Former DOD entertainment liaison Phil Strub once called Oliver Stone ‘the King of self-appointed blacklisted film makers’, but what does that mean in reality? Thanks to archival raids we can now examine the Pentagon’s files on Oliver Stone’s Vietnam war trilogy Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth, all of which were rejected by the US military. They reveal a disturbing pattern in the Pentagon’s approach to films that take an honest, earthy look at real-life events, and stories that reveal some of the dark underbelly of the war machine.
Strike One: Platoon
The first film in Stone’s vaunted trilogy was 1986’s Platoon, based on Stone’s own experiences in the US Army in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. Despite being an Academy Award-winning screenwriter Stone struggled to find backers for the film, as it didn’t fit into the conventions of the Vietnam war film genre. Previous films in the genre typically fell into a simple dichotomy of either telling a gung-ho story of US heroism fighting the godless commies – The Green Berets being the archetypal example – or a tale of young men being broken by war and suffering the mental, physical and emotional consequences – Coming Home being perhaps the best of this kind, though we should also note The Deer Hunter. In terms of more fictitious and artistic depictions, Apocalypse Now led the way, leading some studios to believe that Vietnam war movies had peaked and there wasn’t another kind of story to tell about the war.
Stone’s script broke with this trend, as it focused entirely on a small band of soldiers, most of whom were just counting down the days until they could get the hell out the country and leave the war behind. Charlie Sheen’s character – somewhat modelled on Stone – is a fresh-faced FNG struggling to adapt to the insanity of the war, the challenges of the jungle and the conflict between the officers in his unit. But we never see Sheen’s life prior to the war, or what he faced when he got home. The entire story is situated in the war itself, and is an unrelentingly sad, frustrating but very relatable and realistic portrait.
As such, it didn’t fit into the established narratives and stereotypes of character drama that studios were comfortable with, so finding financial backers to produce the project proved difficult. Eventually, Stone managed to sell the idea to a Brit – John Daly – who agreed to finance production of both Platoon and Salvador. While Salvador failed to garner much in the way of box office revenues it did receive critical acclaim, while Platoon was a box office smash as well as an enormous critical success – earning Stone two Oscars.
However, the DOD were not happy with the script, feeling its gritty, true-to-life story and characters were not the ‘authentic’ image that they wanted the American public to see. Even though they were making Top Gun at the same time – a film that is unrealistic in almost every major aspect – they felt that Platoon somehow failed the realism test, and therefore couldn’t be supported:
In its present form the script presents an unfair and inaccurate view of the Army.
There are numerous problem areas in the script. They include: the murder and rape of innocent Vietnamese villagers by US soldiers, the cold blooded murder of one US soldier by another, rampant drug abuse, the stereotyping of black soldiers, and the portrayal of the majority of soldiers as illiterate delinquents. The entire script is rife with unrealistic and highly unfavorable depictions of the American soldier.
Strike Two: Born on the Fourth of July
In 1976 producer Martin Bregman acquired the book rights to Vietnam veteran turned anti-war activist Ron Kovic’s best-selling book Born on the Fourth of July, hiring Stone to co-write the screenplay with Kovic, with Al Pacino slated to play the title role. The producers approached the Pentagon about filming at Parris Island, so they could show Kovic’s training with the Marine Corps before shipping out to Vietnam.
The Pentagon had numerous objections to the script. Everything from a scene where Kovic loses a wrestling match in high school to one where a Marine Corps drill instructor punches him in the stomach were deemed problematic or outright unacceptable. They also didn’t like a scene where Ron tells his commanding officer in Vietnam that he accidentally shot a fellow Marine during the confusion of an ambush, but the officer waves him away and covers it up. Swearing and sexual scenes were also a problem, as were sequences depicting a VA hospital as filthy, and its staff as abusive to the patients. As a result they rejected Born on the Fourth of July and Bregman and Pacino left the project shortly afterwards, consigning it to development hell for nearly a decade.
But the story and these ‘objectionable’ scenes were all based on Kovic’s real life experiences, so as far as we know all of these things actually happened. The DOD’s excuse – that portraying such things in even one biographical film would give the impression that all these things happened routinely – is precisely that, an excuse. Just as with Platoon, there is no indication that what is depicted on screen is the definitive, uniform experience of Americans in Vietnam.
Though it should be noted that Fields of Fire, also written by a veteran based on his real experiences of things that actually happened, also contains combat and other scenes similar to some of those in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Likewise Full Metal Jacket features an extended depiction of recruit training, complete with verbal and physical abuse, and was also based on a book by a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam war (Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers). Finally, Jarhead was written by yet another Marine Corps veteran, this time about the Gulf War, and also includes scenes of a drill instructor assaulting and screaming at recruits as well as our protagonist threatening to kill to fellow Marine.
