Dirty Dozen/Green Berets
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Dirty Dozen/Green Berets

It has been posited that war is "good for absolutely nothing", reinforcing the assumption with a resounding grunt and a call to repeat the premise. While it is definitely provable from the perspective of human lives the more focused vantage point of a Hollywood screenwriter it is traditionally a fertile ground rich in potential stories. The rational underlying this is simple to understand; the theater of combat intrinsically contains a level of emotional intensity that is unmatched by most venues. The struggle for survival, the potential for displays of valor and the unmatched drive to win can all be brought to bear in a movie that has a proven track record with audiences spanning decades of time. In 1927 the very first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture was ‘Wings’, a war movie. War films have served many functions in the cinematic world from box office draw to the platform to launch the careers of stars. Perhaps a more significant part the war movie holds is as a means to document the reaction of the public the conflict the country is currently engaged. In the mid-sixties the United States was fighting a war in the small peninsular in South East Asia, Vietnam. The reaction to the conflict was sharply divided predominantly along generational lines, the so called generation gap. Films made at that time were beginning to diverge from the jingoistic productions the studios released during the height of World War Two. The depicted the intrepid American solider on a holy mission to defeat the heinous Axis of Germany, Italy and Japan, no matter what the cost. The public was firmly behind this war and the films reflected that action. In the sixties the same could not be universally applied. This is the period that saw the theatrical release of the double feature just released on Blu-ray; ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and ‘The Green Berets’. These films may both be concerned with war but each gave insight into the dichotomy that existed regarding the war in Vietnam.

Superficially it might seem that the selection of these two classic films as a high definition double feature might be somewhat arbitrary. Aside from both representing the war flick genre one is set in Europe during World War Two while the other is set in the more contemporary Vietnam War. The etiology for both differed drastically as did the reaction of the general public to the military involvement. Was represents a stroke of brilliance on the part of the studio and distributor to provide a means to compare and contrast the two movies. The release dates of the films are barely a year apart yet the focus, intent and meaning behind the movies are radically different; yet both offer insight into the socio-political derision that formed the foundation of the sixties. When on their own as separate entities the factors that bind the films together are tenuous at best but as a double feature just how these movies exemplify the era is highlighted.

‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967)

Director: Robert Aldrich

Writer: Nunnally Johnson

Of the two film presented here this one took the anti-establishment side of the generational divide. At this point in time filmmakers were just starting to overtly challenge the War with a new type of movie, the anti-war film. Films including ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ and M*A*S*H*’ were upfront with blaming the government for war and holding them to the responsibility of the lives they callously destroyed. ‘The Dirty Dozen’ expertly avoided the inevitable backlash of a Vietnam era film by setting the action just before D-Day, June 6, 1944, the massive beach front landing on Normandy the signaled the final act of the war against the Nazis in Europe. This was a day of patriotic pride for the parental general; many had seen action there or in the fateful days that would follow. On the surface this allowed people to accept the film as another war film similar to the ones that supported the war effort twenty five years before.

The less obvious intension of the movie was rooted in the premise; a rag tag group of misfits are gathered together for a suicide mission crucial to the success of D-Day. Like many of the films made in the forties this one featured an all-star ensemble cast consisting of actors well established in several different film genres, sports and music. This eclectic group of actors was certain to cast a broad net of the audience’s demographic ensuring a box office success. All of this would seem to be consistent with the nationalistic films that were prevalent in our parent’s day. Even during its initial release the public and critical community released that this was definitely not the same as those movies.

The movie was widely condemned as too explicit in the depiction of violence. Most notably was a scene where a man is emulated on screen. This was completely consistent with the plot of the film. Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) is given an unusual but highly secret mission to recruit a team of twelve men selected from military prisons. The requisite for eligibility is the solider must be either on death row or facing thirty years imprisonment. Each of the dozen was as close to a monster as possible; a misogynist and religious fanatic; Archer Maggott (Telly Savalas), Victor Franko (John Cassavetes), former organized crime enforcer and general psychopath, mentally challenged slow-witted Vernon Pinkley (Donald Sutherland) and Robert Jefferson (Jim Brown), an African American with a hatred of white men. When the protest the substandard conditions they refuse to bathe or shave earning then the titular moniker. That became the tipping point that formed the kernel of their solidarity.

This struck a chord with the younger audience members, youth of America were frequently dismissed as unwashed, dirty hippies; unable to conform and worthless. This small group of dissidents was able to prove their merit and contribute to the society the opposed. The extreme presentation of violence was a commentary on the brutality of war, all wars no matter how popular or unpopular the might be. It used this to be an anti-war film that infiltrated the movies disguised as an old fashion battle action movie.

The Green Berets (1968)

Directors: Ray Kellogg / John Wayne

Writers: James Lee Barrett / Robin Moore

Released only a year after the other film on the billing here, The Green Berets’ was the flagship of a backlash against the anti-war protestors. The Green Berets are an elite combat group of men with advanced, specialized training in combat tactics and survival. Barry Sadler's hit song Ballad of the Green, was very popular as a mainstream hit and a special arrangement of it is utilized in the movie. This has been called a pro-war movie but that is inaccurate. It is more of an ode to nationalism and patriotism; the direct opposition to the ground antiestablishment ground swell being felt throughout the country, Wayne was undoubtedly a stalwart defined of the ‘America Way’ having appeared in films set in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War not to mention the taming of the west in a slew of his trademark westerns.

In the film Wayne portrays Colonel. Mike Kirby, a Green Beret officer. He is overseeing training exercises stateside when he encounters a cynical member of the liberal media, George Beckworth (David Janssen). The Colonel offers the reporter an opportunity to accompany him to Vietnam to observe the war first hand. Once there he meets Master Sargent Mudoon (Aldo Ray and ARVN Captain Nim (George Takei). Ray was a standard in action movies both in the military and western variations. Janssen was a TV star in the popular series ‘The Fugitive’ while Takei was a regular of ‘Star Trek’. This cast was a skillful blend of actors suitable for both generations.

The film was a critical bomb yet managed to become a financial success. Derided as a string of tired clichés and predictable situations some likened it to cowboys and Indians in the jungle. For many it represented a simplistic view of an inherently complicated set of issues regarding the motivation for American involvement in war many felt was a minor civil war. This was the response to the rapidly increasing number of movies overtly critical to the American policy that brought us into this untenable situation. It overly polarizes the participants painting the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as tyrants. Although many cases of atrocities have been proven this film is in a sharply divided perspective of us versus them, reminiscent of the WWII films. There is only the heroic sacrifice removed from the ideological vantage point or any attempt to discuss war in the direct toll it extracts on our humanity.

Posted 03/12/2013

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