The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it. In this episode we examine dozens of films that were never made, from Boris Johnson’s short-lived screenplay project to a Hollywood biopic of Hitler that was killed by the Nazi government. We hone in on several examples of stories that the Pentagon prevented us from seeing, including one that they co-wrote before abandoning it because of the first Gulf war.
So, today we’re going to look at films that were never made. While we’re going to focus, obviously, on the government role in killing movies, I thought we’d start with some interesting examples of scripts that were nixed for other reasons.
The first one I want to talk about was written by none other than the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. In 2015 he apparently wrote a screenplay for a spy film called Mission to Assyria, with the intention of casting Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson. This was revealed by the Evening Standard a couple of years ago, who got a look at Johnson’s pitch and story treatment from when he was trying to sell the film in the mid-2010s.
Honestly, the script sounds hilarious and terrible, but very Boris Johnson. For one thing, Assyria doesn’t exist anymore, and hasn’t existed for 2000 years. For another, the leading man’s name was Marmaduke Montmorency Burton, which is very reminiscent of 19th century novels about the British adventure man, a character type that would evolve into James Bond in the 20th century.
BoJo’s pitch began, ‘So, I imagine we begin with a sickening montage of atrocities: beheadings of innocent people in orange jumpsuits, torchings of Shias, rapes of Yazidi women, and footage of the smashing and the demolition of the Assyrian cities… These bestial crimes are orchestrated by a horrible cologne-drenched jihadi with an air of mincing menace.’
Please note, this is set in the modern day – after all, they didn’t have orange jumpsuits in ancient Mesopotamia, and thus this is actually about Syria, not Assyria. Though whether BoJo – a former foreign secretary of my country – actually realises that Assyria hasn’t existed for a millenia and a half is anyone’s guess.
The basic plot is that Marmaduke, an ‘old Clooney/Connery/Eastwood type geezer in his fifties with SAS connections’ and the female lead, a ‘gorgeous but scholarly’ archeologist are trying to save a Syrian town from being destroyed by ISIS – so far, so Monuments Men. There are battles with jihadis, and our protagonists have to assemble a crack team of explorers and scholars who, presumably, defeat ISIS in the end. So it’s Indiana Jones meets Ocean’s 11, but written by a halfwit.
For a little more on this, we’ll turn to the Evening Standard’s podcast.
I think it will be clear to everyone why this film was never made – it sounds terrible, but also hilarious. Like most things Boris Johnson does the politics are awful but at least it’s entertaining. If I’m being honest, I would quite like to see this film and I would definitely like to read the full screenplay. Alas, there’s little chance of that now.
Nonetheless, I am left wondering why this film was never made – it is no worse than dozens of other movies from the last decade, it was written by a member of the establishment, it’s politics are in the sweet spot, as far as the industry are concerned. With some judicious script-doctoring they could have had themselves a hit, and while Scartlett Johansson wouldn’t have done the project, Angelina Jolie will whore herself out to any part of the Atlanticist empire that comes calling.
There are, of course, hundreds of movie projects that never get out of development, just as there are lots of unfinished novels, half-written songs and other unfinished artworks. The internet is littered with articles and videos about unmade films, but I wanted to pick out a few that I think are interesting.
One of the most notorious is Stanley Kubrick’s epic biopic of Napoleon. After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey he began work developing a Napoleon film and it seemed like it was going ahead. Then, Waterloo came out and flopped, as did a couple of other Napoleon-related movies, and Kubrick’s film was deemed too much of a commercial risk.
What interests me about this is that none of the accounts I’ve found say anything about political concerns. If this was a sympathetic depiction of Stalin or Hitler, no doubt things would have been different, but most people know almost nothing about Napoleon. Much like Hitler and Stalin he inherited a country that was a political and economic mess, and he steadied the ship and then tried to take over Europe. Millions of people died in the resulting wars, let alone all the other suffering. Napoleon should be seen in much the same category as other dictatorial European leaders – whether elected or otherwise – but largely due to historical ignorance he remains a relatively uncontroversial figure. I’m not sure why Kubrick had such admiration for him, but then Kubrick’s morality and politics were very complex.
