The 1968 film The Green Berets, starring and co-directed by John Wayne, presents a very pro-American and jingoistic view of the Vietnam War, sugarcoating the more violent and abhorrent aspects of the US Army’s activities during the war in favor of a more benevolent, patriotic mindset. The film follows Colonel Mike Kirby, leader of a Green Beret Unit, as he fights in South Vietnam and defends his men against actions taken by the North Vietnamese. In this essay, several aspects of the film will be critiqued, comparing the viewpoint explored in the film with the truth of US Army actions during the way.
The biggest piece of evidence towards the film being a propaganda piece is its direct confrontation of the negative press that had built up around the Vietnam War in the character of Beckworth. In the beginning of the film, Beckworth is the stereotypical skeptical reporter, the audience’s represenatative for those who doubt the validity of America’s involvement in Vietnam. From the beginning, when Muldoon (Aldo Ray) explains the reasons for entering the war, and the weaponry the Viet Cong have at their disposal, America joining in is painted as absolutely necessary, and even extremely welcomed by the South Vietnamese. When Beckworth protests, challenging these facts, Kirby asks him if he has been there. Beckworth’s admission of never having gone to Vietnam is supposedly evidence of the invalidity of his opinion, as it shames him to the point where he feels it necessary to go there.
Beckworth is conveniently missing for the film’s climax, where the majority of the action takes place. This leaves him out of the action until the very end, where it is presumed he has changed his opinions about Vietnam, and will come back with a greater appreciation for American troops. This is also exacerbated by Kirby’s story to Beckworth about the atrocities the Viet Cong inflicted on a South Vietnamese village, adding that “it’s difficult to talk about the place unless you’ve been there.” While this is evidence of Wayne’s overall intention (to pay homage to the troops, not necessarily the war), it is a clear answer to the critics of the war itself, implying that, unless you have actually been there, you have no right to your opinion of the conflict.
The film presents a fairly black-and-white portrayal of the US reasons for entering the Vietnam War, equating the civil war in Vietnam with a potential invasion of America in the beginning. “They need us, Ms. Sutton,” says one soldier in the beginning, “and they want us.” The characters of Captain Nim (George Takei) and Ham Chuck are emphatic examples of friendly South Vietnamese figures, both presented as stereotypical but sympathetic figures, who have the respect of the all-American troops who are there to free their homes. In fact, many on both sides of the conflict did not want the Americans there, because they would escalate the conflict, and certainly some South Vietnamese resisted the involvement of a foreign country in their own civil war, despite the assistance they received.
The Green Berets (and the US military as a whole) is presented as a benevolent force for good in Vietnam. The film conveniently whitewashes the atrocities that the American armed forces had inflicted on both North and South Vietnamese alike, and the reasons for going into the war were glorified. It offers a very old-fashioned, traditional view of war, more familiar in World War II movies, than the gritty realism and guerilla warfare of the Vietnam War would indicate. Instead of mud, rain and trenches, the base camp is in wide open space, in bright Technicolor, and everyone jokes around with each other, particularly Ham Chuck.
The Viet Cong are presented as a band of murderous savages, particularly when a VC wanders into their camp and brought in for questioning; a clear distinction is made between ‘good Vietnamese’ and ‘bad Vietnamese,’ when the alliance was far shakier. The Americans are seen giving things to the innocent South Vietnamese, the only real hesitation seen in the village chief who just wants to talk to Kirby, refusing requests to come into the base. Otherwise, the film paints a very broad picture of the American forces freeing the South Vietnamese from the animalistic atrocities of the Viet Cong.
Warfare in this film is presented in a very straightforward, close-distance manner, when in reality it was much more enclosed and chaotic. The climax of the film (in which the Green Berets attempt to kidnap an NVA general), is full of very generic, ordered, bloodless combat, unlike the brutality and animalistic warfare indicative of the real Vietnam War. The general in question is presented as a tyrant, who is living well while his men starve and remain unclothed. This is a very stereotypical, jingoistic way of presenting the NVA as monsters that have to be stopped; yet another method of increasing the sympathy for the American forces and the protagonists of the film.
The defensive battle earlier in the film is modeled after the Battle of Nam Dong, arguably one of the more justified and heroic battles of the war, for American forces at least. In it, NVA and Viet Cong forces attacked a military camp (the titular Nam Dong), where many died to defend the camp successfully. The Americans were not the instigators in the battle, making it a PR boon for the United States; a Medal of Honor awarded to Capt. Roger Donlon for defending the camp was “the first Medal of Honor awarded to an individual who distinguished himself while serving with a friendly force engaged in an armed conflict in which the United States is not a belligerent party” (TIME, 1964). As a result, it is easy to see why John Wayne inserted an analogue to this battle in the film; it presented realism in its portrayal of the war, but in a way that implicated the US as instigators the least.
In conclusion, the action of The Green Berets presents a very incorrect and skewed view of America’s involvement in Vietnam, likening it to the positive, straightforwardly black-and-white experience encountered in World War II. While there is a slight presence of skepticism in the form of the character of Beckworth, his presence seems to only be there in order to refute that skepticism and present an objectively positive viewpoint on American involvement. In short, the film appears to be quite narrow-minded in its presentation of the war, and its transparency as a propaganda piece is evident.
Armed Forces: One Who Was Belligerent. (1964, December 11). TIME. Retrieved August 7, 2011, from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,897370,00.html
Wayne, J. (Director). (2007). The Green Berets [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Home Video.