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There I was, innocently flicking through hundreds of pages of documents from the Marine Corps entertainment liaison office when all of a sudden a realisation hit me – Rocky III represents the moment when the military-Hollywood propaganda strategy changed.  As the film industry evolved, partly driving a shift in audience appetites for different kinds of military movies, partly responding to it, the Marines and the wider US military had to change with it, and began to ‘seek out and initiate projects that will provide an opportunity to present a positive image to the American public.’

The Military and Rocky III

The relationship between the Marine Corps Public Affairs Office in Los Angeles (which included their entertainment liaison) and Chartoff-Winkler, the studio behind the Rocky franchise, started straightforwardly enough.  A February 1976 report from the office states:

Received approval to cooperate with Chartoff-Winkler Productions in providing off-duty Marine volunteers for background filming of feature movie “Rocky”. Numbers of local Marines available were so small that project was dropped.

A file on Rocky shows that the producers wanted as many Marines as they could lay their hands on to help fill the Los Angeles Sports Arena and provide atmosphere for the climactic boxing match.  In return, Chartoff-Winkler were willing to donate 50 cents per Marine to a charity of the Corps’ choice but, alas, availability meant that no Marines appeared in the first Rocky.  The producers were undetterred, and in March 1979 they were back with a non-Rocky film:

Raging Bull: Contacted by Chartoff-Winkler Productions (“Rocky”) re upcoming feature staring Robert De Niro which may include some Marines in crowd scene. MCPAO LA in contact with JPAO, MCB Camp Pendleton and JPAO MCAS El Toro.

Some Marines were rustled up for use on set, but in May:

Due to last-minute changes on part of Chartoff- Winkler Productions, USMC off-duty personnel not used for crowd scene of feature starring Robert De Niro.

Thus, while neither Rocky nor Raging Bull featured Marines, the relationship between the Corps and Chartoff-Winkler was well established by the time Rocky III rolled around.  However, the reports don’t mention any discussions on the third entry in the Sylvester-Stallone-boxes-people-set-to-music franchise until filming was already taking place, with an April 1981 document saying:

“Rocky III”: Five-man color guard provided for five days to Chartoff-Winkler productions. Marines were from MarBks Seal Beach, in non-duty status. Also provided 32-man D&B from 29 Palms for one day filming. AOIC present during entire rehearsal and filming process to assist and advise as necessary. Similar participation anticipated for additional scenes.

To be clear: prior to this April report there are no references to Rocky III or to Chartoff-Winkler making an official request for this support.  So how did this come about and why was ‘similar participation anticipated for additional scenes’?  A year later, with Rocky III in the can, another update notes:

“Rocky III” – AOIC spoke with Chartoff-Winkler re: photos, press releases and video clips of Marine participation in “Rocky III” for internal release. Tentative release date slated for 28 Mar.

Later that year, with the movie’s release pushed back until the summer:

“Rocky III” – AOIC continues to work with Chartoff-Winkler Productions in obtaining video tape of Marine participation in “Rocky III” for “Directions.” Also will obtain photos and press info for internal release. Arranging for special screening for Marines for 2 Jun. Film slated for release during Jun 82.

And then in May:

“Rocky III” – AOIC attended special screening of Rocky III at MGM on 25 May. Provided video excerpts of Marine sequences to Code PAM and MCAGCC 29 Palms.

It seems that managing to get a few Marines into a few scenes in the third Rocky movie was considered a big achievement, with internal Marine Corps press and higher-ups in the Public Affairs hierarchy being sent photos and film clips for both official and unofficial use and a special screening put together for Marines.  However, they didn’t get all they wanted out of the deal, as an October 1982 update records:

Attempted to obtain permission for use of “Rocky III” theme music in USMC advertising. Not possible at this time as Rocky IV is in development.

