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Pentagon Gets Into Act : Films Give Image Boost to Military

Times Staff Writer

The Air Force is loaded with top-secret programs, but one that has occupied Hollywood’s fantasies involves training monkeys to pilot jets on high-risk military missions.

“It is a totally unrealistic story,” one earnest Air Force officer protested recently.

But not if you believe a film entitled “Project X"--not yet released--which features as the dashing hero of the skies a chimp who impresses Air Force officers as “highly intelligent.”

Not surprisingly, the real-life Air Force concluded that “Project X” failed to serve the clean-cut, spit-and-polish image that it works so hard to cultivate. As a result, military officials rejected a request by producers at 20th Century Fox for technical assistance in making the film.

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Pentagon Offended

Plenty of Hollywood’s ideas offend the Pentagon: Everything from a general caught with his pants down to the notion of accidental nuclear war seems to rankle the military.

But films that give the Pentagon nothing but grief seem to be on the decline these days, for film and television producers are telling stories of a heroic and competent military. Their message is gaining wide public acceptance in a growing number of films.

“Top Gun,” a flashy, high-tech story about young Navy fighter pilots, has become this summer’s top-grossing film, thanks to its combination of aerial photography, rock music and sex idol stars.

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Films Are Blockbusters

“The military films today are blockbusters, whereas in the past, even in the 1950s, the genre wasn’t nearly as popular,” said Richard P. Hallion, an Air Force historian who has studied the military in popular culture. “A lot of the older films were well done, but they didn’t have the overwhelming public acceptance that they do today.”

“Top Gun” hit such a responsive chord with audiences that some theater owners asked the Navy to set up recruitment desks right outside the theater to sign up young men ready for “Top Gun"-style action.

“We are getting what we want out of it, which are recruits,” said Lt. Sandy Stairs, an officer in the Navy’s public affairs office in Los Angeles who helped to guide production of “Top Gun.”

Effect on Costs

Much of what the American public knows about military life is learned at the movies, so Hollywood is critically important to the military’s image. But the Pentagon has clout in Hollywood as well.

Without the support of the military and its vast inventory of weapons that it rents as props, even a major film maker would face inordinately high production costs. A $100-million budget for a film is considered enormous by Hollywood standards--but it wouldn’t buy the Pentagon three fighter jets.

So, technical assistance by the military can mean the life or death of some films, but cooperation also means that the Pentagon is allowed to review the script and negotiate changes in content. If the Pentagon does not like the script, it refuses to cooperate.

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“We have no need to happily participate in our own defamation,” said Cmdr. David L. Dillon, director of the Navy office in Los Angeles. “The hell with that.”

Indeed, the armed services can afford to be choosey these days. Military films are among the hottest things going in Hollywood right now, and the public can expect plenty more of them in the years ahead.

“There has been an enormous increase in the number of scripts we have seen in the last 12 months,” said Master Sgt. Chuck Davis, the Air Force’s liaison for the entertainment industry. “We’ve seen more than 100 scripts in the last 12 months.”

And that’s not to mention the Army and Marines, who have a large number of their own projects with film makers. The only service that has not seen a dramatic increase in business is the Coast Guard.

‘Largely Misunderstood’

“I had a lady call me the other day and say there was a sack of concrete on the 405 (freeway), and she wanted us to move it,” said Cmdr. John R. McElwain, the Coast Guard’s Hollywood liaison in Los Angeles. “We are largely misunderstood.”

The Navy, meanwhile, is riding high on its successes, such as “Top Gun” and “Officer and a Gentleman.”

“We have beaucoup scripts in here” for review, Stairs said. “I mean just oodles of scripts to do aircraft carrier pictures, submarine pictures, SEAL (elite troops) pictures. The only thing we don’t have is a surface ship picture.”

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Navy Secretary John Lehman felt the “Top Gun” project was so important that he personally visited Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles to review film clips during its production and dined with the executive staff of Paramount. “Top Gun” producers became so chummy with Lehman that they gave him “a special thanks” in the film’s credits.