A couple of films that weren’t made, in part for political reasons, were an adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel Airframe and Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis. Airframe is a pretty good novel centreing on an investigation into a mysterious incident on a plane, but it would be quite expensive, there’s a few extended action sequences in the story. And then 9/11 happened, so a plot about people dying on a plane was considered inappropriate.
Similarly, Coppola wanted to make a film about a futuristic version of New York city, clearly inspired by the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis. But then his production company went bust, and then 9/11 happened, and reportedly he felt that it was a bad time to focus on New York and giant looming skyscrapers and the like.
Another curious one is Andrei Tarkovsky’s attempts to adapt The Idiot, by Dostoevsky, which is a tale of a holy man caught between two women, trying to maintain moral superiority in a corrupt world. The Soviet government strung him along for years, seemingly pretending they were interested in approving his project but never actually giving the go-ahead. Tarkovsky wasn’t a dissident or opponent of the government but he was a very creative man so there was a mutual distrust, and ultimately the film never got made.
There are a bunch of other interesting ones that are worth reading about, such as the Tim Burton Superman film starring Nicholas Cage, which would have been awful. Another one that I couldn’t quite figure out was a Guillermo Del Toro adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Mountain of Madness. I just don’t see how you can turn that into a film, and several film and TV producers have tried to capture Lovecraft’s tone on the screen, and in my opinion they’ve all failed. One that made more sense to me was David Cronenberg making a film of Shelley’s Frankenstein, but that never really got going even though it seems like a match made in heaven.
Likewise, Orson Welles wanted to make an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, told entirely from the POV of the main character, but RKO basically told him they weren’t about to make a film where you never see the main character on screen. It also would have involved a lot of technical innovations, because POV film making wasn’t really a thing in the 1930s, so the film was abandoned, and Welles made Citizen Kane instead.
A few more before we move on – Paul Verhoeven almost made a film about the Crusades, starring Arnold Schwarzenneger, after the two had worked together on Total Recall. Indeed, Arnie was considered for the lead role in Robocop, but they felt that putting the robot suit on top of his already gigantic body wouldn’t look right, wouldn’t capture the humanity of the man inside the robot exterior. The project got quite far, it was on the verge of going into full production but then Verhoeven had some sort of disagreement with Carolco, the studio financing the production. There are even stories of Verhoeven having some kind of emotional breakdown during a meeting with executives, but I don’t know if they are true. Nonetheless, a Verhoeven movie about the Crusades, even one starring Arnold Schwarzenneger, could have been a great watch. And when you think about the way all the alien planets in Starship Troopers are sandy landscapes, reminiscent of the regions invaded during the Crusades, there’s an obviously thematic link there.
in 2014 it was announced that George Clooney was going to direct a film called Hack Attack, all about the British tabloid phone hacking ‘scandal’. I say ‘scandal’ in inverted commas because this wasn’t really scandalous, it was just criminal. Straightforwardly, unambiguously. The film was an adaptation of the book of the same name, by a Guardian journalist who spent years investigating Newscorp and the Murdoch tabloids.
But then, something happened, and the project seems to have stalled. It’s not clear whether the film will ever get made, or exactly what went wrong in the last 6 years. It can’t be a budget problem because it is fairly cheap to make a film like this, it’s mostly people in offices talking. On the other hand, politically it has now become very acceptable to attack the Murdoch empire. The Loudest Voice, the TV drama about Fox News, was pretty hard-hitting. Likewise, since Disney bought 20th Century Fox they’ve set about rebranding it, to remove any association with Fox News.
Which is somewhat odd, since Fox News took its name from the film studio and 20th Century Fox was called that for decades before Murdoch bought it. But I guess these days no one remembers who William Fox was, and the name is now associated most closely with the news channel. So it has become 20th Century Studios. We will have to keep an eye out for news on Hack Attack, and exactly what happened to stall or stop the film from being made.
And one final one, mostly because it’s bizarre – following the success of Star Trek: The Motion Picture Gene Rodenberry wrote a story treatment for the sequel which would have seen the crew go on a time travel adventure to the 1960s. They manage to prevent the JFK assassination, but this has devastating consequences for human history. So they end up having to reverse history again, and take part in the assassination, in a weird hybrid of Back to the Future and Executive Action. Interestingly, this same basic plot was used in an episode of Red Dwarf, the British sci-fi comedy series.
