IRENE TSU, JOHN WAYNE & THE GREEN BERETS
I am a big fan of Vietnam war movies. Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite films of all time and I really like Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and Full Metal Jacket. I was a huge fan of TV’s China Beach and caught Tour of Duty when I could. So I decided to watch John Wayne in The Green Berets (1968) one of the first Vietnam War movies and actually filmed in 1967 during the course of the war that recently aired on TCM. I hadn’t seen it probably since it was broadcast on the ABC-TV 4:30 Movie in the seventies.
After watching those other Vietnam War movies made anywhere from 5 to 15 years after the war ended, I was struck on how simplistic a view this movie took though it did keep me entertained even if the Alabama and Georgia locations where it was filmed no way came close to resembling the real Vietnam. I knew going in Wayne made the movie, with full cooperation of the U.S. Marines, to help boost and give credence to Americas’s presence in Vietnam, so not surprising it played like one of those John Ford westerns. Except here the good guys are the U.S. and South Korean soldiers standing in for the U.S. cavalry and the North Vietnamese were the bad guy Indians. Even the raid on the U.S. outpost with the Vietcong rushing the perimeter with ladders to climb up and over the barbed wire reminded me of all those oaters with the Indians attacking the fort as they are picked off one by one.
As for the cast John Wayne is John Wayne as Col. Kirby, but some of the other actors were just poor. Jim Hutton’s character is so out of place providing unnecessary and unfunny comic relief as a soldier who befriends a little orphan boy (Craig Jue who is touching in the role). Stoic David Janssen is the liberal reporter who ventures to Vietnam to do a story on why America should pull out of the war and tags along with Wayne’s platoon. He is probably the world’s worst journalist as we never see him write or interview anyone nor does he even have a camera. He does pick up a gun in one of the fierce battles and by movie’s end not only has he been swayed to agree with the U.S. intervention there but he has enlisted!
The one actor that impressed me the most was George Takei (Sulu of Star Trek fame). The TV show really never challenged his acting skills and here is gives an intense performance as a South Korean Captain determined to get back to his home in Hanoi once it has been liberated. His was one of the most sincere performances in the movie as was the one given by an actor I heard of but knew nothing about, Jason Evers. Handsome and solidly built ala Rod Taylor, he was the likable Captain of a battalion John Wayne came to replace since he was returning home the next day. His men are truly sorry to see him leave but an attack by the Vietcong changes his fate.
Finally the only woman in the cast was 60s starlet Irene Tsu as Lin. After playing small or decorative roles in beach movies (How to Stuff a Wild Bikini), Elvis movies (Paradise, Hawaiian Style), and spy spoofs (Caprice), The Green Berets was one of her really dramatic film substantive film roles. Lin first slinks into view wearing a tight evening gown at a high class supper club in Saigon. We later learn that she is the sister-in-law of Colonel Cai (Jack Soo) and her father was killed by the Vietcong general near where Col. Kirby’s platoon is encased. Lin has agreed to get the general to notice her and take back to his home where she will keep him “entertained” while the soldiers sneak in and take him prisoner. Things go as planned but Lin has to make love to him and Cai now thinks she has brought shame on the family. Lin now has to trek through the jungle with Kirby and his men with the North Vietnamese in hot pursuit. During the escape Kirby tells Cai that Lin is a hero and now only has her family to go back to. He agrees and tells her there is no shame in what she did.
Speaking about the movie Irene Tsu remarked in my book Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinema:
“I was the only female in the cast. Though I had a lot of admiration for John Wayne he didn’t like me. I heard that he described me to a friend as ‘that little hippie chick.’ We would take jeeps from the hotel out to the location where we were filming. I always tried to get out there early so I wouldn’t have to ride with Wayne.
Wayne wasn’t very communicative and didn’t have the patience for a director. I think he knew what he wanted to do in terms of the big picture but he was not very good working with actors. He was from John Ford’s school of using intimidation and absolutely terrified some of us. During one scene, he berated poor Luke Askew for not saying his lines the way Wayne wanted. Instead of taking the guy aside, he humiliated him in front of the cast and crew. Wayne screamed at him, ‘Walk over here! Say your line! Then walk over there!’”
The story left out of the book is how she got labeled by Wayne as “hippie chick.” One day Tsu was running late and got the last jeep out to the location. When she hopped in she saw only John Wayne sitting there reading his newspaper. He ignored her to her relief. During their trek, the jeep hit a bump in the road and Tsu’s pocketbook fell off the seat spilling its contents all over the floor. Wayne reached down to help her pick up her items and picked up a joint. He looked at it, made a disapproving face, handed it to her without a word, and turned back to his paper.
The Green Berets is infamous for its closing scene with John Wayne and little Craig Jue on the beach watching the sun set into the East. For most critics, this was just one more scene that mae the movie odious to them. As one reviewer remarked, “We have dropped so many bombs on Vietnam, what is one more?” The movie was released a few months after the Tet Offensive in January 1968 so its rah-rah optimistic black and white approach made it even worse for a lot of the public though the movie was a box office hit.