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I was recently invited onto one of my favourite podcasts – Themes and Memes – to discuss The X-Files season 10. We discussed how the new series goes overboard in trying to appeal to the conspiracy subculture and what this might mean:
On this episode, we are joined by our good friend Tom Secker of spyculture.com to review the 2016 reboot of the 90’s cult-classic; ‘The X-Files’. After being reunited with Mulder and Scully, we are thrown headlong into a grand global conspiracy, involving everything from UFO’s and lizard-men, to magic mushrooms and martial law. Given that this latest season is obviously designed to reflect modern conspiracy culture, we examine the relevant themes within all 6 episodes, before asking the most important question. Why?
Chase Brandon was the CIA’s first Entertainment Industry Liaison. From 1996 to early 2007 he was the CIA’s man in Hollywood, working on a dozen major movies and numerous high-profile TV shows. In this episode we examine the background of the CIA in the entertainment industry and how they founded their Entertainment Liaison Office and appointed Brandon in charge of it. We also discuss Brandon’s career, especially his attempts to downplay and disguise his influence on entertainment including ghost-writing The Recruit. We finish up talking about how he helped TV series The Agency to predict the future, and the links between Brandon and the film Wag the Dog.
Chase Brandon was a career CIA officer and for the last decade or do of his more than 35 years with the Agency he was their first entertainment industry liaison. Starting in late 1996 and working until sometime in early 2007, he was the CIA’s man in Hollywood, and in the entertainment industry more broadly.
As with Phil Strub, it isn’t easy finding out about Chase. He is starting to be referred to in books – Tricia Jenkins’ The CIA in Hollywood is the best book out there, certainly when it comes to the modern era of the CIA’s role in entertainment. She devotes a whole chapter and sections in other chapters to Chase Brandon’s work as entertainment industry liaison, and in the second edition found some stunning material which we’ll examine shortly.
Along similar lines is Reclaiming Parkland by James DiEugenio, which I’ve had recommended and have read some bits of and which tells the story of the making of Tom Hanks’ JFK film Parkland. It sets this against a backdrop of the CIA and Pentagon’s involvement in Hollywood, and talks of Brandon not just being involved in production, but also setting up a network of CIA assets in Hollywood, which I find quite plausible. But the essential biographical details – when and where Chase Brandon was born, his upbringing and education, how he joined the CIA – are not available anywhere that I can find.
What we can put together from his website and other sources is that he worked in black operations for many years but also liaised with other agencies and did induction and training at the Farm. He definitely served in Latin America, and given that he must have joined the CIA in the early 70s he would have been around during Operation Condor, the overthrow of Salvador Allende and his replacement with General Pinochet, and during CIA whistleblower Phil Agree publishing his book and then being persecuted for it, and the CIA-instigated civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, possibly Honduras and Panama too.
We don’t know if Brandon was involved directly in any of this, his name does not come up in Iran Contra for example. But I do think that it’s important to note that most of the CIA or ex-CIA people in the entertainment industry worked in black operations, not in intelligence analysis. Robert Baer, Valerie Plame, Sandra Grimes, Jeanne Vertefeuille, Milt Bearden, Lindsay Moran, Carol Rollie Flynn, Robert Grenier, Tony Mendez, Bazzel Baz (now know as just ‘Baz’) – these are all former covert agents. Some of them were even station heads, spymasters, and John MacGaffin, the primary consultant to Homeland, got as high as deputy director in the directorate of operations. So Brandon is in good company, and it does suggest that now they’re formally involved in Hollywood, the CIA sees that as just another set of black operations.
The CIA’s Entertainment Liaison Office
Just as with Brandon’s personal biography, the exact structure of the CIA’s Entertainment Liaison Office is not know. The CIA set up their Office of Public Affairs in the 1970s, in part as a response to the Church Committee and other pressures of that kind. They had already allowed one film – Scorpio, released in 1973 – to film at CIA headquarters at Langley. After formally establishing an Office of Public Affairs the first news/documentary crew that filmed at Langley was, quite predictably, from CBS.
Indeed, during some of the filming for Scorpio in Washington DC director Michael Winner was staying at the Watergate hotel and was staying there when the CIA-White House ‘Plumbers’ broke in and sparked off the whole Watergate scandal. I’m 99% sure that’s a coincidence, but it’s a curious one. The notion that Watergate was the CIA’s coup against Nixon is very much one I subscribe to, this was part of the CIA’s rise to power in the wake of the death of J Edgar Hoover, their deep state rival. But I digress.
The CIA’s Entertainment Liaison Office was not established until 1996. There were some limited forays into the entertainment industry in the early 90s – former agent John Strauchs consulted on Sneakers in 1992, the same year Patriot Games became the first major post-Cold War movie to be sponsored by the CIA, also being granted access to film at Langley. Then they set up the liaison office, inside the Office of Public Affairs and answerable to the Director of Public Affairs. This is how it works in the Pentagon and my understanding is that the CIA, NASA, DHS and other more recent entries to the world of entertainment liaison offices all model theirs on the highly successful and influential DOD setup.
They cast around looking for someone to head this office and come up with Chase Brandon. He fit perfectly – he was a career officer with a vested interest in keeping the right things secret and portraying the Agency in a positive light, he was coming to the end of his career and thus was interested in a less demanding role, he had worked for various parts of the CIA and with other agencies i.e. he was a good liaison, and his first cousin is Tommy Lee Jones. Who played CIA contract agent Clay Shaw, the only man to be prosecuted for the JFK assassination, in Oliver Stone’s film JFK.
Chase Brandon Movies
Over the next 10 years Brandon would be involved in 13 movies, 11 major TV series and various other book, TV and film projects, several of which never got made. This information is largely gleaned not from his credits at the end of films, which are non-existent, or his IMDB page, which is virtually empty. Most of this comes from his personal website, and most of it wasn’t added until 2012 or 2013. Even then, most of it is concealed behind drop-down menus that are totally unnecessary, and in a part of the site that isn’t linked to from the home page. I only found this other section by searching for all pages within the domain – chasebrandon.com, and these other pages have not been crawled by the internet archive wayback machine.
As such, this is a site that is difficult to navigate and where the robots.txt file has been set to prevent the major archive of web pages from crawling particular parts of the site. This has to be deliberate, though in the event completely pointless because you can access those other pages if you know how to look for them. Still, he’s a cunning bastard, gotta admire him for that.
The 13 films are: The Recruit, Sum of All Fears, Enemy of the State, Bad Company, Mission: Impossible III, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, In the Company of Spies, The Good Shepherd, Charlie Wilson’s War, Spy Game, The Interpreter and The Bourne Identity. So we have historical reconstructions, action thrillers, more conventional spy thrillers and family comedies. Basically a smaller version of what the Pentagon supported over the same period. Breaking it down:
– Historical dramas like Charlie Wilson’s War and The Good Shepherd are a means of rewriting history, or just popularising a version of history that makes you look how you want to look. In The Good Shepherd they very much adopt this view of ‘it’s a dark, complex world so we’re lucky to have the CIA working on our side even if they are bastards’. The CIA characters are mostly anti-heroes of one kind or another. In Charlie Wilson’s War they heroise the CIA for defeating the evil Commies in Afghanistan, by creating Al Qaeda but we’ll gloss over that because it’s more fun to talk about how Charlie Wilson was into cocaine and lap-dancers. They also portray the CIA as being under-funded and minimally staffed, the film shows literally half a dozen agents, in America and in Pakistan combined, running this multi-billion dollar black operation. Interesting Milt Bearden, who was a consultant on the film, does not appear in the film himself.