The Mad Dog of Europe
As I say, there are hundreds of films that were never made and I do encourage you to do a search on this subject because these sorts of stories give us a sense of how the industry really works. It isn’t as simple as they’re just in it to make money, or they’re just in it to promote their Muslim-loving liberal commie gay negro trans Jewish agenda. The culture industries are industries, they are imposing products from the top down and using marketing to create demand for them, just as if they were selling cordless drills or pharmaceuticals. But they are also political entities, because cordless drills are essentially apolitical items but films aren’t.
This is why so many different governments, and so many different government agencies, have laid the kibosh down on so many films throughout the decades. I’m sure there are a load that I don’t know about, but for the rest of this episode we’re going to look at a bunch of different examples – some of which I’ve mentioned on previous podcasts.
One such government was Nazi Germany, who used the power of their lucrative domestic market to pressure Hollywood studios into rewriting films, as well as to prevent films being made that were somehow critical of the German government. Their consul in Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, met regularly with studio heads and reviewed scripts, threatening to ban not just individual movies from being shown in Germany, but sometimes every movie by a certain actor, director or studio, if they didn’t comply.
As a result, numerous films were rewritten at the scripting stage, or edited in post-production, to remove scenes that were critical of Germany, especially the country’s actions during and following World War One.
In 1933 Herman Mankiewicz decided to write a film about how the Nazis were treating Jews, called The Mad Dog of Europe. It focused on the rise of a housepainter named Adolf Mitler, and the lives of two families – one Christian, one Jewish, in Transylvania. The film would open with a caption declaring that:
THE INCIDENTS AND CHARACTERS IN THIS PICTURE ARE OF COURSE FICTITIOUS. IT IS OBVIOUSLY ABSURD TO ASK ANYONE TO BELIEVE THEY COULD HAPPEN IN THIS ENLIGHTENED DAY AND AGE.
These rather sarcastic attempts to disguise the true subjects of the script were undermined when producer Sam Jaffe bought the rights to the film and took out full page ads to promote his forthcoming ‘anti Nazi’ picture.
Gyssling reached out to the Hays organisation to express how unhappy they were, and Hays summoned Jaffe and Mankiewicz to a meeting and told them they were greedy, profiteering and would undermine the US film industry for years to come. Ze German government had implied they would seize all property belonging to Hollywood studios in Germany, and to never import any American films in the future.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League was also opposed to the project. They wanted people to know what was happening to Jews in Nazi Germany, but wanted the message spread by non-Jewish messengers. They were worried about Jews getting a reputation for warmongering, and that a commercial failure for The Mad Dog of Europe could highlight American apathy towards Hitler, or even encourage pro-Nazi films. After Mankiewicz showed them the script they said it could work if he toned it down, but officially they opposed the movie.
So Mankiewicz and and Jaffe gave up, and Jaffe sold the rights to the script to Al Rosen, a Hollywood agent who wanted to build a reputation as a producer. He tried a number of promotional schemes to try to generate interest and raise funding for the production, including hiring a Hitler lookalike, but these all failed. He eventually persuaded New York philanthropist Sam Untermeyer to finance it, but then the ADL got involved and Untermeyer withdrew.
In October 1933 Rosen was still at it, and gave an interview to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about the efforts to halt the production. He spoke out about the pressure on the Hays organisation, and the claims that the film could cause violence against Jews in Germany. He also criticised Americans who were sympathetic towards Nazi Germany, who accused him of ‘vicious intentions’. Rosen responded:
However, it strikes me that the loyal Hitlerites insult their leader by their objections to the picture. By their objections they acknowledge that a filmed record of the German Chancellor’s career is a record of shame. That is there insistence, not mine. Biographies are lives, not written, and if the Chancellor’s followers in America do not like our story, let them address their protests to Adolf Hitler. He is the author.
In 1934 the Production Code went into effect and Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, put up more obstacles against The Mad Dog of Europe. He told Rosen:
Because of the large number of Jews active in the motion picture industry in this country, the charge is certain to be made that the Jews, as a class, are behind an anti-Hitler picture and using the entertainment screen for their own personal propaganda purposes… The entire industry, because of this, is likely to be indicted for the action of a mere handful.
