Skip to main content

Apocalypse Now and Francis Ford Coppola were rejected by the Pentagon when they asked for production support. A decade later and Francis was back with a more explicitly anti-war film, Gardens of Stone, and somehow got the thumbs up from the military. In this episode we take a look at the film, its origins and production history, and try to answer the question of how and why Gardens of Stone was approved, when Apocalypse Now was rejected.

1987’s Gardens of Stone is not a well known or respected film, certainly when compared to Platoon, which came out a year earlier, or Full Metal Jacket, which came out the same year. I myself was unaware of this movie until reading about it in the DOD’s database, which says:


I have had a copy of this database for several years but it was more recently that I got hold of the DOD and US Army file on Gardens of Stone, so now we’re in a position to take a proper look at what happened here, why and how. Specifically, how did Coppola, who engaged in a two-year intifada against the Pentagon’s entertainment liaison office over Apocalypse Now, end up spending two months filming almost his entire picture on an Army base?

The context is curious – in 1986 Top Gun came out, which the database says ‘rehabilitated the military’s image, which had been savaged by the Vietnam war’. The same year, Platoon comes out, offering a brutal and often first-hand look at the experience of combat troops in Vietnam. Both films light up the box office, Top Gun taking over $350 million on a $15 million budget (a budget effectively subsidised by the US’s military’s extensive support), and Platoon taking nearly $140 million on $6 million budget (a budget effectively made higher due to the US military denying support).

While Top Gun was the more commercial film, Platoon won awards up the Yinyang, and they both changed the popular conversation around the Vietnam war. Platoon made a lot of anti-war people stop and reconsider their treatment of combat veterans and who they blamed for the insanity and destruction. Top Gun offers a little hint towards still being at war with South East Asia, but this is a war we can comfortably win due to the rampant homosexuality among Naval aviators.

The other context is that this is one of the last films that Don Baruch worked on before retiring, having spent 40 years or more heading up the US military’s propaganda efforts in Hollywood. So it is strange to find in Gardens of Stone quite a lot of dialogue, particularly in the first half of the film, where military officers slag off the war, not to mention their drinking, swearing, bar fights and a generally quite cynical attitude towards the military.

Did Baruch just say fuck it? He was getting old, didn’t care that much any more, was just hanging on to get the maximum pension so he let this one go? Not according to the documents, but nor did the film face exceptional opposition from the US Army and DOD. It wasn’t like with Clear and Present Danger, where the producers first approached the military’s Hollywood liaisons in 1992, shortly after Patriot Games came out. Even when they came back in 1994, there were five or six months of script negotiations before it got the all clear.

Was this an example of shifting times, changing attitudes, a more lax approach? It doesn’t seem so, since the aversion to military characters swearing continued into the 1990s, under Phil Strub. On Apollo 13, for example, we can listen to the NASA tapes and hear Jim Lovell and the others swearing their asses off – as you’d expect being stuck in a damaged tin can hurtling through space in the wrong direction. But for the movie version, the Navy insisted that the swearing be reduced or removed, and the final film contains very little, if any, industrial language.

Ditto drinking and getting into bar fights and other self-destructive or cavalier behaviour. Alcohol comes up in documents from the 2000s, like in Home of the Brave, where we see Samuel L Jackson coming back from the Iraq war with depression, a drinking problem, a real mess. The film was rejected by the Army. Projects depicting Marines drinking heavily, and racing around on motorbikes (both things Marines seem to like to do) have been turned down too, and some of them were never made as a result.

Attitudes within the entertainment liaison offices have changed, and they’ve got a more flexible approach towards scripts depending on story and context – e.g. we hear the SEALs in Lone Survivor swearing and using other blunt verbiage, we hear the Rangers in 12 Strong doing similar things. Even in Rules of Engagement, from 2000, we see some of Samuel L Jackson drinking and swearing and fighting with Tommy Lee Jones, who uses racist epithets (albeit to characterise Jackson’s attitudes, not because he himself is a racist).

However, there’s no evidence of this more relaxed approach being in play in the late 80s, when Baruch was handing over the office to Strub, and if anything there are other later examples showing that the old school mentality was still present. So I don’t think we can explain Gardens of Stone, and how such a film was approved by the DOD, in these ways.