Clearly, these experiences were actually fairly common, whether it was the treatment and training of recruits, the willingness of officers in combat to overlook or cover up lethal fuck-ups in the field, the crude or racist language used by military members, or the abuse and murder of Vietnamese civilians. Numerous veterans wrote books about these experiences, so unless they collectively hallucinated them any decent historian would conclude that these things did happen, and regularly. All of these books were adapted into screenplays, but none of them benefited from DOD support when it came to making the film versions. Kubrick never asked for help on Full Metal Jacket, while Stone was rejected on Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July was eventually made (sans training sequences) without DOD help, Fields of Fire was rejected and consequently never made, and Jarhead was also turned down.
Strike Three: Heaven & Earth
The final instalment in Stone’s cinematic exploration of the Vietnam war, Heaven & Earth, was also denied support by the DOD, even though they asked for a bare minimum of assistance. They simply wanted a few uniformed Marines to play extras in a funeral burial scene, but that still entailed submitting the script for the DOD and Marine Corps to review. The available documents suggest that the project was rejected outright – there are no memos or records of conversations about the script’s content itself, and Phil Strub himself laid the smackdown and said they weren’t going to work on it.
Handwritten notes of conversations between the Marine Corps liaison office in Hollywood and Phil Strub at the DOD’s entertainment propaganda lair show that Strub felt this was ‘not a defining moment for Stone’, i.e. the point at which the DOD would change their minds and embrace working with him. Strub said he had no problem with them providing information and technical advice on military funeral protocol and procedure, but that he did not want to support the production. While the Marines did fax over a book chapter on military etiquette to the film-makers, Strub’s decision meant that they couldn’t provide any material support to the film, so like the others it was made with the help of former Marine captain Dale Dye but without the help of the Pentagon.
Pinkville and the My Lai Massacre
Stone wasn’t finished yet. In the 2000s he developed a fourth Vietnam war film called Pinkville, about the My Lai massacre of 1968, where US soldiers killed hundreds of innocent Vietnamese civilians. This horrific war crime was covered up by US Army officers, including Colin Powell, before a combination of military whistleblowers and Seymour Hersh’s reporting led to a full investigation, though only one conviction.
In 2007 it was announced that Stone would be making Pinkville, which took its title from the US Army slang name for the area where the massacre took place. The film was due to star Bruce Willis, Channing Tatum and Woody Harrelson, and they approached the Pentagon asking for support. Several years later Phil Strub recounted what happened, as an example of how fair and reasonable the Pentagon are when it comes to dealing with controversial films and their producers.
Strub referred to Stone as the ‘king of self-appointed blacklisted film-makers’, and denied that there is any kind of blacklist at the DOD, despite the documents on Heaven & Earth suggesting the exact opposite – that Stone’s card was marked ever since Platoon. Uncle Phil says that they took the script for Pinkville and showed it to Army historians, who had no concerns over its accuracy and argued that the film would be good for the Army, as it showed them ultimately dealing with the war crime appropriately. Just as with mental illness, sexual assault and other ‘controversial’ subjects, the military will work on products depicting these, as long as the military overall is shown to be a benevolent, responsible institution and any crimes are pinned on a few bad actors and rogue troops.
This involves an extraordinary doublethink, that would only make sense to the sort of fetid idiots who work in PR. When it comes to a fairly well-known war crime such as the massacre at My Lai, they will work on a film as long as it shows the Army doing the right thing. But when it comes to less well-known massacres and other war crimes, such as those depicted in Platoon or Fields of Fire, they refuse to work on those films because they want to avoid the impression that such crimes were commonplace. They want people to think that the only major crime in the Vietnam war was at My Lai, and that it was a single aberration resulting from a few bad eggs in the ranks, rather than the result of an institutional culture of seeing all Vietnamese as either the enemy, or as mere gooks who could be raped, abused and killed without consequence.
Naturally I haven’t read the script for Pinkville (though I would love to) but I can imagine that Stone’s retelling of the story would have been one of an insane response to men put in an insane situation, with further insanity following in the form of the cover-up and the rather limp-wristed courts martial that followed.
As such, while Oliver Stone’s experiences in dealing with the DOD’s Hollywood propaganda offices are not unique, they do typify what happens to more radical film makers and their projects when they try to get support from the government. Indeed, you don’t even have to be radical or especially critical of war or of the military way of life. If your script simply takes an honest look at its subject matter, based on real-life experiences, before you know it your name is on the list and your photo is hanging on a dartboard on the wall of an entertainment liaison office.
Such is the industrial and institutional resistance to honest reflections on some of the worst that humans are capable of, it is little surprise that there is only one Oliver Stone. But that’s one more than we would have without him, and for that we can be grateful.