He pointed out that some people believed:
That such a picture is an out-and-out propaganda picture that might establish a bad precedent. The purpose of the screen, primarily, is to entertain and not to propagandize. To launch such a picture might result in a kind of two-edged sword, with the screen being used for propaganda purposes not so worthy.
Breen, a known anti-Semite, explicitly told Rosen that anti-Semites deserved equal screen time, pointing out:
It is to be remembered that there is strong pro-German and anti-Semitic feeling in this country, and, while those who are likely to approve of an anti-Hitler picture may think well of such an enterprise, they should keep in mind that millions of Americans might think otherwise.
The struggle went on for years, but ultimately a combination of pressure from the Nazi government, rejections by the Production Code Administration and the concerns of Jewish groups including the ADL put an end to The Mad Dog of Europe. In 1938 Rosen published the story as a novel, and just a year later the winds had shifted and anti-Hitler films like Hitler, Beast of Berlin started coming out. To this day, The Mad Dog of Europe has never been adapted for the screen.
Movies killed by the CIA, FBI and Bureau of Prisons
While all this was going the FBI were, perhaps unsurprisingly given their institutionalised sympathy for the Nazis, doing much the same thing. In 1935 Paramount and another studio approached the FBI about support for films titled Federal Dick and The Federal Dick. J Edgar Hoover wrote a memo in response saying:
I do not know whether it is possible or not but I do think Mr Brylawski [the lawyer for Paramount] should be told that the title of the picture is particularly obnoxious. The Agents of this Bureau are not “Dicks” and I think it is a most humiliating and repugnant title, and believe that if possible Mr Brylawski should be so advised.
While the Paramount movie was released under the title Men Without Names, the other film titled ‘The Federal Dick’ appears to have never been made. This is perhaps the earliest example of the US government effectively shutting down a film by failing to provide it with the necessary production support, and it’s a tool they’ve used many times since.
However, sometimes they just out and out kill a production that never even asked them for help, which is what happened to an Iran-Contra themed movie in the 1980s, that was to star Marlon Brando.
This sort of pro-active censorship is very powerful, because almost no one knows it is going on. During the days of the Production Code everyone, at least everyone in the business, knew that there was a script review process if you wanted to get your film approved and released. It was largely accepted because it was preferable to outright government censorship, it was the industry regulating itself.
But when a government agency has the power to kill a production without anyone finding out until 30 years later when an investigative journalist digs around, that’s even more powerful than the entertainment liaison offices.
Nonetheless, the whole production code apparatus wasn’t actually independent of government, just as the MPAA isn’t. Jack Valenti was some sort of government asset, with ties to the FBI, CIA and State Department, and his predecessor was friendly with Allen Dulles. Perhaps the best example of the government-PCA relationship is the one between Breen at the PCA and James V Bennett, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which was revealed in a 2016 journal article by David Eldridge.
I did cover this in a previous episode of ClandesTime so here’s a throwback to that, where I explain how the Bennett-Breen relationship played out:
In essence, for over 20 years Bennett tried to censor any mention or portrait of Alcatraz in Hollywood movies, and enlisted the help of the Production Code Administration (PCA) to do it. In the 1930s the PCA were an office within the MPPDA, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, who enforced the production code. Our story begins in 1937, when the Department of Justice and Bennett at the BOP heard that Warner Bros had developed a script called Alcatraz Island. The Attorney General, Homer S Cummings, wrote to the president of the MPPDA asking for help in ensuring the movie would not get made. They passed the request onto the PCA, at that time headed by Joseph Breen, but it was too late – the movie had already been filmed so there was nothing the PCA could do about it.
Not long after this, Bennett and Breen struck a gentleman’s agreement whereby any scripts mentioning or featuring Alcatraz would be forwarded to the BOP for review before being approved by the PCA. As a result, the PCA took the initiative and later in 1937 they didn’t even wait for the DOJ or BOP to object, they just removed all references to Alcatraz from The Last Gangster. In early 1938 a column reported that Warner Bros were making another film about Alcatraz, and Breen warned them off the project before they explained that the report was wrong and they had no such film in the works.