Gardens of Stone

I will assume that almost none of you have seen this film, or possibly even heard of it, so let’s get everyone on the same page. It was based on a novel by Nicholas Proffitt, based on his own experiences serving at Fort Myer in the Honor Guard, who perform at concerns, are presidential escorts, participate in state visits and handle burial and funeral duties at Arlington National Cemetery.

The novel was adapted by Ron Bass, in only his second major screenplay. He would go on to write Rain Man, Sleeping with the Enemy, Dangerous Minds, Entrapment and a load of others. It seems he was hired to adapt the screenplay by Coppola, who wanted to direct, and it came out via Tri-Star Pictures in 1987. Unlike The Godfather, Part II, Apocalypse Now and some of Francis’ other movies, Gardens of Stone was a critical and commercial flop – failing to even make back its budget of around $13.5 million, and receiving middling to negative reviews from critics.

I largely agree with the reviews – the movie starts promisingly enough, establishes its characters and their relationships well, but then loses its way around the mid point and the second half of the drama doesn’t pay off everything that’s been set up. There are some pacing problems in the final act, so the audience is left feeling a bit underwhelmed by a story that opened in an engaging and provocative way. It still has more going on structurally than Apocalypse Now, but even I will admit Gardens of Stone is the inferior film overall.

While Coppola denied that he intended to make an anti-war film, that’s definitely what he made. The main relationship in the story is between Jackie Willow, a young man who we see first joining the Honor Guard, and platoon sergeant Clell Hazard, played by James Caan after a long period out of the movies. Filling out the cast we have Angelica Huston, playing brunette reporter lady who Caan’s character falls in love with, James Earl Jones playing a Sergeant Major, Dean Stockwell playing the company commander, and Larry Fishburne as Willow’s squad leader. There are some other people, but just to note – Caan played Sonny in The Godfather and Fishburne plays the very young GI in Apocalypse Now. Coppola is nothing if not loyal to certain actors.

In essence, our story is set in 1968, when Willow first joins the Honor Guard. While he’s told it is a plumb assignment, he’s a young man so he wants to be out on the front lines in Vietnam, proving himself. But Caan’s character tells him, ‘there is no front, it’s not even a war, there’s nothing to win and no way to win it’.

This line alone is a more explicitly anti-war statement than anything anyone says in Apocalypse Now, which Coppola has also denied is an anti-war film. Later on we hear James Earl Jones saying much the same thing, and similar statements echoed by others. All the father figures in the movie are telling the son that the war is stupid, being fought in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Underlining this, there’s a steady stream of bodies coming back from Vietnam that require burials, and we see several funeral sequences. The soldiers in the Guard even refer to busy mornings, where they are handling 20 or more dead bodies in a few hours.

Compared to the surrealism and efforts to embrace the themes of madness, civilisation and savagery in Apocalypse Now, Gardens of Stone is more of a meditation on the war, from the perspective of a small family of soldiers seeing the consequences of the war every day, but from a distance. As a concept for a film it is excellent, but somewhere between the original novel and the finished movie it lost its way.

It isn’t because the characters lack motivation – Caan wants to transfer to Fort Benning so he can use his own combat experience to help prepare young men going out to the war, in the hope of them coming back alive. But his transfer requests keep being denied due to his belligerent and sometimes insubordinate comments, and in Jackie Willow he finds a substitute son figure upon whom he tries to impress his view of the world.

The father-son relationship, whether literal or – as in this case – through substitute figures comes up repeatedly in Coppola’s work. Also, his own father sent him to military school and his eldest son, Gian Carlo, died during the making of Gardens of Stone. So you can see how his own relationship with his father influenced his filmmaking, and his view of the military, and the death of his son may help explain why the second half of Gardens of Stone just isn’t very good. Indeed, an After-Action Report from the military file on the film notes how Coppola was hospitalised for several days (presumably with extreme depression) following his son’s death, and this was an interruption to the filming. Certainly, we can forgive Francis for the second half of Gardens of Stone, as no one could do their best work in such a situation, especially given that this is a story where the son figure dies.

That’s right, at the end of the film Willow gets his wish and – after marrying his childhood sweetheart – goes off to Vietnam. He becomes disillusioned and, three weeks before his tour ends, is killed in action. But we don’t see the combat, the blood, the explosions. We simply find out that he has died at the same time James Caan does.

