John Wayne’s 1968 take on the Vietnam War sang the praises of U.S. Special Forces but was panned by critics.
John Wayne was drawn to the mystique of the elite U.S. Army Special Forces troops known as Green Berets when in the mid- 1960s he scoped out his next picture project. Knowing he would need the Pentagon’s cooperation in getting the movie made, he penned a prescient letter to President Lyndon Johnson in December 1965. “My father always told me that if you want to get anything done see the top man,” wrote Wayne.“We are fighting a war in Vietnam. Though I personally support the Administration’s policy there, I know it is not a popular war, and I think it is extremely important that not only the people of the United States but those all over the world should know why it is necessary for us to be there.”
The legendary actor laid out his plan: “Some day soon a motion picture will be made about Vietnam. Let’s make sure it is the kind of picture that will help our cause throughout the world. I believe my organization can do just that…I feel this picture can be extremely helpful to the Administration. Your assistance in getting us Defense Department cooperation will certainly expedite our project.”
Wayne had a long history as an anti-Communist, and a movie on the Green Berets in Vietnam seemed like a perfect fit. He had not served in World War II, though he requested that his classification be changed from 3A (head of family) to 1A. When he was finally reclassified as 1A in May 1944, his movie studio intervened, and against Wayne’s wishes got his classification changed to 2A (support of national interest). Family members said he always felt guilty about not serving, and that drove him to be so outspoken about the war in Vietnam.
The Special Forces enjoyed near-cult status in the 1960s.The best-selling 45 rpm single in 1966 was “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, a Special Forces medic who composed and sang it while recuperating from a nasty punji stick wound. And Robin Moore’s 1965 novel, The Green Berets, had been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.
President John F. Kennedy had championed Special Forces for their unique capabilities in the struggle against insurgencies and in global initiatives for freedom. In 1961 he authorized the green beret as the official headgear for U.S.Army Special Forces and sent his first Green Berets—or A-Teams—to South Vietnam to train its soldiers and loyal Montagnards in unconventional warfare tactics to counter the Viet Cong. In an April 11, 1962, White House memorandum to the U.S. Army, Kennedy wrote, “The Green Beret is again becoming a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”
John Wayne took his first step toward production of the picture in 1965, buying the film rights from author Moore. The path was cleared in early 1966, when President Johnson’s adviser, Jack Valenti, convinced LBJ to “give Wayne permission to make the film.”Valenti observed: “Wayne’s politics are wrong, but insofar as Vietnam is concerned, his views are right. If he made the picture he would be saying the things we want said.”
Wayne’s son Michael became the film’s producer, and in February 1966 he hired James Lee Barrett, an ex-Marine and scriptwriter, to draft the screenplay. The two Waynes and Barrett visited the Defense Department and Fort Bragg, N.C., to see where the Special Forces trained and to begin research. Michael made a deal with Universal Pictures to help finance and distribute the movie, contingent on Universal having script approval in advance.
In June, John Wayne departed on a three-week USO tour to Vietnam. He looked forward to visiting the troops, but he also planned to do some serious fact finding for the movie while there. The 59-year-old superstar’s excursion to the combat zone was met with cries of “Hooah!”from the troops.“We had just put an A-Team from A-323 on the ground at Trai Bi, Tay Ninh, and were taking sporadic fire on the perimeter,”recalled John Hyatt, a first lieutenant with the 281st Assault Helicopter Company, “and there goes The Duke out to join some of the team on the line. Helluva man.”
Upon his return to the United States, Wayne said, “Mostly I listened, watched and learned what their war was all about.” He sketched out a message he wanted his film to convey: “We want to show such scenes as the little village that has erected its own statue of liberty to the American people. We want to bring out that if we abandon these people, there will be a bloodbath of over two million souls. We want to show the professional soldier carrying out his duty of death, but also his extracurricular activities—helping small communities, giving them medical supplies, toys for their children, and little things like soap.”
Wayne based the movie loosely on Moore’s book, which had received good reviews, though it had angered Army officials.“The Green Berets has stirred a fuss in Washington,” wrote Hanson W. Baldwin in a New York Times book review. “The official objection…apparently is that it is too close to fact.” Moore had published the book as a work of fiction, but his descriptions of actual Green Beret forays into North Vietnam, along with other classified information, were nevertheless denied by the Pentagon.
It took John and Michael Wayne 18 months of rewrites before the Defense Department approved their script in March 1967. For location filming, the Pentagon suggested Fort Benning, Ga., where Hueys and other materiel would be available. The location also afforded the Army the opportunity to closely watch the production. Wayne’s production company submitted an eight-page list of required equipment, including jeeps, captured Viet Cong weapons, American rifles, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and cargo aircraft.
On April 15, 1967, more than 125,000 antiwar protesters demonstrated in midtown Manhattan, with similar protests sweeping the country. About the same time, just two months before shooting was to begin, Universal executives met with Wayne to inform him that the studio was backing out, citing budget and script problems. Realizing Universal was looking for a way out of the contract, Wayne walked out of the meeting, stating it was “business as usual in Hollywood. These suits tell me this is an unpopular war. Well, hell’s fire, can they tell me which war was popular?”
