When it comes to black operations during the Vietnam War, the Phoenix Program (and its parallels and predecessors) is legendary for its cynicism and brutality. In this episode we look at two very different movies with their origins in Phoenix-style operations, and how one managed to obtain DOD assistance while the other waged an unsuccessful two-year battle for Pentagon support.
We should start with a brief history of the Phoenix Program. It developed out of earlier operations such as Project DELTA, run by the 5th Special Forces Group. Established in 1964 it comprised six ‘hunter-killer’ teams, each composed of two US special forces operatives and four Vietnamese ARVN special forces.
The mission was to infiltrate Viet Cong areas and gather intelligence, assess bomb damage from airstrikes, plant mines, carry out sabotage, psychological warfare and – of course – assassinations. The first incarnation was a fairly ludicrous failure, where the US were merely training Vietnamese special forces, then sending them behind the lines. In one mission they dropped five teams of eight men – 40 in total – into Laos, but only five men survived.
So the method was adapted to use US troops alongside Vietnamese, though they still tried to find ways to make it look like their attacks (whether against people or infrastructure) were carried out by the other side. From 1964 to 1970 DELTA ran these sorts of black bag operations, before the rise of Phoenix saw DELTA phased out.
Indeed, the LLDB – the Vietnamese special forces – were essentially created by the CIA in the first place. In the early 50s Ed Lansdale was working against the Huk rebellion in the Philippines, a Marxist insurgency. As noted in Doug Valentine’s book on the Phoenix Program, Lansdale pioneered many of the methods that would be folded into Phoenix years later. For example, he cites Lansdale’s autobiography, where Ed tells this tale of trying to force a Huk unit out of a village and into the jungle:
A combat psywar [psychological warfare] team was brought in. It planted stories among town residents of a vampire living on the hill where the Huks were based. Two nights later, after giving the stories time to circulate among Huk sympathizers in the town and make their way up to the hill camp, the psywar squad set up an ambush along a trail used by the Huks. When a Huk patrol came along the trail, the ambushers silently snatched the last man of the patrol, their move unseen in the dark night. They punctured his neck with two holes, vampire fashion, held the body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse back on the trail. When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed that the vampire had got him and that one of them would be next if they remained on the hill. When daylight came, the whole Huk squadron moved out of the vicinity.
In 1954 Lansdale moved to Saigon, and though he was posing as an Air Force attache at the embassy, he began covert ops almost immediately. He set up paramilitaries disguised as refugee relief organisations (helping refugees from Communist North Vietnam), supplied by the CIA front airline Civil Air Transport. They set up stay-behind units, carried out sabotage and spread stories of NVA/Vietminh atrocities, such as disembowelling pregnant women.
You will notice that this sort of atrocity porn war propaganda usually has women as the primary victims. In the so-called Spanish-American War the Hearst newspapers spread tales of conquistadors stripping and raping Cuban women, including cartoon sketches that were entirely fabricated. In Afghanistan, a lot of focus was put on Afghan women being denied access to schools (as though they don’t have bigger problems), especially via the Malala Yousafzai story. She’s now been replaced by Greta Thunberg, I guess, who is busy wasting electricity on Twitter and thereby accelerating climate change. Those of you who follow Kit’s Substack will have read his piece on Syrian women being exploited as part of the Info offensive in that country.
I’m not going to turn this into some rant about the double standards of gender politics because ultimately this is about war, but I do wonder at the extent to which all this war propaganda has reinforced a lot of false perceptions. In any case, out of these early Lansdale operations came the LLDB, who were not only President Diem’s personal bodyguards, they were also a personal army Diem directed at political opponents.
The most in-depth history of how these earlier operations gave birth to Phoenix is Doug Valentine’s book, The Phoenix Program. The opening chapters tell this story, of how early CIA and covert military operations, combined with Diem’s authoritarian intolerance for political opposition, evolved into an all-out assassination program. While on the surface it was about dismantling the support structure to the Viet Cong, in practice this often meant designating villagers – in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, wherever – as political supporters of the VC, then whomping them.
There are parallels to be drawn with what happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 and onwards. An insurgency, supported from over the border, countered with over-the-border black pyjama raids against anyone ‘believed to be linked to Al Qaeda’. Replace Al Qaeda with the Viet Cong and you get a very similar picture – people who may have been sympathisers, or just let someone stay in their home for a short while, or may not even have been involved at all – somehow found their way onto target lists. And once you were on that list, you can’t get off, so they’re coming for you.
