WHEN THE SINGLE The Ballad Of The Green Berets was released in January 1966, I was 14-years-old (“one hundred men will test today”). Being a good, patriotic American lad, I went out and bought it on the same trip to the record store that I picked up the Byrds’ latest record, Set You Free This Time / It Won’t Be Wrong (“but only three win the green beret”).
I played the two records side by side on my portable, plastic, mono record-player because Top 40 radio was so inclusive in the ’60s that disparate types of music were a given on the pop charts and consequently in the houses of young record-buyers around the country. Like me!
As I was a patriotic lad, still a few years from draft age, I believed what I was told: we had to stop the Communists in Vietnam before they invaded San Francisco and murdered and plundered and had their way with our women!
I would not sit back and allow Communist infiltration.
I would not sit back and allow Communist indoctrination.
I would not sit back and allow Communist subversion.
I would not sit back and allow the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids. 1
Hell, yes—I’ll go!
This is the American poster for The Green Berets movie. It is downright boring compared to the more graphically arresting French poster (below).
Then there was the draft
At 14, I even harbored dreams of being one of those brave men with silver wings upon his chest. My father suggested West Point instead of art school, where everyone always I assumed I would end up.
But by the time that John Wayne’s The Green Berets appeared in movie theaters on July 4, 1968, I was on the opposite end of the political and philosophical spectrum, like many other of my fellow Americans.
By the time The Green Berets appeared in theaters in mid-1968, many Americans had come to grips with the meaning of the Tet Offensive and were opposed to the film’s message.
I don’t recall what caused the transition in those two years: I’d like to think it was due to my awakening morality and not that I was getting close to draft age.
By the middle of ’68, the Tet Offensive had occurred and anyone with a functioning consciousness knew that not only was our government and military lying to us on a daily basis but that our media—including our precious “free press”—was either lying with them or enabling them to continue lying.
And of course, there’s a world of difference between being 14 and being 17-years-old.
This is the picture sleeve to the American single which was awarded an RIAA Gold Record for sales of 1,000,000 copies within weeks of release. Reputed domestic sales by the end of the year were approximately 5,000,000, making it the biggest-selling 45 of 1966.
Silver wings upon their chest
My current interest in The Ballad Of The Green Berets was spurred while researching a project involving hit records of 1966. It’s certainly not the kind of record that most of us who grew up then bring to mind when we want to hum or sing a golden oldie to ourselves.
This led to an article on Sadler where I called The Ballad Of The Green Berets, one of the unlikeliest #1 records of all time and said it sounded like something that should be played over the closing credits of a movie, not on American Bandstand. (“I’d give it an 85. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.”)
I would not sit back and allow the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
I tried to determine how and why such a record became the biggest selling single of 1966. After dismissing a couple of reasons, I focused on looking at its success as support by the white middle class for our military’s efforts to stop the so-called domino effect in Southeast Asia.
I discovered that Barry Sadler was a very interesting figure with several distinct career paths after his military duty, including stints as a recording artist, a movie star, and a saloon owner before ending up a modestly successful writer with more than twenty published and popular novels!
This is the French poster for The Green Berets. The black backdrop and the huge (should I say “godlike”) image of John Wayne looking down at the war make this much more graphically interesting than the American poster (above).
One hundred men will test today
Back to the Duke’s movie: the reputation of The Green Berets as an inaccurate piece of Pentagon-approved propaganda has tarnished its reputation for decades. Not that there’s much of a reputation to tarnish: based on the novel of the same name by Robin Moore, the film wasn’t very good, even as bad movies go. Here is a summation of the plot from The Guardian (July 11, 2014):
“Wayne wrote to President Lyndon B Johnson to secure government approval. The Pentagon allowed Wayne lavish use of props and military bases for filming; it also retained script approval, and insisted on extensive and detailed changes to plot and dialogue.
We had to stop the Commies before they invaded San Francisco and had their way with our women!
The film begins with a lengthy prologue showing what good ol’ boys the Special Forces are. But there is a liberal journalist—those guys are the worst—called George Beckworth. He has gotten the silly idea in his commie-loving head that this war might be a bit nasty. Fortunately, Special Forces set him right at the press conference.
The Americans spend all their time in Vietnam doing nice things, like offering medical assistance to needy peasants and hugging adorable children. Meanwhile, the Vietcong are a massive, faceless force of evil, murdering children and raping women. Beckworth suddenly realises that America is totally in the right. Take that, liberals!”
The Guardian writer points out that a year after The Green Berets was released, an investigation by writer Daniel Lang for The New Yorker magazine revealed that atrocities such as the film depicts were in fact happening—but they were being committed by US troops.
In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected President after hinting he could end the war where the Democrats had failed. He did this after torpedoing President Johnson’s attempts to broker a peace accord with North Vietnam. Nixon and the Rep*blican Party thus ensured the deaths of tens of thousands more Americans and hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians.
It did not appear that The Green Beret movie stemmed the tide of anti-war sentiment and opinion that was flowing through the United States and Europe.
This is the Japanese poster for The Green Berets. It is much closer to the original American poster than the French poster (both above) but packs a little more graphic punch due to the Japanese symbols.
Only three win the green beret
This pales in comparison to a review of the movie given it at the time of release by Renata Adler in The New York Times (June 20, 1968):
“The Green Berets is a film so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail that it passes through being fun, through being funny, through being camp, through everything and becomes an invitation to grieve, not for our soldiers or for Vietnam (the film could not be more false or do a greater disservice to either of them) but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus in this country. ”
And that’s the opening sentence! While the movie was critically panned, it still drew people to the box office: it was produced at a cost of$7,000,000 while pulling in just under $22,000,000 at the box office. This would indicate that it was profitable, though far from being a blockbuster. 2
Barry Sadler playing soldier in the deserts of the American Southwest in 1971.
The Lord of the Beret trilogy
This is the second of three articles relating to Barry Sadler and his 1966 hit single The Ballad Of The Green Berets. The three make the most sense if read in this order:
FEATURED IMAGE: The artwork at the top of this page was taken from the original poster for the movie The Green Berets. It’s a painting by artist Frank McCarthy, one of the great names in the history of movie poster art.
1 I had probably seen Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by this time as part of a Saturday matinée double-feature. I’m not sure that I understood the nuances of the deranged, paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper’s (Sterling Hayden) reflection at the time.
2 I don’t even try to make sense out of cost and gross and profit for Hollywood movies—their accounting department is apparently far more creative than anything the scumbags in the record industry ever tried. The movie Forrest Gump grossed almost $700,000,000 worldwide, yet the producers claimed it did not make a profit: “Winston Groom was paid $350,000 for the screenplay rights to his novel Forrest Gump and was contracted for a 3% share of the film’s net profits. However, the film’s producers did not pay him, using Hollywood accounting to posit that the blockbuster film lost money. Tom Hanks, by contrast, contracted for a percent share of the film’s gross receipts instead of a salary, and received $40,000,000.” (Wikipedia)