The Final Countdown is a classic of good bad cinema, featuring an aircraft carrier that goes through a wormhole and goes back in time to the day before Pearl Harbor was attacked. In this episode I review and analyse the film, which benefited from full DOD support. From the ridiculous script changes requested by the Pentagon, to the fraud over the costs owed to the DOD for their support, this is a silly but very interesting case study of the entertainment liaison office.
To get the obvious out of the way, this film is utterly ridiculous. Almost everyone who has seen it either finds it farcical but quite entertaining, or a confusing mess where the plot makes no sense. I’m in the first camp – I rather enjoy this film, though I acknowledge it isn’t very good and the story logic is full of holes.
I’m going to summarise what we might ironically call the plot, just so you can appreciate how daft this film is. The USS Nimitz – a nuclear powered aircraft carrier – is about to get under way from Pearl Harbor, in 1980, when the film was made. They wait for the arrival of a civilian observer and evaluator, who apparently works for the DOD but was sent there by the head of a military consulting firm. It isn’t clear exactly who this character is, who he works for or why he’s in the film.
He arrives, they set off, there’s a lot of fun jokes about a Russian trawler being a spy ship and then they see a weird blue storm approaching. They go through a wormhole and time travel to 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor is attacked. They eventually figure out what has happened after they take reconnaissance photos of the naval base at Pearl Harbor, and compare them to photos gathered from museums by a Commander on the ship, who is conveniently writing a book about Pearl Harbor.
They debate whether to intervene and stop the imminent attack by the Japanese, and there’s a lot of messing around with a Japanese pilot and a senator and his aide, but I’ll get to that later. Eventually they decide they are going to protect Pearl Harbor from the Japanese attack but shortly after they launch a squadron of F-14s to intercept the Japanese planes, the storm reappears. The film ends with them back in 1980 and everything’s fine. There is a bizarre twist right at the end but I won’t spoil that for you.
So this is Top Gun meets Back to the Future. Or Tora! Tora! Tora! meets Quantum Leap. As a fan of time travel adventures I can honestly say this is one of the worst and most pointless examples, because they change nothing, they do nothing. The movie goes from being an episode of The Twilight Zone to being an episode of Quantum Leap, to being Thought Experiment: The Movie to being a waste of everyone’s time because, in effect, nothing actually happens.
It’s not that the film is badly made – there’s a fine cast including Kirk Douglas as the ship’s captain, Michael Sheen as the civilian observer, Katharine Ross as the senator’s political aide, and most of the supporting cast are pretty good too. While this is a military hardware porn film, a lot of the aerial cinematography is great, and I quite enjoy the setting of an aircraft carrier because they are visually compelling.
So my first question is why did the DOD and the US Navy support the film? During Don Baruch’s reign as head honcho of the entertainment liaison offices they largely avoided science fiction, they mostly didn’t like UFO movies or films about the legend of the Philadelphia Experiment. They did provide some support to the fourth Star Trek film, the one with the whales, and as time went on the Air Force got more involved in the UFO culture but on the whole they avoided films like this.
The film-makers were trying to get this made for most of the 1970s, and first approached the DOD in 1975. The Pentagon’s script notes are some of the funniest I’ve ever read. They deleted a line where an announcement on ship says ‘the snack bar is now open’, they removed a scene where some sailors are playing golf on the deck of the ship, a lot of the other little dialogue changes seem very petty. They also deleted a scene where one of the characters is walking with an unlit cigar, saying ‘No one walks in the passageways of a ship with a cigar, lit or unlit’. And they didn’t like the XO being referred to as ‘Soapy’.
It’s also clear the film was quite profoundly rewritten after this round of script discussions, not just at the DOD’s behest but there are references to characters and plot elements that never appear in the finished film in any way. It seems that aside from the basic time travel plot, almost everything else in the film was rewritten several times while the film-makers tried to secure budgets and distribution.
In one letter to the Navy the principal screenwriter Thomas Hunter said he wanted to tell an exciting adventure but also ‘show off the Navy’s men and hardware in the best possible way’. He went on to express his dismay at recent films, including Cinderella Liberty (a Vietnam film that was rejected by the DOD) and that he wanted to show the Navy in a ‘very human sympathetic light’.
In another letter Hunter also mentions having a ‘good friend’ in Naval Intelligence who also consulted on the film. He then lists a series of changes they made to the script, ‘as a series of tactical or public relations objectives to conform to the Navy Department’s suggestions’. This included deleting all references to alcohol on board the ship.
In yet another he says that the aircraft carrier itself has evolved into the ‘main character, the star of the film’, but also that he wanted to portray the men of the armed forces as ‘thinking men, not military machines’.
On the other side, one of Don Baruch’s early memos on the script refers to a nuclear weapon being used that generates the time travel that sparks off the action – which doesn’t take place in the film, so it was clearly a very different script back then. He told them to find a different plot device, so they came up with the weird blue storm wormhole.
This is ironic because during filming there was some kind of accident on board the nuclear-powered Nimitz, which unit production manager Lloyd Kaufman referred to as ‘like three mile island’ in one of the making of featurettes. This meant it had to stay in port for weeks when it was supposed to be at sea, so the whole filming schedule had to be reworked.