Likewise, the tactics used weren’t just to kill people, but to kidnap them and interrogate them, often using torture. This led to false confessions, to people fabricating evidence against others simply to get the torture to stop, leading to further kidnappings, more torture, more killings. The sheer similarity is quite staggering, given we’re talking about wars 30 years and thousands of miles apart.
That is not to say the Viet Cong, or Al Qaeda, or the wider Afghan insurgency, were entirely innocent. They had their own stay-behinds, their own assassination efforts, and to be honest the North Vietnamese were being militarily supplied by the Soviet Union, at least to some extent. This is the sad truth about dirty wars – it does take two to tango, even if one side is far more vicious, and well organised and equipped, than the other.
We can also interpret these programs as state terrorism, since their explicit objective was not merely to kill people or destroy the infrastructure supporting an insurgency. It was also about hearts and minds, in a sick way. They were trying to terrorise the Vietnamese population, at least in the South, into ceasing any sympathy or support for the Viet Cong. Ditto in Afghanistan and Pakistan, part of the counter-insurgency plan was to make being an insurgent so terrifying and depressing that it put people off joining.
We can look to the example of Tony Poe – a CIA black ops officer who fought the dirty war in Laos. His tactics included cutting the ears off dead enemy soldiers, and dropping severed heads onto villages from helicopters. While not part of Phoenix per se, this same blend of outright killing and grisly, gory psychological warfare characterises this string of Phoenix-style programs and operations.
Officially, the Phoenix Program ‘neutralized’ over 80,000 suspected members or supporter of the Viet Cong, killing over 26,000. The remainder were captured and imprisoned, or somehow converted to support Diem and democracy. Even though Diem was the opposite of democratic. Before we move onto look at two films dealing with these sorts of operations, I just want to highlight one thing: if this was an ideological war, as the US claimed, to prevent the domino effect of South East Asia going red, then why did they betray literally everything they claimed to believe in? Again, just like in Afghanistan – you don’t convert a population to Western liberal democracy by torturing and killing them.
Good Guys Wear Black
One of the fascinating things about the Phoenix Program is that it was publicly disclosed, and ultimately shut down due to congress getting a bit squeamish. And Tony Poe, who moved to Thailand after the war, was seemingly quite happy to talk to people about what he had done. This meant that anyone paying attention – such as journalists like Doug Valentine – knew about it, and could write a book or a screenplay or somesuch.
This is why, just three years after the withdrawal from Vietnam, we got Good Guys Wear Black, a movie recommended to me by a listener because it explicitly discusses the program. It is notable for being Chuck Norris’ breakthrough movie, but also for being an entry into the cinema of black operations. Fortunately for us, it’s much more Above the Law than Clear and Present Danger.
It was directed by Ted Post, who during WW2 worked in the US Army Special Services, i.e. the entertainment branch. They performed plays, hosted concerts, filmed documentaries, all sorts. Ted also directed Go Tell the Spartans, based on a novel written by a Vietnam war correspondent. It’s very much a story of incompetent military advisers fighting a futile battle, so unsurprisingly when they approached the Army for production support, they were turned down. Keep that in mind.
In Good Guys Wear Black, Chuck Norris plays a mild-mannered peacenik professor, with a dark past. Just as an aside – his character’s name is John T Booker, in that very mid-20th century American style of initialising either one’s first or middle name. E Howard Hunt. G Gordon Liddy. Of course, JFK took it to new levels.
As the opening reel of the film shows, during the war Booker was part of a Phoenix Program unit called the Black Tigers. During the Paris peace talks, a covert deal is struck whereby CIA POWs will be returned in exchange for the US government giving up the Black Tigers. On the American side, a US senator agrees to this secret deal.
To my knowledge, this wasn’t ever part of the real Vietnam peace negotiations, but Phoenix Program members were targeted for special treatment as the war fell apart and the Americans (and Australians, etc.) withdrew. The South Vietnamese special forces, along with some Americans, were captured and met a very sticky end. So, this plot setup is based on real events, but conspiracises the chaos at the end of the Vietnam war.