I will say, marrying your childhood sweetheart when you’re a soldier in a war movie is a rookie mistake, because it all but guarantees you aren’t surviving until the closing credits. Ditto anyone on the front lines referring to a childhood sweetheart and how they can’t wait to get home and marry them. The lifespan of these characters is shorter than most celebrity marriages.

More seriously – Gardens of Stone is closer to a companion piece to Platoon than it is to Apocalypse Now. In Platoon we see the jungle, the young men sent to fight and kill and die, and how chaotic yet boring the war is, and hence how futile. In Gardens of Stone we don’t see combat, we don’t see Elias being gunned down in Christ-like fashion, arms spread wide as the stigmata of the bullets rips through him. It’s all guys hanging out on base, talking about the war and their lives, burying the dead and occasionally getting into fistfights. But we do get a sense of the futility even at a considerably removed distance, because the bodies keep coming in, and it doesn’t matter what Caan or Willow or anyone else says, they’re going to keep coming.

As I say, the story culminates with Willow reconnecting with his sweetheart, a charming if slightly dull young woman, marrying the hell out of her then fucking off to Vietnam like he always wanted, and then dying. But in the midst of this we meet the young lady’s father, a retired colonel who now works for a defence contractor. He tells Jackie that the war ‘is a real boon to R&D’, again the sort of line that – in context – is clearly a comment on the war being run for military industrialists, rather than against the spread of communism or whatever other reason they might cite.

After Willow dies, Caan requests to be sent on his third tour, in a combat infantry unit in Vietnam, and even places one of his combat medals on Willow’s coffin at his funeral. Having tried, and failed, to save Willow’s life by telling him how stupid and badly-fought the war is, Caan decides he can’t do enough where he is and must return to combat to try to save the lives of other young men. The movie closes out with Willow’s funeral.

The Pentagon and Gardens of Stone

The military file on Gardens of Stone is over 200 pages long, but unlike Apocalypse Now it did not involve around two years of arguments. The approval came pretty quickly, and much of the filming from May to July 1986 took place on Army and other military locations. Indeed, most of the documents come from after the filming took place, as they discussed the rough cut and other post-production pre-release matters.

Our story begins in March 1986, with a conference on March 19th apparently including Tri-Star Vice President Ted Zachary, Coppola, producers Fred Roos and Michael Levy, and officials from the DOD and the US Army. They formally submitted a draft of the script and a request for filming support, making it clear that the story was intended as a tragedy, but one which illustrated the core values of the US Army.

Somewhat bizarrely, the Army agreed. They liked the relationships between the older characters and the younger men, how one somewhat slovenly and unprofessional member of the squad grows up and becomes a war hero, the Clell-Willow father-son mentorship and the focus on the responsibilities of the Honor Guard, who don’t get a lot of attention. Highlighting lesser-known units and locations is good for morale, because it helps the people working there feel like they’re being recognised and shown off, that they are just as vital and proud a part of the military as the SEALs and the Marine Expeditionary Units and all the rest.

Naturally, Army Public Affairs did have some objections, and some suggested changes and improvements. They didn’t like the ‘excessive profanity’, they changed some of the ages and backgrounds of the older characters to make them more realistic – making them younger, and Korean War veterans rather than World War 2 vets. They also didn’t like the characterisation of Rachel’s mother – Rachel is the childhood sweetheart that Willow marries, and therefore the wife of the Colonel who works for the military-industrial complex. In the script as submitted, she is a drinker, possibly an alcoholic, leading the Army to observe:

The character of Rachel’s mother perpetuates the “alcoholic-wife of -the-colonel” myth. The mother need not be depicted in this manner to explain her weak, “non-person” personality. She could be cowed by virtue of her husband’s despotic personality alone.

So, the husband can be despotic and controlling, but the wife cannot turn to drink to try to deal with this. Not only are they denying that the military has an alcohol problem, they’re saying that relatives of military employees don’t have any such problems either. Clearly, something of a sore point.

Then, there’s the opening sequence of the film, which pans from one funeral to another taking place at the same time. Evidently, there was something a little odd in this scene as it was originally written because the Army noted:

Delete scene where widow’s skirt is blown halfway up her thigh. The presence of a very pretty young girl would elicit the same reaction from the soldiers without this ploy.

