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In 1986, during the filming of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War tragedy Gardens of Stone, his eldest child Gian-Carlo died in a horrific boating accident in Annapolis, Maryland.  The military file on Gardens of Stone details extensive support to the movie, but also comments on the death of the young Coppola as it related to positive media coverage for the US Army.

I will be outlining my full thoughts on Gardens of Stone in ClandesTime episode 263 but this particular entry in the After-Action Report on the filming struck me as bizarre, morbid and heartless.  What else should we expect from a military public affairs official, right?

The After-Action Report, written in late summer 1986 once filming at Fort Myer, Arlington National Cemetery and Washington D.C. had been completed, was sent to Major General Charles D. Bussey, Chief of Public Affairs for the US Army.  It reviewed the project from an Army point of view, saying:

There were very few problems associated with the project. This was due primarily to the excellent advance planning and script/support review process at the DOD/DA level.

It notes a handful of problems during the filming, including the Marine Corps withdrawing their support due to receiving a copy of the final script late in the day, so the Navy stepped in to fulfill those requirements.  It also lists the death of Coppola’s son as an issue:

The death of Gian Carlo Coppola on Memorial Day and the subsequent hospitalization of Francis Coppola set the filming schedule back approximately four days. This was made up at the end of the shooting schedule by going back to Fort Belvoir. Fort Belvoir PAO had to extend their license from 31 July through 3 August. The Ft. Belvoir Project Officer, Marilu Trainer deserves recognition for her excellent handling of the Coppola hospitalization issue.

However, it wasn’t all bad news – if anything, quite the opposite.  In the conclusions of the report LTC John C Myers felt the need to add:

Media Relations. 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.

OK, Myers is not saying that the young Coppola’s passing was good for the US Army, but he’s also not not saying that.  The irony is that Gardens of Stone is a story of a young man who tragically dies after being warned by his father figure, who tells him that in Vietnam, ‘there is no front, it’s not even a war, there’s nothing to win and no way to win it’.  The guy driving the boat on which Gian-Carlo died – Griffin O’Neal – was appearing in the movie (though he was replaced after the accident and does not appear in the final cut).

LTC Myers attached another document to his report – a page of ideas on how to exploit Gardens of Stone, assuming it ended up being ‘everything we’re hoping for in the way of a movie that positively portrays soldierly values’.  He suggested that the Army should be pitching Hollywood on films and TV shows that they wanted to see out there, rather than wait for producers to come to them:

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.

Bear in mind this is in the summer 1986, the year that Top Gun and Platoon came out.  Both movies were commercial successes, and Platoon won over a dozen major awards, dividing the industry on what kind of military movie to make next.  Consider how many films like Top Gun we’ve seen since then, and how few films like Platoon.

Pentagon and US Army documents on Francis Ford Coppola’s Gardens of Stone

DOD and US Army file on support to Gardens of Stone (1987)