The Black Tigers are sent off into the jungle on a phoney mission to rescue POWs, but like in Star Wars, it’s a trap. They fly in on an Army helicopter – we’ll come back to this – land at night, and sneak through the jungles of California, with loud frogs belching into the night. I’m not sure Vietnam is known for noisy frogs, but after a while they reach the POW camp, take out a couple of gooks, cut the wire and sneak inside. They are ambushed, some of the Tigers die, but Chuck Norris and four of his guys make it out. Through a combination of hand grenades and kung fu they escape from the camp, through the jungle, and get the hell out of ‘nam.
Years later, Norris is a college professor with a hobby driving race cars, like any god-fearing middle aged American man should be. At the end of his lecture, he is approached by a foxy brunette who invites him to dinner. She’s a newspaper reporter, Lois Lane style, and is digging into the botched rescue mission at the end of the war. She suspects a deeper story, and as she and Chuck get to know each other – inevitably ending up in bed, because movie – someone starts killing the other surviving members of the Black Tigers.
I have to admit, I really enjoyed this film. The script is very good, though the direction in the first half is a bit stilted, the actors don’t feel quite comfortable in their lines. This loosens up as the film gets going, and there’s no end of ass kicking, and head kicking, and chest kicking, and a bit where Chuck Norris does a flying two-footed dropkick through the windscreen of a car to take out one of the former members of his unit who is part of the assassination plot.
The themes are bang on the money in terms of 70s thrillers, and it is one of the earliest films to explore the ‘someone’s killing my old military buddies and I’ve got to find out who’ storyline. But it isn’t just a corny action film – it is a corny action film, but it’s also a conspiracy thriller and a romantic drama, of a kind. Unfortunately for reporter lady, she is killed as part of the cover-up. A bomb is planted on her plane, but for some reason her death, and presumably the deaths of a hundred or more other people, then play no further part in the story.
That is a gaping plot hole in Good Guys Wear Black, but other than that I had no major problem with the writing. It turns out that the Senator who made the secret deal is now in line to become Secretary of State, and the Vietnamese guy he made the deal with has told him to make good on his promise, or risk being exposed. This leads to a verbal showdown between Chuck Norris and the Senator, and ultimately to Norris killing the Senator by driving his car into the ocean, then swimming away to the sound of victory.
Reading through the reviews of this film on Letterboxd and elsewhere, a lot of people complain that it doesn’t contain enough action for a Chuck Norris movie. I find this a bizarre and stupid complaint for various reasons. For one, Norris didn’t solely do action movies, it’s more that he became a star going into the 80s, when ‘this summer, one man…’ action genre stories became very common. This is partly in response to the Reagan White House’s outreach program, seeking to make more ‘pro-hero’ stories – a response to films like Good Guys Wear Black.
For another, the point of the film is that Norris is a peacenik now, he’s learned from the corruption and horror of war and renounces violence. While also kicking a lot of ass, and head, and chest, and car windscreens. And driving a car into the ocean to murder someone. But that person was trying to murder him, and advances a view of the world where it’s very much kill or be killed, only the strongest survive. The moral denouement of the story is this very logic being visited back on its originator – the political establishment – by one of its former footsoldiers.
Thus, any reading of this movie as somehow heroising the Phoenix Program, simply because our hero is a former Program member, would be simplistic and dim. This isn’t Commando, where an Aryan ex-military superman takes out an entire army of brown-skinned evil people and one Freddie Mercury lookalike. At no point does Norris use violence in a casual or reckless or unnecessary way – even though he is confronted by people who are trying to kill him. During the verbal jousting with the Senator, Chuck directly contradicts his worldview, rejecting the very mentality and ideology that leads to things like the Phoenix Program.
This is presumably why the movie struggled to get military support. As it turns out, the email from the listener recommending this movie arrived around the time I was looking through some old US Marine Corps entertainment liaison office reports from the late 70s. There are three entries on Good Guys Wear Black, which I wrote up in full on my site. First, producer Joel Westbrook went on a tour of Camp Pendleton looking for filming locations, and asking for the use of four CH-46 helicopters. Don Baruch’s office then got in touch, saying they were in discussions with Westbrook, that stock footage of the helicopters was no longer needed and Westbrook was going to approach the Army. The final entry mentions providing the film makers some general information about Vietnam and a copy of a book called The Raid.
As far as the Marines were concerned, that’s where the relationship ended. But the Army did provide a helicopter, though it has no markings on it and the Army are not credited at the end of the movie. They are, however, credited on IMDB.
So, how did they get Army support? It seems they never did a full script review – the Marine Corps reports describe the film as:
[A]bout a U.S. attempt to rescue American POW’s from an NVA compound just north of the DMZ.
