The 1995 nuclear submarine mutiny thriller Crimson Tide was rejected by the US Navy, for fairly obvious reasons (the whole mutiny on board a nuclear sub plot point). On the anniversary of the film’s release, I thought I’d share the story of why the Navy turned down Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer, and how they lied about it to reporters when the story hit the press.
The DOD database summarises their interactions with Disney, Scott and Bruckheimer:
FILMMAKERS ADVISED SAAV (OVER TELEPHONE) THAT THEY WERE NOT INCLINED TO REDUCE ARMED MUTINY TO WAR OF WORDS/CONTEST OF WILLS. NEITHER PRODUCER JERRY BRUCKHEIMER NOR DIRECTOR TONY SCOTT EVER ENTERED INTO ACTUAL NEGOTIATIONS — NAVY PROBABLY OPPOSED TO ANY KIND OF MUTINY (PARTICULARLY AN ARMED MUTINY).
In late November 1993 the screenwriter for Crimson Tide, Michael Schiffer, made a research visit to the submarine base at Bangor, to gather details to develop his story idea into a screenplay. A Navy memo notes how two key points were emphasised to Schiffer:
1) The authorization for the release of nuclear weapons comes from the President. There can be no ambiguity about the order to fire or the proceaures leading up to the firing of a nuclear weapon. There can be no characterization that it would be possible for the crew to fire a missile on their own initiative — or even attempt to try to fire a missile; and
2) There can be nothing depicted that would lead the audience to believe that the ship is unsafe. This includes anything that would make a normal audience member believe that there is anything inherently unsafe about our handling of nuclear weapons, nuclear propulsion or general submarine operations. If for the purpose of drama, the ship would sustain damage, it would have to be the result of an external force, e.g. collision, accidental grounding on uncharted hazard, or hostile action, rather than damage attributable to flaws in the construction and maintenance of the submarine or carelessness on the part of the crew.
A couple of weeks later Schiffer, co-writer Richard Henrick and several others – including Bruckheimer and Hollywood Pictures president Ricardo Mestres – embarked on a submarine to do further research. Then, Schiffer went away and over the following months produced a draft script that he and the other filmmakers believed portrayed the Navy in a very positive light.
Not so, said the Navy.
In April 1994 Mestres forward the draft script and production notes to Gary Shrout at the Navy’s entertainment liaison office. His letter records how at that time they were hoping to cast Al Pacino in the Gene Hackman role, and “Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia, Val Kilmer, Dennis Quaid, Patrick Swayze, and many others have expressed interest in playing the role of Hunter.” Al Pacino and Dennis Quaid would have made for a very different movie, no? Mestres laid it on thick:
I realize this is a controversial subject, but we have attempted to stress both accuracy and the professionalism of the US Navy. In fact, as I have discussed with you on the telephone, our interest is to further substantiate the dignity of the Captain. In every way presenting the Navy in a strong, positive way actually works creatively for our story.
A few days later John Horton forwarded a copy of the script to Strub at the DOD office, asking for ‘your review and comments on this script for consideration in the continuing revisions of the script prior to production.’
A few days later a memo by Shrout reviewing the script recommended rejection, conceding that the film was ‘very well written’ but declaring its depiction of Navy operations and policies was not ‘feasible’. The memo summarises the argument between the CO and the XO over whether to launch, the subsequent mutiny and counter-mutiny plot, and elaborates:
While Hollywood’s need for dramatic conflict in films is understood, the reality of the submarine service is in direct opposition to this scene. In reality, the entire sequence of command and control is designed to allow for any non-concurrence to block the launch of strategic nuclear weapons.
They also objected to the ‘over 80 instances of profanity’ in the screenplay for Crimson Tide, as well as how the CO was written:
The characterization of the CO is off base for the submarine community. While ‘screamers’ are not unknown to naval leadership, it is a particular point of pride with submariners to accomplish the mission in a low key and quiet manner.
Word of the Navy’s disapproval evidently made its way to Horton, because a couple of weeks later he wrote to the Navy’s Chief of Information – their highest PR official – to try to grease the wheels. He referenced how the filmmakers had retained retired Navy Captain Skip Beard (no kidding, that’s his name) as a technical advisor, and had asked for script assistance from retired Admiral Hank McKinney. Horton went on:
The producers of this film Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott, the director, are the same team that made Top Gun. They are desirous of projecting the Navy with the same care and credibility that they did in Top Gun. Hopefully the movie can be produced with Navy assistance, but if this becomes a problem the intent to have the film portray the Navy in the finest manner will not be lessened in any degree whatsoever. It is just better to have the Navy involved if possible.
