The impact that agreeing or refusing Pentagon script approval can have on a film

by Dan Tonkin

This assignment delivers strong examples from the U.S film industry, which demonstrates the extent to which Pentagon script approval, particularly those seeking military aid for their respective stories, can support or wound productions.

We have become immersed in a world consumed by media and it’s important to note how profitable war can be, particularly in video games and on the screen and how ‘the intensification of the relationship between the Pentagon and the entertainment industries brought about the crystallization of platforms that invite one to project oneself into the action. (Stahl, 2010, p.3). Gazing upon a screen, ‘few moviegoers realise how much control the Pentagon has over the American film industry. Citing letters, internal memos and interviews with producers, writers and directors…’ (Klindo & Phillips, 2005). In fact the cooperation dates back to some of the worlds first directors such as D.W Griffiths (Birth Of A Nation, 1915) and King Vidor (War & Peace, 1956) and when America entered into the Second World War, this relationship grew exponentially. In fact ‘Hollywood studios, working in association with the Pentagon, rapidly churned out scores of war dramas and documentaries to boost the American war effort.’ (Klindo & Phillips, 2005) Consecutively, the figures of recruitment soared.

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It wasn’t long after the end of the Second World War ‘the Pentagon formally established its “film approval” process and then, in 1948, set up a special movie liaison office, as part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.’ (Klindo & Phillips, 2005) which would continue to govern their control over the movies it chose to assist in the future. Its supposed mission: ‘studying the scripts of American war movies, deciding whether to offer them support or not, depending on their interest for the country’s military leaders.’ (Pia-Mascaro, 2003) Hollywood soon began the vetting of all scripts in need of military resources and filmmakers forced to outfit and bend their stories to the whims of the Pentagon’s preferences. Put simply, agreeing to Pentagon script approval; allowing for their intervention with movies, being re-shaped ‘were given substantial financial and technical help; those unwilling to accept its dictates were denied any assistance.’ (Klindo & Phillips, 2005)

Examples of changes that determine its Pentagon script approval can be found in films such as Top Gun (1986) whereby the actress playing the heroine’s love interest ‘was changed from an enlisted woman to someone outside the service’ (Campbell, 2001) on the grounds that such relationships are forbidden in the Navy. Another change exists in Goldeneye (1995) where originally the plot involved a US Navy ‘was changed to make the traitor a member of the French navy.’ (Campbell, 2001) Such changes to these productions won the approval they required and were subsequently made as a result.

Many films exist that have been supported following Pentagon script approval, such as Top Gun (1986), Air Force One (1997), The Jackal (1997), Armageddon (1998) & Pearl Harbour (2001). On the other hand, there are many films that refused Pentagon script approval, such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986) Forrest Gump (1994) and The Thin Red Line (1998). McElwee says “Americans should fear the military suppression of speech. Excellent movies like The Thin Red Line (1998) that accurately portray the horror of war face a disadvantage to movies like Top Gun that glorify it.” (McElwee, 2013). Arguably the reasons, for a script being refused approval from the Pentagon, such as The Thin Red Line (1998) one army major; Ray Smith stated:

“The army does not lend officers to the CIA to execute or murder other army officers. And even if it did we wouldn’t help you make it.” (Klindo, M Phillips, R, 2005)

jim-caviezel-the-thin-red-line

This highlights two things within the Pentagon script approval here; firstly, a requisite for accuracy in military law such as navy seals refusing to let female candidates to join in G.I Jane (1997) and the second for a distaste in stories with themes of treason and mutiny, such as within Crimson Tide (1995).

One theory comes from Lilie Chouliaraki and her focus on the heirarcy

chy of pity, constructed by ‘imposing one of three scripts on events: adventure, emergency and ecstatic coverage.’ (Hoskins & O’Loughlin, 2010, p.54) Particularly concerning itself with non-fictional war events, it offers some scope as to how the Pentagon assesses its choice for script approval, in so far as does the story set out to deliver this story as an adventure for a protagonist to convey valour or does it aim to highlight the victims and collateral damage to evoke sympathy. I would say that given some of the examples that exist in my research, the likelihood of the latter seems less dominant to Pentagon script approval, such films like Platoon (1986) focused on the horrors of war than bravery and Born On The Fourth Of July (1989), highlighting a victim of the war in Vietnam and actively protesting against the government that put him there.