This is just the opening of the story, of course, and it seems the film makers did not mention anything about the Phoenix Program or assassination conspiracies by high officials. Thus, they likely managed to sell the Army on lending them one helicopter for a day or two of filming by lying to them about the real content of the story. The director’s experiences on Go Tell the Spartans is probably relevant, where the database says that:
DON BARUCH, IN DOD PUBLIC AFFAIRS, FOUND THE SCRIPT EXCELLENT AND RECOMMENDED THE ARMY WORK To REVISE SCRIPT TO MAKE IT ACCEPTABLE FOR ASSISTANCE. FILMMAKERS WENT TO L.A. ARMY OFFICE
WHERE NEGOTIATIONS BROKE DOWN AND THE COMPANY MADE THE FILM WITHOUT ASSISTANCE. HOWEVER, THEY ASKED THE DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF LA OFFICE TO SERVE AS TECHNICAL ADVISOR AND HE AGREED, TAKING A 30 DAY LEAVE.
The Army’s main problem was that in their view the advisors were ‘virtually all outstanding individuals, hand-picked for their jobs, and quite experienced’ and that ‘presenting an offhand collection of losers is totally unrealistic of the Army in VN in that period.’
Thus, Ted Post was aware of the difficulties when providing a full script to the military’s Hollywood offices and, at least from the available documents, it seems he and Westbrook deliberately didn’t share the full script for Good Guys Wear Black. All of which suggests they set out to make a distinctly anti-war story, following on from Go Tell the Spartans.
Between the two of them, the movies cost about $2.5 million to make, and Good Guys Wear Black took over $18 million on its own. Box Office numbers for Go Tell the Spartans didn’t turn up in a quick search of the usual sources but I can’t believe it lost money, as it too is a good movie, and it has been re-released on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Apocalypse Now, which came out a year after Good Guys Wear Black. A much more lavish production, with a budget that ended up running to over $30 million, and which is world famous and made a ton of money over the decades. Especially since Coppola keeps re-editing it and releasing new versions.
The film tells the story of Benjamin Willard, an Army Captain in Vietnam. He is sent on a mission to find a Colonel Walter Kurtz, who has apparently gone insane, is hiding out in Cambodia commanding rogue troops from both the American and Vietnamese sides, and is waging war against everyone. Willard is told to try to capture Kurtz, or persuade him to come back in from the cold, but if that doesn’t prove possible, to terminate him with extreme prejudice.
As I’m sure some of you will realise, Extreme Prejudice is also the title for John Milius’ Iran-Contra movie, and he wrote the original drafts of Apocalypse Now largely based on war stories from friends who’d been over there.
Anyone who has seen the film will recognise elements of the Phoenix Program and similar Vietnam-era operations in both Willard and Kurtz. Kurtz keeps severed heads on the steps of his abandoned Cambodian temple, the headquarters of his guerilla army. This led some observers to believe that Kurtz is based on Tony Poe, the guy who dropped heads onto villages from helicopters as part of his psychological warfare efforts.
Coppola denied this, saying Kurtz was loosely based on Robert Rheault, head of the 5th Special Forces Group we noted earlier. He was involved in Project GAMMA, which carried out over the border intelligence and sabotage missions in Cambodia, aimed at stemming the flow of Communist infiltration into Vietnam. This led to the Green Beret Affair, where the GAMMA group were tasked with finding a mole who was exposing their informants. They identified Chu Van Thai Khac, a South Vietnamese GAMMA operative, who had been meeting with North Vietnamese officials. He was captured, interrogated, and apparently revealed himself to be a double agent. The CIA gave the order to kill him, so they did.
Colonel Rheault and the other men involved were then arrested, after Chu’s handler in Army intelligence found out what happened and informed the CIA and Army superiors. The CIA denied having given the order, basically hanging the men out to dry on charges of murder, and pre-trial prep found that the Agency had told them Chu was to be ‘terminated with extreme prejudice’.
So while the origins of Apocalypse Now were not in the Phoenix Program they do reveal that parallel programs doing much the same thing – being directed by the CIA and carried out by US and South Vietnamese troops – were going on before, after and alongside Phoenix.
As to the film itself – I don’t especially rate Apocalypse Now. It’s always one of those movies that’s ranked among the top 100 of all time but I find it a confused mess. Very vivid, and there is some excellent dialogue and some very provocative moments, but as a whole it only hangs together because it has a central character who is in almost every scene. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t see it as a coherent narrative, because it isn’t.
