in among the montagnards. A Vietcong general is dragged from a bed of sin (which, through an indescribable inanity of the plot, the Green Berets have contrived for him) with his trousers on. He is subsequently drugged and yanked off into the sky on a string dangling from a helicopter. A Green Beret points out to the journalist some American-made punji sticks (the movie is obsessed with punji sticks): "Yup," the Green Beret says, "it's a little trick we learned from Charlie. But we don't dip them in the same stuff he does."

What the movie is into is another thing entirely. What is sick, what is an outrage and a travesty is that while it is meant to be an argument against war opposition—while it keeps reiterating its own line at every step, much as soap operas keep recapitulating their plots—it seems so totally impervious to any of the questions that it raises. It is so full of its own caricature of patriotism that it cannot even find the right things to falsify. No acting, no direction, no writing, no authenticity, of course. But it is worse. It is completely incommunicado, out of touch. It trips something that would outrage any human sensibility, like mines, at every step and staggers on.

The first Green Beret comes on speaking German, to show his versatility in languages. When the VC have just been sprayed with flames, a Green Beret is asked about his apparent affinity for this kind of thing. "When I was a kid," he says modestly, "my dad gave me a chemistry set. And it got bigger than both of us." When the VC, nonetheless, win the Special Forces camp in hand-to-hand combat, a soldier calls in air support. "It'll only take a minute," he says, like a dentist, as the VC are mowed down from the air. The journalist, "the former skeptic about the war," the press kit synopsis chooses to say at this point, "leaves to write about the heroic exploits of the American and South Vietnamese forces."

The point is that Wayne is using spoken German, lunatic chemistry sets, machine killing of men who have won fairly hand-to-hand, without apparently noticing that this is not exactly the stuff of which heroic fantasies are made. This is crazy. If the left-wing extremist's nightmare of what we already are has become the right-wing extremist's ideal of what we ought to be we are in steeper trouble than anyone could have imagined.


Ivory Bill Woodpecker said...

The main thing I know about TGB is that it was a big break for Walter Koenig.

George Takei spent much of Trek's 2nd season off filming TGB, so many of Sulu's places in that season's Trek plots were re-written for Chekov.

dinthebeast said...

"If the left-wing extremist's nightmare of what we already are has become the right-wing extremist's ideal of what we ought to be we are in steeper trouble than anyone could have imagined."

We were. Five months later Richard Nixon was elected.

-Doug in Oakland

William said...

Zero Duke Thirty

Kevin Holsinger said...

Good morning, Mr. Glass.

1. So "An American Carol," 40 years earlier.
2. Given that I was born in 1978, I must ask, what's with the occasional references to "the left" in this review? Because to me these references almost sound like some sort of prequel to "Both Sides".

Enjoy your day.

---Kevin Holsinger

Kathleen O'Neill said...

What strikes me is the critic's blunt, straightforward thrashing of the film. Are critics that candid today? Also, I keep forgetting how deep the divides were in this country during the 60's.

John Hall said...

When you have a film career where you are always playing a character with a gun, everyone looks like a Pilgrim...Pilgrim.

MedicineMan55 said...

The last sentence of that review is fucking prophetic.

Neo Tuxedo said...

I wonder if, three years later, a certain Doctor of Journalism had this review in mind when he wrote his John Wayne/Hammerhead piece:

The brainwaves of "The Duke" are like those of the Hammerhead Shark - a beast so stupid and irrationally vicious that scientists have abandoned all hope of dealing with it, except as an unexplainable "throwback." The Hammerhead, they say is no different today than he was in One Million B.C. He is a ruthless, stupid beast with only one instinct - to attack, to hurt & cripple & kill.

[N]ot one of these blood-hungry Hammerhead scumbags will ever be nailed to the final whipsaw judgement they all deserve.

Not because of what they did. But because they did it in the name of a Dream & a Human Possibility that was fragile from the start, but strong enough to survive almost every abuse and cruel failure that human beings were capable of . . .

. . . except the Hammerhead Ethic, and the beasts who rode it to power. These were the swine who found their model in a brutal freak like John Wayne.

Ivory Bill Woodpecker said...

My father, may he rest in peace in Raspberry Heaven, was a fairly conventional moderate conservative in most of his worldview.

However, he despised John Wayne, considered him a draft dodger, and generally thought the Duke's macho routine was as phony as a $3 bill.