Back to the memo, Baruch commented that ‘At present, the Navy is primarily just a background for the science-fiction story’ and requested more positive action about the carrier itself. It seems the writers took this very much to heart because the finished product is a movie where the science-fiction is the background to a story of how competent and clever the Navy is.
Some later documents on the film are also available in the Don Baruch archive, which Roger Stahl visited as part of his research for our documentary Theaters of Command. They include some more script notes, though it’s unclear if any changes were made to the final shooting script given the years of rewrites that had already taken place. The papers also show that for some reason Jack Valenti’s office at the MPAA were involved in the process, liaising between the producer Peter Douglas – Kirk Douglas’ son – and the DOD. Though at this point the film had abandoned the title ‘The Last Countdown’ and had become ‘The Aberrant’, before settling on ‘The Final Countdown’.
It’s also clear that early scripts had some sort of argument between the captain and the XO, and at one point the XO takes over the ship. The DOD didn’t like this plot element, and it doesn’t appear in the film in any way.
Would you stop Pearl Harbor if you Could?
The central conceit of the film is the same in all time travel movies – would you change the past if you could? The crew of the Nimitz are sent back in time and when they realise this is what has happened they face a choice – do they intervene and stop the attack on Pearl Harbor the next day? Or do they let history take its course?
It’s more or less the same as the kill Hitler scenario – if you could go back in time and kill Hitler to try to stop WW2 or the concentration camps, would you? It’s an interesting but ultimately fruitless thought experiment, but appears to have been the basis for this entire movie. They’ve basically taken the plot of an episode of The Twilight Zone and stretched it out to a 100 minute feature film. Or taken a discussion from an undergraduate philosophy class and turned it into a recruitment ad for the US Navy. Or both.
After they time travel the crew start to find signs of what has happened. They pick up radio transmissions from 1941, they take aerial photos of Pearl Harbor and realise it’s the WW2 fleet, and so on. They initially suspect it is some sort of Navy simulation or test, and that Lasky is there to watch their reactions and assess them. Which is amusing because the same scenario appears in Battleship 32 years later, where the sailors initially suspect the giant alien robots are some sort of Navy exercise.
As the evidence continues to come in, the captain, his senior officers and Lasky sit down to try to figure it out.
Meanwhile, a nearby pleasure yacht is out for a jolly – on board are a Senator Samuel Chapman – a fictional senator in the running to become FDR’s vice president – a couple of his friends, his political aide played by Katharine Ross, and her dog, Charlie. Keep the dog in mind for later.
Two Japanese Zeros – fighters of the Japanese Imperial Navy – attack the yacht, shooting the captain dead. It is explained on board the Nimitz that they are taking out any boat that might reveal the approaching Japanese fleet headed for Pearl Harbor. The Zeros even hit the fuel tank, blowing up the yacht, though somehow the senator, Katharine Ross, the dog and one of the friends survive the explosion.
Then the Japanese pilots start shooting at them in the water – a pretty serious war crime, and totally futile given that the people have no radio and pose no threat of exposing the Japanese fleet. They kill the senator’s friend, so the captain of the Nimitz orders his pilots to draw them off. It is only when the Japanese planes turn towards the aircraft carrier and potentially threaten the squadron of planes on the deck, that the captain gives the order to ‘splash the Zeros’. They then rescue the survivors, including one of the Japanese pilots, and take them back to the ship.
Herein lies the covert politics of the film – to make the Japanese look like savages who got what was coming to them. Exactly why they felt the need to do this 40 years later, at a time when the US had a good relationship with Japan, I’m not sure. Nor do I know why the DOD didn’t object to this plot point, when they had similar issues with movies depicting the Nazis and other countries who used to be enemies but were friends by the time the films were being made.
One could see it as a response to Tora! Tora! Tora!, which is a very even-handed and almost apolitical recounting of the build up to and the attack on Pearl Harbor. That came out at the start of the 70s, and was heavily supported by the US Navy. They even let the film-makers dress up a US aircraft carrier as a Japanese one, for the sequence where the Japanese planes take off.
Curiously, it’s the same planes used for Tora! Tora! Tora! – the Japanese Zeros – that were used for The Final Countdown. They were flown by pilots of the Confederate Air Force, now known as the Commemorative Air Force, a non-profit who do air shows and re-enactments.
This covert political messaging also comes up in one of the making of featurettes, where they interviewed both the Navy pilots and the ones from the Confederate Air Force who flew the planes in the movie.
All of the pilots except one said they would have taken the opportunity to stop Pearl Harbor, even after the discussion about whether it would have fundamentally changed the dynamic of WW2. I don’t have a firm position on this question – despite the best efforts of the US government and British intelligence, the US public were largely against involvement in the war until Pearl Harbor happened. A near-miss mysteriously prevented by a time travelling aircraft carrier and Kirk Douglas likely wouldn’t have changed public opinion in the same way. So would that mean the Nazis could have won WW2, though some would argue they did anyway, they just relocated to the Pentagon and the CIA.