– Action thrillers basically make the CIA seem exciting. Sum of All Fears, Mission: Impossible III, Enemy of the State, Bad Company which is basically a black version of The Recruit, The Bourne Identity – all very exciting movies, quite slickly made and fun to watch. This is the CIA equivalent of True Lies – very fast paced, often with some comedy and sex thrown in to keep everything ticking over, ultimately fictional but basically set in the real world. These are usually simple promos for the CIA, designed to aid recruitment but also to help the CIA’s image both for the general public but more importantly for media commentators and Congress.
– The comedies, a category in which you could also include Bad Company because it’s certainly trying to be a comedy though it largely fails, definitely includes Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. They are a pair of very funny films, on the face of it they are fish out of water stories, the first one about a Jewish guy marrying into an austere Protestant family, the second about the austere Protestant family meeting the Jewish guy’s hippy parents. Underneath all that is a lot of weird stuff with Robert De Niro’s character who is a retired CIA agent who dresses and acts somewhat like Chase Brandon and obsesses over his ‘circle of trust’ when he himself is not at all trusting. When we analysed these films at some length in episode 02 of The CIA and Hollywood, we concluded that the point of this was to make what in reality would be a serious mental illness into a lovable character flaw. As De Niro represents the CIA in these films this helps softens their image of institutionalised paranoia.
– The less action-oriented thrillers like The Interpreter, Spy Game and The Recruit are more cerebral versions of the same thing as the action thrillers. They are still promotional devices, from the CIA’s perspective, but they tend to portray the CIA in a somewhat more compromised way. Indeed, all of these films to some extent admit that the CIA does bad things, that isn’t something they just avoid or censor out of films like the Pentagon can and does. But these three especially do not portray the CIA as a particularly nice place, and nor do more recent films such as American Ultra. It seems they are instead adopting a ‘it’s a dirty world and a dirty job but someone’s got to do it’ kind of PR, which is working well for them particularly in the post-9/11 world of constant and very dirty wars. The more it seems like that’s just the way of the world, rather than the world the CIA have helped to create, the more they wash their hands of moral responsibility.
Chase Brandon’s bizarre denials
In the case of Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt (two men who turn up repeatedly in this story), the CIA withdrew co-operation from the film part way through. Spy Game still includes the CIA seal and the external shot of Langley common to almost all of these films and Brandon still includes the film as one he provided technical advice to, so there is an ambiguity there.
However, there are two cases of Brandon explicitly lying and claiming he didn’t work on productions when he did. In a 2001 Guardian article about Chase Brandon and the CIA entertainment liaison office they write:
He withheld his endorsement from Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. The final rewrite “showed our senior management in an insensitive light and we just wouldn’t want to be a part of that kind of project”, said Brandon, who also withheld approval from 24, a Fox CIA series that also suggests all is not hunky-dory in the company’s upper echelons.
In an interview for Metro a few years later he was asked:
– You’ve also worked on 24.
– Yes, we weren’t involved at first because they didn’t ask. Now they have and I’ve been out to their offices and the set so we’re doing more to help them out.
Furthermore, in a 2007 discussion called The CIA and Cinema: A Strange Bond, former CIA lawyer John Rizzo said that the producers of 24 had never asked for any help. So which is it? Did they ask initially and were turned down? Did they not ask until later series and only received help then? Did they never ask? None of these three different versions, two from Chase himself, can be reconciled with the others. Clearly, someone is lying, and I’m pretty sure the CIA were involved in some seasons of 24.
Likewise in the 2001 Guardian article they say:
And The Bourne Identity, based on the 1984 novel by Robert Ludlum, was “so awful that I tossed it in the burn bag after page 25”.
Now, presumably Brandon doesn’t literally throw scripts in the burn bag, which is for the destruction of classified materials. But his use of such an image which makes him sound cool and decisive and very CIA-like is because it is lie. Brandon not only lists The Bourne Identity on his site, he appears on the Special Edition DVD promoting the film:
So, just like with Phil Strub in the last episode, Brandon has a curious habit of denying working on productions that he did work on. As we will see in next, he has also found ways to downplay and minimise his impact on the entertainment industry.
Chase Brandon and The Recruit
By far the most important example of CIA propaganda from Chase Brandon’s time as entertainment liaison is The Recruit. We discussed this film in some detail in episode 03 of The CIA and Hollywood and I do recommend that discussion but since then further details have come to light. We knew at that time that the CIA assisted with the film – Brandon lists the film on his own site, it’s on his IMDB page and he is the main figure in a 16 minute bonus feature on the DVD.
Though the DVD feature is introduced by producer Jeff Apple and he doesn’t make it clear that Brandon worked on the film, or even that he was the CIA’s entertainment liaison officer.
This is only the first layer in a whole cake of covering up Brandon’s role in the film. Though years later Brandon would list the film on his own site and he has an IMDB credit (quite probably at his own request) he is credited only as a technical advisor. If we dig a little deeper into the semi-secret part of his site we find that he lists The Recruit screenwriter Roger Towne and producer Jeff Apple as his screen-writing and producing partners. Even this doesn’t truly represent the extent to which The Recruit was Chase Brandon’s creation.
I should highlight here that one of the first Chase Brandon-assisted productions, In the Company of Spies, was a TV movie that bears some considerable similarities to The Recruit. This was given the CIA’s full support – filming at Langley, technical and script advice, real CIA people as background extras, a premiere at Langley. But it was a TV movie, so it bombed. It also wasn’t particularly good.
However, it was written by The Recruit screenwriter Roger Towne, and this was his first proper screenplay for 15 years. So the obvious hypothesis is that Towne allowed himself to be a front for Chase Brandon, for whatever reason, and that Brandon really wrote The Recruit and In the Company of Spies. In the second edition of Tricia Jenkins The CIA in Hollywood she cites documents from a court case that include communications between Towne and Brandon going back to 1997, when the first draft of The Recruit was written. They show, conclusively, that Brandon was the main writer on the early drafts of The Recruit. While Towne and Apple had some input and Kurt Wimmer polished the script a couple of years later in the run-up to filming, this was Brandon’s baby, his Frankenstein.
The details have to be read to be believed and I will encourage you all to get a copy of the book because like the others that I have been reviewing recently, it is a truly excellent piece of work and you will not be disappointed in what you get. I guess the important thing to emphasise here is that this is the exception rather than the rule, Brandon spent a lot of time pitching ideas to scriptwriters and producers and fishing for opportunities like this. It seems that in Roger Towne and Jeff Apple he found people willing to let him use them as fronts, whereas most would simply take his ideas and say thank you.