In 1939 the film Escape from Alcatraz was problematic because it involved government agents posing as prison inmates in order to get a convicted gang member to tell them where they had hidden the loot. This was an old practice that Bennett had stopped, and even though producer Irving Briskin assured the PCA that he would portray Alcatraz as a respectable institution and offered to have a government official work alongside the film-makers, Bennett wasn’t happy. Briskin got around the problem by rewriting the film to take place in a state prison, outside of the Federal BOP’s remit, and renaming it Behind Prison Gates.
Why was Bennett so sensitive about Alcatraz? According to Eldridge, who examined PCA files and correspondence between Breen and Bennett, it was because Alcatraz was so notorious that they felt it misled the public’s impressions of the penal system as a whole. He also felt it perpetuated the idea of a Gangster Hall of Fame – the one prison where all the most glamorous criminals were housed.
A few years earlier, in 1934 (the same year that Alcatraz opened), the film industry was embroiled in a scandal when word got out that there was a film in development about John Dillinger. The Production Code was amended to outlaw films that ‘glorified gangsters’ and while this rule was relaxed after WW2, the 1945 biopic Dillinger saw it quickly reinstated. As I mentioned, this was relaxed in the late 50s, leading to a revival in gangster films.
Bennett also believed he was helping the prisoners, believing that furthering the myth of Alcatraz meant that anyone who was sent there would be tarred with the same brush, and find it impossible to find a ‘useful position within the community’ after they were released. So, in 1948 the film Brain of Alcatraz was never made as a consequence of BOP objections, but there was a bigger problem brewing.
As recounted by Eldridge, Robert Stroud was a convicted murderer and sociopath who rose to notoriety as the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’. During his time in Leavenworth, Stroud became a renowned ornithologist, rearing birds in the prison that his mother would then sell. He also wrote a respected book on canaries, which was smuggled out of the prison and published. Stroud was moved to Alcatraz after prison wardens found that he’d been illegally brewing alcohol, and for most of his sentence he was then in solitary confinement.
Stroud took his revenge by engaging in a battle of wills with the penal system, and Bennett in particular, who he accused of having a personal vendetta against him. In 1948 the Hollywood agent Richard Polimer reached out to Stroud’s brother, Marcus, to discuss a film deal. When a contract was signed in 1950, Bennett reached out to Polimer and invited him to Washington to see the files on Stroud for himself. Bennett convinced Polimer that Marcus had given him a false impression and that making a film about a psychotic murderer wasn’t a good idea. Before there was even a script on the table, Bennett had successfully prevented another film from being made.
In 1956 Fox acquired the rights to adapt Thomas Gaddis’ book on Stroud, which had been published the previous year, with the intention of making it into a film. Bennett heard about this and immediately reached out to the PCA to warn Fox off the project. Even though Bennett admitted that he hadn’t seen the script and had no idea how it would portray Stroud or the penal system, he objected strenuously, calling the story in Gaddis’ book a ‘fiction’.
Unfortunately for Bennett, his friend Breen had retired in 1954 and his replacement, Geoffrey Shurlock, wasn’t anywhere near as confrontational or strict about enforcing the code. Bennett tried every trick in the book – implying Fox could face legal troubles if they produced the story, pointing out that a prison guard murdered by Stroud had a wife and children who were still alive, even throwing in lines about how violent films had a derogatory effect on the ‘well being of young people’. He essentially threatened that if the PCA allowed Fox to make the film that the Bureau would add their names to the list of people accusing Hollywood of ‘fomenting juvenile delinquency’.
In the face of such pressures, director Joshua Logan passed on the project, but the rights remained with 20th Century Fox. Two years later another director, Jack Cummings, moved from MGM to Fox and revived the Birdman project. He was warned by Fox’s head of PR and liaison to the PCA Frank McCarthy that the project was considered controversial and that it could not serve as an indictment of the penal system. Even though Cummings had no such intention, he and McCarthy were summoned to a meeting with Bennett’s boss, the Attorney General William P Rogers.
Rogers assured them that Stroud was an insane killer, and not the reformed character he liked people to think he was. Earlier that year Bennett had visited Stroud with an eminent psychiatrist in tow, with the apparent intention of fuelling speculation about Stroud’s mental state and possibly discrediting Gaddis’ book in the process. Rogers emphasised this, saying that Stroud could not even be considered for parole, such was his mental state. Even though the director Cummings wanted to talk to the psychiatrist himself, McCarthy told him to drop the project and then wrote to the PCA confirming that Fox would not be making the film.
