[Special Forces] have been catapulted into the spotlight, becoming the closest thing the nation has to living action figures, featured in various video games and movies.
- Quote from New York Times article, April 3, 2016
The Cold War era saw a dizzying variety of war films ranging from propaganda, satire, to old fashioned thrillers. I believe movies helped people work out some of the abstractions of the Cold War, especially war films. In the 21st century, Hollywood cannot stop making movies about the Special Forces, whether it be Lone Survivor or Zero Dark Thirty; tales of larger than life warriors who go Over There and take out terrorists and save us all. The origins of super soldier cinema goes back to the Cold War. The Green Berets (1968) and Predator (1987) stand out as important benchmarks for the genre.
The New Frontier’s Third World Centurions
Upon taking office in 1961, JFK and his advisers believed the key theater of the Cold War resided not in Europe, but in Asia and Africa. Convinced they were on the right side of history, JFK’s crusaders were determined to win over those south of the equator before the communists got to them (60s liberalism bore a deep strain of missionary fervor). Small units of superior soldiers appealed to JFK’s elitism; a force ready to quash communist revolutionaries anytime, anywhere. They would train local populations on the art of counter-insurgency, strategies to defeat communist grassroots movements. Southeast Asia became a testing ground for the New Frontier.
During the 1000 days span of Kennedy’s presidency he sent many “military advisers” to Vietnam, 16,000 boots on the ground at time of his assassination. His successor Lyndon Johnson dramatically increased troop levels and by 1967, the administration found itself in a quagmire while facing an angry anti-war movement at home.
The Green Berets (1968)
Directed by Ray Kellog and John Wayne
Written by James Lee Barrett (based on the novel by Robin Moore)
Starring: John Wayne, David Janssen, Aldo Ray, George Takei
Tagline: They had to be the toughest fighting force on earth – and the men who led them had to be just a little bit tougher.
After witnessing the Special Forces in action during a tour of Vietnam in 1965, aging movie star John Wayne decided to make a film highlighting their amazing skills. Wayne even received permission from the Pentagon to use army equipment and film scenes at Fort Benning.
By the late 1960s Wayne was also a leading conservative voice in Hollywood, an ideology on full display in his films. Unsurprisingly, the contradictions and hypocrisies of Wayne’s life and career left much for his critics to gleefully dissect.
Wayne’s deferment from the draft during WWII is one example. Wayne was 34 years old and married with four children America entered the war, enough to earn him an exemption from the service. Instead, he used the war years to bolster his star power (much as his friend Ronald Reagan did by making training films). Other Hollywood stars including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart did serve and came back as heroes. In a scene from the 2015 film Trumbo, Wayne, portrayed as a narrow minded anti-communist, gets taken to task for his non-service by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who Wayne tried to belittle).
Even more troubling for Wayne’s critics is the dubious history championed in his Westerns, seemingly excusing white men’s actions towards Native Americans, in the words of Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen:
To love the west is to love fresh air and open spaces, but to love John Wayne, and the West he embodies, is to embrace the promise of the American dream and excuse the darkness and history of exploitation that seeps beneath it.
That’s a heavy charge. I would agree any thinking person should keep the sentiment in mind when they watch a John Wayne picture. Is it a social sin to enjoy them? Are we excusing the history if we do? Can we both appreciate John Wayne and not “excuse” the history. I hope so.
While many of his films espoused reactionary views, there were a few exceptions. In The Searchers, Wayne played an Indian hating racist who undergoes a change of heart in a dark and complex performance. He often played against type. Critics now consider The Searchers one of the best films ever made.
No serious film goer can deny Wayne’s overwhelming presence in American cinema – one than can will lead his most sardonic naysayers to a grudging respect. Film critic Roger Ebert gave The Green Berets a zero star review and expressed disgust at Wayne’s politics, yet admitted to weeping during his moving appearance at the 1979 Oscar Ceremony a few months before he succumbed to cancer.
Unfortunately in The Green Berets we get the worst of the Duke: an anti-intellectual bully, spewing one dimensional rhetoric on freedom and America’s right to intervene. He coasts through the film. Predictably, most critics despised the film and its pro-Vietnam message. Nevertheless, The Green Berets did well at the Box Office.
In the following year Wayne redeemed himself with critics by playing a tough old softy in True Grit, earning him his only Oscar.
Wayne’s outspoken right wing politics and support for the Vietnam War can distort discussions of the war. As David Halberstam’s classic book THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST detailed, liberal Eastern Establishment types in JFK’s inner circle believed technology and intelligence would give America the final advantage over the communists. They were masterminds behind the war. Vietnam was a liberal war.