Chase Brandon and The Agency
However, there is also the question of the TV show The Agency, which again had full CIA support along with writers and consultants who were ex-agents. This show premièred at Langley and was due to début on TV just after 9/11. It was pulled because the first episode features Osama Bin Laden launching a massive attack on the West, sparking off a War on Terror. This episode, the pilot, was dropped down the schedule and the show was delayed for a couple of weeks to take the sting out of it.
Another episode about an anthrax attack on the US had to be pulled because on the day it was due to air the anthrax story broke. Later in the series, one storyline involved a Pakistani general going rogue and so the CIA assassinate him with a Hellfire missile fired from a predator drone. Not long after the episode aired, the CIA assassinated a rogue Pakistani general with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone.
According to Jenkins’ interview with the show’s producer Michael Beckner, this all came from Chase Brandon, all of these storylines came from the CIA. If this is true, and I can’t think of many reasons for Beckner to make this up, it means that these controversies were somewhat manufactured by the CIA. That’s aside from the question of predictive programming which we looked at in some detail regarding Tom Clancy, where the state pre-conditions the public to something that is about to happen or that they are about to do.
Chase Brandon and Wag the Dog
The final question I want to get into with this episode is Wag the Dog, a film that continues to puzzle and delight people nearly 20 years later. We reviewed Wag the Dog in some depth in ClandesTime episode 021 where I floated the hypothesis that the character played by Robert De Niro, Conrad Breen, was based on Chase Brandon. After all, he is a bearded spin doctor, who works with a Hollywood producer, whose background is unclear and who can identify the CIA on sight and negotiate with them successfully.
But it is more than that, even. It is more that physical resemblance, similar names and virtually identical jobs, though that is enough for the theory to start to hold some water. It isn’t even that De Niro went on to make three movies with Chase Brandon, though that has to be relevant. Or that this film was made just at the start of Chase Brandon’s work in Hollywood.
It’s also that Brandon went on to write a script with the screenwriter who won an Oscar for writing Wag the Dog – Hillary Henkin. Buried in the semi-secret section of Brandon’s site he lists a script he co-wrote while Entertainment Liaison Officer for Di Bonaventura Pictures, the studio within Paramount headed by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. This is the studio that made Red, with former CIA agent Bob Baer, Salt with the help of the CIA, Transformers with the help of the Pentagon and NASA, and the reboot of Jack Ryan. This is the studio Brandon co-wrote a script for, and he co-wrote it with the writer of Wag the Dog.
But it’s more than that. It’s also that the character of Conrad Breen even talks like Chase Brandon, with this weird self-contradictory doublethink embedded at every step. We’ll take the most interesting scene in Wag the Dog, and compare it to Brandon being interviewed for the making of feature for The Recruit.
And this is Chase Brandon:
(especially 1:15 – 1:50 and 10:25-11:10)
Of course, none of this adds up to Chase Brandon actually working on Wag the Dog, but in some way Conrad Breen is based on him. All the pieces fit.
Obviously I could continue at great length, discussing what Brandon’s been up to since he left the Agency or looking into his films in more depth. But we covered several of the films he supported in The CIA and Hollywood season 1 and I recently wrote a lengthy article Decoding Chase Brandon so if you would like to know more then they are at your disposal.
Have you ever wondered about the relationship between UFOs or aliens in movies and the real-life experiences of people who report contact or abduction or witnessing these things? Have you ever wondered whether the government is using UFO movies to influence people’s perceptions of these fringe but popular and captivating phenomena? Robbie Graham’s Silver Screen Saucers seeks answers to these questions via an epic exploration into the trilateral relationship between UFOlogy, government agencies and the entertainment industry.
UFOs and Extraterrestrials
The UFO phenomenon precedes its depiction in cinema. Depending on how you define evidence of UFOs you can go back decades, centuries or even millennia and find indications of flying wheels and saucers in the sky bearing beings from the beyond. Whether these are angels, aliens, trans-dimensional demi-gods, hallucinations or tiny glimpses into another realm is something Hollywood and TV have explored in great detail and diversity. Likewise, government agencies (particularly intelligence and military organisations) have taken the ‘lights in the sky’ phenomenon seriously enough to investigate it, sometimes for decades at a time. This has left a trail of tens if not hundreds of thousands of documents but nowhere do they offer firm conclusions. The unofficial UFOlogy community has likewise posited various competing and contrasting explanations and theories without developing anything even approach a consensus.
As such, one of Graham’s starting points in Silver Screen Saucers is that this is a real phenomenon, that there is something ‘out there’ and sometimes ‘down here’ too but he wisely refrains from offering a strong opinion about what that is. I have only ever toyed with this question, often as a result of watching UFO-themed entertainment, so I find nothing disagreeable in Graham’s somewhat Socratic and even Pyrrhonian approach to this issue. While those with strong opinions will not find validation in Silver Screen Saucers I think this is an important book for anyone curious about the subject and simply wanting to read a serious but open-minded discussion. This is something sorely lacking from most controversial topics, and so to me it is more than welcome.
Furthermore, no one can read this book and accuse Graham of not doing the legwork – the years of research that went into Silver Screen Saucers is evident on almost every page. From records of government involvement in films and TV programs to interviews with professionals who worked on some of the most crucial entertainment products in the UFO/alien genre, through interviews with contactees to a vast array of sources on film history and criticism, this is a compilation of information like no other. Even seasoned experts in the field will be able to learn something from Silver Screen Saucers because it is clearly rooted in an unusually broad and multi-disciplinary approach. That said, I am no expert but I found it extremely easy and inviting to read.
State-Sponsored UFO entertainment (UFOtainment?)
The relationships between these three things – the government, UFOs/UFOlogy and entertainment – are somewhat complex. Graham shows very convincingly how many UFO movies and TV series are based in real events, or at least real reports regardless of what we may think of the events described in those reports. In some cases the producers of these entertainment products had direct UFO experiences themselves and produced media as a form of catharsis, to help them cleanse themselves of the confusion brought about by such an experience. In reading their comments in Silver Screen Saucers, I am not convinced that this cathartic process has been particularly successful for the people involved, but it has made for some extremely fun things to watch.
Likewise, UFOlogy is, or should be, a serious topic. Silver Screen Saucers documents how, whatever efforts the government has put into trying to dispel or debunk it, they themselves have been as obsessed with this question as anyone has. As with questions like nuclear disarmament or the massive disparity in material wealth, whatever their public statements it is clear that some people within the state system feel the same way as most people outside of that system. Multiple US presidents along with senior military and intelligence officials have made repeated public statements in favour of ‘Disclosure’. Likewise there has been plenty of government involvement in UFO/alien movies and TV series, conspicuously involving Disney quite a lot of the time.