The question is whether it is supposed to be. I think it probably isn’t, and that Coppola leaned in favour of making a surrealistic fever dream set in the Vietnam war which isn’t really about the Vietnam war, rather than a cohesive story that makes sense. After all, our central character – played by Martin Sheen – is mostly just a passive observer to the strangeness and the chaos. He ends up killing Kurtz, in a sequence that also involves the real-life killing of an animal, which I seriously object to.
I understand the symbolism – the story is based on Heart of Darkness, which is all about a battle between nature and civilisation. Apocalypse Now seems to conclude that civilisation is dependent on violence to suppress nature, but since nature is violent, we’re locked in the paradox of trying to use the violent part of our nature to suppress the violent part of our nature in the name of control and civilisation. So, having the big ending where the representative of civilisation – the US Army – kills the rogue officer who is fighting his own war intercut with the real slaughter of an animal is powerful, and makes sense. But I still found it gratuitous and cruel.
My reaction, having re-watched Apocalypse Now recently while going through the Pentagon’s file on the film, is that the best thing about it is the soundtrack. The best characters are Robert Duvall, playing Kilgore, the Air Cavalry guy (clip) and Dennis Hopper playing… Dennis Hopper (clip). Kilgore is only in about 15 minutes of a 2 ½ to 3 hour film, depending on which cut you watch, and Dennis Hopper is only in the last half hour. The middle bit is mostly Martin Sheen staring at crazy shit and a very young Lawrence Fishburne doing quite a nice turn as a Navy gunner.
Not to keep shitting on Apocalypse Now, but honestly I find the story of its production more interesting than the film itself. Anyone who has not seen Hearts of Darkness, the making of documentary about Apocalypse Now, should do so. It was started during the period when the film was being shot in the Philippines, with Francis’s wife Eleanor directing, but wasn’t completed until years later when she handed over the project to two other film makers. Just like the original, it debuted at the Cannes film festival.
We will get into the relationship with the Pentagon in the next section, but the documentary covers the filming in the Philippines, which began in March 1976 and was supposed to last 16 weeks, or four months. All told, principal photography wrapped in May 1977, after 238 days of shooting. Among the problems they faced were that the original lead actor, Harvey Keitel, dropped out due to creative differences with Coppola, so they replaced him with Sheen. The helicopters they were borrowing from the Philippine military kept being called away to fight the Communist rebels, and then a typhoon hit which destroyed many of the sets and shut down production for months.
Also, the actors were all getting high on the job, Coppola started shooting without having an ending, kept rewriting scenes overnight, and then Sheen had a heart attack. Then Marlon Brando showed up, having been paid a $1 million advance on his $3 million for three weeks’ filming. He was overweight, didn’t like the script, spent at least a week sitting around refusing to film anything, couldn’t work with Dennis Hopper, and ended up using cue cards and improvisations in one of the most rambling, self-indulgent performances ever committed to cinema.
The Pentagon and Apocalypse Now
I recently got hold of a copy of the full Pentagon file on Apocalypse Now, which runs to 291 pages, almost as long as the screenplay for the director’s cut of the movie. It covers a two-year long battle between Coppola and the other film-makers and the US Army and Baruch’s office at the DOD. Again, I wrote up the full story on my site (so please read it) but I’ll give you the abbreviated version here.
The first meeting between Coppola, producer Fred Roos, production designer Dean Tavoularis and various DOD figures, including Don Baruch, took place in May 1975. At that point Coppola had a six-year old script that needed revising, but he handed it over asking for an unofficial take on it. He wasn’t even asking for support.
It was sent over to the Army, where a General L Gordon Hill Jr read it, hated it, and rejected it. His response to the DOD said it contained ‘sick humour’ and a ‘satirical philosophy’ observing:
The main plot situation of the film seems to be that the CIA is sending a US Army officer to “terminate” the mad commander of a Special Forces “A” Team, who is leading his men and their Montagnards in various savage and barbarous activities against both sides in the VN war, encouraging them to take drugs, etc. If such a commander did go mad, it would probably not be a CIA problem, but would more reasonably be handled within Special Forces Command channels.
