John Wayne was a well known anti-communist and patriot typical of post WWII America. He frequently used his position as a Hollywood player to make films that promoted his ideals of the American way and more often than not the end result was a laughably inaccurate but entertaining film. Witness Big Jim McLain and Jet Pilot. By the 1960's the man could hardly speak in public without denouncing the peace movement and the damage they were doing to America's effort in Vietnam. John Wayne was what every boy wanted to be and what every man wished he was. Or, at least he was until the mid sixties. Wayne had become a political dinosaur and it was starting to show.
He had studio backing though, so the Duke decided to help out in the only way he knew how, a patriotic film full of American heroes. He had done it so well in the 40's and 50's with the likes of The Sands of Iwo Jima, The Fighting SeaBees, and The Flying Leathernecks.
In 1965 Robin Moore published a novel based on the exploits of Special Forces soldiers in the highlands of Vietnam. He submitted the novel to the Department of Defense for clearance, but the book did not portray the American forces in a very good light. There were extended scenes involving the corruption of the South Vietnamese government officials and graphic descriptions of captives being tortured at the hands of American soldiers.
The DOD balked. It wasn't exactly the sort of image they were trying to portray of the events unfolding in Vietnam. Utilizing a technique that became popular when denying UFO's. The DOD approved the book with a wrap around banner claiming "Fiction, stranger than fact!" How the Fed ever believed this sort of reverse psychology would ever work on anyone older than a toddler, let alone a nation of television zombies, is beyond me. The book was a huge success.
Wayne used the book as the basis for his film and rather originally decided to use the same title. The un-American parts had to go of course, as well as most of the technical details and historical accuracy that the book had contained. This left a rather large hole in the film that was filled with a laughable subplot concerning the kidnapping of a North Vietnamese General. To add insult to injury, the editing and special effects are atrocious with scenes often cutting directly from night to day and back again.
The Green Berets was host to two of the most laughable film scenes produced since Plan 9 From Outer Space. A major plot twist happens when the Colonel's helicopter is shot down. The special effect of the helicopter crash appears to have been accomplished by dangling a plastic scale model from fishing line and lighting the front with a match. It was not convincing. At the films finale, Wayne holds hands with the orphan Hamchunk and walks into the sunset over the beach in a scene reminiscent of the finale of Casablanca. It would have been a nice touch if Vietnam had a western shore.
Aside from the amateurish production values, the film took broad liberties with the truth. The South Vietnamese soldiers are caricatures of the ideal ally, portrayed as having nearly western values. Colonel Nim, played by Master Navigator Sulu, balks at interrogating prisoners and refuses his own medical treatment until everyone else is attended to. Alternatively, the captured enemies are brutish, nearly malformed and savagely evil. A reporter who starts out suspicious of the military machine has enlisted by the end of the film, to help out our boys.
Wayne's attempt to sunny up the Vietnam conflict and bolster patriotism was probably failed from the start but was ultimately doomed by its release date. In February of 1968 the Tet offensive was televised to every kitchen and living room in America. Six months later The Green Berets hit theaters in July. America wasn't interested in watching a lighthearted patriotic film about a military action they had already seen as horrible and inevitably flawed.
Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, the movie is an entertaining war film in a similar vein to Wayne's films of WWII. In the end Wayne was successful in his attempt to create the very same sort of film he had made in the late forties (not surprising since he co-directed it), unfortunately for him his audience, the nation and the rest of the globe had changed. Good and bad were no longer as polarized as they had been and film audiences weren't as ready to suspend disbelief in favor of blind patriotism.
Amusing but relevant anecdotal story
When I was in Airborne School, we got the weekends off. Typically, four to eight of us would pool our funds and get a room in the La Quinta Inn just outside Ft. Benning. The inn was a block of converted apartments and the typical room was a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette. If enough of us got together the room was cheap and we could use the extra to buy plenty of beer. Friday night was for strip clubs and vomiting, but come Saturday morning we would troop down to the office and force our way on the office staff.
Each room had a television hooked up to a central broadcast network. The inn had a copy of The Green Berets that we forced them to play over and over again, until we got too drunk to see straight. We would sit around the living room, laughing at the technical inaccuracies and throwing our empty beer cans at the screen whenever the actors did something particularly stupid or deadly. By the end of the day a tailing pile of crushed beer cans lay under the television like a pagan offering to the combat prowess of John Wayne.
Details thanks to IMDB.com and the United States Army Drinking Awareness Program