Alongside this you have unofficial UFOlogy in the form of numerous researchers, some more theoretical than others, some definitely more sane and sincere than others. Many of their beliefs, including about a massive government cover-up of extraterrestrial life, are inspired and shaped by films and TV programs. In turn, what thrives and becomes popular in this subculture affects the next generation of UFO/alien-themed entertainment products. As the subculture has become larger and more mainstream this relationship has only strengthened.
The Unholy Trinity of UFOs
One area where the book excels is in showing how the interpenetration of these three phenomena. For example, the US government but also other governments have been involved in some, if not many, of the highest-profile UFO entertainment products. From NASA’s support to 2001: A Space Odyssey through to military assistance on Transformers to the CIA mystery man working on Race to Witch Mountain, this is a recurring and growing dynamic. However, perhaps the most well known practitioner in the alien/UFO genre – Steven Spielberg – has had a very mixed relationship with these agencies, perhaps due to his apparently very sincere and strongly-held beliefs.
Then we have the likes of self-confessed disinformation artist Richard Doty of the US Air Force, who have infiltrated both the entertainment industry and the UFO subculture. The exact reasons for this are unclear, though domestically it seems to be an experimental process where ideas and memes are seeded at different ‘levels’ of culture to see which ones repopulate and spread. Internationally speaking, Graham identifies the likely explanation as psychological warfare. Having conquered the planet militarily (we could now blow it up completely, several times over) the next territory for the next arms race is inevitably near space and outer space. What better way to keep the Russians intimidated than to encourage movies depicting the US government secretly developing next-generation reverse engineered UFOs?
So, all these things penetrate and influence each other. To some extent they need each other when it comes to this issue. Without the UFO subculture, those in the government who want some kind of ‘Disclosure’ would have no audience. Likewise, those in the entertainment industry would have no market. Without the movies actualising even the most outrageous and complex fantasies of the UFOlogy community, they would have probably got bored due to all the unknowns inherent in the topic (at least for now). Without the government’s piecemeal declassifications and ongoing records of events both the UFO community and the entertainment producers would have far less source material, let alone the provision of technical advice and the use of infiltrators and misinfo/disinfo agents.
However, there is a twist in this tale. Just as cinema actualises fantasies, it also trivialises reality. Films especially but also narrative TV make more sense than the real world a lot of the time, and especially when it comes to difficult questions like the existence of extraterrestrial life. Simple narratives prevail – they are military craft, or the aliens want to take over, or the aliens created us and are checking up on their offspring/cattle. The notion that several of these options might be true all at once seems to escape almost everyone, whether they be in government, the UFO subculture or the entertainment industry.
One of the reasons for this is hyperreality, our inability to distinguish between the real and the simulated, between fact and fiction. Often we simply cannot remember whether a specific detail was something we read about in a serious book or just saw in a movie (or both), but it is more profound than that. At this point we cannot enter into a dialogue or exploration of most complex topics, or even just think about them, without being influenced by a series of fantasies and fictions and elaborate speculations that may or may not be true. Our very terms of reference, the words we use to talk about this subject carry with them the weight and echoes and implications of decades of the complex relationship between imagination and demonstrable reality.
As such, UFOs are both real and unreal at the same time, real because movies can be so very convincing, sometimes more convincing than our imaginations, but unreal because ‘it’s just a movie’. Whether it will ever be possible for true Disclosure to take place is something Graham is very sceptical about – as am I. If for no other reason, why would governments be honest when it would be in their interests to disclose that which fulfils one or another fantasy encouraged by TV and films that they have a track record of supporting?
But beyond questions of power, is Disclosure even possible? If they published all the high-resolution pictures and video and all the documents, there are still those would refuse to believe it, or those who would believe this wasn’t the whole truth. Ironically, hyperreality has become such a common element in our experience of the world that some people cling desperately to it, not actually wanting to know the truth because the world of fantasy, with all its bright colours and stirring music and emotionally satisfying narratives, is actually more pleasant to experience.
Silver Screen Saucers
Silver Screen Saucers is virtually a masterpiece. I would say it is a masterpiece but reading the book has provoked a lot of questions in me so I’m unsure if I should go that far. What is certain is that you have not read a book that is so well researched, so broad and deep in its exploration of a topic without then trying to smash conclusions into your face. It is a book that is extremely intellectually honest, and emotionally honest to recognise that a big part of the fun of this topic is that it’s a fun topic. Not knowing can be a lot more enjoyable than knowing.
It is simultaneously a history of UFO films and TV series, an examination of their origins, their influence on UFOlogy, UFOlogy’s influence on them, the government’s influence on both and the influence of both on the government, and a profound musing on the subject of UFOs and extraterrestrial life. After all, there might come a point when we get beyond these ludicrous shenanigans and manage to put aside our fantasies and actually take the question seriously. Probably not in our lifetimes, but still.
One of the few relative certainties is that this is a topic that isn’t going away. Despite the accomplishments of empiricism and material science in recent centuries, the human fascination and obsession with the beyond remains strong. If anything, in our postmodern age it is coming back with a vengeance like in the forthcoming Independence Day sequel. We live in an age where an entire cinematic universe has been created – a universe populated by transhumans, demi-gods and aliens, of course – and this has proved enormously successful.
So, while it doesn’t provide all the answers, or at times any conclusive answers, Silver Screen Saucers is also a self-help book for those trying to navigate postmodernity. I am sure it will leave you with as many questions as it left me with, but one above all stands out. If there are aliens out there, watching us from the heavens and seeing our truly bizarre attempts to negotiate our way through an age of mass confusion, what do they make of this? Do they find it funny? Do they find it sad? Do they debate whether to get involved, or to let us figure it out by ourselves? Or do they just film it on their iPhones and beam it back to Zeta Reticuli and watch all this on their local equivalent of youtube? Now that would make a good movie…
Phil Strub has been the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison since 1989, in which time the entertainment liaison offices have helped produce over 100 films. In this episode we take a closer look at Phil Strub, his background, how he came to be the DOD’s Hollywood liaison and his curious habit of downplaying or minimising the role of the Pentagon in the entertainment industry. We examine his statements in an interview on The Kojo Nnamdi Show and his claims that the DOD weren’t involved in Tomorrow Never Dies and withdrew co-operation from The Avengers. We finish up with a brief look at the recurring themes and worldviews in the films with which Strub and the Pentagon have collaborated.
Phil Strub is the DOD’s main man in Hollywood. Long term listeners and readers and anyone familiar with this topic will know his name, and whether you know it or not all of you will have seen a film that in some way involved Strub and the Entertainment Liaison Offices that he oversees. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is not easy to find out biographical information about him, I am not suggesting there is anything untoward, I think Strub is who he says he is, but it is difficult to find out who he says he is. I know more about the biographies of some spies, and I mean people who are still alive and possibly still active, than I do about Phil Strub. Nonetheless he is the main man, he’s been there a long time and under his watch the Entertainment Liaison Offices have expanded.
Background: The History of the Entertainment Liaison Offices
But we should start with some background, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. The Department of Defense have had some kind of relationship with Hollywood since the 1910s, for literally a century at this point. This was done on a reactive basis, as best as I can tell, until WW2 when the number of films increased and the nature of the Pentagon’s involvement developed significantly. The most overt example was the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Forces, who actually had a studio in Hollywood and recruited numerous relatively big names including Ronald Reagan. This was one of several units – the Navy and the OSS had their own film crews producing training videos and just documenting the war.
