The Pentagon’s censorship of movie scripts is fairly well established – I have documented numerous instances on this site. But their ultimate power is the ability to kill a production, to prevent a film being made. While there is little evidence that the Pentagon wields this power knowingly, a rejection by the DOD often has the effect of halting a production in its tracks, as the studio recognises the extra expense and difficulty of making movies without the Pentagon’s support. Using documents compiled over several years, I reveal dozens of productions that were never made after being rejected by the DOD.
The reasons why the Pentagon refuses a request for support are often political in nature. While some films have been turned down because of woeful inaccuracies, most of the rejections are the result of content deemed controversial by the DOD. One example is Countermeasures, a mid-90s Navy-themed film that was due to star Sigourney Weaver, then Geena Davis. The story revolved around Davis’ character – a Navy psychiatrist – uncovering a murderous crime ring aboard a US aircraft carrier during the Gulf War. Among the crime ring’s activities is smuggling jet parts to Iran and the script contained clear references to Iran-Contra.
A letter from Strub to Disney Vice President in charge of Production Bruce Hendrix explains they had major problems with the screenplay, ‘and only major revisions to the script would alter this depiction, and we assume that you would be unable to accommodate this drastic a change.’ The attached memo outlines their objections, which ranged from ‘racist stereotypes’ to almost all the Navy characters being ‘unapologetically sexist if not guilty of outright sexual harassment or sexual assault’.
The Tailhook scandal in 1992, where a gang of Navy pilots mauled and molested women at a hotel in Las Vegas, made this a sensitive point for the DOD in the early 1990s. The scandal is also the reason why the sequel to Top Gun was delayed for over 20 years, and is only now being produced.
One final reason for the Pentagon’s rejection of Countermeasures is explicitly political:
White House complicity in the intrigue: There‘s no reason for us to denigrate the White House or remind the public of the Iran-Contra affair.
While there were some negotiations in the hope of winning over the DOD, ultimately they rejected the request. The producers tried getting an aircraft carrier from the Spanish Navy, but when they found out the Pentagon had rejected the film they also refused support.
Fields of Fire
Another film that was never made due to being declined by Phil Strub’s office was Fields of Fire. Marine Corps veteran James Webb first published his story of the Vietnam war – based on his own experiences – in 1978. In 1984 Maj Fred Peck, then head of the Marine Corps entertainment liaison office, actually pitched it to Disney as a good book to adapt into a film. Disney passed, so Webb (who also served briefly as Secretary of the Navy) wrote the screenplay himself. He secured financing, then approached the DOD for production assistance in 1993.
The intervening years saw an about-face by the military, who now refused to support the project. Objectionable scenes including fragging, Marines using illegal drugs, executing suspected Viet Cong and burning down a villager’s hootch. A letter from Strub to Webb says:
That these kinds of criminal activities actually took place is a matter of record. But by providing official support to the film, the Marines and the Department of Defense would be tacitly accepting them as everyday, yet regrettable, aspects of combat.
Webb’s response took ‘deep exception’ to Strub’s characterisation of the script. Webb wrote:
The very reason I wrote the novel and working on this film project is that this obscurity has been ongoing since the late 1960s, and needs to be reversed. But it can only be reversed by an honest depiction of events… It appears that what you are really saying is that when it comes to Vietnam, DOD will support only sterile documentaries, or feature films that amount to nothing more than dishonest propaganda.
Fields of Fire was never made. Nor was The Smoldering Sea or a planned biopic of Admiral Hyman Rickover, because Rickover wanted total control over the production. But it turns out that these potent examples – compiled by David Robb and Matt Alford, are only the tip of the iceberg.
‘No record that film was ever made’
The DOD’s database also includes a significant number of films that were denied military support and were subsequently (or maybe consequently) never produced. 1993’s Beneath the Flesh was one such film, where the database records:
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.
Likewise, Code Name: Delta Force (1986) was turned down:
The concept of the film was inaccurate and cast the US Government, DOD, and Special Operations Forces in unfavorable light. Assistance denied. No record film made.
Conversely, there are some approved projects that were never made. One was the 1999 project Twister’s Revenge:
DOD and National Guard decided to support the film so that it may help the local economy. It also meant temporary employment for 3 or 4 National Guard personnel. No record of film being made.
But most of the unmade films were rejected. On 1986’s Operation National Guard:
Not to the best interest of the department, nor the NGB. Request for installations, equip. and personnel denied. Too stereotypical & inaccurate. No record film with this title was ever made.
Another 1986 film called 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.
1999’s Pass the Amunition:
Too unrealistic, causes misinterpretation of the duties of the Guard and its relationship and the town; too vulgar. Request denied. No record of film being made.
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. Exactly why these missions (whereby a limited number of military intelligence personnel on both sides were allowed access to each other’s territory in Germany) were such a no-no is unclear.
