The Green Berets (1968) holds the distinction of being the first out of only a handful of big budget productions made about the Vietnam War while it was actively being fought. The prominent reason for the cinematic dearth on this subject matter was the studios’ reluctance to bankroll a picture that would be critical of American involvement in the war. But when John Wayne (the Searchers, True Grit), an outspoken supporter of the southeast Asian military engagement, wanted to direct his staunch anti-communist sentiments on the big screen, he not only got studio funding but full support from president Lyndon Johnson and the military.
In hindsight it seems that the movie industry may have gone too far distancing itself from the rising dissent of the late 60’s protesting populace and popular media. Critics have taken the film to task for glorifying the war effort and presenting an unrealistic take that either ignores or is ignorant of the moral and political complexities of the American embroilment in Vietnam. Enough has been written on this subject that I won’t repeat it here but suffice to say after later efforts such as the Deerhunter, Hamburger Hill or Platoon, the Green Berets definitely comes off overly simplistic and often veers into jingoistic propaganda.
To Wayne’s credit, he was deeply patriotic but does little service to the military he wished to tribute with an unwarranted two-dimensional portrayal of our soldiers (conspicuously as middle aged (John was even older at 61), fairly boring but well intentioned white guys who bear little resemblance to the more sordid, teenaged recruits from Platoon or Apocalyse Now). When you add in the stereotypical caricature of the North Vietnamese as an unrepentant evil scourge, Green Berets isn’t that far off track from many of the WWII flicks Wayne had previously starred in. Standard pre-1970’s Hollywood “war movie” fare painted characters in broad strokes with little digging under the surface into the psychological intricacies of what really went into the horrors of battle (its obvious we’ve become spoiled by more “modern” takes on the theme like Band of Brothers).
I’d be willing to overlook many of these deficiencies if the movie were engaging as a “pure” war effort, but it is painfully dated in this respect. Saving Private Ryan set the bar for grueling intensity and flicks such as Black Hawk Down have carried on the tradition that, while not necessarily making for escapist viewing, definitively situate you in the middle of the chaotic, disturbing action (even more so in HD!). Yet so many scenes from Green Berets do just the opposite. If not actually shot on a studio lot, the outside locales reek of a Hollywood set and come off contrived, way too obviously showing the artifice of the production. Coupled with the wooden acting that doesn’t have enough push to land in “camp” territory (which could have blessedly made the movie akin to a cult classic), this late 60’s cinematic spin on the Vietnam War is exceedingly outdated and forgettable.
If there is a bright spot to this Blu-ray, it is the decently impressive high-def transfer. While not competing with upper echelon catalog releases, Warner surely has given us the best home video incarnation of the Green Berets with a nice 1080p image. Close to mid-range shots display appreciable detail with solid color rendering (though skin tones seem a bit warm), natural contrast and noticeable depth throughout a majority of scenes. For the most part, grain is faithfully reproduced, but DNR does rear its ugly head in random shots and rare backgrounds have issues compressing the grain structure correctly. My biggest complaint is that as nice as the visuals may technically look, unfortunately the cinematography is not particularly memorable. Yet if you’re a fan of the film, you should be pleased with it in HD.
The 1.0 Dolby TrueHD track (at a meager 413 kbps) shows the audio sadly hasn’t aged as well as the visuals. While we can commend the studio for giving us the original mono mix in lossless audio, the soundstage is so limited as to be distracting. Pumped out the center channel, there is minimal depth and separation to particular sound elements resulting in dialog many times getting buried under gunshots, explosions or other sound effects. The upper register is brittle and thin with the lower end (most noticeable during battle sequences) being muddy and dropping off dramatically without delivering any quality bass tones. Additionally the musical score feels overly constrained in a single channel which makes me think that it would have been beneficial to have provided a mono 2.0 mix through the front speakers.
Dubbed audio is available in French, German and Spanish 1.0 (192 kbps) Dolby Digital mixes with optional subtitles in English (SDH), Danish, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish.
The Moviemakers: The Making of the Green Berets (7:11) – A marketing effort produced at the time of the film’s release. There are a few interesting moments of Wayne on set performing directorial duties, but this is too short to really provide much depth.
Trailer (2:58) – This is actually my favorite part of this whole Blu-ray release with the trailer unintentionally providing a campy comedic feel the main feature never achieves.
I can appreciate the Green Berets for its intentions (at least as far as wanting to pay tribute to our military forces in Vietnam), but the resulting product often embarrassingly comes off as Cold War propaganda without doing justice to the deep complexity of what the war was about. As stated, I’d be willing to put that aside if this was an engaging film in other respects (and maybe there is no way to really separate those factors in this scenario), but the physical presentation of the war is painfully dated with less than captivating battle sequences and stock character depictions.
I’ll wager Warner’s Blu-ray is the best the film has ever looked (though still with some technical issues), but the audio leaves much to be desired. And the studio isn’t showing any love to fans as far as extras go with this release being a step above bare bones. I would never recommend anyone uninitiated go to any effort to watch Wayne’s film, but if you’re nostalgic or just curious about late 60’s cinematic promotions about ‘Nam, here you go.
– Robert Searle
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