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True Lies is one of the easier-to-spot blockbusters that enjoyed US military support, and fulfilled a long-term fantasy for the Marine Corps, of seeing the Harrier jump jet feature prominently, and heroically.  The Marine Corps and DOD file on the movie shows how enthusastic they were for an Arnold Schwarzenegger-fronted action comedy which culminates with him using the Harrier to kill terrorists.

Discussions between producer Stephanie Austin and Major Jerry Broeckert of the Marine Corps Public Affairs Office in Los Angeles (i.e. the entertainment liaison office) began in early 1993.  By May, Jerry prepared a ‘package’ on True Lies for Col John Shotwell, his boss in Marine public affairs, as well as for Phil Strub at the Pentagon.  Simultaneously,  Austin sent a lengthy letter to Strub outlining the project in detail and requesting research and production support.

Jerry’s fax to the higher-ups reads more like a movie pitch than a request for authorisation, beginning:

Mr. Jim Cameron is writing and directing a feature film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger for distribution by 20th Century Fox titled “True Lies”. The film is the story about a specialist working for an anti-terrorist task force. In the final scenes he faces the terrorists who have nuclear weapons who are threatening to detonate them. The hero character employs the use of Marine Harriers operating in the Miami area to resolve the conflict. In the scene the Arnold character actually flies the Harrier. At the Marine Corps’ recommendation, the producers have agreed to reveal the character as a former Marine Harrier pilot.

At this stage, before any formal request had been made, the Marine Corps had already been discussing the development of the script and asked that the dialogue make clear Arnie’s background as a Harrier pilot in the Corps, and hence his ability to simply jump in and start flying it on his own.  Jerry went on to outline how True Lies was the first in a 12-picture, $500 million deal between Fox and Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, and how Cameron had previously co-written, directed and/or produced The Terminator, Rambo II, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2 and Point Break. He added ‘as a matter of information’ that Cameron has a brother who was a Marine platoon leader in Kuwait during Desert Storm.

Why the Marines Loved True Lies

Jerry spoke highly of the True Lies producers’ willingness to showcase the Harrier and use Arnie’s box office pull as a recruitment tool, explaining:

In previous meetings with Mr. Cameron and other members of the production company, it is apparent that it is their desire to showcase the Harrier and it’s capabilities. Although the screenplay does not allow for the demonstration of the aircraft’s close air support mission, it does demonstrate the maneuverability capabilities of the aircraft and the professionalism of Marine aviators; the potential recruiting impact with Arnold as the hero as a Marine Harrier pilot is unlimited.

The following day, Austin sent her letter to Strub via air courier, which sounds remarkably like Jerry’s fax.  It reads:

As our film is currently envisioned, Harriers will be showcased in the grand finale and will, together with Marine Corps pilots and Mr. Schwarzenegger, play a pivotal role in the film’s action-packed climax. Given the high visibility of this film, the intended use of this equipment and the heroic depiction of the Marine pilots, we believe that this film would well serve what Major Broeckert has described as the Marines’ twin goals of educating the public as to the Marine Corps’ operations and capabilities and generally enhancing the Marines’ profile among Mr. Schwarzenegger’s many young fans.

As you know, Mr. Schwarzenegger has been, and continues to be, a strong supporter of U.S. defense and military efforts, has been actively involved in many nationally recognized health and fitness programs and is currently heading the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. He is also indisputably the leading box office star today.

She hit the point on the Harrier hard, continuing:

This film also offers a unique opportunity to to showcase the tremendous capabilities of the Harrier, something with which I’m sure few people are familiar and, quite frankly, no film has adequately depicted to date.

This is how you flatter the military into giving you what you want – tell them how cool it is and pretend to be self-effacing, admit the industry has failed to sufficiently show off military-industrial technologies and what a shame that is.  Total bullshit, of course, but that’s the media and PR world for you.

The Marine Corps and Pitching the Harrier Jump Jet

As with many expensive military technologies, the entertainment liaison offices have been pitching and promoting them despite budget and performance problems (and ‘problems’ is putting it mildly, see ClandesTime 256 – Military-Industrial Product Placement).  What we now call the Harrier Jump Jet started out as a joint US-UK military research project before the RAF pulled out due to it being too expensive, and the DOD were unwilling to fund the development costs so it was scrapped.