In 1959 Fox’s right to adapt the story expired and another studio – Norma Productions – took up the option, with Burt Lancaster signed on to play Stroud. In 1960 they submitted their script to the PCA, and naturally Bennett objected. But film-makers were increasingly challenging the PCA, and the amendments to the code removing the clause preventing the glamourising of criminals meant that the only remaining objection was whether they portrayed the institutions of the penal system fairly.
Shurlock was less willing to run interference for Bennett, indeed he basically passed the whole matter over to the board of directors of the MPAA, saying that in his view the script was within the limits imposed by the code. When they started production on the film Lancaster and the others went on the attack, revealing how Bennett had repeatedly suppressed the Stroud story in an article in Life magazine. In press conferences to promote the film director John Frankenheimer claimed that the bureau had blocked him when he tried to tell the Stroud story in a live TV drama for CBS.
Alongside the revelation of Bennett’s attempts to suppress The Untouchables, which happened at the exact same time, the BOP were in a much weaker position than only a couple of years earlier. Unable to halt production, the film – titled Birdman of Alcatraz – came out in 1962 and led to many people calling for Stroud to be pardoned and released. As one former Alcatraz officer put it, the thousands who wrote letters asking for his release ‘didn’t want Robert Stroud pardoned. They wanted Burt Lancaster pardoned.’
It hardly mattered – Stroud died the following year on November 21st, the day before JFK was shot. The erosion of the power of the PCA, the weakening of the code and the exposure of Bennett’s censorial overreach meant that he had lost his ability to suppress and censor Hollywood, after over two decades. Alcatraz was closed in 1963, in part due to lobbying by Bennett, and it was replaced with a new maximum-security prison.
I’m sure by now you’re getting the idea – in various ways, numerous government agencies have prevented movies from being made. This isn’t quite like in a one party state like China, but the combined effect of the MPAA and different branches of the security state have much the same results. Entire events, places and points of view are airbrushed out of our popular culture, while other events, ideas, and attitudes are sponsored, encouraged and amplified.
Movies Killed by the Pentagon
As is so often the case, it is the DOD who have wielded this power most strongly. There are literally dozens of films that were never produced because the Pentagon refused to provide essential production support.
This is where the question of constitutional law becomes quite acute, because the US government is not supposed to censor speech, at least not political speech, and it isn’t supposed to help propagate one particular view or belief while refusing that same help to others. Even the Pentagon’s own PR guidelines prohibit this sort of ‘selective benefit’.
The only time I’ve seen this particular dimension discussed on the news was in a segment put together by Al Jazeera in 2010, where they interview Phil Strub and David Robb, among others.
Strub said he wasn’t aware of anything in the constitution requiring the DOD to give support to any film-maker who comes along. But in effect, that’s exactly what the constitution does say, and not just for the DOD.
I am not a constitutionalist, but I do think if you have a government then the US constitution isn’t a bad roadmap for what it should and shouldn’t be able to do. And they shouldn’t be able to favour one kind of speech over another. Indeed, everyone in the military swears an oath to protect the constitution, yet here the DOD are, subverting it for their own ends. And then having one of their senior PR people, the man who for 30 years was so intimately involved in this subversion, denying that it’s happening.
Terms like ‘Orwellian’ and ‘doublethink’ are bandied around a little too often for my liking but here is a textbook case of Newspeak, of double talking deceivers lying about their own lies.
As I say, we could make this argument against everything the Pentagon ELOs do but it is especially obvious when it comes to the movies that were never made. So let’s look at some examples and see whether they clearly violate both the constitution and the Supreme Court ruling that Robb cited in the Al Jazeera segment.
The earliest example I know about is Giveaway Hill, from 1954, which was a John Wayne movie about the Korean War. I found out about this through an article in Military Times that was sent to me by a listener, and they included a few documents in the article. In August 1954 Wayne wrote to the Department of Defense to ask for their support. He referred to a memo from 1951 on military cooperation with motion pictures and said:
I desire to declare my intention to produce a feature length motion picture based on the US Marine Corps in Korea.
