The Green Berets actor John Wayne also stepped behind the camera for the famous war movie. Some of his fans praise the film, but others slam it for its depictions of war. Composer Miklós Rózsa recalled working with Wayne on The Green Berets. However, he explained the situation surrounding a time when the actor-turned-filmmaker made him use a popular song at the time that he really didn’t want to use.
Rózsa had a lot of impressive credits under his belt before joining Wayne on The Green Berets. He won three Oscars for his work on Spellbound, A Double Life, and Ben-Hur. However, Rózsa had another 14 nominations over the course of his career.
According to Michael Munn’s John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, Rózsa recalled exactly how he came to work on The Green Berets.
“I think it was Mervyn LeRoy who persuaded Wayne to use me,” Rózsa said. “Not that he did me any favors. I dislike the film, but I’ve written for many other films I didn’t like.”
LeRoy was a filmmaker who went uncredited for The Green Berets as a director. Some longtime film fans will recognize his name as the one that directed 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
Rózsa told Munn about the experience of working with Wayne on The Green Berets. However, it wasn’t always the most pleasant time while they were watching the movie back together.
“I watched the film when it was finished,” Rózsa said. “Wayne sat there holding an empty 35mm film can into which he spat tobacco. Not the most pleasant way of watching a film with someone chewing tobacco and spitting it out.”
However, the worst of it came when Wayne wanted Rózsa to incorporate a popular song called “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”
“I have always hated songs in films, and I never went for the John Ford school of film music where the cavalry sing as they ride out to fight the Indians,” Rózsa recalled. “So I said to Wayne, ‘You can’t have the song being sung by the Special Forces. It would not only be old-fashioned, but it would be bad taste.’”
Wayne responded that the song would help sell the movie, but Rózsa made him a compromise. The composer said that he would begin and end the film with the song, but he would compose an original piece of music for the actual theme that captured a sense of heroism.
Additionally, Rózsa gave “The Ballad of the Green Berets” a different arrangement for the opening ad ending credits, which he hoped “was suitably moving.” He considered the final scene between Wayne and the little boy “corny,” but understood what it was getting at.
Rózsa continued: “It moved something in me, and I wanted the music to help the audience to be moved. But I had promised to use that damn song, and I used it the best way I could.”
The Green Berets earned quite negative reviews from critics, especially aimed toward Wayne. They were particularly shocked at how it simplified the Vietnam War, offending multiple parties involved. However, Rózsa explained to Munn that this controversy allowed him to slip away from the feature with clean hands.
“I don’t think anyone mentioned whether the music was good or bad,” Rózsa said. “Some film composers say that an audience shouldn’t notice the score, but who didn’t notice the music in Ben-Hur? I think the critics who hated The Green Berets were too shocked and mad at John Wayne to listen to music, so maybe I got off lightly.”
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