Military short may hit theaters

Times Staff Writer

At a time when public support for U.S. policy in Iraq appears to be declining, the Navy and Marine Corps have produced an upbeat short film about the role of sailors and Marines in toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The six-minute film is being shown to military personnel and, if the project proceeds as planned, it will be shown in movie theaters in the U.S. before feature films. The military hopes to have the film in theaters by the end of the year.

Discussions are underway with various exhibitors, but no arrangement has been announced.

The Navy and Marines say the film isn't meant to make a political statement or make the case for U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

"This isn't a recruiting message. It's a way for the American public to get to know the young Marines and sailors who are out there every day defending their country," said Marine Maj. John Arsenault, the project director.

Produced by American Rogue Films, the Santa Monica firm that's behind the Marine Corps recruiting commercials, the short film is part of a 40-minute film about U.S. troops in the Iraqi war that will be available to historians and journalists. The project cost an estimated $2.9 million.

Lance O'Connor, owner of American Rogue Films, said the military cameramen, directed by American Rogue personnel, could go places where the civilian media could not.

"We were under no restraints," he said. "We could go anywhere and shoot anything. The result is that there are scenes of real war here that no one has ever seen."

The military refers to the project as the Movietone News Project, a reference to the World War II-era newsreels it is meant to resemble. The film itself is called "Iraqi Freedom: Chapter 2," a reference to a similar project about the war in Afghanistan called "Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter."

The combat scenes were shot with high-definition cameras by 18 Navy and Marine Corps cameramen during the push by U.S. forces toward Baghdad and Tikrit. Fifty-four reels of 50 minutes each were shot, although several were lost when a Humvee capsized in a river (the camera crew survived, but eight reels were lost).

With quick cuts and dramatic music, Marines are seen in firefights and being greeted by grateful Iraqi children. "It's the bad guys who will kill us, but it's our relationship with the community that will cause this mission to succeed or fail," an officer tells his troops.

President Bush is not seen in the film but he is heard announcing to the world on March 19 that an offensive has been launched "to defend the world against grave danger." No mention is made of weapons of mass destruction.

Neither are there any shots of the president's comment aboard an aircraft carrier May 1 that "major combat operations" in Iraq were over, a pronouncement now being criticized as premature by Bush's critics. Camera crews were aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln en route to San Diego when Bush made the proclamation, but the filmmakers opted not to use the footage.

"People have seen that on television lots of times," O'Connor said. "We want to give them things they haven't seen, things that will help them understand what these sailors and Marines were doing over there."

Said Arsenault: "We wanted to keep the film as nonpolitical as possible."

The similar mini-film made after the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan in 2001 to topple the Taliban government had a different tone, according to O'Connor.

"The Afghanistan piece was more emotional," O'Connor said. "Now the country is different and there's a different mood. People are more skeptical. People want the truth. We're not telling people what to think, just what happened."

No dead bodies -- Iraqi or American -- are seen, although three Marines are interviewed in their hospital beds, one with a Purple Heart on his pajamas. An Iraqi soldier stripped to his underwear is seen surrendering. One Marine talks of the brotherhood among combat troops. "If a grenade falls, it's going to be a fight to see who falls on it first," he says.

As much as any of the military services, the Marine Corps has long recognized the power of film in shaping public opinion. In 1944, the Marine Corps won an Academy Award for best documentary short for a 20-minute black-and-white film about the amphibious assault on the island of Tarawa, one of the key battles of World War II.

The mini-film about Afghanistan played in several hundred theaters and became popular at business conferences and other gatherings. However, the film had to be pulled from some theaters after complaints that it had been shown before movies geared toward children, a mistake that the military says will not be repeated.

In the Iraq film, Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, and Gen. Michael Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, are interviewed briefly, but most of the voices are from enlisted Marines and sailors.

As much as the filmmakers might want it to be nonpolitical, the point of view is inevitable. A Marine officer says that what the Marines have done in Iraq is noble, and the final scene displays the motto "the global war on terrorism continues." The open-ended ending was intentional.

"The ending says, 'We're still out there and the war has to be won,' " Arsenault said. "There are no homecomings in this one."

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