John Wayne's character, Col. Mike Kirby, is based on the real-life Lauri Törni, who later on called himself Larry Thorne. He was a Finnish army captain who fought in the Second World War during the Winter War (1939-40) and Continuation War (1941-44) against the Soviet Union. He emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1940s and in 1954 joined the U.S. Army. In November 1963 he joined Special Forces unit A-734 in Vietnam and fought in the Mekong Delta. He disappeared during a mission in 1965 and was reported MIA (Missing In Action). His remains were found in 1999, and formally identified in 2003.
In 1967 John Wayne wrote to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson requesting military assistance for his pro-war film about Vietnam. The Defense Department had previously helped other war films like Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Longest Day (1962). Jack Valenti told the President, "Wayne's politics are wrong, but insofar as Vietnam is concerned, his views are right. If he made the picture he would be saying the things we want said." Wayne got enough help from the Defense Department to make this film, which became one of the most controversial movies of all time.
Possibly due to the film's extremely negative critical reactions, it's been a long-held belief by many people that it was also a box-office flop. Actually, it was one of John Wayne's biggest box-office successes, attracting millions of moviegoers and ending up being the 13th highest grossing movie of 1968, with reported grosses of 21,707,027 dollars.
At the beginning of filming George Takei told John Wayne he was strongly against the Vietnam War. Wayne replied that so was half of the cast and crew, and that he had hired Takei for his acting ability and not for his political views.
The house from which John Wayne's team kidnaps the North Vietnamese general was on a heavily wooded estate in Columbus, Georgia, off of Hilton Avenue, just north of the intersections of 13th Street, Wynnton Avenue, and Macon Road. It was chosen by Wayne's production crew for its classic neo-French architecture and because the grounds were adorned with non-native plants and trees. Unfortunately, the house burned to the ground in the 1990s, the lot was never rebuilt upon and to this day is home to the various plant species that appeared in the movie. On a more whimsical note, during the scenes where Wayne's assault team sneaks up on the villa (during the day), if you stop-motion the DVD as Wayne and Jim Hutton survey the situation, you can look between the foliage and see cars passing by on Wynnton Ave, and the parking lot of Sara Spanno's Fish House, a popular Columbus seafood restaurant for many years, in the background.
It has been claimed that John Wayne turned down Lee Marvin's role in The Dirty Dozen (1967) in order to make this film. However, The Dirty Dozen (1967) was filmed early in 1966, whereas this film was made in the second half of 1967. Other sources say Wayne turned down The Dirty Dozen (1967) because he didn't want to be making a movie in the UK when his wife Pilar was due to give birth in February 1966.
Warner Bros. was concerned about letting John Wayne direct the movie because of the fact that his previous directorial effort, The Alamo (1960), had been an expensive flop. Therefore, they only agreed to let him do the film if he agreed to co-direct with a more experienced director, and Wayne chose Ray Kellogg. The studio agreed, despite Kellogg's only having ever directed a few "B" pictures, because of his impressive track record as a second unit director on a number of major studio releases.
The three leads - John Wayne, David Janssen and Jim Hutton - all died within slightly over eight months of one another: Hutton on June 2, 1979, Wayne on June 11, 1979, and Janssen on February 13, 1980. Actually, other than Aldo Ray and Raymond St. Jacques, five of the first seven credited actors/roles died on or before Janssen's death in 1980. Bruce Cabot died May 3, 1972, and Jack Soo died January 11, 1979. And of those five, only Wayne reached the age of 70.
All of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese solders are armed with single-shot rifles and almost no automatic weapons. This was plausible during the early years of the Vietnam war. as many Viet Cong were armed with weapons of World War II British or American origin sold to them by the Chinese. The common AK-47 assault rifle used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese began appearing in the mid-'60s, but there were very few in Hollywood warehouses to be used as props during that time.
Late in the movie John Wayne can be seen to wrap his rappelling rope through a carabineer the wrong way. Called a "fatal hookup" in the Army, this would result in an immediate fall once weight was applied.