So it appears this 1951 memo, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen, asked or even required film makers to alert the DOD when they planned to make a film about the military, regardless of whether they were asking for help.
So the Marine Corps reviewed the script for Giveaway Hill, and had major objections. In essence they felt the story painted a futile picture of the war in Korea, depicted the ‘bloody carnage’ of warfare too explicitly, i.e. too accurately, they hated a scene where a Marine commander orders artillery fire on his own troops (even though they acknowledge it is totally justified in context), and they had problems with scenes around a character called Jesus Perez, which they felt would provide material for Communist propaganda. So we can assume that’s probably to do with race and racism.
They wrote back to Wayne, denying his request for support, and the film was never made.
There are a few things that I find particularly interesting about this:
- Even John Wayne, perhaps the greatest friend the DOD had in Hollywood at the time, could still be subject to these denials.
- That Wayne probably felt his film was pro-war, but the DOD felt differently. It seems unlikely that Wayne was intentionally making the Korean War look pointless and self-destructive.
- That the DOD’s documents say that they worked on every major military movie for a decade after WW2, but this is one they didn’t work on. But of course, because they refused to work on it, Giveaway Hill was never made, so it doesn’t count as a film they didn’t work on. Go figure.
- That all of these issues would come up time and again in other films, from racism to deliberately firing on your own troops, to a depiction of war as purposeless slaughter. This is one of the earliest examples, but these same showstoppers were still causing problems 40 years later on films like Platoon, Fields of Fire and Forrest Gump.
Again, maybe if the DOD has such an issue with films portraying war as stupid, bloody and self-destructive then they should stop starting stupid, bloody and self-destructive wars. If they devoted half the effort to minimising their presence across the world as they do to convincing people that their presence is necessary, or even a good thing, then the world would look very different.
Now, I did a whole episode devoted to Fields of Fire so if you want to know more about how a Marine Corps veteran and former Secretary of the Navy had his film killed by his former employers at the Pentagon you can go back and listen to that. Likewise, I talked about Countermeasures, the Iran-Contra movie starring Sigourney Weaver that the DOD not only rejected, but actively sabotaged, in the Cinema of Iran-Contra episode. Essentially, they didn’t like the script containing scenes where sailors sexually harass and even assault women, and had major problems with a story focusing on the sort of illegal weapons smuggling that made up part of the Iran-Contra scandal. So they refused the film-makers access to an aircraft carrier, and then reached out to the Spanish Navy to get them to turn down the film-makers as well.
For quite some time these and a handful of others that David Robb discovered were the only films that we knew had been killed by the Pentagon. Then, when I got my hands on the Pentagon’s Hollywood database, I noticed a recurring theme in the notes on various productions – the line ‘no record of film being made’. This not only meant we can add dozens of other productions that we didn’t previously know about – after all, it’s difficult to find out about films that never got made – it also meant the DOD keep tabs on what happens to productions after the DOD reject them.
One entry, on the 1984 project A Moral Issue, shows that the DOD know that a rejection can kill a movie. It reads:
There are no records of DOD ever approving the film. The film was never produced, so evidentally if any response was given, it was no.
Some of the reasons why these films were rejected, and hence never produced, are quite illuminating, and even funny. My favourite is Beneath the Flesh, where the database says:
Producer requested tanks, APCs, humvees, 150 extras, etc. etc. Exploitatve, grisly film about vampires attacking and devouring people after a polluting chemical company inadvertantly disturbs the tomb of an ancient American Indian vampire. National Guard shown somewhat ineptly combatting the vampires, also two soldiers devoured while smoking marijuana while on guard duty. National Guard turned down concept at National Guard level. No file, no record that film was ever made.
Others are more serious, such as Trojan Horse:
The film was denied because it depicted the peacetime acts of war. It also portrayed the murder by US military personnel of a sizeable number of Czech officials and military personnel. No record of film being made.
One of the more significant entries is the 1985 movie Recovery:
Denied because of violence, strong language, and DOD did not want to cooperate on any story dealing with the USMLM as the primary plot. Request for installations denied. No record of film being made.