The Lehman visit was symbolic of a new social and political climate, in which the often strange worlds of Hollywood and the Pentagon have joined forces to bring popular stories of patriotism to a public seemingly eager to renew its faith in America’s military. Memories of the Vietnam War are fading and, with them, the public’s war-weariness and distrust of the military.

But the trend is worrying some political observers who see militarization becoming increasingly ingrained in American culture. The Center for Defense Information, which frequently criticizes Pentagon policy, charges that recent films “desensitize Americans to the gravity of military action.” A related research project by the Washington-based center found that sales of war toys have surged 600% since 1982.

‘That’s Dangerous’

“We can watch these films, see people get killed in war, turn off the set and then go get a beer,” said retired Rear Adm. Gene R. La Rocque, a former commander of a nuclear cruiser who is director of the defense center. “It is almost like a fairy tale. I hate these films. They glorify war and militarism. And that’s dangerous.”

But the military services do not see war movies as glorification of war.

“You have that natural element that lends itself to good storytelling in war,” said Lt. Col. Fred Peck, director of the Marine Corps public affairs office in Los Angeles. “Where would Shakespeare have been without a good war? Or go back to the Bible.

“War is very traumatic. It is very ugly. You will find more people against war in the military than outside because we are going to be the ones in it. I don’t think movies should glorify it. They should explore it, though. Why does somebody get up in the face of death and go to fight a war?”

Aside from such political and philosophical issues, the recent films are sometimes faulted by the very people in real life that they laud.

“I see some of these films, but I won’t go out of my way,” said Chuck Yeager, the former Air Force test pilot who gained fame in the movie “The Right Stuff.” “I’ve gotten burned on these things before. You have to see three or four bad ones for every good one.”

For its part, the Pentagon makes few judgments about artistic quality and insists that it has no political agenda. All it desires, officials say, is authenticity and realism. But sometimes applying that broad written policy gets sticky.

Liaison Offices

The four military services all operate liaison offices in Los Angeles, where producers and directors put in their requests for assistance. The requests can range from minor help, such as advice on proper military uniforms, to full-scale assistance with the use of weapons and military bases.

The assistance is not free. Film makers are supposed to reimburse the Pentagon for all of its out-of-pocket costs. The Air Force charges movie makers up to $4,000 per hour for flights of its aircraft, depending on the type.

Film producers quickly learn in dealing with the Pentagon that the military concept of reality is not always the same as everybody else’s.

“What does the Pentagon know about realism?” quipped one Los Angeles aerospace executive who describes himself as a film buff. “Those movies are good for our industry, but I don’t go to see them.”

All kinds of film subjects and characters are off limits at the Pentagon. Some services reject as many as 90% of all the scripts submitted for review. Less than one-third of the requests for major support are approved, said Donald E. Baruch, the Defense Department’s chief liaison to the movie industry. Baruch usually has the final say on which scripts will get Pentagon assistance, but well-connected producers can sometimes elevate disputes into the political stratosphere.

“I know stories that have gone to the White House,” Baruch said. “One film that went that high was the one on the Entebbe raid. At one time, the position was that we shouldn’t get involved in that production.” (The Entebbe raid was the 1976 incident in which Israeli troops swooped in on Uganda’s Entebbe airport to rescue passengers from a hijacked airliner being held there.)

The military services reject a lot of ideas without even a second thought.

Rock Music Video

Take, for example, the request the Army received last year for assistance in making a rock music video from a student at the Christian Broadcasting Network University. Col. Miguel Monteverde of the Army denied the request because of the “inaccurate portrayal of the military.”

” . . . We cannot support a production which implies the military executing Jesus Christ,” Monteverde wrote in a memo to a student at the university, which was founded by evangelist Pat Robertson.

