Fields of Fire is one of the greatest movies that was never made. A brutal but sympathetic portrait of the Vietnam War, it was denied military support despite being written by a former Secretary of the Navy. This week I examine the story of Fields of Fire using a file from the DOD’s entertainment liaison office. I outline the reasons it was rejected, how the DOD and the Marine Corps disagreed over whether to support the movie, and discuss how it could have been one of the great Vietnam war films.
The 1978 novel Fields of Fire is a gripping portrait of the Vietnam War, bluntly depicting the violence and horror of that war while never losing sight of the humanity of the people involved. Written by Marine Corps veteran James Webb, who later served as Secretary of the Navy, it was widely praised for its realism.
In 1984 the Corps actually pitched it to Hollywood for adaptation into a movie, writing to Disney and suggesting they were in the right position to produce ‘the first serious treatment of the Vietnam War’. This is a curious phrase, because a number of films had been produced that treated Vietnam seriously, some supported by the DOD and some not. But I guess when you’re trying to sell an idea as new you have to ignore everything that came before it.
Disney showed no interest, preferring to focus on The Great Mouse Detective and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. I’m not sure why the Marine Corps chose Disney, out of all the major studios, to pitch Fields of Fire to, given that Disney has no reputation whatsoever for producing grisly war films.
Over the following years Webb adapted his novel into a screenplay, set up a production company and found some investors. In late 1993 he approached the Marine Corps and the DOD for help making the film and sent them his draft script to review. The Marines were all in favour of supporting the project but were overruled by Phil Strub’s office at the DOD.
We’ll come back to that later.
Included in the DOD’s Film Office file on Fields of Fire is a complete copy of the draft script, so I read it, and I have to say it’s great. Honestly, if they had made this into a movie it would be up there with Platoon and Apocalypse Now as one of the great Vietnam war films. Not quite as good as Full Metal Jacket, but in my opinion that’s the best war film ever made.
Much like Platoon, Fields of Fire follows the lives of several Marines serving in Vietnam. It begins with a Marine veteran – Will Goodrich – and his son going to Vietnam decades later, visiting the remains of a US combat base where Goodrich was stationed. As he and his son stand in the remnants of the base, Goodrich starts having intense flashbacks, seeing the men he served with appear before his eyes. The film then moves back in time to recount Goodrich’s experiences, before returning to the present at the very end of the story.
Our three protagonists are Goodrich, platoon leader Robert Hodges and squad leader Snake. Interestingly, ‘Hodges’ is also the name of a main character in Rules of Engagement, which was also written by Webb, and who also served in the Marines in Vietnam. It seems Webb must have known a lieutenant named Hodges while he was in Vietnam and based both characters on a real person.
By the time Goodrich arrives in Vietnam, Hodges and Snake have already been there for months, in the shit. It emerges through the film that Snake is from a poor family and is a street kid who joined up because he thought he could do some good. While Snake sometimes commits acts of brutality – even war crimes – he is brave, loyal and protective of his fellow Marines. Hodges comes from a long line of men who served in the military, so he is largely there to try to live up to his family’s expectations.
By contrast, Goodrich is a student at Harvard who flunked out and volunteered for the Marine Corps after the recruiter told him he’d be playing the French Horn in the Marine Band. Snake accuses him of being one of those guys who ‘hides out the war playing his horn and then goes back home and runs for congress’ and nicknames him ‘senator’.
Goodrich quickly realises that he’s stuck in the middle of a hellish war that makes no sense and isn’t much more than a slaughter. One night he and three others are sent out beyond the wire to scout the enemy, but the NVA attack the base. As the four men try to move out of the line of fire they are accidentally shelled by their own men, killing three of them. There’s a very touching and disturbing scene where Goodrich is trying to stop his fellow Marine from bleeding to death, but there are so many wounds it’s pointless.
When Goodrich and the three dead men are found the following day, the squad thinks that Goodrich did nothing to save the injured man, alienating him from the men around him. Goodrich starts suffering from PTSD, and frequently cries at various points in the story, exacerbating his alienation from the platoon.
In the same battle, one of the Marines inside the base ‘frags’ an officer who is unpopular due to his petty insistence on adhering to the dress code and other such trivialities. Fragging is where you set off a grenade to injure or kill someone on your own side to remove them from the battlefield. It was apparently fairly common among Marine infantry in Vietnam, this happened hundreds if not thousands of times.
Indeed, there’s a funny piece of dialogue between Hodges and the unpopular officer Austin where Hodges emphasises how the men may be dirty, and graffiti their own clothing, but they keep their weapons spotless. Austin says, ‘Colonel ordered me to look at the Lieutenant’s men. The last platoon I found unsat, the Lieutenant was relieved.’ Hodges replies, ‘What’d they do, send him to Vietnam?’