The USMLM were the Cold War Military Liaison Missions, carried out on the basis of reciprocal agreements between the US and the USSR. These missions (whereby a limited number of military intelligence personnel on both sides were allowed access to each other’s territory in Germany) are not at all well known, outside of Cold War military intelligence historians, and I don’t know of any other film or TV show that even mentions them, let alone incorporates them as a primary plot.
So on the one hand this is a late Cold War film that burst the propaganda bubble that there’s us over here and them over there and we should never negotiate or compromise, which never got made because clearly that image was not acceptable to the DOD at the time. On the other, this is a crucial piece of history precisely because it bursts that binary, diametric worldview, especially as it pertains to the Cold War, and this crucial piece of history was removed from popular view. As a result, people still don’t know about this, and so enforcing a rebranded binary, diametric worldview is just as easy as it was back then.
I’m sure you’re really grasping now why this is so important, so I won’t continue listing all the examples from the database. There are others, such as Disney’s Seal Kids, presumably a kids movie about children who are Navy SEALs, which is a pretty fucked up premise if you ask me. Little Timmy assassinating terrorists is not something we needed to see.
Nor will I go through some of the more recent examples that I drew from the ELO reports, but if you do want to read about some other movies the DOD prevented from being made please check out my article, conveniently titled ‘How Many Movies has the Pentagon Prevented from Being Made?’.
But there is one other I do want to explore before we wrap things up.
In the late 80s, following the enormous success of Top Gun, the Marine Corps wanted to develop their own PR and recruitment bonanza, so they worked closely with producers at Michael Douglas’ production company to work up a script for a movie called Second to None. This is just like when the Navy developed Act of Valor, the project largely originated from the military, rather than from the industry.
One memo states, ‘For the first time in the recent history of USMC-Hollywood interaction, LAPAO has been part of the creative process since projects inception. USMC input has been crucial to the shaping of the story and its characters.’
I may do a full episode on the file on Second to None because it’s fascinating, not least because the Marine Corps memos deride Top Gun as a ‘music video’, and try to justify the totally unrealistic sequences where an F-14 flies into a cave by referring to other impossible scenes in Top Gun and The Great Santini. If ever you needed proof that realism isn’t a DOD priority, this file is that proof.
Basically, the story is about a Marine Corps Harrier squadron taking on a gang of Thai Pirates, and it sounds like a truly ridiculous film, at least from the script notes in the file. They had an issue with one scene where a pair of Marine pilots land a Harrier jump jet in the parking lot of a Pizza Hut in Bangkok, and said the plane needed to be replaced with a Huey helicopter. They also weren’t big fans of a sequence featuring Marines ‘preparing and dumping human waste from harriers all over the pirate ships’. While acknowledging the sequence was ‘imaginative, funny and provides some sort of catharsis’ they felt it might backfire with the American public.
Script negotiations and discussions continued for months, but then the film ran into financing difficulties (probably due to the uncertainty over military approval). On top of that, Operation Desert Storm began and many of the Marine Corps assets, including the harriers, were no longer available. So the movie died, and despite a couple of brief attempts to revive it, Second to None (a.k.a. Fly By a.k.a. Thai Pirates) was never made.
According to David Robb, when he visited the Marine Corps ELO archive in Los Angeles he found a ‘floor to ceiling’ section containing files on films that were rejected, and never made. Without a full audit of that archive, which has now been moved to the history division at Quantico, it’s impossible to know just how many films suffered the same fate as Second to None, let alone the other military branches.
In just the last few years the number of confirmed examples of this phenomenon went from less than 10 to dozens, and we’re learning all the time about other, non-military agencies either sabotaging or simply rejecting unfavourable scripts, resulting in the films never being produced. While the script review process is a softer kind of censorship, the ability to outright reject a film, knowing that doing so massively reduces the likelihood of the film ever being made, is iron fisted.
And this is one of the problems we now face – the true scale of government influence, even control, in Hollywood is starting to come into view and it’s too big to even comprehensively account for, let alone definitively understand and criticise. That isn’t me throwing in the towel – far from it – I just want to emphasise to you that every time someone takes a fresh look at this, its gets bigger. It’s like the shark in Jaws, getting bigger and more monstrous each time we get a glimpse of it lurching out of the water.