The Pentagon gives filmmakers access to hardware and locations in exchange for script input. Where does PR end and censorship begin?
IT IS A COMMONPLACE of American movie reviewing that when a war movie comes out that is even a little bit antiwar, the reviewer may refer to the Francois Truffaut antiwar-movie dictum: Since even a gruesome war movie makes war look exciting, there's really no such thing as an antiwar war movie. "Apocalypse Now" was invented to prove this, "Saving Private Ryan" to bash it into our brains forever.
But a new book by David L. Robb, a Los Angeles-based journalist and former reporter for Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, makes it clear that the Department of Defense doesn't see it the way Truffaut did. Robb's "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies" (Prometheus) documents the activities of the Pentagon's film liaison office, which is part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. The liaison office examines and demands changes to movie scripts to ensure that the US military is depicted favorably in the Hollywood productions to which the Department of Defense leases hardware or locations.
Robb also shows how film producers, those notoriously demonized liberals, often cave in to Pentagon demands when they need to rent a jet fighter or want to shoot on a military base. To Robb, this is a form of taxpayer-funded censorship. It is also, he claims, unconstitutional. Through this official approval process, he argues, the Pentagon favors and rewards pro-military speech over speech that the Pentagon deems not in the military's interest.
In fact, Robb's book shows, film producers in Southern California have mastered the pre-cave, and often fashion their screenplays with Pentagon approval in mind. ("If this doesn't make every boy in the country want to fly a fighter jet, I'll eat this script," the producer of "Independence Day" wrote to the Pentagon's film office, in a letter quoted by Robb. The movie was denied anyway.) Without military assistance, studios claim, they couldn't afford the kind of realism only an authentic Black Hawk helicopter can deliver.
In the Pentagon, Hollywood has found a partner that understands the art of the deal. In Hollywood, Robb charges, the Pentagon has found something more valuable: a propaganda factory willing to foot the bill for making military recruitment ads in the service of blockbuster entertainment. Though movies that have received help from the Pentagon carry a line in the credits thanking the Department of Defense, few in the audience are aware of the influence the military wields over these productions.
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The military has assisted moviemakers since at least 1927, when "Wings," the first Oscar-winner, was made in cooperation with the Army Air Corps. After World War II the Pentagon decided to codify its guidelines for helping film productions. Then, the Communist threat was often the justification for cutting elements the Pentagon didn't like from films that were dependent on military assistance. Such was the case in 1955, Robb writes, when a subplot about a Mexican-American's conflict with a racist Texan in his Marine outfit was excised from "Battle Cry," a Raoul Walsh movie set during World War II.
Today the Pentagon is up-front about what it wants: good PR. Phil Strub, the civilian in charge of the Pentagon's film liaison office, said in a recent interview that what the Pentagon looks for in a film they are asked to assist is "an opportunity to increase the public's awareness of what the military does and as a by-product of that a chance to increase recruitment and retention" of troops. Strub rejects Robb's charge of censorship, saying that the arrangement is a two-way street. "Hollywood wants something from us," he points out. "We negotiate and if they don't like our suggestions, they make the film without us."
(Robb interviewed Strub for his book, along with dozens of other government and industry sources. Only the Marine Corps' film office, which works under the Pentagon's film office, allowed him unrestricted access to their files.)
According to Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University and longtime critic of the film office, the relationship is not that simple. Turley, who wrote a foreword to "Operation Hollywood," says that by refusing assistance to movies that may contain material it doesn't like, the Department of Defense suppresses free speech. "It is not always direct manipulation," says Turley, but it has a "chilling effect" on the kinds of films that get made.
"Our intention in producing `Stripes' is to make a comedy film with patriotic overtones that would hopefully have a positive effect on Army recruiting," the film's producer and co-screenwriter Dan Goldberg wrote to the Pentagon's film office, in a letter quoted by Robb, when he presented the script in a bid for military aid. Micromanaged to within an inch of its funniness, "Stripes" suffered heavy Pentagon interference before it went into production. As Robb details, out went the drugs and the swearing, the sadism of the drill sergeant, the covert operation in Mexico. And into the film's first scene went an actual recruitment ad -- not the parody ad envisioned by the filmmakers.