‘Fuck John Wayne’
The element of Fields of Fire that I most like is the tone of the movie. The scene between Austin and Hodges is one example – where the junior officer is being insubordinate but our sympathy is with him. This is taken to an extreme when Austin is fragged by another Marine in the middle of a battle, but even there I found myself at least understanding why the Marine does it.
The whole film is like this – it is critical of the war as a whole, irreverent towards the military commanders who don’t have a clue what they’re doing, and subverts a lot of war movie tropes established after WW2. There’s a running gag about John Wayne and one of the Marines, Bagger, keeps saying ‘Fuck John Wayne’ whenever anyone accuses him of being scared or anxious. This is obviously a reference to The Green Berets – the most pro-Vietnam war movie ever made. John Wayne set out to make a film that would encourage the public to support the war, and made it look like a war that America’s brave fighting men would easily win.
The Green Berets is one of the last of the old type of war movie – a simple, clean story of heroes and villains where the heroes come out on top. While there have been war films like that since, in the decades since Vietnam they almost always include some dialogue about whether there’s any purpose to the war, or asks what are they fighting for. While the underlying values are still of American exceptionalism and Western supremacism the sheer unpopularity of the Vietnam war permanently changed how war movies were written.
Webb’s screenplay reflects this by not just satirising the Vietnam war and mocking military leadership, but also making jokes at the expense of the classic war movies like The Green Berets. Fields of Fire is a much more realistic depiction than The Green Berets, and Webb knows it because he was there and John Wayne wasn’t. But these jokes go beyond that – they humanise the troops, show their fear, show that they are real people and not celluloid fantasies.
Indeed, it’s the humanity of the Marines that most appeals to me. None of them are clean cut whiter-than-white guys, they’re all just real people with various weaknesses and flaws.
Quite early on there’s a lieutenant who’s been hit, has lost of one his legs and he’s panicking that he’s also lost his dick in the explosion. He keeps asking someone to check, asking ‘is my dick alright?’ Snake responds, ‘Course it is. Unless you’re hung halfway to your ankles.’ This dark but also absurd humour is typical of military guys, and makes them likeable and empathetic, as well as entertaining.
Perhaps my favourite scenes in the script is:
THE COMPANY GUNNY. First we see his eyes. WIDEN to show his head as he holds a pair of manual clippers cutting his hair. WIDEN FURTHER to show he’s reading a letter as he does so. WIDEN FULL to show him sitting on a wooden ammo-box placed over a straddle trench, making a call of nature.
In some ways this is a synecdoche for the entire movie, that it keeps taking a step back to reveal more about the people and the war they are fighting. About halfway through the film the platoon is ambushed, with one character called Big Mac getting blown to pieces by an explosive disguised as an old ammunition box. After the gunfight they are walking through a village and Snake reaches out with a zippo lighter and sets fire to a hootch where one of the villagers lives. Goodrich is horrified by this, but says nothing.
A few scenes later three more Marines are killed after they separate from the rest of the platoon to deal with an unexploded artillery shell. The following day Snake and the rest go back to the village and find two obvious NVA soldiers disguised as villagers. They interrogate them, beat them when they refuse to explain what happened to the other three Marines, and eventually we hear them being shot off-screen while we follow Goodrich who has run inside, refusing to take part. It is heavily implied that Snake executed them.
When the platoon make it back to the command base Goodrich decides to report the suspected murders to the Regimental Legal Officer. After the Captain explains to him that he never actually saw the murders and cannot be sure what happened, he offers to get Goodrich out of the shit and use him in-office, helping him deal with legal cases. He realises that is what Goodrich actually wants.
So while some of the audience, especially the more anti-Vietnam war sections of the audience, might see Goodrich as a hero in the face of war criminals like Snake, this scene makes the situation much more ambiguous. We cannot be sure Snake just executed the two suspected NVA soldiers, and Goodrich’s motives for reporting him are shown to be less than pure.
However, in the next battle Goodrich gets one of his feet blown off and Snake saves his life, getting killed in the process. Snake repeats what he had previously told Goodrich about why he was signing up for a second tour – that he figures he can ‘do some good out here’. And he does, he saves the lives of some of his fellow Marines, which is about all the good anyone can do in a war.
The entire script is laced with these moral ambiguities, which become more and more apparent as the story goes on and we learn more about these characters. It’s a really engrossing, intelligent screenplay about serious topics. As part of the opening montage of the movie there’s a caption that says, ‘For those who fought the Vietnam War – on all sides’, and then after several more action shots – ‘And for the villagers who were caught in between’. While the film does focus much more on the Marines than on the NVA or the villagers, no one on any side is condemned or glamourised. They are all shown to be people in a war, nothing more, nothing less.