Other rejected films that were never made include: 1983’s The Q Street, 1984’s In Country, 1986’s Seal Kids, 1987’s Flying Blind, The Search for Billy, Saigon, Retreads and My Father, My Son, 1988’s The Von Metz Incident, Cross Belts and Passages, 1989’s Stealth and Trip Wire, 1990’s Mad Bear Anderson, Eagle in the Sky and The Grand Tour, 1991’s Desert Storm: The Movie, In the Line of Duty and Eagle Strike and 1992’s Interceptor.
In many cases the reasons given for denying support are explicitly political, such as on The Best Ranger (1987):
Denied because the US military becomes involved in a fictional military attempt on President Aquino’s life and a take-over of the government of the Republic of the Philippines. No record of film being made.
Curiously, the entry on 1984’s A Moral Issue appears to indicate that the Pentagon know they have the power to kill a production by rejecting a request for support:
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.
Given that some of the unmade films were approved for military assistance, so whoever compiled this database is admitting that a rejection by the DOD can often mean the end of a production.
More recent TV, films and documentaries
The more recent documents – reports from the entertainment liaison offices – also record a number of both film and TV productions that were denied support, many of which were never produced. For example, a 2006 Army report says:
The Simple Life – Received and denied a request from producers of the Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie series to visit and “participate” in Basic Training at a base either in Southern California or Hawaii.
This episode was never filmed. Likewise a pilot called Dictators by Design was refused support, and there is no record of even the pilot being made, let alone the full series.
Dictators by Design. Production company obviously did not like my rejection of a proposal to have the Army support filming of Hussein’s palaces in Iraq for the pilot of a new series for Discovery about dictators’ architecture. Company subsequently went through the embassy to the CPIC for support. MAJ Breasseale will decline support.
Both the Army and Air Force reports from this period also record a refusal for the show Fear Factor, which was looking to pitch members of different military services against one another. However, they managed to find contestants and, despite warnings about off-duty work having to be approved by senior officials, the episode was produced:
However, a military-themed episodes of Miami Ink was also refused support, and so was never made. The more recent Army reports include other examples – National Geographic’s Divine Intervention also couldn’t make a planned episode because ‘Request to have church goers participate in Army physical training denied’. Likewise an episode of Long Island Medium was never made because ‘the show did not increase understanding about the roles and missions of the US Army’. Other series that were declined and therefore couldn’t make military-themed episodes include The Bachelorette, Ink Masters, The Voice, House Cat House Calls and Apex Predator. On Nazi Megastructures the Navy declined the request, commenting, ‘No desire to be affiliated with the production.’
The US Marine Corps entertainment liaison office turned down so many requests that for years their reports included a ‘Denied Requests’ section. Denials range from Ru Paul’s Drag Race to Fat Free Fiancees to Louis Theroux, meaning a wide range of TV shows were never made because the Marine Corps did not approve. Again, the reasons stated were often political or PR-based, for example MTV’s Nitro Circus was refused permission to film an episode at Camp Pendleton ‘based on the obvious conflict of interests with the hot topic of motorcycle safety in the Marine Corps.’ VH1’s Charm School was rejected because:
Producers requested a drill instructor to harass and drill the spoiled contestants on this low-culture reality show. LA PAO declined support because it was inconsistent with our mission and outside the scope of a Marine drill instructor’s actual duties.
In some case the reasons for rejecting a request for production assistance are seemingly trivial, such as ‘risk of embarrassment’ or ‘concern over the unpredictable nature of the show and its cast.’ The film Dancin in Iraq (2009) was never produced after a major falling out between the writer Mike Rossi and the Marine Corps film and TV office:
Dancin’ in Iraq – Rossi Filmworks: Scriptwriter Mike Rossi sent over the script for review. Film centers on a crew of Navy nurses in Baghdad who start a dance troupe to “stay sane.” Script is abysmal. The dance troupe is actually a small, virtually insignificant subplot. The central plot focuses on a romance between a Marine commanding officer of a “combat hospital” in Baghdad and his XO, a Navy Lt. Cmdr. LA PAO advised writer we will not be supporting due to various plot lines. Mr. Rossi contacted LA PAO by email after the request was declined. His verbal threats were considered unfounded and all other branches were notified accordingly.
Similarly, the 10-part PBS series Strike Group was never produced because the producer – Mitchell Block – had previously made Carrier with the US Navy, the first series to follow the crew of a Navy ship for several months. The Marine Corps rejected Strike Group – a similar series based around an MEU – ‘Due to the enormous amount of negative publicity produced by “Carrier”.’
Other rejections are deadly serious, such as the film Women at War (2011), which was to be produced by Sundance Productions, the company run by Robert Redford’s son. While the eventual reason given for refusing to support the film was the lack of distribution in place, one Marine Corps report states explicitly ‘will most likely deny as the angle of the production deals with sexual harassment & PTSD.’
The upshot of this is that the Pentagon’s refusal to support controversial or otherwise questionable productions has led to dozens of films, TV shows and documentaries never being made. This has minimised the critical portrayals of the military in our popular culture, whether realistic or otherwise. Without the Pentagon’s ability to only support creative speech it approves of, many more radical, critical and politically controversial products would have been, and would be produced.