Scripting Vietnam Whos in charge here

Discussions between Batjac and the military about the movie initially went smoothly. After meeting the company's president and the Duke's eldest son, Michael, who would also be the film's producer, Donald Baruch informed the army of his enthusiasm for the enterprise. 'Not only do we want and need a feature motion picture on Vietnam', he wrote in February 1966, 'but we believe here is an opportunity to direct and develop a project that will contain story elements that are favourable to the Department of Defence and to the overall effort as stated by the President.' In April, the Waynes got the red-carpet treatment at the Pentagon, where they were briefed by a team led by Baruch and Arthur Sylvester, Assistant Secretary of Defence, and at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, where the Green Berets gave one of their 'Disneyland' performances. John Wayne was more than impressed. 'From General Stilwell down through his Command, we found the soldiery of such quality that, if the people of the United States were apprised of it, it would renew their confidence in the ability, the decency and the dedication of our present-day fighting men.'62

In June, Wayne made a three-week fact-finding and morale-boosting mission to Vietnam, sponsored by the Defence Department. Visiting the Marines near Chu Lai after completing work narrating a Defence Department documentary on America's rural rebuilding programme, Wayne reportedly narrowly escaped Viet Cong sniper fire. In Saigon children ran after him shouting 'Number One Cowboy', while US troops often called him Stryker, after his marine sergeant role in Sands of Iwo Jima. On his return home, Wayne publicly likened some aspects of the war to 'an old cavalry post where men, women and kids are getting killed'. His own version of the Domino Theory called for the supply of Russian, Czech and Chinese weapons to the enemy to be cut off at source: 'We're at war with international communism.'63 At the end of June 1966, Michael Wayne reached an agreement with Universal Pictures on the financial and distribution arrangements for the film.64

However, trouble soon flared once the Pentagon read the draft scripts. These were penned by the experienced screenwriter and Vietnam veteran James Lee Barrett, whose earlier work curiously included On the Beach, with some input from John Wayne himself. Image-conscious elements within the armed services had actually bridled at the 'gung-ho' nature of Moore's book. Worse still from their perspective, the novel depicted the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) as corrupt and cowardly; mocked 'do-gooders' wanting to fight the war by social work; and showed the Special Forces violating international agreements, condoning torture, and employing bandits, opium-smugglers and prostitutes.65 Having paid Moore roughly $75,000 for the rights to his bestseller, Michael Wayne wanted the movie to follow its dramatic contours as closely as possible. Baruch, on the other hand, had got the impression early on from Wayne that the film would be a very loose adaptation, and had passed this on to the Pentagon in order to allay its initial scepticism.66

In order to write as good a script as possible, James Lee Barrett immersed himself in the details of operational conditions in Vietnam, even asking the director of press information at CBS Television about radio communications in the field.67 In the summer of 1966, Barrett travelled to the Vietnamese front

Fatherly fatigues: the Duke signing autographs during his trip to Vietnam in June 1966. Batjac Productions, Inc.

line under the Defence Department's auspices. Whilst there, his camp came under fire, and it was this experience, plus that of John Wayne's in June and Moore's plot, that formed the basis of Barrett's rough drafts. On reading the first of these, a panel including the Defence Department, State Department, army and Green Berets turned it down flat. In the panel's opinion, the script was riddled with technical and strategic errors, the most obvious being the portrayal of a covert Green Berets' mission into North Vietnam to seize a high-ranking communist official without the South Vietnamese government's permission. This gave the politically dangerous impression that the US Special Forces were a law unto themselves in Vietnam.68

Barrett and Michael Wayne complied with the long list of changes suggested by Baruch, despite the damage they thought this would do to the movie's commercial and propagandistic success. Understandably, they believed they had no choice. For all his father's political and cultural leverage, Michael knew that the Defence Department held the whip hand over filmmakers. Unless Baruch officially sanctioned the script, the helicopters, jeeps, uniformed extras and so on needed to make the film look like 'the real thing' would be withheld.69 After examining Barrett's third draft script, in March 1967, the Defence Department formally agreed to assist the production, provided further modifications were made. These, again, went beyond technicalities, and affected the movie's political coloration. All references to the Vietnamese conflict being a civil war were to be cut. Instead, South Vietnam was to be presented as an independent country under attack from an aggressive neighbour. A scene showing the Green Berets condoning the ARVN's brutal treatment of prisoners had to be excised because it was, in the words of the Defence Department Public Affairs Office, 'grist for the opponents of United States policy in Vietnam'.70 In June, just before production was due to start, the whole project nearly collapsed. Universal withdrew any further financial support, ostensibly due to perceived weaknesses in the screenplay but also because of the war's increased notoriety. A new financial backer, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, swiftly filled the void, doubtless encouraged by the full backing the military now promised the film.71

Having spent eighteen months working to ensure that this important movie would present a polished image of both the military's actions and the White House's Vietnam strategy, the Department of Defence did all it could to add authenticity to the production. While searching for a location that could double as Vietnamese jungle country, John Wayne had initially thought of shooting the movie in Okinawa. Following a suggestion from the army, he eventually settled on the rugged terrain within the US Infantry's 285-square-mile base at Fort Benning in Georgia, where the military's logistical support would be close to hand.72 As well as allowing Batjac to film at Fort Benning, Fort Bragg and nearby airfields, the Pentagon granted the company access to a staggering array of equipment, including jeeps, captured Viet Cong weapons, armoured personnel carriers, tanks and helicopters. It supplied Batjac with over 350 army personnel, and obligingly put on leave a platoon of Hawaiian-Americans training in Massachusetts to play the Oriental roles. Wayne's art director Walter Simmonds,

Hollywood technicians and the army built a $150,000 mock-up of a Vietnamese village at Fort Benning, which was turned over to the army for training purposes after filming was complete. The Defence Department provided almost all of this military hardware and manpower at taxpayers' expense.73

Shooting on location took place over thirteen weeks, starting in August 1967, after which the main players and crew moved to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. In keeping with the difficulties experienced in pre-production, the filming itself was far from straightforward. Under the watchful eye of the Defence Department's three 'technical advisers', several more script changes were made on set, in order to help the film strike the right artistic and ideological notes. David Janssen, who played the dovish journalist Beckworth, kept insisting on more realistic dialogue lest he come across as an idiot.74 Certain scenes disappeared at the editing stage. One in which Wayne's lead character, Lt. Col. Mike Kirby, accuses anti-war protestors of being 'drenched in self-pity' was left on the cutting room floor because, according to Michael Wayne, it was 'too political'. A typical John Wayne comic brawl also went by the wayside, presumably on grounds of taste; at a time when so many Americans were coming back in body bags, few had the nerve to make Vietnam the subject of fun.75 Starring and co-directing (with Ray Kellogg) took its toll on the 60-year-old Duke, who three years earlier had been operated on to remove a cancerous lung. He caught laryngitis at a rain-drenched Fort Benning, and when the production looked to be running slightly ragged Warners-Seven Arts sent the veteran director Mervyn LeRoy to knock it back into shape.76 At this point, Robin Moore cried foul to the press. The Defence Department was, he claimed, changing the 'core' of his book in order 'to keep up an unpopular war'. Michael Wayne countered by stressing that Batjac alone was responsible for the changes and by arguing he was 'not making a film about Vietnam. I'm making a picture about good against bad.'77

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