The defensive battle that takes place during the second half of the movie is very loosely based on the Battle of Nam Dong, during which two Viet Cong battalions attacked a small outpost in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam which was defended by a mixed force of American, Australian and South Vietnamese troops on July 6, 1964. After the successful defense of the outpost, the commanding officer, Capt. Roger Donlon, was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Scenes were filmed with Vera Miles as John Wayne's wife but they were cut before release by the studio. The scene only took one morning to shoot, but the film was considered overlong, and that scene was judged easiest to cut. Batjac, Wayne's company, offered her 10,000 dollars for her work. When she refused that, they then offered her a new car, which she also declined to accept. Wayne made up for this by casting Miles in his next film Hellfighters (1968).
John Wayne was disappointed that the UK never sent any troops to Vietnam, although this would have been impossible for any British government after the Suez Crisis, and because public opinion in Britain was so strongly opposed to U.S. involvement in the war. Rumors persist that some British SAS soldiers did serve in Vietnam, wearing Australian SAS uniforms. 2,000 British soldiers were allowed to volunteer for service in Vietnam if they first resigned from the British army.
John Wayne still believed the Vietnam War could be won when this film was made in 1967. However, several historians hold that there was no way for the U.S. to win without starting a much wider war against North Vietnam's allies - the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and North Korea. A full-scale Soviet invasion of western Europe and/or a Chinese invasion of Vietnam were thought to be among the likely consequences of expanding the war. Wayne later financed No Substitute for Victory (1970) in an effort to increase support for U.S. efforts to win the Vietnam War.
When George Beckwith first arrives at the camp, he is shown the defensive measures, which included the use of punji sticks. When he asks if that is something the Viet Cong uses, he is told "Yes, but we don't dip them in the same stuff he does." Punji sticks were sometimes dipped into feces to create an infection should someone step on one. Sensitivities at the time probably kept them from mentioning that explicitly, so they only hinted at the practice.
The Pentagon was in the process of trying to prosecute original author Robin Moore for revealing classified information in his book. In an attempt to win the Pentagon over to his side, John Wayne bought Moore out for 35,000 dollars, and a five percent share in the profits. He then proceeded to commission a screenplay that had little or no relation to Moore's book.
The film is mocked in the Gustav Hasford novel The Short-Timers in a scene where Joker and Rafter Man find the Lusthog Squad watching it at a movie theater. "The audience of Marines roars with laughter. This is the funniest movie we have seen in a long time."
In the book "Green Berets" by Robin Moore, the Captain Sven Kornie character, in Chapter 1, is based on Major Larry Thorne (originally Lauri Törni, a Finnish soldier who moved to the U.S. after World War II).
Much of the film was shot in the summer of 1967 (before the Tet Offensive) at Fort Benning, Georgia. The United States Army provided several UH-1 Huey attack helicopters, a C-7 Caribou light transport, and the United States Air Force supplied two C-130 Hercules transports as well as film footage of an AC-47 Puff, the Magic Dragon gunship and a Skyhook recovery for use in the film. The Army also provided authentic uniforms for use by the actors, including the OG-107 green and "Tiger Stripe" Tropical Combat Uniform (jungle fatigues), with correct Vietnam War subdued insignia and name tapes. Some of the "Vietnamese village" sets were so realistic they were left intact, and were later used by the Army for training troops destined for Vietnam. The commander of the United States Army Airborne School at Fort Benning can be seen shooting trap with John Wayne in the film. He can be identified as the only soldier wearing the Vietnam-era "baseball" fatigue cap; the rest wear green berets. The soldiers exercising on the drill field which Wayne shouts to were Army airborne students in training.
John Wayne wished the screenplay to have more development of the characters but Warner Bros. made it clear they wanted more action than talk as The Alamo (1960) was heavily criticized for too much dialogue.