He listed a whole bunch of stuff he found objectionable:
US soldiers scalping the enemy
The US Army Captain who is the protagonist has “executed” a VC tax collector for the CIA
The instructions to “terminate” the mad commander are pretty strong. In the real world, he would be sent away for medical treatment
The incident of the Air Cav Col Kharnage (note name) leaving playing cards on the VC bodies is repellent and uncivilized
The incident with Col Kharnage organizing a surfing display in the midst of combat is ridiculous and in effect shows another Army officer as a madman
Cpt Willard obtains sexual favors for his men and later shares a marijuana smoke with them
The Army is seen sacrificing troops so “the Generals” can say that they are keeping a particular road open
Hill summed up his feelings bluntly:
The entire episode of the “A” Team and its commander going insane, taking drugs, fighting both sides, committing various savageries and cannibalism and engaging in sexual license can only be viewed as a parody on the sickness and brutality of war. For the Army to assist in any way in the production would imply agreement with either the fact or the philosophy of the film.
If some fast-buck artist wants to try to make a bundle with this type of garbage, so be it. But he will do it without the slightest assistance from the Army.
The funniest aspect of this is that the script wasn’t intended as parody – much of the seemingly hyperbolic dialogue and the attitudes of the characters saying them originated in stories veterans told to Milius. But compared to the clean, bloodless MPAA-friendly war films the Pentagon had become accustomed to, both in terms of watching them and helping to make them, the Milius script was a bucket of napalm to the face.
Then, an unfortunate happenstance. An article came out in Parade offering a lurid depiction of the script and declaring that Coppola wanted 85 helicopters to help make his movie. According to the DOD, over the following months:
There were approximately 114 letters to DoD, Congress, and the White House complaining about possible assistance being given to Coppola because of the context of the film outlined in the PARADE article. We advised them all that we had not given nor promised any assistance other than research and Coppola had not asked for anything. In 20 years here, we have never seen such an outpouring of feeling concerning a film not yet made and recommending that we not assist in the production.
Coppola hadn’t even finished his script yet, let alone submitted any formal request for support. Indeed, at this point even a courtesy research trip to Fort Bragg to learn about the real-life Green Berets hadn’t taken place. And yet, such was the potency of the rumours swirling around Apocalypse Now that the controversy had already begun.
Another script was submitted later in 1975, but the DOD saw it as essentially the same as the one they’d already read, and didn’t even write back to Roos to formally reject it. Coppola and Roos moved to the Philippines in February, and began shooting in March. In April, Roos tried a different approach – he wrote to William Greener, the ASD/PA – trying to go over Baruch’s head. When that didn’t work, Roos went higher up the chain – he wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and copied in a pair of senators.
This led to the whole situation being reviewed by the DOD and the Hollywood office put together a chronology of the relationship up until that point, to try to argue they’d done nothing wrong. Greener wrote back to Roos, rejecting his request for assistance, and Rummy wrote back to Coppola saying much the same as Greener.
Francis responded to Rumsfeld in typical fashion, sending a four-page cable message outlining the full excruciating experience of trying to work with the DOD. He also made an offer of script changes:
1. I will make it an unspecified civilian who sends Willard on his assignment rather than an Army officer, and I will present the situation in such a way that it will be obvious that there is no alternative but to terminate Kurtz if he does not comply.
2. I will make it clear that Col Kilgore’s desire to secure a surfing beach is secondary to some bona fide military mission, and that he asks his man to surf only after the area has been secured.
3. I will eliminate the aspect that Kurtz is a user of drugs, I will make this character much less surreal and much more sympathetic – A man only intent on implementing his country’s oft-stated policies.
4. The incident in the script regarding the purpose of building the bridge is factual, this type of thing happened often and I will back it up with documentation, however, I agree to not overly stress it.
In exchange for all of this, Coppola was only asking for one day’s rental of one Chinook helicopter, though he couldn’t resist adding:
We know that the motion picture “The Green Berets” received cooperation from the DOD to the extent of 94 helicopters and extensive use of army personnel and weapons. Since “The Green Berets” was certainly not factual, your denial to us of even one helicopter is rather ridiculous.