In the immediate post-war period, in between the end of the war and the formal establishment of the Department of Defence in 1947, the Pentagon’s involvement drops down to pre-war levels. In ’47 they appointed Donald Baruch their first entertainment liaison officer. He had served in the Army Air Force’s office of public information in Washington and continued as a consultant to them after the war. Baruch was appointed a special assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, and remained in the job for 40 years.
Think about that. In theory, Baruch and now Strub are civil servants, of a sort. They work or worked under the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and are, at least on paper, subject to their authority. However, Baruch worked with and outlasted over 20 such men, so he must have had a much more powerful influence on the entertainment industry than they ever did. People are often focused too much on the political appointees, and not on the people who will be there long after any of this current nonsense has been forgotten. Baruch is such a man.
Phil Strub Takes Over
Strub is turning into such a man. Baruch lasted 40 years before retiring in 1987. In 1989 Strub was appointed his long-term successor, and has seen at least 15 Assistant Secretaries of Defence come and go. He and his team have worked on around 100 movies since then. For a little more on why Strub got chosen, the history of the DOD in helping to create blockbusters, and how this process works we’ll turn to an interview with Strub on the Kojo Nnamdi show. I played a clip from this radio show about the Science and Entertainment Exchange on a recent episode but this is from 2012 and this time it was actually Kojo himself who is presenting:
I love this interview because it’s very revealing. Strub served in Vietnam and then, some years later after a not particularly successful attempt to get into the film business and being educated at USC, he was appointed Baruch’s replacement. Though he doesn’t mention this, at the same time that Strub was appointed, the DOD updated their instruction 5410.16 DoD Assistance to Non-Government, Entertainment-Oriented Motion Picture, Television, and Video Productions. That helped formalise the process Strub is talking about here.
Notice that Strub is always downplaying the scale of this, saying that they just have a small satellite office in Los Angeles and that they try to make only minimal changes to scripts. Well, the offices at 10880 Wilshere Boulevard might not be enormous in terms of physical space, but it’s enough for them to be working on several major movies and dozens of TV shows at once. That’s a lot more than any corporate sponsor, or any other government agency. When the intrepid investigative duo from Themes and Memes actually went down there and had a poke around they said it was not easy to find these offices within the building.
As to the scale of script changes – this can be minor, this can be major. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing the name of a character because in real life they were a child-raping bastard. Other times it’s about removing shots and scenes entirely, such as the soldiers using their bayonets to prise gold teeth from the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers. Dialogue has been changed, characters have been more prominent for propaganda purposes, and as we saw with Clear and Present Danger the film was rewritten over several months to help it qualify for DOD approval and production assistance.
During the production of the first Iron Man there was a bit of a falling out. At one point in the script a military character tells another that ‘people would kill themselves for the opportunities he has’. Phil Strub did not like this line – presumably even a flippant, exaggerating reference to suicide is not considered appropriate. Strub wanted this changed, the director Jon Favreau wanted to keep it in, and this argument went on for a while.
According to an interview with Strub, ‘It never got resolved until we were in the middle of filming… Now we’re on the flight lines at Edwards Air Force Base (California), and there’s 200 people, and [the director] and I are having an argument about this. He’s getting redder and redder in the face and I’m getting just as annoyed. It was pretty awkward and then he said, angrily, “Well how about they’d walk over hot coals?” I said “fine.” He was so surprised it was that easy.’ One might say he was surprised it was that easy, I’m wondering why Strub was so insistent that it led to an argument on set in front of 200 people.
Along similar lines, if these script changes are so irrelevant then why are the pre-2002 documents kept in a private archive at Georgetown, controlled by a friendly academic, and why are the newer ones all but impossible to get hold of? Why do the reports from the Entertainment Liaison Offices make it clear that script changes are still requested and made, but never describe what these changes were in any detail or depth? Indeed, they hardly ever describe them at all. Slightly later on in the Kojo Nnamdi interview Phil Strub continues to downplay the importance of what he does, specifically with regard to script changes:
Phil Strub covering up Tomorrow Never Dies
There are two specific examples that illustrate this minimising tactic of Strub’s very well. In an email to Matt Alford he denied that the DOD had any involvement in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. This is absurd, since there is documentation cited in David Robb’s book saying that the DOD had a joke about the US losing the Vietnam war removed from the script. This would not have happened if the film-makers didn’t want something from the DOD in return.
In fact, if we dig just a little we find a whole load of evidence of full DOD co-operation in the movie. If we look at the credits for the film we see that the Department of Defense are listed, as is Phil Strub himself along with a DOD project officer Charles E Davis – the specific person who goes along to make sure the agreed script is the one used when shooting the film. The credits also list an Air Force Technical Advisor Col Bruce L Gillman.
A little further down and the credits also thank US Dept of Def and US Air Force, Ministry of Defence, London, Directorate of Public Relations, Royal Navy, HMS Westminster, HMS Dryad, US Air Forces in Europe, US Air Force Special Operations Command, 48th Fighter Wing RAF Lakenheath, 100th Air Refuelling Wing, RAF Mildenhall, 352nd Special Operations Group, RAF Mildenhall
The Air Force Hollywood website, which has only been working intermittently in recent months, includes Tomorrow Never Dies among their credits, saying they provided:
– Location filming at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall, UK
– MC-130s and HH-53s aircraft
– Air Force personnel were utilized as extras
– Security Forces
I really can’t see how there is any doubt that Strub is either lying or being outrageously absent minded in denying that the Pentagon fully co-operated with Tomorrow Never Dies, but there you go. His attempts to downplay what the Entertainment Liaison Offices do seem to extend to lying to an academic.
Phil Strub covering up The Avengers
A similar thing happened with The Avengers, which Strub has repeatedly and widely stated the DOD either withdrew from or denied some co-operation to because of the storyline. I’ll let Phil explain in his own words, before proving how those words are a load of bollocks.
Once more, Strub is minimising the role of the Pentagon, saying that because SHIELD is an international organisation above and beyond the Pentagon they couldn’t find a way to support the film apart from a few soldiers at the end. But the Army’s Liaison Office reports show that they also gave permission for filming at White Sands Missile Range. They also contain no suggestion of any such falling out with the film-makers.
Furthermore, the film features both F-22 Raptors and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters on SHIELD’s massive heli-carrier/Nazi airship. The F-35 at this point were not actually being used in live missions, they were still in the testing phase. But sure enough, those planes do appear in the film, so we have three different kinds of support – providing a filming location, vehicles and soldiers as extras. There isn’t that much more that the Pentagon could have provided. Which begs the question, was it the other way round? Did the Pentagon sense that The Avengers was going to be a huge movie, which it was, and wanted to be more involved but they couldn’t come up with a way to gain a more prominent role in the film? It is curious that Marvel have basically said nothing about this supposed falling-out, and the Pentagon are credited on the second Captain America film two years after The Avengers.