The Vietnam War Changed the Military-Hollywood Relationship

The Vietnam war presented a major problem for the US military’s entertainment liaison offices.  As I have previously outlined (How the Vietnam War changed the Pentagon’s Entertainment Liaison Offices and Helped Kill the War Movie) the rise of independent studios and film makers, the weakening of the Production Code and its replacement with the age ratings system, and the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam changed the war movie forever.  Whereas the vast majority of the hundreds of war films produced in the late 40s, 50s and 60s received military support, a large proportion of Vietnam War-themed projects were denied.  The Pentagon’s Hollywood database lists a variety of reasons for these rejections, all essentially boiling down to ‘this film depicts the war as stupid, futile and horribly destructive to everyone involved’:

Limbo (1972) – ‘Navy turned down request for limited assistance on grounds that it showed POW wives being unfaithful and that completed film would be shown in North Vietnam as soon as it was released in US. And the wives’ infidelity would hurt POW morale, espcially if film had received military support.’

Cinderella Liberty (1973) – ‘Director and film company negotiated for a long time seeking cooperation. Sticking point was that sailor goes AWOL to take care of boy whose mother is a prostitute. Ultimately reached a tentative agreement, but then Chief of Information decided that film perpetuated negative image of Navy resulting from the Vietnam war-even though Vietnam is not mentioned and is not subject.  After final turndown, filmmakers returned to original script.’

Rolling Thunder (1977) – ‘Air Force refused to provide assistance. Claimed no POW had returned from Vietnam schizophrenic which is description they put on William Devane. Also showed unfaithful wife.’

Coming Home (1978) – ‘Marines refused to provide assistance on story which contained reference to leathernecks in Vietnam cutting ears off dead Viet Cong, portraying an officer suffering a breakdown from his war experiences and committing suicide, and a paralyzed Vietnam vet attacking the Marines.’

The Boys in Company C (1978) – ‘Lack of discipline within unit, insubordination, incompetent leadership, excessive vulgarities’.

The Deer Hunter (1978) – ‘Full of errors. No Russian roulette etc.’

Apocalypse Now (1979) – ‘Since script called for “termination” of one officer by another Army always refused to consider assistance.’

Blue Thunder (1983) – ‘Shows a Viet Cong being thrown out of a helicopter’.

Liberty Call (1984) – ‘The film is a poor reflection of the Navy and an insult to Vietnamese government.’

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) – ‘Wildly exaggerated for dramatic effect.  Completely unrealistic.’

In Love and War (1987) – ‘Approved not all the requests, only the request for stock footage. Problem was Admiral Stockdale’s claim that no North Vietnam ships attacked the American destroyer in Tonkin Gulf. Contrary to official policy. Footage given because of Stockdale’s heroism and reputation, but no other help.’

BAT-21 (1988) – ‘Initial script received Air Force approval March 84. Air Force felt script was an excellent portrayal of a true incident that occurred in Vietnam. However, the project went into limbo Until 1987, then the Air Force approved a new script, once some changes were made. Assistance was provided in the Philippines, but two objectional scenes remained in the film, including the destruction of a Vietnamese village. Accordingly, DOD declined screen credit.’

I’m sure you get the picture – throughout the 70s and well into the 80s there were many film makers, not just Oliver Stone, who were trying to tell more honest stories about Vietnam, and the Pentagon threw out denials and roadblocks every way they could.  Nonetheless, all of these films were made, all were released and some proved both critically and commercially successful.

So, what did the Marines and the DOD do about this?

‘Initiating’ Projects: The Military Starts Pitching Hollywood

Their answer was to become more proactive, and they underwent a shift in strategy.  The first couple of decades of the Don Baruch years saw them mostly sitting around waiting for TV and film producers to come to them with fully-formed scripts and requests for support.  By the late 70s, with film after film projecting the military’s misadventures in Vietnam onto big screens across the country and the world, they decided to start pitching and planting content, and initiating contact with producers before any request had even been mooted, let alone submitted.

