As the scale of war grew in faraway Vietnam and civil mobilization against the war increased on the country’s campuses and in its major cities, Hollywood remained silent and continued offering a slew of diverting movies, serious and not, on the theme of war. The system by which actors’ lives and contracts were completely controlled by their studios was on the wane, and the last thing the business-savvy moguls needed was picketing about the controversial Vietnam War outside their theaters. Audiences were treated instead to another taut Cold War spy movie in ‘66, Funeral in Berlin, as well as Steve McQueen’s compelling drama of an American gunboat caught in the Chinese Civil War during the ‘30s, Sand Pebbles.
On the lighter side of the Cold War, the movie industry offered The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, a delightful comic tale of a Soviet submarine running aground off Long Island. In ’67 it was back to the heroics of WWII, The Dirty Dozen, but the first major film to reflect the new sensibility of the rapidly changing youth culture also appeared: The Graduate starred the inimitable Dustin Hoffman in a comedy drama portraying the dark side of the American dream. It was partly set in the San Francisco Bay Area, the confluence of the hippie culture and the rising anti-establishment sentiment of the restless young.
A number of prominent actors were critical of the Vietnam War, but John Wayne (known as ‘The Duke’ in Hollywood), perhaps the most popular star of his era, was not among them. Politically conservative, super patriot Wayne was highly supportive of the war and so anticommunist that legend has it that earlier Stalin (who actually liked Wayne’s movies) ordered his assassination—lucky for Wayne, Stalin died in ‘53 before the hit was carried out. In ’65 Wayne had visited the troops in Vietnam and wanted to make a movie presenting the war as a heroic undertaking by dedicated soldiers, a kind of celluloid response to the clamor of antiwar voices. However, none of the studios would touch a project so potentially fraught with controversy, so John Wayne took the matter in hand and produced The Green Berets with his own funds.
Taking time off from his standard fare of Westerns and WWII flicks, Wayne passed up the lead in The Dirty Dozen to star in and co-direct his Green Berets; the script was based on an Alamo-type story of the defense of an embattled Special Forces outpost nicknamed ‘Dodge City’. Wayne secured the cooperation of the White House and the Pentagon; Fort Benning in Georgia was made available along with assorted aircraft and authentic uniforms complete with insignia and name tags. Filming began during the summer of ’67. Not much notice was given on the post that the production was underway on a distant part of the base. Karen Ferb and her soldier husband Tom were at Benning at the time. One afternoon at the base pool they saw three Hueys fly over spewing clouds of purplish smoke. With many people unaware it was make-believe war, there was general panic poolside that day.
Jeff Sharlet’s Vietnam GI (VGI) achieved a kind of scoop with a report from an involuntary extra within the production process on the shooting of The Green Berets. GI Maury Knutson was one of many Benning soldiers ‘lent’ to the Wayne production company by order of the camp commander (CO). The report was not Maury’s first appearance in VGI. While serving in Vietnam he’d been a staffer on a command-approved, but extremely irreverent unit paper that consistently mocked the military and the unit NCO’s. While the CO himself was tolerant of the paper, the NCO’s were not, so Maury and Little Giant editor Jim Pidgeon pulled a lot of extra duty as retaliation.
In a later issue of VGI, Maury Knutson, who by then had rotated back to Benning, gave an interview on how a GI could cope with Military Intelligence investigation (MI). He’d already had several run-ins with MI in Nam. Maury had kept a picture of Marshall Tito of Communist Yugoslavia over his bunk, while at Benning he had co-founded a hard-hitting underground GI antiwar paper, Rap! Maury’s advice to any GI summoned by MI was to show them you didn’t take them seriously. For instance, just after you get settled in the MI office and they’re about to ask their questions, “announce you have to go to the john and ask for a pencil or something so you can write some things on the wall.” When VGI asked what a guy says if asked for references for a investigation, Maury described how he handled it, offering the names of Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X’s widow, and his favorite bartender.
In Maury Knutson’s interview on his John Wayne Green Berets’ experience, billed by VGI as a ‘Movie Review’, he told how soldiers in his company were detailed daily to serve as extras in the movie. Reveille was at 4 am, they'd have chow, and then be driven to the movie location at the edge of the base where the production company had built sets typical of South Vietnamese villages and a replica of a Special Forces camp in the highlands. The extras were mainly used as VC troops complete with uniforms, insignia, rank markings, and small fake wooden rifles. Maury, a small guy cast as a VC officer, can be spotted in one scene leading VC troops overrunning the Green Beret outpost, and in another when a bridge is blown and he falls in the water. For the long shooting days lasting sometimes until 8 at night, the extras were paid $1.40 an hour.
David Janssen of The Fugitive and George Takei, Star Trek’s helmsman ‘Mr Sulu’, were first billed in Green Berets; husky Aldo Ray with his raspy voice, often a stock character in battle films, also starred. Maury’s comment: “Aldo Ray was a big star in the movie. We always had to stand around because he was so drunk they couldn’t start filming.” For many of the GI extras who had been raised on John Wayne war movies, seeing him in the flesh was a disappointment. Still in the aftermath of major cancer surgery, the hero of Sands of Iwo Jima was weak and tired easily. Green Berets was released on July 4th ’68. Combat GIs returning to Benning told Maury they didn’t think much of it: “The movie was a big joke, it wasn’t realistic at all. … God help the recruit who thinks that’s what war is like!” But John Wayne’s contribution to the war effort was a huge commercial success in spite of negative reviews. As Wayne himself said, “Nobody liked my acting but the public.”
Hollywood and John Wayne moved on. The familiar menu of ‘war’ films resumed in ’69 with The Battle of Britain; Topaz, another Cold War espionage film; and the French political thriller Z, based on the Greek anti-communist dictatorship. But that same year Easy Rider, the early independent film that launched Jack Nicholson’s career and became emblematic of the anti-establishment youth counterculture, was released. By 1970 WWII was back in the saddle with Patton, President Nixon’s favorite film; Tora! Tora! Tora!, a dramatization of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; and Kelly’s Heroes, a military caper film. Leavening that year’s traditional fare of war as glory and gain, however, was Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H., a satirical, black comedy antiwar film set during the Korean War.
As for John Wayne, he went on to make True Grit in ’69, for which he won his only Oscar – for Best Actor—the capstone of a long and mostly successful movie career. Even the Yippie radical Abbie Hoffman paid tribute to ‘The Duke’s’ singularity, saying, “I like Wayne’s wholeness, his style. As for his politics, well ….”
* Different Drum, by Mike Nesmith, 1967
** Sounds of Silence, by Paul Simon, 1965
*** Ballad of the Green Berets, by Staff Sgt Barry Sadler and Robin Moore, 1966