Regardless, the film’s message is that they should intervene, because the Japanese are so horrible and Pearl Harbor was so devastating. And this is what the captain decides, though not before the captured Japanese pilot takes the senator and Katharine Ross hostage, shoots three guards and ends up getting killed himself.
After the senator realises that the crew have information on an imminent attack by the Japanese he insists on calling Pearl Harbor himself, to warn them.
This is where the film really lost me, because they’re making light of the senator’s failure to get his warning through and prevent the deaths of 3,000 people. It’s quite a funny scene, but what they’re joking about isn’t very funny, and contradicts the political subtext they’re trying to get across.
So the senator insists on being taken to Pearl Harbor, and he and Katharine Ross are loaded on board a helicopter and dumped on an uninhabited island. He realises what’s going on, grabs a flare gun from the helicopter, gets into a fight with the crew and ends up firing the gun, destroying the helicopter. This leaves Katharine Ross and Commander Owen – the officer writing the book on Pearl Harbor – stranded on the island.
Though fortunately, they left Charlie behind on the ship. The captain dispatches his planes to take down the Japanese squadrons about to attack Pearl Harbor, but then the blue wormhole time travel storm reappears and starts to chase the ship. The Nimitz, her crew, and somehow the planes in the air miles away, are all transported back to where they came from, along with the dog. There’s no explanation for why the possible sentient wormhole transported the planes back to their time because they never go through the wormhole, but they reappear back in 1980. If it simply transported everything that was ‘out of its own time’ then why does the dog get sent to 1980? If you remember, in Back to the Future it is Einstein the dog who we first see time travelling in the Delorean. I do wonder if they ripped that off from The Final Countdown.
In any case, after all the shenanigans and the arguments about whether to stop the Pearl Harbor attack, the ship returns to its own time and history remains unchanged. So the whole movie is pointless, the sum total consequences of the plot is that three guards get shot, one helicopter blows up, one Navy Commander is left in 1941 and one dog gets transported to 1980.
Fraud at the entertainment liaison offices
The other interesting aspect to The Final Countdown’s relationship with the Pentagon is that there was fairly large-scale fraud involved. Let me explain.
Contrary to the popular conspiracy theories, the Pentagon does not fund movies. I’ve seen literally thousands of documents on the entertainment liaison offices and not one of them shows any money going from the Pentagon to movie producers. This theory is right up there with the Beatles being created by the Tavistock Institute, Paul McCartney being replaced with a lookalike by MI5 and everything Dave McGowan ever said about anything. It’s pure fantasy, based on nothing more than contextless quote-mining and outright lies and fabrications. It’s the epistemic equivalent of the claim that Osama Bin Laden was really a CIA agent named Tim Osman – widely repeated, but totally baseless.
In reality the relationship works the other way – the film producers pay the Pentagon for the costs of providing support, whether that’s fuel for aircraft, depreciation and maintenance costs for vehicles and locations, and so on. Now, these costs vary enormously from production to production and the Hollywood offices can and do charge different rates to different producers, and there are no set guidelines on what is included and what is excluded. I recently wrote an article titled ROI: Does the Pentagon Fund Movies? which gets into all this in detail.
What happened on The Final Countdown is that the flight squadron commander Emory Brown was in charge of logging all the flight hours for the various Navy aircraft used during filming. This added up to a lot – at times there were a dozen or more planes in the sky flying in formation so the film-makers could get the shots they wanted, and even back then the cost was over $4,000 per hour per plane.
But Brown only ended up recording 32.5 flying hours, and the producers paid the Navy just shy of $300,000 dollars – for a film that’s almost entirely set on an aircraft carrier. It appears that one of the producers bribed Brown so he would under-report the costs owed by the producers, which he did. As outlined in David Robb’s book Operation Hollywood:
In 1983, three years after the film was released, Commander Brown’s distinguished career as one of the navy’s top aviators would be in ruins, shot down by charges that he took a bribe from the movie producers in exchange for underreporting the actual number of flight hours performed for the movie by the ship’s planes under his command.
Indicted on criminal charges of bribery and conspiracy, Brown was put on trial and convicted of a lesser offense-accepting an illegal gratuity.
Brown denied the allegations, but the evidence against him was damning. Federal prosecutors produced a note he’d written to the film’s producer, Peter V. Douglas-the son of the film’s star-in which he mentioned a “contribution” that had been made to him through a “middleman” in return for helping Peter Douglas secure the flight time for “chicken feed.”
Brown billed the production company for only 32.5 hours of flight time, but the navy alleged that the Nimitz’s planes had actually flown more than two hundred hours for the movie-a savings for the producer of nearly $700,000. Indeed, prosecutors uncovered a telegram Brown had sent to the producer saying that the company could have been billed for 204 hours of flight time.
This is not the first or the last time this sort of thing happened. On Tora! Tora! Tora! The producers were under-billed by around $200,000, about 40% of what they owed the Navy. Similar story on The Long Road Home, where they redefined some of the costs as training, and therefore not billable to the producers. Even aside from the massive political scandal that is the government rewriting scripts, there is clearly a degree of institutional corruption in the entertainment liaison offices when it comes to money.