Skip to main content

Big, western films about the wars in the former Yugoslavia are rare, and to my knowledge the only one that got production support from the Pentagon was Behind Enemy Lines, the 2001 shoot down and rescue story set in the war in Bosnia.  Much like Owen Wilson’s journey through Bosnian Serb territory, the passage to getting military approval was not a simple one, involving nearly two years of arguments and negotiations over the script.

The movie is a jingoistic and often racist tale of evil Serbs and one noble Aryan working for the US Navy who manages to evade capture for days after his plane is shot down over Serb territory.  He also manages to recover evidence of a mass grave, resulting in evil Serb #1 getting prosecuted for war crimes and acts of genocide.  So far, so conventional big media narrative on the wars – the Serbs are evil, they’re to blame for everything, they’re the only ones massacring anyone, look how swarthy they are in their fake Adidas tracksuits, how dare they?

Serbian militants in Behind Enemy Lines

Serbian militants, sporting the latest in chav chic

A fuller analysis of Behind Enemy Lines and a comparison to its Russian counterpart The Balkan Line is coming on ClandesTime 269, but the timing of the film’s development and release is worth considering.  The first approach to the US military, in the form of meetings with the Navy’s entertainment liaison office, was in November 1998, after the war in Kosovo had been unfolding for several months.  At that moment NATO were looking for any excuse to whomp the Serbians and try to depose Serbian president Slobadan Milosevic, and right on time Hollywood came forward with the most anti-Serb film they’ve ever made.

Likewise, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, a UN body set up to prosecute violations of the Geneva conventions, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the civil wars that saw the federal republic disintegrate, was very busy in this period.  While they had been indicting people (mostly Serbs) since 1994, the period 1997 to 2004 saw over 150 indictments (again, mostly of Serbs).  Behind Enemy Lines came out in 2001, right in the middle of this huge wave of criminal allegations, letting everyone know who was to blame and why they’re now being prosecuted.  Within two years Milosevic was gone and Yugoslavia was no more.

Owen Wilson in Behind Enemy Lines

Owen Wilson discovers mass grave in Serb-controlled Bosnia

The military’s involvement with the script was deep, and spent two years having discussions and input between the first approach in November 1998 and the formal approval for military support in September 2000.  The file on Behind Enemy Lines includes full character outlines and story treatments produced by the Navy and Marine Corps Hollywood liaisons, as well a lengthy prep paper for a meeting with John Davis of Davis Entertainment, one of the studios developing and producing the film.  This paper outlines the ‘desired outcomes’ for the meeting and for the relationship as the script changed over time, namely:

  • assist with producing a screenplay acceptable to FOX
  • maintain critical elements that originally made it appeal to USMC
  • offer help to capture the essential USMC culture of loyalty and teamwork
  • offer ongoing technical assistance for script development

These ‘critical elements’ appear to be (1) The rescue story, which shows off the bravery, teamwork and ‘no man left behind’ ethos of the Marines and (2) the Owen Wilson character recovering the evidence of Serb atrocities, leading to prosecutions.

Us Marine Corps prep paper for meeting on Behind Enemy Lines

The Marines prep for meeting with producer John Davis

While various other aspects underwent major changes during the two years of negotiations, these two plot points remained steadfast.  For example, one email by Matthew Morgan of the Marine Corps Hollywood office outlines character changes and a story treatment, which concludes:

The story ends with the ultimate irony: Burnett watching CNN, with the dawning realization that because he succeeded in returning with the film… the U.S. presence in the region has been extended — indefinitely.

While this isn’t quite how the film ends, it is close, and Morgan’s treatment shows how important the message is – America is in Yugoslavia to stop war crimes, it’s a humanitarian mission, and the Serbs are to blame, not us.

Inter-Office Arguments on Behind Enemy Lines

Perhaps the funniest and most interesting aspect of the file on this movie is how little coordination there was between the Hollywood offices at the Navy, the Marine Corps and the DOD, leading to various contradictions, confusions and even arguments in the various script notes and other documents.  For example, the draft script included a line using the word ‘pussy’ with a double meaning, one of which was sexual innuendo.  The Navy responded:

We do have women aboard our carriers. Inappropriate language is taken very seriously — cut the word pussy.

Sure enough, the line was thrown overboard, but the Marine Corps documents use the word ‘pussy’ multiple times, for example in the prep paper for the meeting with John Davis in April 1999 one line reads:

The Squadron CO would personally despise the CAG as a pussy.

