If “Flight of the Intruder” comes across as a recruiting poster for the U.S. Navy, “so much the better,” director John Milius says.
“I’m never skeptical of the military, but I’m always skeptical of government,” he said. “The military is the last vestige of society that has honor and loyalty, where ‘uncommon valor’ is not a phrase referring to Hollywood.”
Reverentially telling the fictional tale of carrier-based pilots fighting both the North Vietnamese and the restrictive policies of politicians in 1972, “Flight of the Intruder” was practically co-produced by the Navy, following in the successful footsteps of “Top Gun” and “The Hunt for Red October.”
The Navy fully cooperated in every aspect of the project, supplying the A-6 Intruder bombers, which are the focus of the movie, in addition to pilots and the use of the aircraft carrier Independence and eight Navy facilities, including the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego.
In return, the Navy had full script approval.
Throughout the production, Milius said the Navy was more help than hindrance.
“Some of the idiots in Hollywood are much worse than the Navy ever dreamed of being,” Milius said, lounging in a Coronado hotel room. “When the Navy tells us something, at least they have a reason for it.”
Milius, who said he wasn’t allowed into the military because of asthma, has made a career of heroic, action-adventure films like “Farewell to the King,” “Red Dawn” and “Conan the Barbarian” that have been skewered by the critics.
Recently, he was in Coronado along with one of the film co-stars Brad Johnson as part of the publicity tour for the film. Two hours earlier, they had postponed an interview with a Tijuana television station so they could go aboard the Independence to renew old acquaintances and have lunch.
Milius smoked a large cigar during the interview, while the cover-boy handsome Johnson, who co-starred in the film “Always,” a former bronco-busting rodeo professional dressed in jeans and a black, double-breasted sports coat, played with a knife.
A certain wariness existed at first between the “Intruder” film crew and the Navy advisers, but it soon dissipated, Milius said. The Navy had worked with Paramount and “Intruder” producer Mace Neufeld on “Red October,” which helped clear the path for the “Intruder” team.
“We wanted them to understand that we were all of the same mind,” Milius said.
To get the Navy’s help, “Intruder” executives had to win over the office of the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and audio video matters, which makes the final decision on whether the Navy will cooperate on a project.
The office uses three criteria in reviewing scripts, according to Lt. James Brooks, one of the Navy’s Hollywood liaisons: the authenticity of the script, the informational value and the role it can play in recruiting.
“The big one is that the film officially portrays Navy personnel in an accurate light,” Brooks said.
The Navy is willing to cooperate on projects that don’t necessarily show the military in a positive light, Brooks said, pointing to the Navy’s participation in the television special “Family of Spies,” about the Walker family spy ring.
“Flight of the Intruder,” taken from the novel of the same name by former Navy pilot Stephen Coonts, fits in well with the Navy’s criteria for cooperation, given its heroic depiction of pilots and the emphasis on hardware.
Yet, there were gray areas.
In one pivotal plot twist, two Navy pilots, portrayed by Johnson and Willem Dafoe, blatantly disobey orders to bomb an unauthorized target but ultimately get off without disciplinary action. That may not be the type of image the Navy wants to project, but a plot twist makes it all work, Brooks said.
“They were being punished, but (within the story) a political decision from higher up got them out of trouble,” he explained.
The Navy doesn’t receive any money from productions, except reimbursement for fuel and other expenses, which reportedly totaled about $1.2 million for “Flight of the Intruder.”
If Navy personnel get paid to work as extras, they have to take leave from their Navy duties.
Yet, the Navy has little problem rationalizing its participation.
“The Navy knows how much a 30-second commercial costs,” Lt. Brooks said. “The feeling of the U.S. Navy is they get people in a theater for two hours who are an average of 16 to 30 years old. Where else could you get a target audience like that for two hours?”
Although no statistics are available on the impact of movies such as “Top Gun” and “Red October” on recruiting, Brooks said the Navy doesn’t doubt the power of the movies.
“The Navy loves it,” he said. “When we bring a motion picture on board a carrier, it is a way to show Mom and Dad the job we do.”
Most of the Navy’s participation focused on jargon and equipment, making sure everything was accurate.
“They kind of stand back and look at you with their heads cocked,” said Johnson, who recently filmed a series of recruiting commercials for the Navy.
One change the Navy insisted upon was the use of oxygen masks by the pilots. The Navy was upset that in “Top Gun” the pilots were often seen without their masks, which the Navy felt promoted an unsafe habit contrary to Navy policy.
“It didn’t reflect professionalism,” Brooks said. A compromise was worked out. The actors would wear masks when taking off and when they entered combat scenes, and they would take them off for dialogue in flight.
One of the original scripts reportedly included a scene of the pilots smoking marijuana, which also was deleted.
Most of the other changes requested by the Navy revolved around such details as saluting and the proper uniforms.
“There were a lot of little things that when you put together in the end would make the Navy look unprofessional,” Brooks said.
The Navy’s insistence on authenticity fit in well with Milius’ own concepts.
A tremendous amount of time was spent on re-creating the early 1970s look of the planes, going so far as to remove modern equipment and repaint each plane after almost every scene.
Dialogue was reworked into Navy-speak. Johnson’s character says things such as “I’m tactical,” and there is a preponderance of Navy acronyms.
“It gives texture to a film when you make it ruthlessly authentic. People are going to notice things, just like I’m going to notice the guns,” said Milius, an avid gun collector.
The Navy’s Hollywood liaison office is now reviewing 16 other productions for possible collaboration, which could take a variety of forms.
The list includes Paramount’s version of Tom Clancy’s “Patriot Games,” which will be filmed at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and feature Alec Baldwin, returning as the character he first portrayed in “Red October,” also from a Clancy book.
“With an (Annapolis) instructor looking like Alec Baldwin, we should get more applications from women than ever before,” Brooks said.