Indeed, the question of the F-35s is quite amusing, because the Pentagon made a bit of a splash about debuting them in Man of Steel, which came out the year after The Avengers. They keep trying to pretend like that didn’t really happen, that those aircraft didn’t appear in that movie. In a Wired article they say that ‘The fighters were “digitally inserted” by the studio, Strub explains, not actual planes provided by the U.S. military.’
This is not just a ridiculous equivocation, it shows that Strub is suffering from hyperreality. After all, in most films most of the time that sort of vehicle are created digitally. The floating airship is CGI, so obviously the planes on the deck of the airship are CGI. The planes being digital still requires the film-makers to have had access to real planes, or at least detailed photographs or video of real planes, in order to replicate them accurately. Just like in Transformers, a film Strub wholly admits DOD co-operation on, the planes fighting the Decepticons are not real planes. There’s no meaningful distinction, except that Strub is clearly trying to distance the Pentagon from The Avengers. Distinguishing between digital planes in one film and digital planes in another, as though one is more real and thus evidence of Pentagon involvement, is downright bizarre.
Recurring Themes in Phil Strub’s movies
Moving on, it would take too long to list the 100+ movies the DOD has worked on since Phil Strub took the job as Hollywood liaison so I’ll direct you to the fullest list we have. One thing that leaps out is that there are very few films based on real life events. Aside from Black Hawk Down, United 93, Flags of Our Fathers and Captain Phillips I’m struggling to spot any, by comparison to the WW2 movies that dominated Don Baruch’s time as DOD Hollywood liaison.
The reason for this is probably that the Vietnam war doesn’t really lend itself to propaganda. It is hard to convince people that Vietnam was a noble war fought by brave American heroes, because it wasn’t and most people already realise that. The sensitivity over one little joke about the US losing Vietnam shows that it is something of a sore spot in the DOD. Ditto Iraq.
Instead we get a fair number of fictional battles, like in True Lies, Clear and Present Danger and Rules of Engagement, and a lot of disaster movies. Films like Armageddon and Twister and The Day after Tomorrow still present the image of a threatening world that we need protecting from, so they fulfil the psychological requirements of the Pentagon without actually featuring the DOD on screen. Similarly, monster movies like King Kong and Jurassic Park III and post-apocalyptic movies like I Am Legend.
There are quite a lot of UFO and extraterrestrial films – the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sphere, Contact, Battle Los Angeles and Battle of Los Angeles, the Transformers films, Battleship, Pacific Rim. These days the DOD are full on with UFO movies, whereas in the past they largely avoided them. For example, Spielberg approached them about Close Encounters of the Third Kind but the Pentagon did not want to be involved. As we discussed in the previous episode on Disney, the Air Force helped to make Moon Pilot, which features an alien character, but were unhappy with the film.
Of course, we have the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the DOD worked on Iron Man 1 and 2, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, and an ex-Navy SEAL worked on Thor. So that’s almost the entire first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then there was some sort of falling out on The Avengers, which I think was when the producers of the MCU realised that they didn’t need the Pentagon as much as the Pentagon needed them. So the Pentagon put it out like they rejected the producers, like when someone gets dumped and feels heartbroken and so goes around telling everyone that they dumped the other person. The DOD has even denied that they had any involvement in The Avengers in a recent letter to me, which is total bullshit.
Noticeably, phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has involved the Pentagon in a very limited way on Iron Man 3 and they are credited on Captain America: Winter Soldier, but I don’t know the details. Indeed, NASA are now the most prominent name, they are credited on Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron. Likewise Ant-Man was supported by the Science and Entertainment Exchange. So the world’s biggest film franchise continues to be state-sponsored and state-supported, but much less by the Pentagon than in the first phase.
In going through the reports from the Entertainment Liaison Offices the other major theme is transhumanism, which permeates lots of films and TV shows that the Pentagon support. Phil Strub clearly has no problem with transhuman philosophy, his bosses (whoever they are) have no problem with it either. If anything, one could make the argument that the Pentagon is doing more than anyone else to promote these sorts of ideas, and with the documents now in our possession I think you could make that argument quite successfully. Everything from Transformers to Terminators, everything from robots to aliens to superheroes to robot alien superheroes feature heavily and prominently in these films and TV series.
So, while Phil Strub says they don’t have hard, written rules for how they go about working with the entertainment industry (and that may be true) there is a worldview that consistently appears in Pentagon-assisted productions. That worldview is fundamentally one of a threatening world, a world that is somehow not enough on its own, and likewise where the humans in it are not enough on their own. Whether it’s tidal waves, plagues, or giant alien robots, the world is threatening and you on your own are going to get trampled. So thank fuck for the US military, who whether by implication or actually on the screen are going to protect us from all of these threats.
That’s it, at the core. There is some other stuff about how technological advancement is the major means for the Pentagon to protect us from the threatening world and so on. But that worldview is the most identifiable consequence of Phil Strub’s involvement, and the Pentagon’s involvement, in the entertainment industry.
Disney are one of the world’s largest movie studios and producers of entertainment. They have enjoyed this status for decades, recently acquiring both the Star Wars and Marvel franchises, among the most profitable in the cinema industry. The relationship between the corporation and government agencies has been almost continuous for more than half a century. In this episode we look in particular at the relationship between Disney and the FBI, including Walt Disney’s role as an FBI informant and how the FBI shaped Disney propaganda about the Bureau.
Almost everyone who has seen films has seen Disney films. Their status as the premier producers of children’s and fantasy entertainment is not in doubt. Their role in shaping young people’s perceptions of everything from romance to parenthood to extraterrestrials is quite well documented. Today I want to focus in on Walt Disney’s FBI file and what that tells us about the relationship between the entertainment industry and the state, and how state-sponsored entertainment propaganda really works. I think this is a really good case study and the feedback from the Clancy two-parter has been really good so I thought I’d continue in this vein.
First, a note on the source material. You can find a version of the Disney FBI file on various websites including the FBI’s own FOIA vault and on MuckRock. However, this is not the complete version previously released in the early 1990s and the subject of some media reporting and at least one book. That file is over 570 pages long, whereas the version on the FBI’s site and that they are currently releasing to requesters is missing over a hundred pages from that file.
Why the FBI are choosing to release a shorter version than they have previously released is anyone’s guess. I will say that the FBI claim to have lost a number of files that they have previously released including George Orwell’s. Maybe the Bureau really is that bad at administration, it’s always possible. However, I went looking and found quite quickly another version of the Disney FBI file which is the full version and has even been OCR scanned so it is easily searchable. That is the version we will be working from today so if you do want to download the document and play along at home then please do.
Walt Disney’s Career as an FBI informant
Disney himself first came into contact with the FBI in 1936. For some reason Disney gave his fingerprints to the FBI at the DeMolay Convention in Kansas City in July of that year. What is the DeMolay Convention? According to Wikipedia:
DeMolay International (also known as the ‘Order of DeMolay), founded in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1919, is an international fraternal organization for young men ages 12 to 21. It was named for Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. DeMolay was incorporated in the 1990s and is classified by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.