I began to take notice of the evidence in theories of military hierarchy intervening in film and moved on to consider David Robb and his concept of Operation Hollywood (Robb, 2004). This former journalist for Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter decided to investigate the relationship between Hollywood studios and the Pentagon, which he went through several documents, which depict on this relationship in numerous ways. The initial request for Pentagon approval stems from a movie’s producer requesting to support them with the required number of tanks, ships etc and five copies of the script and provided they respond with an interest he states “you have to make the changes that they ask for, or negotiate some kind of compromise, or you don’t get the stuff.” (Fleischer, 2004)

Following a production’s approval, a technical advisor is assigned to it ensuring the cooperation and loyalty of the filmmakers to the Pentagon’s directives to shoot the film in the way in which it was agreed. Not totally without mercy, understanding the necessity for rewrites a filmmaker can re-enter negotiations to address production concerns but an approval on further changes is still required from the Pentagon to authorise such action. Failing this results in the forfeit of military assets thus making the film “physically impossible — or prohibitively expensive — to produce.” (Sirota, 2012)

Robb remarks upon Clint Eastwood’s film Heartbreak Ridge (1986) as an example of such an event, whereby he shoots a defenseless Cuban soldier. Taking issue with a war crime on screen, it was instructed that the scene be removed but failing to do so, the military support was taken away and decided to prohibit its screening in military theaters or U.S bases. Robb also mentions ‘If you want cooperation again, and you’ve screwed them like that before, you’re not going to get it. People almost never screw the Army on these deals.’ (Fleischer, 2013)

In the video documentary of Operation Hollywood (Pacull, 2004) David Robb concludes:

“Any film that’s a good film, will show that war is not the answer. Any film that the military assists always says that war is the answer and every film that the military assists is worse than any film that they don’t… Films are so much better when the military’s not involved because you don’t have this censor telling you what to write, you have artists presenting their image.” (Pacull, 2004)

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It is important to note however, that in Operation Hollywood (Pacull, 2004), producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay are mentioned in a favourable light by David Robb and statements like “he likes to blow up ships” when he mentions the film Battleship (2013) despite him being the director of films such as The Rock (1996), a film, which deals with themes of mutiny and treason, alongside Jerry Bruckheimer, whom also has a hand in producing non-approved Pentagon approval scripts, such as Crimson Tide (1995). Additionally, if the relationship between the Pentagon and the filmmaker need to cooperate to such a level as to avoid what happened to Clint Eastwood’s reputation with them then why in cases such as Ridley Scott, director of Black Hawk Down (2001) be assisted by the Pentagon after he also directed a non-approved script, mentioned earlier G.I Jane (1997)?

Such examples certainly contradict any fundamental reasoning as to the choices of Pentagon script approval. In which case, this brings me to another theory I would like to point out, which suggests the Pentagon using its relationship with Hollywood studios as a glamourized recruiting station.

Philip Strub, director of film liaison office at the Pentagon reveals some leniency towards what is construed to be in the best interests of military retention and recruiting, when he mentions the Pentagon approved script for Pearl Harbour (2001);

“We understood that history was going to be the sacrificial victim in the service of drama and action” (Pacull, 2004)

This is further accentuated through another source which states his ambition to gain support for the U.S Army ‘for its actions on the battlefield and encourage more soldiers to sign up.’ (Pia-Mascaro, 2003) Understandably, there are horrors in war that are brought into question as to what may be too visceral for children to watch, too depressing to motivate potential recruits but in contrast, would a veteran who has been through war and survived take issue with the censorship of these horrors as an audience member to a non-fictional based piece of war cinema?

Such an example resides within the film Windtalkers (2002). A film based on a non-fictional dynamic whereby Navajo Indians joined the U.S marines in World War 2, using their native tongue as an unbreakable code against the Japanese. The refusal for Pentagon script approval took issue with Nicholas Cage’s character (Joe Enders) order to kill his assigned “Code Talker” in the event of his capture. The film liasion office spoke out against this, one marine sergeant Joe Enders claimed ‘orders to Enders “to take your guy out” were a fiction… However, marines were given such orders. This has been verified by surviving Code Talkers and the US Congress.’ (Klindo & Phillips, 2005)

One could argue that Morgan may have desired such blatant omissions for being so blindly and ignorant to the idea of the atrocities of war, and if not there is no evidence to suggest that the film liasion office wasn’t somehow involved or if he desired such omissions.

Throughout the course of this assignment I have demonstrated – names of theories and names and many examples from the U.S film industry that reveal the extent to which Pentagon script approval can support or hinder a film’s production. There is strong evidence to suggest ‘the Pentagon sees the film business as an important part of public relations’ (Campbell, 2001) when we review the reasons for the Pentagon film liasion office refusing script approval on certain productions, on the grounds of mutiny in Crimson Tide (1995), sexism in G.I Jane (1997), or murder of comrades under threat of capture Windtalkers (2002) we are forced to believe that they are directly attempting to censor certain realities in war by censoring a scriptwriter’s work. McElwee argues that ‘the Pentagon fears that some of the movies may hurt the military’s reputation and recruiting efforts. These concerns are legitimate but it’s more important… to be a place for free trade, rather than favouring some over others.’ (McElwee, 2013)