The following weeks saw a lot more back and forth – they asked for a helicopter to lift the PBR boat, saying they’d tried with a Philippine Air Force Huey but it dropped the boat and people almost got hurt. Coppola asked the DOD to send someone to the Philippines to discuss the script, as he was too busy filming to fly to D.C. for a script conference. The reply came back:
Before any consideration can be given to military assistance or script discussions in the Philippines by a Defense Department representative: agreement by Mr Coppola to the following specific revisions will be required: A) Sending Willard to “Investigate” repeat “Investigate” without reference to “Terminating command with prejudice” B) Willard not shown or encouraging the smoking of pot C) Higher command having some reason other than “Just not wanting to admit being surrounded” for the daily rebuilding of the bridge; D) Some explanation why the other members of the Green Beret team remain with Kurtz and E) revisions in final sequences to dovetail with Willard’s new mission. Also suggest for your consideration that included in screen titles be a statement honoring these who served in Vietnam.
Then, the typhoon hit, and the production had to shut down. The film’s crew escaped from the island via Cubi Point – a Naval Air Station on the edge of Subic Bay. The crew chartered a plane out of Manila and had it come pick them up from Cubi Point.
In early June, at the start of this enforced break in filming, Roos wrote to Greener to ask for reconsideration of military support, and said that due to the production shut-down that now was a good time for a script conference. He added:
To be frank, Mr Greener, we are not only seeking some beginning of co-operation, but also trying to defuse what appears to be an aggressive attitude of hostility and persona non grata directed towards us from every military office and person that we encounter in the Philippines, even in emergency situations such as our company faced during the recent typhoon, our requests for humanitarian aid were treated in the same hostile way by the Subic Navy people.
We both know that this attitude must stem from the DOD.
Roos included a written account from Hunt Downs, one of 56 members of the Apocalypse Now crew who were rescued via Cubi Point. This document details how their entry to the base was delayed, then allowed, then disallowed, then finally given approval, leaving them stranded for well over an hour. When they finally gained access, hoping simply to board the plane via one of the Navy’s runways, producer Gray Frederickson was approached by a Navy officer, who said:
I do not like you, I do not like your freaky people. I do not like your movie. I do not like you here. But you are here. You conned your way on the base. If I ever catch you or any one of these people on my base again, I’ll have you in jail, and you’ll never get out.
They were also delayed on the tarmac – the Navy giving the weather conditions as their excuse for holding up the departure by an hour and 40 minutes. According to the account of Hunt Downs, another plane landed and another took off during this time.
This led to an internal Navy investigation, which quite unsurprisingly disputed much of Downs’ account and attributed any delays to the confusing situation of having a civilian aircraft hired by a film crew land and take off from their Navy base. They presented a very different account of the exchange between Gray and the CO of the base. Once he received the Navy’s version of events, Greener wrote back to Roos, saying:
I am not in a position to discount or discredit either of the two versions of the incident that have reached me. I deeply regret that there was an incident. Please be assured that there is no “anti-Apocalypse” attitude here and that such an attitude will find no sanction from this office. I have so advised the Navy.
Around the same time, the DOD’s Hollywood office wrote to Roos regarding script negotiations, offering ‘to meet his rep in Washington or the Philippines, if he could assure positive and constructive consideration of script changes.’ This, it appears, was the end of the discussion over the Apocalypse Now script, as neither Roos nor Coppola replied, and no such meeting ever took place.
A couple of other little things from the file. Also that summer, Variety reported that the CIA had planted someone within the film crew in the Philippines to harass and disrupt the production. Bruce Berman of Swank magazine called up Don Baruch asking about this, and about the DOD’s long-time refusal to cooperate on the movie. According to a memo, Baruch told Berman:
I know nothing about any CIA agent and we had no inquiries or indication of complaint from producer on this score.
Coppola also tried one last time to get military support, in early 1977, with filming resumed. A new president was in the White House so Francis cabled Jimmy from Manila, asking for fairly minor support and complaining about the DOD’s behaviour towards him and his film. This was referred back to the ASD/PA, who referred the film-makers to private companies where they could buy smoke grenades, essentially ignoring their other requests.
Whatever you make of Apocalypse Now – an artistic success, but a storytelling failure is what I feel I’m watching – the film makers showed a lot of guts in dealing with the DOD. And it’s clear there was some kind of anti-Apocalypse Now attitude, despite statements to the contrary.
So I’m left in the strange position of preferring a movie made with Army support (albeit by fooling the Army into thinking it was a different movie), to one that was repeatedly rejected and even harassed by the DOD. This is perhaps because Good Guys Wear Black is a more explicit discussion of the Phoenix Program and similar operations, what they represent, why they are evil. Whereas Apocalypse Now is more paradoxical in its statements, despite obviously being a movie that’s trying to say something.