Conservatives typically play a sleight of hand game when it comes to Vietnam: they tacitly supported the war in principle, but were critical of the strategy. Many have published books arguing the war was winnable if only the right people were in charge. As America swung to the right in 1970s, Reagan and the National Review set of republicans championed the “liberals screwed up” narrative to explain the Vietnam disaster. The divide over the war in 1968 appeared more generational than political. Only after the war was over did it become something of a political football.
The Green Berets applies corny, patriotic platitudes to a desperately complex situation. Like in Fox News and “faith based” movies, those who detract from the party line are made into dupes or worse. They just don’t get it. Wayne’s platoon would like nothing better than to punch out a smart ass hippy.
The film follows a group of soldiers to an unnamed Southeast Asian country to save the kindly people from the commies. A skeptical and “liberal” reporter played by David Janssen of The Fugitive fame observes the special forces in action, witnesses the treachery of the communists, and does a ‘360 in his politics. In reality the reverse often happened, journalists went in supporting the war and turned against once they saw the absurdity at first hand.
By the end all is well, the good guys win. Wayne comforts an Asian boy as the sun sets in the EAST! Manifest Destiny moves boldly into the future.
Despite all the obvious shortcomings, The Green Berets set a template for future war movies. Just include some slick editing, creative profanity, cool technology, charismatic actors, ultra realistic bloody violence, and you have the makings of a jingoistic masterpiece.
Directed by John McTiernan
Written by Jim Thomas, John Thomas
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke, Richard Chaves
Tagline: If it bleeds, we can kill it.
Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 unleashed a new surge of patriotism to wash away the pain of previous decades. His administration increased military spending and ratcheted up the Cold War rhetoric. Morning Again in America. Hollywood responded in kind with a number of military themed non-stop action movies. Many candidates vied for the title of a John Wayne 2.0. Few filled it better than Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian immigrant and world famous body builder who transitioned into movies as the new super soldier and enforcer of American foreign policy. Predator consolidated Schwarzenegger’s star power after a string of violent war themed movies he made including Conan The Barbarian (1982), The Terminator (1984), and Commando (1985).
In Predator we get a retelling of the Vietnam tragedy in the guise of a popcorn movie. A squad of Rambo clones go on a mission to rescue a government official in the jungles of Central America (Ventura and Chavez were real life Vietnam Vets). Before taking on the mission at the behest of the CIA (recalls a similar scene in Apocalypse Now (1979), Arnold growls “we are a rescue team, not assassins” a reference to Reagan’s cavalier foreign policy in the region. Instead they discover to their horror they are the ones being hunted by a force beyond their understanding.
Pop culture entertainment during the 1980s loved to showcase America’s technological prowess, examples being Top Gun and Tom Clancy’s best selling “techno thriller” novels. Predator falls into that category. For the most part. There is a subversive undercurrent lurking throughout, thanks to director McTiernan.
Ironically the most gratuitous violence involves not the monster, but a savage attack the soldiers make on a village where various third world bad guys are mowed down with savage indifference. But later on their guns prove impotent against the predator. Their technology failed them.
In the end, Arnold is left alone to face the alien. He prevails in primitive hand to hand combat. He survives, but leaves the movie bloodied and defeated on a chopper. All of his comrades are dead. It’s an unsettling conclusion. However, few remember it that way. The battles were cool. The guns were cool. The Creature was cool. Predator went on to be a profitable franchise and spawned sequels and spin-offs, the jackpot in modern Hollywood (A REBOOT IS CURRENTLY IN PRE-PRODUCTION).
The Age of the Super Soldier And Beyond?
There is a straight line between The Green Berets and Predator. Contemporary movies are upgrade the special forces to superheroes. They are winning the troubled war on terror. They captured Saddam Hussein. They killed Bin Laden. The Citizen Soldier of the Second World War can take a back seat to their exploits. And like the starry eyed extras in all those superhero movies we gape at the shock and awe exploits.
Everyone knew the Cold War could end with the push of a button. I think that’s why the public desperately hungered for a revival of the individual. COLD WAR sounded way too abstract.
Bobby Fischer, subject of the initial post on this blog, caught the public’s imagination because of the gladiatorial aspect of chess, one individual facing down a frightening enemy. The same goes for the super soldier movies, winning wars in a traditional way were preferable to a senseless nuclear exchange. In an age where our AI overlords lay in waiting, we desperately need heroes.