THE CURRENT wave of movies about the Vietnam War and its aftermath has again focused attention on the long-standing relationship between the film industry and the armed forces.Within the Pentagon itself, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Thomas Ross has asked the individual services to consider whether the Pentagon should stop making judgments altogether on whether scripts are in the best interest of the department of Defense.
Of the movies so far released that touch on the Vietnam experience, only "Heroes", a light comedy of a disturbed veteran who sets out across America to find himself, received even limited Pentagon assistance. Perhaps realizing the Marines would have nothing to do with a movie that would advertise itself, "To keep their sanity in an insane war, they had to be crazy," the producers of "The Boys in Company C" did not even submit a script to the Defense Department. Instead, they made the movie in the Philippines, ending up with a story that Marine officials insists bears almost no resemblance to their procedures, activities or experiences in Vietnam.
The producer of "Rolling Thunder," a story about a returned POW, did request Air Force assistance. However, the service refused to cooperate on the grounds that there were "no known cases of Air Force officers becoming schizophrenic" as portrayed in the story. While the service conceded that some POWs came home to marital problems, it said there was "nothing beneficial for DoD in the dramatization of this situation."
Over the years, the armed services have based their decisions to cooperate on a script on whether assistance would benefit the military by aiding in recruitment or by providing informational value to the public about a service's activities and procedures. Occasionally, the military has provided help on a movie which might not render such benefits, if assistance seemed to be in a service's best interest. By agreeing to work with a filmmaker on a less-than-desirable script, the armed forces feel they can improve the completed movie's accuracy and the portrayal of the military itself. In all situations, however, regulations have required that assistance be at no cost to the taxpayer.
Despite this stricture, the Armed Forces found themselves embroiled in controversy over assistance to Hollywood on several occasions - beginning with Darryl Zanuck's "The Longest Day" in France in 1961. Although regulations were tightened as a result of the large amount Zanuck received, John Wayne's use of facilities and men at Fort Benning in 1967 during the making of the "Green Berets" caused Congressman Benjamin Rosenthal to demand an investigation of the assistance the film received "60 Minutes" again focused attention on cooperation in 1969 when it did a story on the Navy's assistance to "Tora! Tora! Tora!" Although the program claimed 20th Century Fox received free use of an aircraft carrier and facilities in Hawaii, the General Accounting Office found that all regulations had been followed and full payment made. Nevertheless, the congressional inquiry contributed to Hollywood's reluctance to make military movies in the 1970s.
Before the Vietnam War spawned antiwar sentiment in the country, of course, most Hollywood films about the armed forces helped create an image of the American military as all-conquering invincible and infallible. Vietnam and more specifically, Tet, destroyed this image. The controversial nature of the war and its daily appearance on the evening news also eroded the market for movies about the conflict both during the fighting and in the years immediately afterwards.
Beginning with the release of "Midway" in 1976, however, Hollywood has once again turned to the military as a subject. Walter Mirish's film about the battle which turned the tide in the Pacific, "A Bridge Too Far," and "MacArthur" focused on a safe war, one from which the United States emerged victorious.
Concurrently, the peacetime military also became the subject for filmmakers when Mirisch produced "Gray Lady Down," the story of a stricken nuclear submarine. Even though the completed film resembled a service-produced documentary, the Navy provided cooperation reluctantly and only after rejecting at least four scripts.
To the Navy, the story of a submarine disaster offered little benefit to the service's recruitment campaign. What the Navy found worse in the early scripts, however was the rescue of the trapped American sailors by a Russian submarine and diving equipment. According to Rear Admiral David Cooney, the Navy Chief of Informaion, such a portrayal was inaccurate because a Russian submarine did not have the capability of performing the feats attributed to it. In addition to this and other inaccuracies in the early screenplays, the Navy felt the degree of assistance the filmmakers would have required would have interrupted regular activities.
Ultimately Mirisch deleted all references to Russian involvement in the rescue, reduced his requests for help and paid all costs entailed by his location shooting.Despite Navy's concern over the story, the completed film did provide informational value by portraying the service's newly operational Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) and most likely did not hurt recruiting.
In contrast, the growing wave of stories about Vietnam seldom contain portrayals which the armed forces find accurate or beneficial to their image. In addition to "Rolling Thunder," the Pentagon has refused to assist in the production of "Go Tell the Spartans," "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," and "Coming Home." Jerome Hellman's failure to obtain cooperation from either the Marine Corps or the Veterans' Administration during the production of Jane Fonda's anti-Vietnam film illustrates the difficulty Hollywood and the military have had in reaching accomodations on scripts in order to make them suitable for assistance.
"In the interest of authenticity," the film's production manager asked the Defense Department for use of personnel, vehicles, and a technical advisor as well as permission to shoot on a Marine installation. The Marine office of Information found the script "ot be unbalanced and an injustice" to the Corps, objecting in particular to the wide-spread use of drugs by officers and men and the commentary by an officer (played by Bruce Dern in the movie) about how his men cut heads off enemy bodies in Vietnam.
While the Marine Corps advised Hellman it did not want to become involved with such a story, Lt. Col. Arthur Brill, head of the Information Branch, emphasized that the Marines have always remained willing to talk to producers and would have negotiated with the makers of "Coming Home" in an effort to soften the initial script's portrayal of the Corps. After an initial inquiry about the reasons for being turned down, however, the company did not pursue the matter.