The Pentagon is also surprisingly cautious about its chief adversary, the Soviet Union. The Pentagon is reluctant to cooperate with a story depicting war between the United States and the Soviet Union, notwithstanding the nuclear arms race.

“Our guidelines right now are to not do anything to piss off the Soviets,” Army Capt. Kathryn Ingram said. “I haven’t seen anything in writing that says that, but we all know to go easy.”

Another sure-fire way to trigger a Pentagon rejection is to suggest that a nuclear war may be started by mistake, especially if it is the Pentagon’s mistake.

“An accidental nuclear war is an impossibility,” one Air Force officer said. “That’s the policy.”

So, the Air Force rejected participation in the production of “War Games,” a film several years ago about a young computer hacker who successfully penetrates the Pentagon computers that control the nation’s nuclear forces.

“It gave the impression that there isn’t any control, that the situation was plausible and could happen,” Baruch said. “The Air Force doesn’t believe--that with their computers, security and everything--that it was realistic.”

And many of Hollywood’s ideas about war are just too violent, even for the military’s tastes.

“I have seen scripts come in here that are wall-to-wall gore,” said Peck, the Marine officer. “I can’t imagine anybody sitting in a theater watching that.”

Probably no movie in recent years violated more of the Pentagon’s guidelines than “Rambo, First Blood Part II.” The story involves a mission in which Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, rescues prisoners of war in Vietnam.

“We are not going to support a film about the MIAs, suggesting that they exist,” Baruch said. “We have no proof that they exist.”

In the movie, Pentagon officials send Rambo to Vietnam expecting him to fail, and when he does not fail, they attempt to have him killed.

‘Disgusting’ Story

“I find the whole story disgusting from a professional Marine standpoint,” Peck said.

But President Reagan, a former actor, did not seem so disgusted when he quipped: “Boy, I saw ‘Rambo’ last night. Now, I know what to do the next time this (terrorist seizure of American hostages) happens.”

“Rambo” spawned imitators, such as “Delta Force.” The films are part of a genre that has long made the military bristle--the Hollywood fascination with outcasts or other low-life types portrayed as military supermen.

“The Army is not a welfare agency for rejects,” Ingram of the Army office said.

With all the booby traps and obstacles that a producer may encounter in trying to get help from the military, it sometimes takes guile to succeed.

When Clint Eastwood decided to make the movie “Heartbreak Ridge” about a salty sergeant nearing retirement, the Army balked at the characterization for being too foul-mouthed and out of step with the modern Army.

Marines Participate

But the Marines were more than happy to participate. So, the crusty old Army sergeant became a crusty old Marine gunnery sergeant. The only problem was that Heartbreak Ridge was the site of a famous Army battle in Korea, and veterans’ organizations were furious that it was being portrayed as a Marine battle in the Caribbean. So far, Eastwood has stood firm on the title.

“The Marine Corps is the most liberal of the services and will go further than the others,” Peck said. “There are things we can tolerate that the other services can’t.”

What’s more, the Marines seem to have a better sense of humor. The corps supported the television series “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” about a moronic Marine private from the South who seldom could do anything right.

But the Army refused to support the film “Private Benjamin,” about a rebellious young woman who joins the Army, partly because of some objectionable scenes involving an Army general who pulls his pants down in front of the leading woman, Goldie Hawn.

The most obvious potential friction point between the Pentagon and Hollywood would seem to be anti-war films. Indeed, the Pentagon has declined to lend assistance to such films as “Apocalypse Now,” “Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home,” “Birdy” and “Go Tell the Spartans.”

Ted Post, director of the Vietnam War film “Go Tell the Spartans,” remarked: “We gave them the authenticity, but at the bottom of it was the truth about the war that they didn’t want to get out, a war of ambivalent values, confused orders and half-hearted support.”

The Pentagon disagrees sharply.

“We don’t have any problems with an anti-war story,” Baruch said. “After all, we have a disarmament agency.”

So far, however, no Hollywood producers are rushing to do a film about the disarmament agency.


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