This scene plays out very differently in the film – there is a ‘petty young girl’ but exactly what reaction the soldiers were supposed to have to her is not evident. I assume, given some of the licentious language and attitudes in this opening part of the movie that some of the soldiers would be seen gawping at the widow’s thighs as her skirt blows up, but the Army deemed this inappropriate and no thighs are in evidence in this scene in the final film. However, the Army’s suggestion to have grown soldiers at a funeral having the ‘same reaction’ to a ‘very pretty young girl’ is, if anything, even more inappropriate, if not downright creepy. In any case, the film itself does not depict any such behaviour, either towards the girl or towards the widow’s thighs.

Reading through the various script notes from different commands and public affairs officers, it seems they were more concerned about standing on ceremony than any anti-war statements. Clell Hazard and other characters’ disdain for the Vietnam War and how it was being fought do not come up as an issue the military had with the script. Instead, they were mostly concerned with swearing, and with the cynicism shown by members of the Honor Guard. For example, there’s a bit where a Marine funeral and an Army funeral are taking place simultaneously, and one of the Marines says that the Old Guard ‘sucks’, to which Willow responds, ‘Eat the apple, and fuck the Corps’, and Clell tells them to shut it but is grinning, proud of his men. The Army didn’t like this and asked for it to be removed. It got changed to just one funeral, no Marine-Army hostility, but some minor unprofessional things getting muttered before Clell tells them to shut it.

Likewise, in this scene the widow is shown to be drunk – wobbling around and having to be guided by an Army officer. She even curses the dead man after his internment. The Army demanded this be deleted, and sure enough in the film version the widow is sober and respectful. However, there was a breeze on the day of filming and there is a small amount of skirt-blowing thigh action, but this seems entirely unintentional.

They seemed to have no objection to the drunken bar brawl that immediately follows this funeral scene, or to one of the officers making out like he’s a psychopathic control freak, before he mellows and its revealed he’s actually a supportive and understanding boss. Let alone James Caan telling everyone the war is pointless any chance he gets, and his girlfriend being a brunette reporter lady who is also anti-war, even getting arrested at a protest.

It is very strange reading this file and trying to make sense of why they cared so much about drunken wives and widows, and swearing, but seem to have missed what the film is really about. Perhaps Coppola convinced them it was a pure tragedy, not a commentary on the war surrounding these people and causing all this death, all the funerals

He certainly seems to have attempted this. In early April the Army provisionally approved the script, pending various changes listed in script notes and memos which were summarised and forwarded to Coppola. He responded by mid-April with a new draft of the script, as well as a three-page memo arguing back against some of their points, or at least trying to persuade them not to insist on all the changes they wanted to make.

This doesn’t happen often – usually film makers have to simply make the military’s changes or they don’t get support. Sometimes they will submit several drafts of the script to try to get approval without compromising on every point, but for a director to specifically write back and address the military’s script notes is something I’ve only seen a handful of times.

Now, Coppola is different from the other children, you can tell that just by watching his movies. He’s smart, assertive, creative and has spent most of his career arguing with someone, whether it’s the DOD or studio executives or people he owed money to. Especially after he founded his own studio and made a surreal romantic comedy musical that bankrupted the studio almost immediately. So when he wrote back to the Army he said:

GARDENS OF STONE is a tragedy. Some of the devices used in the first act — the profanity, the sacrilegious humor, are meant to heighten the events of the third act — the tragic death of Jackie and the grieving of Clell. Were it not for some of the grittiness, the humor and language of the first and second acts it might not be possible to achieve the deep solemnity of the ending. I feel it’s very important that we try to always consider the screenplay as a whole rather than finding objections on a piece by piece basis.

He then went through a bunch of the Army’s notes and offered counter-arguments, trying to justify the use of profanity, the drunken widow, some of the sacrilegious humour during the funeral scenes, and so on. He makes a lot of good points – clearly the aim of the film overall was to introduce the Honor Guard in a funny, down to earth, slightly gritty way to help the audience see them as people, relate to them, like them. This makes the tragedy of Jackie Willow eventually going off to war, dying, and then the film closing on his funeral, with a very solemn tone, all the more effective, because it’s a tonal shift from where we start, when we’re introduced to these people. If we don’t like Willow and Clell and the others then we don’t care so much about his death – after all, we’ve seen several funerals throughout the film up to that point. He’s just another toothpick.