Hellman did seek assistance from the Veterans' Administration in both research and use of facilities. Although the VA did allow the screenwriter, Waldo Salt, to visit a VA hospital, it turned down requests to use VA facilities because it found that the first two scripts adversely portrayed the injured veterans and the Administration itself. Responding to the second script, Dr. John C. Chase, the VA's chief medical director, observed that the story "incorrectly and unfairly portrays veterans as weak and purposeless, with no admirable qualities, embittered against their country, addicted to alcohol and marijuana, and as unbelievably foulmouthed and devoid of conventional morality in sexual matters."
When Max Cleland became director of the VA, however, he agreed to allow Hellman to shoot one scene in the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Riverside. But by that time the sequence had been written out of the film and shooting had been completed.
Cleland himself has taken a different approach to providing cooperation than his predecessor and his counterparts in the Pentagon. He has already agreed to provide use of the Bronx VA hospital for the filming of Ron Kovic's "Born on the Fourth of July." The Marine Corps has made no final decision on whether to assist, in part because of its concern over the impact the film might have on recruitment.
Cleland does not believe a critical portrayal of the VA is sufficient grounds to prevent use of facilities by a "legitimate" filmmaker: "If it is in the broad range of legitimate filmmaking, just because it portrays the VA in a bad light or casts VA physicians or nurses in a bad lighta, that is in my opinion not enough reason by and of itself to say, perforce, you cannot film it on location." Nor does lack of accuracy disqualify a script for assistance as far as the VA director is concerned. He notes that a filmmaker can always make a movie without help, as was done with "Coming Home." But by giving technical advice when sought and providing locations as long as the production does not interfere with normal VA operations, Cleland believes the movie naturally gains accuracy. Moreover, he thinks most filmmakers have good intentions and are trying to tell their stories fairly.
"Coming Home" itself seems to support Cleland's trust in Hollywood. Despite the problems with the scripts, he found that the completed film provided hope for veterans, so he loved it. In addition, after seeing the movie, Dr. Chase observed that he probably would have agreed to assist on its production if the initial script had reflected the movie's final form.
While the armed forces remain willing to assist on films about Vietnam, has the problem of deciding whether to cooperate been better illustrated than in the Defense Department's negotiations with Francis Coppola over assistance to "Apocalypse Now," the much delayed film which initiated the cycle of Vietnam war movies.
Gen. L. Gordon Hill Jr., then the Army's chief of information, described the original script which the director left in the Pentagon as "simply a series of some of the worst things, real and imagined, that happened or could have happened during the Vietnam war." At the heart of the problem was the script's springboard, which had one officer (played by Martin Sheen) sent out to "terminate" a commander of a Special Forces unit (played by Marion Brando) who has apparently gone mad and is leading his men in attacks against both sides of the war. The Army maintained that no officer would ever be sent to "terminate" another officer. Instead, he would investigate and attempt to bring back the officer for medical treatment and/or court martial.
If Coppola had been willing to change his script from "terminate" to investigate, the Defense Department would have agreed to provide at least limited assistance, if for no other reason than to avoid a confrontation with the director of the two Godfather films. Ultimately, the Pentagon advised Coppola it was willing to send a representative to discuss changes that would make the script acceptable for cooperation.The director did not respond to this communication. But nine months later, he did telegram President Carter saying, "I need some modicum of cooperation or the entire government will appear ridiculous to American and world public." Since he offered no concessions on his script, the Defense Department felt it had no basis for responding to the request.
If accuracy remains a crucial element in the miliary's decision to assist on a production, stories can contain negative elements if they have historical basis and are plausible. "Knights of Nam," a Vietnam film scheduled to go into production this summer, contains scenes of fragging, racial confrontation and even drug taking, but received Army approval with only minor changes in detail. Mitchell Leeds, the producer, explains that his story qualified for assistance because it also shows Americans continuing to do their jobs effectively during the difficult period of the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Moreover, he does not portray every veteran coming home from war mentally unbalanced or bitter as in "Coming Home," "Rolling Thunder" and "Heroes."
Leeds' problems in getting his production underway came not from the Pentagon, but from the Philippine government. It initially had agreed to assist on the film, but withdrew its approval because it felt "that the scenes to be filmed in the Philippines might have certain implications which could be misinterpreted and adversely affect Philippine relations with Vietnam." As a result, Leeds will have to shoot all his combat sequences in Hawaii using Pentagon assistance.
In the meantime, Assistant Secretary Ross' inquiry to the services remains under consideration. The favorable reaction to "Knights to Nam" and several other scripts, including "Trash Can Combat," demonstrate that the armed forces remain receptive to assisting filmmakers on scripts which provide some benefit to the services. In contrast to the Veterans' Administration, however, the armed forces have made it clear they will cooperate only on movies which they believe are accurate portrayals of military procedures and activities.
On its part, Hollywood will undoubtedly remain wary about movies on Vietnam until it sees how audiences react to the $30 million "Apocalpse Now," scheduled to open at Easter, 1979. If it is successful, filmmakers will most likely show a greater interest in negotiating with the Pentagon for assistance in order to recreate Vietnam realistically on the screen.