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"You must glorify war in order to get the public to accept the fact that your going to send their sons and daughters to die."
Never let the absurdities of history get in the way of a box-office blockbuster.
The inside story of the cozy relationship between big box office American war movies and the Pentagon.
Hollywood's dirty little secret
02/20/05 "The Age" - - It's the scripts that pay a high price when Hollywood goes into battle. Brian Courtis looks at one of the movie world’s murkier truths.
Well, we've known the rules. We've known them since Errol Flynn liberated Burma without any help from British, Australian or New Zealand forces. Churchill and a few Diggers may have been upset, but the fact is when it comes to Hollywood only the good guys win and, since we're playing with their toys, those good guys must inevitably be Americans. Never let the absurdities of history get in the way of a box-office blockbuster.
They really do not want to discuss this, of course, in Tinseltown. They still see only their heroes and our villains. And they continue to win everything alone. Remember Steven Spielberg's D-Day spectacular Saving Private Ryan? Someone simply forgot that 72,000 British and Canadian troops were also involved. And if Hollywood is to be believed, it was the Americans who captured the Enigma coding machine from a German submarine; never mind that the Brits were there and accomplished that six months before the Yanks entered the war.
Not everything has been quite so eagerly promoted. We hear less, for instance, about the effects of the powerful relationship that has grown over the years between the Pentagon and the Hollywood studios, a partnership that not only can save millions of dollars for filmmakers and produce fine recruiting propaganda for Washington, but can twist history and reality to produce the ultimate in international spin.
In Operation Hollywood, filmmaker Emilio Pacull follows up an investigative study by film industry journalist Dave Robb on the help producers have sought from the military over the years. Robb, who worked for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, says he found himself obsessed with the minutiae of these negotiations with the boys with ships, tanks, materiel, information, bases, access to land, troops and some very real-looking fireworks.
His report, a page-by-page study of scripts submitted by the studios to the Pentagon, reveals an intriguing pattern of censorship and propaganda. For Hollywood, acceptance of this system means the difference between "full co-operation" and no co-operation. For the military, it involves maintaining an idealised image of the forces, their behaviour, their view of the world, the superiority of their form of patriotism, and for that matter, their reasons for going to war.
So why, they would argue, should the Pentagon spend its money on pacifism or promoting the darker side of the soldier's world? Why reward a Platoon when The Green Berets is what you're after?
Among those with an opinion in Operation Hollywood are Australian director Phil Noyce, Phil Strub from the US Department of Defence, historian Lawrence Suid and Joe Trento, author and president of the anti-war Public Education Centre. This, they all agree, is a world where lines, plots and nationalities are changed so that film producers can gain access to expensive military hardware.
In the 1995 James Bond movie Goldeneye, for example, the original script had a US Navy admiral betraying state secrets. This was changed to make the traitor a member of the French navy. After that the military's co-operation was forthcoming. Pacull and Robb takes us from the pedantry to the powerful in examining the changes to scripts. They list the producers and the movies that have fallen into line and show how the military's script editors work. Interestingly, it's not the censors who come under fire here quite so much as those co-operative, self-censoring filmmakers.
Still, as Robb says, in what has become ostensibly his campaign against this system, the long-term effect on generations of young Americans is an unknown. “How many of those killed in Iraq died because they joined up after they saw what was presented in a film?” How many have died as the result of unknown recruiting propaganda?
All a producer needs do for assistance, it seems, is submit five copies of his script to the Pentagon for approval, make whatever script changes the Pentagon suggests, film the script exactly as approved by the Pentagon and preview the finished product for Pentagon officials before it's shown to its broader audience. And, according to Robb, as he puts the boot firmly into Jerry Bruckheimer, Tom Goldberg (Stripes), John Woo and other producers and directors, many do this gladly. It is, he insists, Hollywood's dirtiest little secret.
Not that the big screen is alone. Among the early changes we hear about is a scene from an episode of the children's television series Lassie in which a light aircraft crashing in the woods concerned the Pentagon. A change to the script was called for. The military didn't want children, the subject of its future recruitment drives, to get the idea that the US Army produced faulty equipment.
Not surprisingly, Washington will back what it sees as the positive message every time. There is enthusiasm for such gung-ho films as The Longest Day, Top Gun or, believe it or not, Pearl Harbor. There is no point talking to them about Apocalypse Now, Platoon or Dr Strangelove. As for films about the wounded and traumatised victims of war, concentration camp horror, or civilian casualties ... well, that has nothing to do with them, does it? Use your imagination, however, and make a heroic star of yet another four-star general and you will be marching step-in-step with America's medal-winning movie buffs. And be rewarded for it.
There are other ways to win the day. It would be interesting, for example, to see how the Pentagon would react to the sentimental reflections on wartime that British television so enjoys. In the escapism of Foyle's War, for example, the message is one of sacrifice and understanding. Michael Kitchen's wise old police chief, Foyle, uses wisdom, patience and tolerance in an idyllic Sussex setting against petty crimes and sabotage. This, rather than some one-sided battlefield slaughter, shows us the old values we're fighting for.
Soldiers and civilians are generally given positive treatment; blimpish landowners, politicians and generals get short shrift. This week, in They Fought In The Fields, the sweet and splendid Sam (Honeysuckle Weeks) is on the farm with a troubled gang of land girls, while her boss is out sorting spies from prisoners of war. There are few fireworks, few toys from the boys, but a gal's still gotta do what a gal's gotta do.
Operation Hollywood, broadcast on Australia's, SBS 02/23/05
Copyright © 2005. The Age Company Ltd.