Wayne was left to fund and produce the movie on his own, until Warner Bros. agreed to partner with him. They demanded that he hire a co-director, and he chose both Ray Kellogg and Mervyn LeRoy, though Warner Bros. did not list LeRoy in the official credits.
Over the summer and fall of 1967, they created a film starring Wayne, David Janssen, Jim Hutton and Aldo Ray that tells the story of an American journalist, skeptical about the war in Vietnam, who is convinced by Special Forces commander Mike Kirby (Wayne) to join his unit on its way to Vietnam. Once there, journalist George Beckworth (Janssen) becomes a believer and patriot after observing the combat abilities and humanitarian actions of Colonel Kirby’s men. Beckworth also witnesses the Viet Cong’s brutality, especially during an attack on a Special Forces camp, which was based on the real battle of A Shau in 1966. The film depicts the Viet Cong as a capable yet merciless opponent, and gives a rare positive view of the South Vietnamese and their cooperation with U.S. forces.
The Pentagon made its equipment and personnel available to Wayne, billing his production company. According to George Carpozi’s The John Wayne Story, the film shoot at Fort Benning lasted 107 days at $45,000 per day,much of it for special effects explosions: 1,500 black powder bombs (six times what war movies to that point had typically used per film), more than a ton of dynamite, 70,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition and 18 stuntmen. Filming was finished in late 1967.
Released on July 4, 1968, The Green Berets received generally dismal reviews. Criticized for glorifying the war, the film spurred antiwar protests in New York, Los Angeles and other cities and campuses across the country. At the New York premiere, according to writer Bob Considine, 25 men from the Special Forces, guests of Robin Moore, were taunted by a group of“weirdies”protesting the picture.“Some of them proudly carried Viet Cong flags,” wrote Considine.“They were the hairiest and lousiest of the group of hecklers.”
Film critics objected to the movie’s portrayal of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese as sadistic, cruel torturers. But one Vietnam combat vet, Sergeant Del Monroe, responded, “Ask our guys who were POWs of the other side about their brutality to our guys.”
Roger Ebert gave the film no stars and called it“Cowboy and Indian idiotic.”The New York Times’ Renata Adler termed it “vile and insane,”“dull”and“false in every detail.” Philip Taylor of History Today judged it “the most blatantly propagandist contemporaneous American feature film made about the Vietnam War.”
Other critics lambasted Wayne for producing a piece of government-funded war propaganda. Wayne responded that his movie was “an American film about American boys who are/were heroes over there and was not government funded. We paid for what we used.”
Vietnam veterans mostly responded favorably to the film, with the caveat that it was a commercial motion picture, not a documentary, despite Wayne’s purposeful vision. “When I saw them actually filming at Fort Benning, what a lift,” said Special Forces Vietnam veteran Ken Kelsch, who is now a cinematographer.
“The Green Berets was filmed the John Wayne way,” said Charles Mohr in a New York Times review headlined “Green Berets movie will leave vets laughing.”The film was easily panned for showing unrealistic tactics.“Wayne has so many troops bunched up that one mortar round would wipe out the whole cast,”said one veteran.
In the end, hopes were dashed for any immediate positive public relations from the film. And bigger problems had gotten in the way of its success. The movie debuted six months after the Tet Offensive and just as rumors began to surface about the horrific My Lai Massacre. In a televised address on March 31, LBJ had told the American people that he wanted to talk to them about“peace in Vietnam,” announcing that the United States would immediately stop dropping bombs on North Vietnam. Then he dropped his own bomb—that he would not seek or accept the nomination of his party for another term as president.
Despite the negative political fallout from the war, poor reviews and charges of propaganda, the film did well commercially, earning nearly $12 million and prompting Wayne to speak out about the validity of movie critiques. In fact, he attributed the film’s success in part to the dismissive reviews, stating the “ridiculously one-sided, blind, stupid criticism of our picture made real people more conscious of how honest we were.” He also believed the critiques reflected the reviewers’ thoughts on the war, not on the film. “Our men and women are over there fighting for American ideals,” Wayne had told reporters just before the film’s opening,“and trying to bring freedom to some deserving people who have not known much freedom for many years. I know this because I was over there and saw that combat going on personally. How many of you can say that?”
Whether loved or ridiculed, The Green Berets stands as the only major film to support the war effort in Vietnam. It glorified the Special Forces for their training and fighting alongside the South Vietnamese and gave them credit for doing a job most Americans shied away from, which was Wayne’s goal from the beginning. “Ever since we became a nation we’ve been telling oppressed people to ‘Stand up for your rights and we’ll back ya’ up,’”said Wayne.“It’s about damn time we kept our word. That’s what Vietnam’s really about.”
Army veteran J. David Truby, a former editor for National News Service, was a founder of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Department of Journalism and has authored more than 30 books.
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.