How and why the Pentagon established their control of movie scripts
I recently acquired some decades-old Pentagon directives and instructions. These documents formed the basis for DOD policy in their engagement with the entertainment industry, establishing a range of conflicting criteria for the military’s liaisons with film and TV producers. This provided them with a range of bases for altering scripts and censoring scenes, at a time when the MPAA and the Production Code were ceasing to be effective at keeping the movie industry in line with their propaganda objectives.
The DOD’s liaisons with Hollywood
Some of you may remember that two years ago I published the 1964 version of the DOD’s instruction regarding ‘Assistance on Production of Non-Government Motion Pictures and Television Programs’. That document refers to two earlier instructions so I put in a FOIA request for them. Two years later and after sending numerous emails in the last few weeks I finally managed to shake them loose. One is a 1950s instruction covering participation in pretty much any and all public events. The other is an early 1964 instruction on ‘Delineation of DOD Audio-Visual Public Affairs Responsibilities and Policies’. On the new 1964 document someone has written ‘Mr Baruch 52058’ – obviously a reference to Don Baruch, the DOD’s Hollywood liaison at the time.
The memo is mostly a bunch of administrative directions saying who is responsible for what – mostly the ASD(PA) or Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. However, when it came to assisting film or TV the instruction explains the broad criteria for deciding whether to support a given production:
General principles which govern assistance available to non-Government audio-visual media are as follows:
A. The production, program, project or assistance will benefit the DoD or be in the national interest and will include – but not be limited to the following factors:
1. Authenticity of the portrayal of military operations, or historical incidents, persons or places depicting a true interpretation of military life.
2. Compliance with accepted standards of dignity and propriety in the industry.
F. DoD material and personnel services will not be employed in such a manner as to compete with commercial and private enterprises. The requestor will furnish a non-competitive certification.
The importance of this is that criteria are sometimes in conflict with the demands of the 1955 document which describes how:
As part of the continuing effort to satisfy public interest in the Armed Forces of the United States, to keep the public informed as to the state of preparedness of the Nation, to promote national security, to stimulate patriotic spirit, to further community relations, and to serve otherwise the public interest, participation in public events and in other activities in the civilian domain is authorized under the conditions and within the limitations stated herein.
Conflicting Criteria for Supporting Films and TV
These memos granted the ASD(PA) the authority to decide which public events (physical or media) the DOD participates in, but the criteria for making these decisions are contradictory. Sometimes a ‘true interpretation of military life’ contradicts ‘promoting national security’ or ‘stimulating patriotic spirit’. Put simply, when it comes to some events you can either portray the military accurately, or you can portray them positively. There isn’t a way to put a positive spin on Marines using bayonets to steal the gold fillings out of the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers, so a scene depicting this was removed from Windtalkers. There isn’t a way to stimulate patriotic spirit when Clint Eastwood shoots a dying Cuban soldier and steals his cigars, so the DOD removed their production credit from Heartbreak Ridge.
The conflicts between these criteria have never been resolved and so, in submitting to this process, film-makers are surrendering creative control to a set of contradictory aims, allowing the DOD to make more or less any demands they like. For one scene they might request that something be changed to make it more ‘accurate’ or ‘authentic’, on another it might be because it is ‘in the national interest’, yet another it might be about ‘promoting national security’. By employing contradictory criteria the DOD are providing themselves with a range of conflicting and overlapping excuses for meddling with the content of movies and censoring material they don’t like.
Put another way – what happens when the Pentagon requests a script change that makes the film less accurate but is in keeping with their desire to ‘promote national security’? Who decides which is the greater concern in that particular scene? I’m pretty sure it isn’t the film-makers. I’m pretty sure it is the likes of Don Baruch, Phil Strub and their small army of entertainment liaison officers.
Pentagon Script Approval and the Production Code
Furthermore, the line saying that to get production assistance from the military, movies and TV programmes have to comply ‘with accepted standards of dignity and propriety in the industry’ is surely a reference to institutions like the MPAA. It appears that up until the 1960s the DOD mostly relied on the power of the MPAA and the Production Code to prevent films from including anything too politically challenging. However, it was around the time of the death of MPAA president Eric Johnston in the early 1960s that the Production Code began to fall apart, and so the power of the ‘accepted standards of dignity and propriety in the industry’ was diminished.
From my tracing of these documents it appears that it wasn’t until 1964 that the Pentagon made full script reviews a part of their formal, official decision-making process when it came to choosing whether to provide production support on a film or TV show. They had influenced scripts prior to 1964, but it appears this was done informally. It seems that in the early decades of Hollywood they relied on the general compliance and willingness and pro-government attitudes of film-makers, and the MPAA and the Production Code, to ensure that films only portrayed what the military wanted, in a way that suited their agenda. With the Production Code failing (it would be scrapped a few years later) the DOD moved to establish script approval as a formal part of their process, to protect their PR and propaganda interests. Over half a century later it is simply an accepted part of the industry – one of those ‘cost of doing business’ things.
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