Why did the Pentagon reject Fields of Fire?
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Pentagon would jump at the chance to help make this movie. Written by a former Secretary of the Navy and a decorated Marine Corps veteran, based on his own real-life experiences, it should have met the criteria for full production support.
But it didn’t.
The Marine Corps were just as enthusiastic about the script in 1993-94 as they were by the prospect of adapting the book ten years earlier. When they reviewed the script they wrote to Phil Strub at the DOD saying they felt the film should be approved for assistance. The letter reads:
Although the prevalence of illegal and immoral activity by the Marines throughout the scenario (fragging, drug use, violence against civilians) could adversely impact the impression of today’s Marines by the viewing public, we feel that the screenplay is a vivid and historically accurate portrayal of the extraordinarily adverse circumstances under which infantry Marines fought in Vietnam.
They added it was unlikely that Webb would make the changes they’d ideally want him to make to the script, so they recommended approval without any script changes.
The Department of the Navy – the parent organisation of the Marine Corps – disagreed. Their assessment conceded that Webb’s script ‘very accurately and realistically portrayed how life was for combat infantrymen in Vietnam’. But, referring to similar scenes in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, they said Fields of Fire would give the impression that widespread drug use, brutality by American troops and the killing of non-combatants were commonplace in Vietnam, rather than ‘relatively infrequent’ occurrences.
They highlighted some specifics including the fragging scene, the scene where Snakes executes two suspected Vietcong, the scene where Snake sets fire to the hootch, drug use by Marines, racial language that is ‘not acceptable in today’s multicultural environment’, references to promiscuous sexual behaviour, a scene where a Marine masturbates and ‘continuous, unrelenting, non-stop profanity’.
Having read the script I will say that the masturbation scene is quite funny, as it happens when the Marines are getting drunk and one guy sneaks off into the bushes to jerk off over a picture of his wife. It really isn’t that objectionable to anyone but a total prude. There is a fair amount of profanity in the dialogue but it isn’t ‘non-stop’, nor is it gratuitous given the circumstances.
The other problematic scenes – the fragging, the burning of the villager’s hootch, the execution – are all products of the war itself and the horrors it inflicted on the people fighting the war on the ground. I think this is what the DOD found particularly problematic – that the script didn’t portray these men as fundamentally evil for doing these things, but instead blamed the war itself.
This is reflected in Strub’s letter to Webb which acknowledges his script as a ‘gripping depiction of Marines fighting under horrific combat conditions during the war in Vietnam.’ Strub’s letter officially refused DOD support, saying ‘The Marines, under extreme pressure and frustration caused by the deadly and confusing nature of the war, react committing egregious acts.’ Strub conceded ‘That these kinds of criminal activities actually took place is a matter of record’ but said that the DOD supporting the film would amount to ‘tacitly accepting them as everyday, yet regrettable, aspects of combat.’
Is this true? Everyone who read the script – from Strub to the History Division to the Navy and Marine Corps officials said that the script was accurate and realistic. Indeed, after Strub’s letter the acting Commandant of the Marine Corps wrote to Strub’s boss to ask him to reconsider, saying:
The Department of Defense, by supporting the film, would aid Mr. Webb in producing the most faithful cinematic portrayal to date of those heroic veterans. It is not a pretty story, but it is one that needs to be told.
Webb’s response to Strub was even more blunt, saying:
The very reason I wrote the novel and am working on the film project is that this obscurity has been ongoing since the late 1960’s, and needs to be reversed. But it can only be reversed by an honest depiction of events that juxtaposes such acts alongside the heroism and dedication which took place every day. I believe I made that distinction successfully in the novel, and I believe I am doing that in the film. It appears to me that what you are really saying is that when it comes to Vietnam. DOD will support only sterile documentaries, or feature films that amount to nothing more than dishonest propaganda.
I think Webb is right. After all, the DOD supporting one film depicting these actions would not be a tacit admission that such things happen every day, it would be an admission that they did happen. Which they did, and which no one involved in Fields of Fire disputed even for a moment. So Webb is correct that the DOD wasn’t saying ‘we can’t admit these things happen every day’, they were saying ‘we can’t admit they happened at all’. This is a basic refusal to acknowledge history, and thus a denial of the suffering of everyone involved, on both the American and Vietnamese sides of the war.
So what are we looking at here? Why did the DOD reject Fields of Fire? I think it is because of this logic of the war being the reason the Marines do illegal and immoral things. The film does not indict or condemn the men on the ground doing these things, it shows them responding to their horrible situation by doing horrible things. The implication – though this may not have been Webb’s intention – is that the Vietnam war was a terrible mistake, being run by people who had no idea of the realities on the ground.
And that’s an implication that the DOD cannot tolerate.