Columbia Pictures, having bought the book's pre-publication film rights, was not able to produce a script that was approved by the Army while producer David L. Wolper, who also tried to buy the same rights, could not obtain finance for filming. A screenplay was written by George Goodman who had served with the Special Forces in the 1950s as a military intelligence officer and had written a 1961 article about the Special Forces called The Unconventional Warriors in Esquire Magazine. Columbia sent Goodman to South Vietnam for research. Robin Moore felt the Pentagon pressured Wolper into breaking an agreement with Moore. Wolper acquired the rights to film The Devil's Brigade (1968), an account of the World War II 1st Special Service Force in 1965, and produced that film instead.
John Wayne rejected allegations that U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was illegal under international law. Critics of the war charged that the U.S. involvement violated Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.
Despite the poor reviews, it went on to be a commercial success, which John Wayne attributed in part to the negative reviews from the press, which he saw as representing criticism of the war rather than the film.
The movie was particularly controversial given that John Wayne did not serve in World War II - unlike older actors like Robert Montgomery (Naval officer on destroyer U.S.S. Barton; participated in D-Day invasion), Eddie Albert (U.S. Navy reserve officer decorated for rescuing trapped U.S. Marines at Tarawa in 1943), Clark Gable (as a B-17 bomber crewman) and Henry Fonda (Sailor on destroyer U.S.S. Satterlee).
George Takei accepted his role in the film while on hiatus from shooting the first and second seasons of Star Trek (1966). As Takei would later note in several interviews, while he was on set, he received several of early scripts for Star Trek (1966) and was pleased to learn that his character, Mister Sulu, was going to get a more expanded role on the show. Several episodes were going to better feature him on landing missions and even allow his character some romantic plot lines with female co-stars. However, when the shooting of the film ran over schedule, clashing with the start of Star Trek (1966)'s filming, Takei had to bow out of the proposed episodes so the producers of the series created the character, Mister Checkov, to replace Sulu until Takei was available to return.
The defensive battle that takes place during the movie is very loosely based on the Battle of Nam Dong, during which two Viet Cong battalions and the PAVN attacked the Nam Dong CIDG camp located in a valley near the Laotian border of the South Vietnam Central Highlands. The camp was defended by a mixed force of Americans, Australians and South Vietnamese troops on 6 July 1964. For his actions at Nam Dong, Captain Roger C. Donlon was the first American to receive the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. Australian Warrant Officer Kevin Conway was the first Australian to be killed in action in the Vietnam War during the battle. The A-107 camp scene used in the film was realistically constructed on an isolated, hilly area of Fort Benning, complete with barbed wire trenches, punji sticks, sandbagged bunkers, mortar pits, towers, support buildings and hooches for the combined strike force. The camp set was largely destroyed by the producers using several tons of dynamite and black powder during the filming of the battle sequence.
The U.S. Army objected to James Lee Barrett's initial script in several ways. The first was that the Army wanted to show that South Vietnamese soldiers were involved in defending the base camp. That was rectified. Secondly, the Army objected to the portrayal of the raid where they kidnapping a VPA general because in the original script this involved crossing the border into North Vietnam.
Despite assurance that he had become sober, Aldo Ray fell off the wagon midway through production and was frequently too drunk to say his lines. John Wayne was forced to rewrite some of Sgt. Muldoon's dialogue for other characters.
Barton B Mac Leod, Motion Pictures Still Photographer as of August 2017 is the last living Photographer to photo shoot John Wayne live on camera in action with movie credits. Barton continued friends with Dave Grayson who passed away a few years ago (John Wayne's Makeup Artist) and his wife Paula over the years. Dave Grayson's son Bruce continued the family tradition as Makeup Artist to include the Oscars several time.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Late in the movie, during the approach to the general's house, the forward scout is ambushed and killed. He also manages to kill all his attackers. When John Wayne picks up his M16 and breaks it against a tree, this is in fact a Mattel battery powered toy rifle sold in the 60s. The sound box and batteries were contained in the magazine. The speaker slots can be seen in the magazine of the rifle as well. Also, the magazine is far too thick to be an actual box magazine for this type of rifle.