For example, in early 1981 a report from the Marines records how they planted content into an early reality TV show:

“Thats My Line”: Continuing to work with producer of this new NBC-TV series to plant story ideas ie: Barber at MCRD, WM Drill Instructor and Harrier Plots

They were also planting content into magazine articles and the military began getting involved in story and script development.  The same report states:

“Recon Marine”: Developing story idea with Jay Benson (producer of “Torch of Love”) for TV movie on recon Marines. Project given to writers to prepare story treatment and first draft of script.

The files covering the late 70s and early 80s mention numerous other examples of the military embracing this new strategy of pitching and planting content, which I cover in-depth in ClandesTime 264 (out soon).  This culminates in a 1982 annual summary of the activities of the Marine Corps Public Affairs Office in Los Angeles, one of the most astounding documents I have read in my years of doing this research.

This report, sent to the Director for Public Affairs, describes the role of the entertainment liaison section of the office:

Motion Picture and Television Liaison — To provide varying degrees of assistance to film and TV projects, to include script research, review and approval; location scouting; wardrobe, grooming and physical appearance advice and assistance; negotiation on levels of support; and to provide recommendations to USMC/DOD, as well as representation of the best interests of the USMC and DoD. Also to seek out and initiate projects that will provide an opportunity to present a positive image of the Marine Corps to the American public.

Under the section detailing the specific activities they’d undertaken in 1981/1982 the report states:

Responded to requests for or initiated interest in USMC assistance/support on more than 30 motion pictures intended for theatrical release, and 10 films for industrial/educational purposes.

Two examples out of these 30 film projects are extremely telling.  First, on Rocky III:

Initiated contact with producer generating request for Marine color guard in the ring. Additional negotiation resulted in appearance by the MCAGCC Drum and Bugle Corps playing The Marines’ Hymn as Rocky and his opponent enter the ring. This office coordinated all Marine participation, with technical advisor on location for three weeks. Film was one of top five films (box office) of 1982.

This is why the updates on Rocky III never mention an approach from Chartoff-Winkler or a request for support – because the whole idea originated with the Marines, whose LA office made contact with the producers, which then generated the support to the film.  This support was expanded after ‘additional negotiation’, i.e. after the military pitched Chartoff-Winkler on bumping up their presence in the movie.  A file on the movie from the Marine Corps history division makes clear that it was in March 1981 that the ‘initiated contact’ took place, with the entertainment liaison officers calling up Chartoff-Winkler before production associate Sharon Mann put in the official request for support.

Beyond the Rocky franchise, one other entry in this annual 1982 report illustrates both the new approach, and the reasons for it:

PURPLE HEARTS — Vietnam story of Navy doctor assigned to Marine battalion from same producers, director and writer of “Boys of Company C.” Not seeking official support, but by interjecting ourselves into preproduction efforts, have had major impact in correcting significant script flaws.

The Boys of Company C, according to the database, ‘ultimately showed some of the worst things, real and imagined, that may have happened in Vietnam’, and the producers were advised to not even seek Marine Corps or other military support.  However, when the same crew were gearing up to make Purple Hearts, the Marines didn’t wait to see what happened and opted to ‘interject themselves into preproduction’ in order to rewrite the script and ensure that Purple Hearts would not be another Boys in Company C.

I will admit that for a long time I worked under the assumption that this more proactive approach, with all the initiations and pitching and planting, was a more recent development in the history of the military entertainment liaison offices.  I was wrong – this has been going on for as long as I’ve been alive, indeed the 1982 annual report was filed less than two weeks after I was born.  I’ve spent my entire life living in this world, and despite spending over a decade researching this phenomenon, it still has the ability to surprise me like a sucker punch from Clubber Lang.

Documents on Rocky III and the Marine Corps

US Marine Corps Public Affairs/Entertainment Liaison Office monthly reports 1974-1982

US Marine Corps Public Affairs/Entertainment Liaison Office annual report 1982

US Marine Corps file on Rocky (1976)

US Marine Corps file on Rocky III (1982)