Good Guys Wear Black is one of very few movies to explicitly discuss the Phoenix Program – a Vietnam-era behind enemy lines assassination program mostly run by the CIA. The killings ran into the tens of thousands, with over 20,000 later recognised to be civilians with no meaningful role in the war. In context, Phoenix makes the drone program look like video games, but somehow, the producers of Good Guys Wear Black managed to borrow a US Army helicopter.
This one came from the suggested by a listener file, i.e. my email inbox, and I’m very glad they pointed it out. Chuck Norris is excellent as a mild-mannered peacenik professor who used to work for the CIA’s Phoenix Program. At the end of the war, the chief US negotiator makes a deal with his Vietnamese counterpart for the release of CIA POWs in exchange for leading Chuck Norris’s team – the Black Tigers – into a trap. But Norris springs the trap and escapes through the jungle with several members of his team.
Years later, he is drawn back into the world of kicking ass (with the emphasis on kicking) when the negotiator, now the would-be Secretary of State, has to make good on the deal in order to get the big job. Members of the Black Tigers start getting wiped out, so Chuck and a foxy newspaper journalist digging into the Phoenix Program set out to find the culprits. Numerous ass kickings later they trace the plot back to the Secretary of State designate, and enact a suitable revenge. Norris wears brown bell bottom flairs throughout.
The US Marine Corps and Good Guys Wear Black
Where things got a little weird is that the same day this film was recommended to me, I was flicking through some old Marine Corps entertainment liaison office reports covering 1977-78, when the film was made. It is clear from the first entry that contact had been made prior to the period covered by the documents, but nonetheless the tale is revealing. In January 1977:
Staff member escorted Mr. Joel Westbrook of Mar Vista Productions to Camp Pendleton for the purpose of finding suitable locations for filming of upcoming motion picture “Good Guys wear Black.” Movie deals with rescue of POW’s by helicopter assault from a North Vietnamese compound. Film does not depict any particular U. S. Military service. With the assistance of Camp Pendleton‘s Natural Resources Office, Mr. Westbrook found two locations suitable for his needs. A letter requesting the use of those locations and the use of four CH—46 Helicopters for four nights during first part of April is forthcoming with copies of the script which will be forwarded to Audiovisual Division OASD/PA.
To be clear – the rescue takes place right at the start of the film and the story isn’t really about that, it’s about a hunter becomes the hunted assassination plot happening several years after the war. It is true that no specific military service is portrayed, because the guys all work for the CIA, not the military.
So it seems that Westbrook was trying to pull a fast one – getting the DOD and Marine Corps to believe the film was all about the rescue, rather than about very dirty warfare. It seems he never submitted the script (likely knowing it would get a rejection) because the next entry, at the end of February, says:
Provided assistance to OASD—PA, Mr. Don Baruch regarding Mar Vista Productions, “Good Guys Wear Black.” Coordination with producer Joel Westbrook indicated that they no longer require Marine Corps stock film footage of CH—46 helicopters. Westbrook has contacted USA [US Army] regarding using “Huey” helicopters.
Some time later, at the start of June, the final entry in the Marine Corps reports shows they provided only minor research assistance:
“Good Guys Wear Black” Film is about a U.S. attempt to rescue American POW’s from an NVA compound just north of the DMZ. Assistance consisted of providing general information about Vietnam and providing a copy of Benjamin F. Schlemmer’s book The Raid. Film does not depict USMC or any particular U.S. military service.
However, the US Army are thanked – not at the end of the movie, but on IMDB. It seems the helicopter that flies the Black Tigers into position for the rescue operation (which turns out to be a trap) was loaned to the film-makers by the Army.
Thus, it would appear that Westbrook and the others behind Good Guys Wear Black managed to sneak one past the Army, if not the Marine Corps and Don Baruch at the DOD. The conflict in the story is between the would-be Secretary of State, who is a vile, cynical ‘ends justify the means’ type and a good-hearted, only draws his gun when he has to type in Chuck Norris. If anything, it’s an anti-war, even anti-US imperialism tale, set in the real world and making reference to real life covert operations that killed close to a hundred thousand people.
Needless to say, this is not the sort of the thing the Army would typically support.