As it turned out, that wasn’t the film Coppola ended up making. The first half sets up the story well, and even without plenty of thigh action, less profanity and no drunken widow verbally abusing her dead husband, it’s a good watch. But it seems the death of Gian Carlo drained Coppola of the energy and passion needed to turn the story on its axis and become an emotionally effective tragedy. In the second half of the film we spend too much time with Clell and his reporter lady girlfriend, including a scene where he gets into quite an extended argument which turns into a punch-up with some liberal, bourgeois, condescending anti-war type. I quite liked this scene in itself but it does nothing to help us care about Willow’s death.

The Pentagon and Gardens of Stone: Post-Production

By July 1986 the film had finished shooting and there was a flurry of letters from the producers to the military thanking them for their support, and some bills and invoices going the other way. Despite filming over half of the movie at military locations, including Arlington, the costs only came to $10,400 that had to be reimbursed by Tri-Star.

Let’s stop and consider again how much cheaper and easier it is to make your military-themed movie if you get approval and support from the DOD, or one of its partner militaries. Apocalypse Now ran over budget, had to shut down mid-way through production, extended its filming schedule by months, and had to work around the Philippine military pulling its aircraft off-set to go and fight Marxist guerillas in the mountains. Gardens of Stone was almost entirely filmed in and around Washington D.C. and all that military filming assistance cost them a little over ten grand.

In early August producer Michael Levy wrote to Robert Sims, the Deputy Secretary of Defence for Public Affairs, i.e. Don Baruch’s boss, thanking the department for their support and inviting them to a screening of the rough cut of Gardens of Stone. Also that month, the Army’s After-Action Report on the film was filed, noting very few problems with the filming process. Under Media Relations the report notes:

Contact was made early on with the Tri-Star Pictures publicist and a division of responsibilities was established. This was extremely helpful especially in the aftermath of Gian Carlo Coppola’s death. A major WASHINGTON POST feature ran on August 2 which was very favorable for the Army.

Well, I’m glad the director’s son dying in a horrible accident was so beneficial for them. The Report also includes a memo outlining ways to exploit Gardens of Stone once it came out, commenting:

Assuming that “Gardens” is everything we’re hoping for in the way of a movie that positively portrays soldierly values (we’ll know for sure at the screening in mid-October), OCPA should be prepared to capitalize on it.

It notes various ways to do this, and then states, quite bluntly:

OCPA should follow-up with MACOM PAO’s on the need to think favorably of supporting worthwhile movie projects — and even suggesting possible projects. There is a great demand in the entertainment industry for new ideas, plot concepts and so on. Better to develop relationships and shape ideas rather than to react to requests for support for questionable products.

Just to reiterate – this is the summer of 1986, and the US Army were planning to pitch Hollywood ideas for future movies. Not the earliest document I’ve read saying that, the Marine Corps reports from the late 70s also talk about pitching. And they’re still at it – the latest available reports from the Air Force entertainment liaison office have a whole section dedicated to pitches.

This is something I get asked about a lot – how much is the government putting into Hollywood content, not just taking out? It’s a different dynamic to censorship, whether done with a hard hand or a soft hand, because the government actively pushing its agenda is somehow more troubling to me. Partly because we can find out more about real life events than any CIA or DOD supported movie will tell us, so spotting the lies isn’t that difficult. But when you’re trying to spot whether a film was conceived by a public affairs official, that’s much more difficult. Not impossible, we’ve spotted a few over the years and in most cases that was borne out when the documents were released. But it does make me wonder: how many have I missed? I’m supposed to be a world expert on this topic but I’m damn sure I don’t know everything.

Among other preparations for the film’s release, the Army drafted responses to questions they anticipated being asked about their assistance on Gardens of Stone. This included, perhaps inevitably, ‘Why did the Army support “Gardens of Stone” and not the movie “Platoon”?.’ A fair question, to be sure, and the prepared answer is a bunch of guff about the depiction in Platoon not being plausible. Even though one film was written by a Vietnam veteran and the other based on a book by an Army veteran, apparently one was ‘a plausible picture’ and the other was not.