So the DeMolay Convention must be a convention of the Order of DeMolay, some sort of secret society or masonic-type fraternity for adolescents and young men. What the then 35 year old Walt Disney was doing hanging around with FBI agents at a fraternal organisation for 12-21 year olds is anyone’s guess. It may be significant that to this day there is a private part of Disneyland known as Club 33. Disney’s fingerprints were sent to the FBI and a week or so later J Edgar Hoover wrote a personal telegram to Disney saying:
Dear Mr Disney
I have just received the card bearing your fingerprints which were taken during the course of the national conference of the Order of DeMolay and wish to advise you that they have been classified and are now on file at the Civil Identification Unit of this Bureau.
I am indeed pleased that we can be of service to you in affording you a means of absolute identity throughout your lifetime.
I can think of no plausible reason why this happened but it is an extremely weird opening chapter in this relationship between Disney and Hoover, and Disney and the FBI. Four years later, in 1940, Disney gave in to the FBI’s advances and became their informant. For the next 26 years, right up until his death, they maintained a relationship whereby he reported on possible subversives and otherwise fed information to Hoover’s men.
Disney and Anti-Communism
In 1941 during a strike by the animators at the Disney studio, Walt accused them of ‘Communist agitation’. While Disney helped make animations for the government in support of the war effort, in 1944 Walt joined as the first vice-president the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This was an anti-communist, and briefly anti-fascist, organisation designed to protect Hollywood, and thus American society, against infiltration by the enemy. Prominent members included Gary Cooper, Cecil B DeMille, John Wayne, Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan.
In 1947 the FBI began showing a concerted interest in ComPic – Communist Motion Pictures. It had been investigating possible Communist infiltration of the film industry for a while, but in ’47 there was a memo from headquarters out to the Los Angeles office asking for specific information on this. 1947 is also the year that the FBI start compiling lists of so-called Communist movies, and the year they recruited Ronald Reagan as informant T-10. It is also the year that HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities started seriously going after Hollywood. Thus it is also the year that the Hollywood Ten refused to answer questions when called in front of the Committee, and thus is also the year that the first incarnation of the Hollywood Blacklist was implemented.
Both Disney and Reagan were instrumental in this process. They were both anti-communist FBI informants, shopping anyone they liked to Hoover and his thugs. They both testified as expert witnesses before HUAC, though in Disney’s case he accidentally accused the League of Women Voters of being a communist front, when he meant the League of Women Shoppers.
They both continued being FBI informants for years afterwards – in Disney’s case in 1954 he was promoted to a Special Agent in Charge Contact. In each FBI field office, Washington, Los Angeles, wherever, you have a Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of that office. A ‘contact’ reports directly to that SAC and is granted a higher trust status. In Hoover’s words from the file, this means ‘persons who, because of their positions, can and do render extraordinary service, or provide unusual and highly valuable assistance to the FBI upon request of the SAC.’
For one thing it meant that Disney could relay reports to the FBI from other informants – they trusted him enough to let him gather raw information and they would take it seriously even if it was second hand. This also means that Disney was not just a spy, but a spy handler. There’s nothing in the file to directly suggest he was actually running a network of informants in the formal sense, but for over a decade he was gathering intelligence via his contacts in Hollywood.
Before moving on, we should quickly note that there was quite a controversy when all this started to come out in the early 1990s, when the first version of the FBI files on Disney were released. Mark Eliot wrote a book, Dark Prince, which alleges all sorts of things including that Disney flirted with Nazism but also that he was spying on his colleagues in Hollywood on behalf of J Edgar Hoover.
In the post-Cold War liberal Hollywood this was quite an accusation, and the Disney family denied a lot of these claims and published unredacted versions of some of these documents to try to prove their case. This led to a lot of shouting but not much of significance, there was no lawsuit, so I guess we can make of Mark Eliot’s claims whatever we like.
Mickey Mouse Club
In return for his service to the Bureau, Disney was quite persistent in trying to get them involved, or let him involve them, in his productions. In some instances he offered them total control over the finished production and as we will see when they took him up on the offer they exerted a lot of control.
Our story begins in 1954 when Walt Disney offered the FBI’s LA office free access to Disneyland California ‘for use in connection with official matters and for recreational purposes’. This offer was made in the middle of the decision to promote Disney an SAC contact, and possibly represents an attempt by Disney to flatter and charm the FBI into giving him that promotion. It also indicates a furthering of their relationship beyond Walt spying on his industry colleagues and snitching on anyone he thought was a Commie. The decision to actually promote Disney was made very early in 1955, not long after this offer of free access to Disneyland was made.
A year later in January 1956 a representative for Disney approached the FBI about shooting some footage at Bureau properties for episodes of the Mickey Mouse Club. The memo notes that the show went out between 5 and 6 pm and had an audience of some 20 million kids. The suggested scenes would show an FBI marksmen showing his skill at the shooting range and also showing fingerprints being taken. The FBI’s memo states, ‘he does not want to emphasise the criminal side of fingerprints but would merely like to point out how many fingerprints we have and show how they serve a humanitarian purpose.’
The FBI Crime Lab
This request was denied but it broke the ice and negotiations continued through the following months and years. In March 1957 Disney again approached the Bureau talking about filming at the FBI crime lab to produce a piece to coincide with the crime lab’s 25th anniversary (it was established in 1932). This is ironic given the enormous scandals to have hit the FBI crime lab in more recent times, particularly in the wake of bombings at Lockerbie, the World Trade Center in 1993 and in Okalahoma City in 1995.
The proposal from Disney suggested doing five films to be broadcast throughout the week, and the memo says ‘a program format showing a 14 year old boy something about FBI qualifications, training, facilities and careers could be effectively produced and would have tremendous audience appeal’. They are talking about the now standard of format of a central character who is inducted into the institution being used as a vehicle to induct the audience.
This idea bounced around the upper levels of the FBI for a few weeks, and they eventually agreed on the basis that ‘we could have complete control over this and it would not entail an awful lot of work’. In April 1957 Hugo Johnson, Disney’s representative in Washington, was given a tour of the FBI crime lab to scout it as a shooting location. They decided to use Dirk Metzger, a 13 year old boy who had previously presented Mickey Mouse Club newsreels, and to make four films with the FBI that would part of a series of ten based on Washington DC. These included the shooting range and fingerprinting scenes suggested over a year earlier, and also some classroom scenes showing FBI recruits being taught and trained.
FBI Censorship of Disney
Much of this was suggested by the FBI and when they viewed an early cut of the films they requested quite a number of changes to the script and to the editing. These changes were made, so you could argue that this constitutes a form of government censorship but even more interesting to me is the nature of these changes. This is something we’ve looked at in several recent episodes. The FBI’s memo to Disney includes such gems as:
Scene 5: In conducting the crime scene search it is deemed advisable to eliminate the shot where Dirk actually picks up the gun and ejects the clip… The handling of a supposedly loaded weapon by a boy of Dirk’s age is not considered appropriate.