The Harrier was resurrected in 1976 and, despite some crashes and aerodynamic problems in the prototypes, a development contract for an initial 12 aircraft was awarded in 1979.  The US Navy and DOD repeatedly tried to scrap the program, with the Navy in ongoing budget conflict with the Marine Corps and believing the plane’s limited payload and flying range meant it was a waste of money.

On the Marines’ side of things, they were busy promoting the in-development Harrier.  In 1980 the jet made an appearance on That’s Incredible, and in early 1981 they were trying to plant Harrier-based storylines into early reality TV.  A January 1981 report says:

“That’s My Line”: Continuing to work with producer of this new NBC-TV series to plant story ideas ie: Barber at MCRD, WM Drill Instructor and Harrier Plots.

Later that year the DOD first started including the jet on its budgets and five-year defense plan.  Enticed by the prospect of the US shouldering all the development costs and the lower per-unit cost of a large production order the RAF returned to the action and signed on for some Harriers of its own.  The power of television?

By the late 80s the Corps had quickened the pace and were actively developing Second to None, a mid-budget movie featuring the Harrier and the Osprey V-22, even though the V-22 had barely flown, even in testing.  A Marine pitch paper describes the project:

Top Gun (a music video) with a real story line. Not “Us Against Us” like Top Gun, but us against some real bad guys.

Every Marine – without exception – characterized positively: personality, leadership skills/style, technical/tactical proficiency, dedication to duty, sympathetic response to human misery/humanitarianism.

First movie about USMC aviation, showing Marine air in action in past 40 years. First movie ever about Harrier.

Principal actor (William Peterson/Thurman) committed to six week indoctriraation tour with us to ensure realistic portrayal. Trickle-down effect will permeate remainder of cast with crucial realism.

The document goes on to describe how:

For the first time in the recent history of USMC-Hollywood interaction, LAPAO has been part of the creative process since project’s inception. USMC input has been crucial to the shaping of the story and its characters. As a result, we have developed both a positive portrayal and a rapport with the movie creators that will lead directly and inevitably to a team effort throughout the preproduction phase (Sep-Dec 89 est.), the production phase (Jan-Mar 90 est) and postproduction (Apr-Jul 90 est). The result should be a movie that will satisfy both the profit requirements of Columbia and the mission of USMC Public Affairs.

Another document in the file on Second to None shows how getting the Harrier on-screen was of the utmost importance to them, even in the Thai pirates/hostage rescue situation depicted in the script:

It also, for the first time, provides the Marine Corps with a viable vehicle to accurately portray to the American public the AV-8B’s flexibility and air-to-ground capabilities that we’ve tried to demonstrate through multiple air shows over the past 15 years.

The project ran into financial difficulties and then the US decided to invade the Gulf, which made the Harriers and other hardware unavailable and so Second to None died and was never made.  However, it was just a couple of years later than the producers of True Lies showed up with their spy movie script, and somehow, somewhere, somewhy the AV-8B Harrier II got a fresh chance at stardom.

Why is the Harrier Jump Jet in True Lies?

Which begs the question: how did the Harrier end up in True Lies?  Up to that point it had appeared at air shows and in a few TV productions, but no movies.  How did Stephahie Austin and James Cameron know about its capabilities?  Who told them?  Why, of all the aircraft-killing-terrorists scenarios they could have used for the climax of their film, did they pick one involving the Harrier?  Other planes have the same V/STOL (vertical/short take off and landing) ability so why pick the one the Marines had been trying to get into a movie for over a decade?

Probably one of those questions that answers itself.  Though the Marine Corps file on True Lies doesn’t go back far enough to make clear that they suggested the Harrier to Cameron and Austin, it seems pretty likely, given the context and given Jerry and Stephanie’s initial pitches for the military to help on the project.

US Marine Corps documents on True Lies

US Marine Corps/DOD file on True Lies (1994)