In the dozens of case histories presented by Robb, inaccuracy and a lack of realism are often the reasons the Pentagon gives for the changes it demands. ("Any film that portrays the military as negative is not realistic to us," Robb quotes Strub as saying.) For example, before the Cuban Missile Crisis drama "Thirteen Days" (2000) could meet Pentagon approval, the portrayal of the hawkish Air Force General Curtis LeMay as "unintelligent and bellicose" had to be changed, and a mention of the 1962 downing of a U2 reconnaissance plane had to be removed. Producer Peter Almond refused, and the film went on without Pentagon assistance.
Even Clint Eastwood, then the national chairman of the Marine Corps' Toys-for-Tots program, met with similar trouble over "Heartbreak Ridge," his 1986 drama about the invasion of Grenada. In exchange for eventual approval, Eastwood was forced to remove a mention of the 1983 terrorist bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, had to cut much of his character's swearing, and was pestered on dramatic construction to the point that he felt compelled to call then-President Ronald Reagan and lodge a formal complaint.
Ridley Scott was denied assistance for "G.I. Jane" (1997), which starred Demi Moore as a female recruit battling with sexist Navy SEALS. But that didn't stop him and producer Jerry Bruckheimer from going to the Pentagon for help with "Black Hawk Down" (2001) -- and agreeing to a number of changes.
To Strub, this proves the essential fairness of the approval process. If the film office were censoring filmmakers, why would they come back to work with the Pentagon after past rejections?
Charles Newirth, head of the studio that made "Black Hawk Down," is sanguine, despite having tangled with the liaison office over "Forrest Gump," which was denied approval for its (accurate) suggestion that the Vietnam-era Army recruited soldiers who would previously have been excluded because of low IQ. "We always try to accommodate the Department of Defense," he told Robb. "Phil Strub is a huge ally of Hollywood."
Thomas Doherty, chair of the film studies program at Brandeis and author of "Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II," dismisses Robb's charge that the Pentagon is engaging in censorship. "What do you expect?" he said in a recent interview. "When you're going to people for stuff, they're not going to be disinterested. Guys who are in uniform and are allocating their resources should be allowed to sit down and make reasonable demands. . .. Why should the Pentagon be asked to underwrite films that are against it?"
Besides, he says, Hollywood films should be judged on how they use the hardware they lease from the Pentagon, not whether they use it. He sees a big difference between films like "Black Hawk Down," with its dark portrayal of the Somalia invasion, and rah-rah twaddle like "Pearl Harbor" (2001), even though both received Pentagon assistance.
"Really, there are two kinds of war movies: little boys' war movies and big boys' war movies," says Doherty. "In the big boys' war movies, the most likable characters die." It's up to audiences, not the Pentagon, to determine what is dramatically truthful, he says.
Strub contends that if the Pentagon approval process were as questionable as Robb's book makes it out to be, Congress would do something about it. But, as "Operation Hollywood" shows, the Pentagon system has not gone unchallenged. In 1956, when producer-director Robert Aldrich's script for his war movie "Attack" was rejected by the Pentagon, he told his story to Daily Variety and prompted the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate's Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights to look into the denial of aid. The matter was soon dropped.
The system was challenged again in 1968, when the Pentagon arranged to have its "Thanks to the Department of Defense" credit cut from John Wayne's pro-Vietnam War movie "The Green Berets" -- the only time such a credit has ever been removed.
As Don Baruch, the longtime head of the Pentagon's film office and Strub's predecessor (and a major figure in Robb's book) wrote at the time, he "conferred with Michael Wayne [John Wayne's son and the film's producer] regarding not using DOD credit because (1) `propaganda value of film' might be affected by the association, (2) might increase letters of inquiry on how film received assistance." Within a year, Benjamin Rosenthal, a congressman from New York, demanded from the General Accounting Office a full disclosure of Pentagon assistance to "The Green Berets." Little came of his request.
George Washington Law School's Jonathan Turley says that critics of the approval system have little reason to think they would receive much hearing today. "Unless there is a public outcry members of Congress have no interest in this type of reform," he says. "The Armed Services Committee is interested in using its leverage to keep military bases open. The artistic freedom of movies is not exactly an issue burning in their breasts."
J. Hoberman, film critic for the Village Voice and a professor at New York University who has taught courses on Hollywood and the military, agrees that the approval system is an affront to the First Amendment. "If the Pentagon wants to go into business of leasing to the movies it should be open to whomever wants to lease and can afford to," he said in an interview. "It's our Army. If you can afford the rates you should be able to rent. But if the Department of Defense wants propaganda, they should make it themselves. Films made with Pentagon assistance are the closest things we have to an official art."
A.S. Hamrah is a writer living in Brooklyn