One of the most harmless films to be rejected by the US military is 1996’s Sgt. Bilko, based on the 1950s TV comedy series. After months of script negotiations the US Army rejected the producers’ requests for support, so the movie had to be filmed on an old disused Army base, leading the film-makers to include a credit thanking the US Army for their ‘total lack of support’.
In March 1994 Ron Howard’s production company Imagine Films approached the US Army asking for access to an Army base and other support for the film. However, the Army’s entertainment liaison office reviewed the script and found it unacceptable, in particular the characterisation of most of the military roles and how they’d transplanted the Army culture of the 1950s (during the draft period) into a 1990s setting, implying this was still how the Army was run. One memo records:
I reviewed a script in which the hero was a crook and the “bad guys” were officers. Further, the military lifestyle presented was antiquated and incompatible with the film’s present day setting.
The Army explained their objections to the producers but still arranged for a research visit to Fort Irwin in May 1994 and offered courtesy support in terms of script research and advice, and in November they received a new script. However, the changes were deemed superficial and not substantive enough, so not only was full production assistance (location access) denied, all further courtesy support was also denied.
This led to a meeting in January 1995 between LTC Marovitz, the chief of the Army’s Hollywood office, and Jonathan Lynn, the film’s director. A memo Marovitz wrote to document the meeting outlined:
I further explained that virtually every character in the film is either corrupt, corrupted or witless and that I considered several of the jokes quite vile and gratuitous.
Finally, I explained how the Army depicted in the film, from the small isolated station to the draft-era soldier depictions and living conditions no longer existed. Keeping the setting in the 1990s creates such false impressions about today’s Army that no support is possible.
Lynn hit back:
Mr. Lynn explained that the Bilko characters can only be as they are and noted that we did support the Bilko TV series and the film, “Stripes”. However, he did explain that the Bilko character has changed somewhat since the 8 November script. Bilko is now a “lovable rogue” who does what he does for his troops. Further, he said that COL Hall is more “realistic” and that he puts up with Bilko’s antics because he sees how Bilko cares for his troops. He also said the vile jokes had been removed from the script.
One of the major sticking points was the setting – with the Army unwilling to accept a 1950s-style army being shown in a modern setting. Imagine Films were not interested in doing a period piece because they felt there was no market for such a film, though the Army tried to argue that the 50th anniversary of WW2 might spike audiences’ interest. Lynn asked if changing the story to a period piece would mean the Army would agree to support, but the Army were unwilling to even agree to that without seeing the rewritten script and going through the entire pre-production script review process once more. The memo wraps up:
We concluded the meeting noting that time is a consideration at this point in the production process: Even if the script is “workable,” changes in the setting will soon impact on art design and set construction. Costs saved with military assistance will be offset by costs incurred as a result of setting the film in a different period.
As a result Sgt. Bilko was produced without any military support, which likely contributed to its critical and commercial failure. It won an award for Worst Resurrection of a TV Show, was panned by reviewers and didn’t even break even on its budget. While it’s impossible to say conclusively whether this badly-conceived project would have been more of a commercial success if the Army had agreed to assist, it is highly unlikely that would have damaged its box office potential. The film’s lack of success, however, did not put Hollywood off similar TV resurrection projects, reboots and remakes, which have dominated the cinematic landscape since then.