I suspect Dad and HST might have gotten along surprisingly well, had they ever met.

bowtiejack said...

OK, here's the way it works.
In WWII, every adult male got a draft classification. If you were 1A, top classification, you were going to be drafted at some point. John Wayne was classified 1A, got the studio to get hime deferred to 2A status, was later reclassified again as 1A and got himself deferred again back to 2A, this time for the for the rest of the war.
There's a term for that, it's called "draft dodging".

marindenver said...

See, I actually thought that we LEARNED something from the clusterfuck that was the Vietnam War. I actually thought that we'd never get ourselves mired in something like that again and because of that we wouldn't invade Iraq. I totally underestimated the extent of Shrub's daddy issues.

Ivory Bill Woodpecker said...

I reckon the neocons thought the only reason we lost the Vietnam War was that the other superpower was backing the NVA, so we couldn't go all-out.

Since no other superpower was backing Iraq, and the Iraqi army had fought so badly in the 1991 war, we could enjoy a "cakewalk" this time--and get our hands on all that lovely petroleum, which I suspect was more important than anyone's daddy issues.

Of course, as usual, the neocons were wrong.

It turned out Iraqis fight one hell of a lot harder when they're fighting for people and things they love, rather than a dictator's ambitions. You know, like any other human beings.

Also, of course, as usual, the neocons were not dismissed from power for their blunders--for as our Fearless Leader often reminds us, THERE IS A CLUB.

stickler said...

I missed that one: it was not showing at the Nha Trang cineplex in 1968 when I was there.

Mike Lumish said...

@marindenver I had the same dream, that we would in the future be wise enough to avoid stupid wars, but as early as the late seventies it was clear that the military (in conjunction with the Republicans (who were at that time not yet bugfuck insane) and the right Democrats) had a long term plan to wean the People away from their squeamishness over war. First they rebuilt, then they ran small successful operations (with Grenada puffed up to hide the embarrassment of Beruit), then they ran Panama and Iraq I to demonstrate that we always win fast and cheap and bloodlessly - for our side, at least. They died by the thousand, but that was all part of the fun. The stupid part is that Bush and the neocons actually bought into their own lie, which is the first step on the road to disaster.

Ivory Bill Woodpecker said...

"The stupid part is that Bush and the neocons actually bought into their own lie, which is the first step on the road to disaster."--ML

Indeed. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Axis Powers of WW2 was that many of their political and military leaders started believing their own propaganda that they had the Biggest Cocks Ever To Swing From Primate Crotches, and they could overcome all material disadvantages through the sheer power of their oceans of testosterone.

Of course, the following things helped to feed that delusion:

(1) In 1940, most of the French and British generals did not know how to use tanks. France had a greater quantity and quality of tanks than Germany, but the French tanks were dispersed as fire support for infantry units, rather than gathered together as "iron cavalry", which is how the Germans used them.

(2) In 1941, Stalin foolishly crowded many of his troops and aircraft near the Soviet border, in reach of one of the patented German blitzkriegs, instead of keeping the bulk of his forces back out of range of a first strike.

(3) Also in 1941, our commanders did not take the idea of a Pearl Harbor raid seriously enough, partially because air-dropped torpedoes required a certain depth of water not to bury themselves in the mud below, and PH was thought to be too shallow. The Japanese got around that problem by attaching balsa-wood frames to the rears of the torpedoes, which lightened them and slowed their falls just enough to prevent most of them from burying themselves. (I say most, because IIRC, there are still a few torpedoes which DID bury themselves in the mud of PH, and are still lying there--yikes!)

To sum it up, cheap early victories due to enemy blunders, coupled with the basic arrogance inherent to fascism, gave enough of the Axis leaders a severe enough case of overconfidence to doom them, even faster than their basic and drastic material disadvantages would have doomed them alone.

Ivory Bill Woodpecker said...

I forgot to mention that Stalin's purges, just a few years earlier, had slaughtered much of his officer corps, and left the survivors scared to make any decisions without approval from on high, which inhibited their efficiency.

Really, the Soviet Union won its end of the war (once Hitler attacked, the USSR bore the bulk of the war effort against Nazism), more in spite of Uncle Joe's "brilliant" leadership than because of it.

Batocchio said...

The great comic book series The 'Nam had a memorable critique of the film and all its ludicrous elements.