So he can join a Masonic fraternity but not handle a loaded gun? That would seem to be the implication of the FBI’s sense of morality at this time. There are other notes mostly concerned with the dialogue but one other scene change is worth highlighting.
Scene 8: The scene of the agent firing two revolvers simultaneously and breaking the clay targets does not show the targets themselves breaking. This footage is available and it is felt that, if the scene is used at all, it should show the agent’s bullets breaking the clay targets.
This might sound trivial but it is about appearing effective and thus intimidating. This is very similar to a scene in Clear and Present Danger described by Phil Strub as ‘a Marine helicopter gunship attacking a lightly-defended drug overlord’s residence, with very modest effect’. This was changed at the DOD’s request to make the attack more destructive. This is obviously something that these institutions want to achieve through entertainment – a show of force, a bit of theatre saying ‘don’t fuck with us’. Exactly why the FBI felt it was important to get this message into a children’s TV program, I leave it to you to ponder.
Dirk Metzger himself is quite interesting – the son of a senior officer in the Marine Corps who was stationed in London, Dirk was not a professional actor. Yet he fronted this whole series of Disney films about Washington DC, including meeting the President and Hoover and Eisenhower both wrote to him after the films had broadcast. Dirk went on to join the Marines himself then became a lawyer, and is now the founding advisor of the Renaissance Lawyer Society and the president of Silvermark Consulting. I don’t know whether he’s aware that the FBI did a little check on him and his father as part of this filming process, but perhaps I’ll drop him an email and ask.
Getting back to our story – once the FBI had sent their requested script and editing changes to Disney these changes were made, but for unknown reasons Disney then delayed sending the Bureau a final copy to review and clear for broadcast. There was a bit of an argument over this because Disney kept delaying, for reasons that I cannot fathom. Indeed, it wasn’t until the day of the broadcast itself – January 24th 1958 – that the FBI actually got to see the final cut. In the event they had no problem with it and Hoover himself was very happy with the series of films. However, this strained relationships between the Feds and Disney and Associate Director Clyde Tolson even wrote on one memo ‘no further co-operation’.
A few years later Disney had a conversation with the SAC at the Los Angeles office where they discussed the ‘kidnap rape murder’ of 6 year old Rose Marie Riddle. This was a big case in 1961, as you can probably imagine, and later resulted in the prosecutions of a husband and wife who pleaded guilty. The husband was executed, which seems wholly appropriate, and the wife was sent to prison. Disney and the SAC discussed the idea of making some cartoons featuring Disney animal characters warning about the dangers of child molesters. Not in itself a bad idea, though what a child is supposed to make of a cartoon squirrel warning them about paedophiles I am not at all sure. It seems that nothing came of this conversation and Disney only suggested that the Bureau be involved, he never made an explicit request so they never actually refused.
The same year Disney got a large salary increase, as documented in a news cutting in his FBI file. The Bureau also found out that Disney were going to feature an FBI agent character in their film Moon Pilot, about the first man to be shot around the moon. The character, played by Edmond O’Brien, is a ‘flying saucer fan’ and generally not a very loyal and competent FBI agent.
The FBI reached out to Disney personally, who told them that the script was somewhat different to the serialised version of the story that the FBI were working from. He said that the FBI actually came across very well in the Disney version, and asked that Hoover review the script before making a final decision as to whether the FBI could be mentioned by name.
As it turned out, Disney dropped any mention of the FBI from the script and the agent became a generic ‘government security’ officer. The FBI files note how an agent from their Criminal Research Section saw a preview of the film at the Pentagon. One memo states under the heading ‘Interesting Note’:
The Air Force has a problem. They cooperated in this movie to the extent of furnishing a Technical Director, making some stock footage available, and furnishing air craft for a scene or two. The credits now gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the Air Force and, from the discussion among Air Force officers present at the showing the film, it is apparent that they feel that the public will identify them as having approved of this film. They do not approve, and were discussing a means of getting a change made since the film sent to them is the final print.
This film, Moon Pilot, does not appear on either the Air Force list or the overall DOD list of support projects, but clearly they did support the film during its production even if they later regretted that.
That Darn Cat/Undercover Cat
The final example of the relationship between Disney and the FBI is about the 1965 adaptation of Undercover Cat, from the book written by former FBI agent Gordon Gordon. It is clear that the Bureau hated Gordon and considered his fiction books depicting an FBI agent John ‘Rip’ Ripley to portray them in a bad light. In Undercover Cat the central character is a cat who is an FBI agent (naturally). He forages in rubbish bins at night, which is hardly the image of the Bureau that Tolson and Hoover wanted.
They applied some pressure on Disney, even invoking Public Law 670, a statute preventing the commercial exploitation of the FBI’s name. Disney assured them that there would be no problem and that the FBI would be portrayed positively. Sources within the MPAA said that they had not received a script for review to see if it passed the production code, so the FBI went to another source within Disney. They said that Disney often held back their scripts from the MPAA until the movie was actually produced.
It appears that the FBI never actually got hold of a copy of the script, and the film came out in late 1965 to a very positive reception. Gordon Gordon and his wife founded a new company called Meow Inc. and were nominated for a comedy writing award by the Writers Guild of America. A year later Walt Disney was dead and with it his relationship with the FBI.
Disney and the FBI
There are other secrets to be found in the Walt Disney FBI file but I think that’s enough for one day. This is fundamentally a story of a relationship that went a bit sour. During the 30s and 40s everything was going fine, Walter Elias was happily ratting out anyone he thought might be a Commie, the FBI were loving it. But something happened during the production of the four films for the Mickey Mouse Newsreel that caused some damage to this relationship and it seems that it never truly recovered. This culminated in the FBI being unable to pressure Disney into cow-towing to them over That Darn Cat, and ultimately in that movie being produced without influence from the Bureau.
There is probably also an element of the 60s, the free spirited times causing studios to take a few more risks than they might have in the quite austere 40s and 50s. The production code had been somewhat liberalised too by this stage, and in reality Disney were very unlikely to be prosecuted over refusing the FBI’s requests on a movie that centres around a cat. Something to bear in mind – the more silly the film, the more you can get away with, in terms of rubbing up the government the wrong way, getting lewd jokes past the censors and so on.
A third factor is the age of the people involved. Disney, a lifelong heavy smoker, was coming to the end of his years and so was Hoover. Indeed, by the mid-60s people were looking at Hoover and being amazed he’d lasted so long. So Disney had reasons for not caring so much what Hoover thought about That Darn Cat, which may help explain this trajectory we see through the years.
So, we have an example of a production that the FBI exerted total control over, aimed at children, no less. We have an example of the FBI removing references to themselves from a production because they didn’t like how they were being portrayed, even though the movie was a farce. And we have them attempting but failing to do the same with a third production, which they were not happy about. Thus, this is a great case study in the relationship between Hollywood and the security state, in this case Disney and the FBI but it contains all the usual struggles and compromises inherent in that relationship more broadly.