I whole-heartedly agree with this statement as well as with many of the statements made by David Robb. Additionally, Collins highlights the all important point about not judging a war’s success on ‘kill ratios released by the Defense Department. Moral conclusions must ultimately rise above such facts.’ (Collins, 1998, p. 233)

There is no reason in my opinion to censor certain humanitarian values in war, particularly those that deal with the issues of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and particularly in one of my favourite television series, Strike Back (2010), based on the British SAS but otherwise funded by Sky in the U.S, which embodies some of the very same themes that the Pentagon endeavors to censor. Certainly this is one of many examples that indicate that audiences are evolving, interested and ready to accept wider perspectives of war, its crimes and psychological states. A conclusive point I would like to recite from Collins are; ‘films can serve the student of American culture in a far more interesting way than simply as a record of visual reality, for films register the feelings and attitudes of the periods in which they are made (Collins, 1998, p. 250).

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Bibliography

Campbell, D. 2001, Top Gun versus Sergeant Bilko? No contest, says the Pentagon, The Guardian, 29 August 2001. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/aug/29/media.filmnews

[Accessed 2 January 2013].

Collins, P., 1998, Hollywood As An Historian, Kentucky: University Press Of Kentucky.

Fleischer, J, 2004. Mother Jones. Operation Hollywood. Available from: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2004/09/operation-hollywood

[Accessed 2 January 2013].

Hoskins, A, O’Loughlin, B., 2010. War & Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Klindo, M, Phillips, R., World Socialist Web Site, 2005, Military Interference In American Film Production, Available from: http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2005/03/holl-m14.html

[Accessed 2 January 2013].

McElwee, S., AntiWar.com. 2013, Propaganda and Censorship: The Hollywood Industrial Complex, Available from: http://original.antiwar.com/sean-a-mcelwee/2013/04/28/propaganda-and-censorship-the-hollywood-industrial-complex/

[Accessed 2 January 2013].

Movieline., 2013, Tales Of The Military-Entertainment Complex: Why The U.S Navy Produced ‘Battleship’, Available from: http://movieline.com/2013/02/06/military-entertainment-complex-hollywood-pentagon-relationship-battleship-zero-dark-thirty/

[Accessed 2 January 2013].

Pacull, E. 2004. Operation Hollywood: How The Pentagon Shapes & Censors The Movies, Film. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPZL5WTilRE

[Accessed 2 January 2014].

Pia-Mascaro, M. 2003. Hollywood & The Pentagon: A Dangerous Liasion. Film. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3r20a7nHpnY

[Accessed 2 January 2014].

Sirota, D, Salon., 2012, Pentagon, CIA Likely Approved “Zero Dark Thirty” Torture Scenes, Available from: http://www.salon.com/2012/12/20/pentagon_cia_likely_approved_zero_dark_thirty_torture_scenes/

[Accessed 2 January 2013].

Stahl, R., 2010. Militainment Inc. New York. Routledge.

UNKNOWN, TVITropes, Creator: Michael Bay. Available from: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Creator/MichaelBay?from=Main.MichaelBay

[Accessed 2 January 2013].

 

Films

Air Force One, 1997. Film. Directed by Wolfgang Peterson. USA: Colombia Pictures Corporation
Apocalypse Now, 1979. Film. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. USA: Zoetrope Studios.
Armageddon, 1998. Film. Directed by Michael Bay. USA: Touchstone Pictures.
Battleship, 2012. Film. Directed by Peter Berg. USA: Universal Pictures.
Black Hawk Down, 2001. Directed by Ridley Scott, USA: Revolution Studios.
Born On The Fourth Of July, 1989. Directed by Oliver Stone. USA: Ixtlan Studios.
Crimson Tide, 1995. Directed by Tony Scott. USA: Hollywood Pictures.
Forrest Gump, 1994. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. USA: Paramount Pictures.
G.I. Jane, 1997. Directed by Ridley Scott, USA: Caravan Pictures.
Goldeneye, 1995. Directed by Martin Campbell. UK: Eon Productions.
Heartbreak Ridge, 1986. Directed by Clint Eastwood. USA: Jay Weston Productions.
Pearl Harbour, 2001. Directed by Michael Bay. USA: Touchstone Pictures.
Platoon, 1986. Directed by Oliver Stone. UK: Hemdale Film.
Strike Back, 2010. Directed by Daniel Percival. UK: Out Of Africa Entertainment.
The Jackal, 1997. Directed by Micahel Caton-Jones. USA: Universal Pictures.
The Rock, 1996. Directed by Michael Bay. USA: Hollywood Pictures.
The Thin Red Line, 1998. Directed by Terrence Malick. USA: Fox 2000 Pictures.
Top Gun, 1986. Directed by Tony Scott. USA: Paramount Pictures.
Windtalkers, 2002. Directed by John Woo. USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.