The rough cut screening was due to take place in October, but it was put back several weeks due to an issue with the soundtrack. Coppola wanted the musical score to be performed by the US Army Band, but this caused problems with the musicians union. After all, it should be that union’s members who get paid for recording the music, not people who are already being paid by the government. The US Army is not allowed to compete with private, commercial entities offering the same services, because obviously they have an enormous advantage in terms of resources and permanence of revenues. Likewise, they’re not allowed to provide selective benefit to a private entity, so if they let Coppola use the band to record the music they’d have to provide the same access to every film maker who requested it. This, in turn, would constitute an ongoing violation of the non-competition rules.

The file contains dozens of pages of memos and faxes relating to this problem, and it seems the solution was to pay private musicians to record the score, getting paid for their studio time, then have the Army band also record it, then Coppola just used whichever music he liked. And they accuse the communists of spending inefficiently and paying for pointless duplication of work.

The soundtrack finalised, and the screening took place in D.C., hosted by Jack Valenti of the MPAA, on November 25th. The Army’s memo says that they ‘found the motion picture to be acceptable’ but ‘We do, however, have several suggestions which we ask you to consider for the final version of the film. One of our major concerns is the excessive and gratuitous use of profanity in the film…’.

A full page attachment listed all their concerns, and it seems Coppola ignored them and just released his film the way he wanted. For example, there’s a moment where Captain Thomas asks Jackie Willow if he plays basketball, Willow replies yes, and the Captain says this is good because they need more white basketballers. The Army said this needed to be removed.

Then, we get to the only moment when they objected to the film’s commentary on the Vietnam War, in a scene set in the apartment of Sam, a.k.a. brunette reporter lady. The TV in the apartment is showing a news report about the execution of Viet Cong by a South Vietnamese officer. The Army’s comment says:

The TV playing in “Sam’s” apartment shows the famous scene of the Viet Cong being summarily executed by General Loan. This is an unnecessary cliche, frequently used to demonstrate the “immorality” of the Vietnam War. It is also out of context in regard to the time it actually occurred and where it is placed in the film’s time-frame. For these reasons, we recommend that another Vietnam War sequence be shown on the TV screen in that scene

Another memo reacting to the preview screening also flagged up this scene, and made the suggestion that they keep the visual on the TV, since that is difficult to change, but alter the voice over on the soundtrack. So, they were suggesting Coppola essentially invent fake news by splicing two bits of real news together and avoid the uncomfortable truth that the Vietnam War involved crimes against humanity by all the sides involved.

However, none of these changes got made. The opening of the film is replete with swearing, the line about white basketballers remained, and the news broadcast about executions in Vietnam was not changed in any way.

From all this, I think we can draw a conclusion about what happened here. Coppola knew exactly what sort of film he wanted to make, however much he might have denied it in public interviews. But he also had the experience on Apocalypse Now, and so he approached the Army and the DOD differently on Gardens of Stone. From the beginning he showed he was willing to change the script – albeit mostly by moving some pieces around rather than fundamentally changing them. He dropped a few unimportant things the Army didn’t like, such as the drunken widow, but pushed to keep some of the elements that were more important.

The Army ultimately approved the film and provided support, but Francis clearly filmed a few things he hadn’t told them about. There’s literally no way the line about needing more white basketballers was in the script reviewed by half a dozen different DOD and Army officials – they would have picked up on it in pre-production. Ditto, the news broadcast about Vietnam either wasn’t in the approved script, or the script simply says the TV is on in the apartment, something nice and vague.

Once the filming was complete and Coppola didn’t need the military any more, he basically ignored their requests for further changes. For some reason this didn’t stop the Army and the DOD from attending the premiere and talking up the film, but by that point it was too late to do anything else, and it seems they genuinely liked the movie. This is summed up by a newspaper cutting from the file on Gardens of Stone, where five members of the Old Guard were asked their opinions on the movie.

Their perspectives varied from fairly positive to very negative, with one soldier saying:

It wasn’t anti-Vietnam like ‘Platoon’ tumed out to be. ‘Platoon’ just showed soldiers over there killing for a living; in ‘Gardens of Stone’, we were here burying our own for a living. It gave the opinion of different types of soldiers a lot better than ‘Platoon’, which showed only one type of soldier.

Proof, if ever you needed it, that any film is subject to a lot of different interpretations depending on who is watching it.