In another paper where they discussed an opening sequence where Burnett (our protagonist) has an emergency with his plane en route back to the aircraft carrier.  Again, the Marines suggeseted:

The CAG shows his pussy side and recommends ejection.

In a lengthy outline of characters the Marines were pitching for use in the script it describes one character’s view of the others, including the CAG (Captain Morrisey, the Carrier Air Group Commander), saying:

Burnett reminds him of himself at that age, and he thinks MORRISEY is a pussy.

Whatever the rules on inappropriate language on ship, evidently there are no such rules within the Marine Corps entertainment liaison office.  Incidentally, the same character outline document says of the CAG:

He’s not just political… he’s a politician. A “seagull” — squawks, shits and never flies unless a rock is thrown at him.

This isn’t an accurate description, and people shouldn’t throw rocks at seagulls.  We’ve actually colonised much of their territory and as someone who lives in a town populated by seagulls (including one that briefly made a tour of my house) I know them well, and aside from a habit of noisily mating on rooftops they are quite pleasant creatures.

Phil Strub script notes on Behind Enemy Lines

Strub’s notes on Behind Enemy Lines, and responses from the producers

Back to the file, when Phil Strub started weighing in more problems arose, as he disagreed with a lot of what the Navy and Marines had been putting into the script.  Notes from Morgan and Strub were sent to the producers in May ’99, and received a faxed response from the producers a week later.  While in many cases the response explains that they’d made the requested changes, some of Strub’s objections evidently mystified the film-makers because they’d followed orders from the Navy Chief of Information.  For example:

Reigert is heavy-handed and inaccurately represented in terms of his authority, plus he “becomes” Burnett by disobeying orders

WE BELIEVE THAT REIGART IS A STRONG CHARACTER. AS REVISED, USING CHINFO RECOMMENDATIONS, HIS DECISION TO ACT IS NOT DISOBEDIENCE OF ORDERS.

Operational chain of command and command and control is completely inauthentic.

THE CONSTRUCTIVE CHAIN OF COMMAND, AS REVISED, IS BASED ON INFORMATION PROVIDED BY CHINFO

However, some of Strub’s major requests were that the producers remove captions at the end of the film implying that the events were real, and not have Admiral Reigart face court-martial for sending in the rescue Marines without prior authorisation from above.  He got his wish:

Pg 119 to end – I think all this should go. Since the movie is entirely fictional, there shouldn’t be misleading title cards implying that it was real, especially since the events in the region are still very much in flux. Also. Reigert shouldn’t be court-martialed  because (if we change the script as w eshould) he hasn’t committed any court-martial offense. This is an action-adventure  picture, not a message film, and there’s way too much real controversy still around to pretend otherwise. If the filmmakers  wish to end with a message, it should be a generic one about the Navy/Marine Corps team forward-deployed, etc, etc.

THE FINAL NOTES HAVE BEEN REMOVED.

‘Not a message film’ – who the fuck was Phil trying to kid?  This is a rescue story set in a war that concluded just a few years prior to the film coming out, related to another war that was ongoing at the time Strub wrote this, and to an overall geopolitical situation that was still unfolding for years after the film came out.  The only evil people are Bosnian Serbs, and they are a bunch of genocidal, SAM-toting maniacs who clearly don’t have any righteous grievances and should simply be stuck in the special pokey for human rights criminals.

The fact Strub wanted to distance the film from real events (even though the whole thing is based on the story of an Air Force Captain shot down over Bosnia in the summer of 1995) while still retaining the very anti-Serb message illustrates how closely the film fits Strub’s own definition of propaganda.  In an interview nearly a decade ago, one of few extended interviews Strub ever did, he denied making propaganda and said:

I associate that with something that is not truthful.  Something that is put together deliberately to mislead, to brainwash people, to twist the real.  They whip [true and false] together in a smorgasbord.  That’s propaganda.  And maybe you’d accuse me of being too pro-military but to me, the movies we work with, they’re morale-improvement.  We don’t say, ‘OK! Let’s see what we can do to exploit this opportunity!’ We’re not trying to brainwash people.  We’re out to present the clearest, truest view.

As with many other examples of Pentagon-influenced productions based on real events, Behind Enemy Lines surely meets the Phil Strub standard for propaganda, whether he admitted it or not.

Military Documents on Behind Enemy Lines

DOD – US Navy – US Marine Corps file on Behind Enemy Lines (2001)