It was to no avail. In June a Navy telex notes how:
THE PICTURE DEPICTS AN ARMED MUTINY ABOARD AN SSBN. SECNAV HAS MET WITH DISNEY (OWNS HOLLYWOOD PICTURES) EXECUTIVE JEFF KATZENBERG AND INFORMED HIM OF SUPPORT DENIAL PENDING MAJOR REWRITE.
At the start of July the Navy Chief of Information wrote to Strub formally recommending the denial, writing:
Subsequent to the Department of the Navy (DON) review of the script for subject film production, and a meeting between the Secretary of the Navy and the President of Disney Studios (Mr. Jeff Katzenberg), DON recommends DOD not provide official support.
As explained to Mr. Katzenberg during the meeting with SECNAV, the major reason for this recommendation by DON is the portrayal of an armed mutiny by the crew and senior officers of the fictitious ballistic missile submarine, as well as the characterization of their behavior, decisions and performance in general and during missile launching sequences. We do not consider a significant rewrite likely at this time, in order to obtain DON reconsideration of support.
The Navy has provided one more pre-production SSBN pier side tour for the director and others involved with the production. In addition, DON will insist, as part of our dialogue with the producer, that film credits contain no reference to DOD or the United States Navy, nor any implied cooperation or support.
A few days later Strub sent the formal rejection letter to Bruce Hendrix at Disney, saying:
We have determined that we cannot provide military production assistance, due to the unrealistic portrayal of the Navy personnel assigned to the fictional ballistic missile submarine.
We understand your contention that completely toning down the confrontation to a war of words and contest of wills might dilute the drama. However, from our point of view, the fundamental premise of an armed mutiny, with its attendant depictions of the crewmembers’ behavior, decisions, and performance, is unacceptably unrealistic.
The submarine-based nuclear deterrence mission is predicated in large measure on the conviction that even during the gravest of crises, the crew would behave rationally, reasonably, and responsibly. Furthermore, there are adequate redundancies in systems and safeguards in procedures to further obviate the breakdown in command authority and crisis in nuclear strike capability as depicted in the script.
Should you beceme interested in accommodating the concerns raised ab0ve, we would be willing to discuss alternatives.
The Pentagon and Navy’s position was clear – only a substantial rewrite of the script would allow for military support to Crimson Tide (beyond a few research tours, which were allowed as long as the Navy weren’t credited on the movie). They even specified the themes, plot points, dialogue and characterisation that they found problematic, and suggested changes to ameliorate these concerns.
Thus, it is quite bizarre that when the story of the rejection leaked and was picked up by various news media, the Navy responded by lying to the LA Times and telling them they hadn’t requested any script changes. Shrout denied that the Navy ever do this. A memo recording the interview is included in the Suid file on Crimson Tide:
Q1. I understand the Navy is upset over the script.
A1. No, the Navy is not upset. It is a free country and anyone can make whatever films they choose.
Q2. Is the the Navy supporting this film ?
A2. That is under review at this time.
Q3. The script portrays a mutiny aboard a ballistic nissile submarine. Has that ever happened?
Q4. What are the chances of that ever happening?
A4. Somewhat less than getting kidnapped by Martians.
Q5. Has that ever happened to the Russians?
A5. You need to ask them that.
96. What other movies has the Navy supported recently?
A6. Clear and Present Danger; Dave; Matinee.
Q7. What criteria does the Navy use to decide on support?
A7. Decisions are made on the basis of scripts. Fictional portrayals must be “feasible” portrayals of military life.
Q8. I understand that the Marine Corps was upset over the movie a “Few Good Men?”
A8. They weren’t upset.
Q9. What about the Jack Nicholson character?
A9. You need to ask the Marine Corps that question.
Q15. Since there is a mutiny being portrayed aboard the USS Alabama, how do you think the crew of the Alabama will react?
A15. I won’t speculate, you would need to ask them that question.
Q16. Has the Navy requested any script changes?
A16. We don’t request script changes. It is not our role to do that. We evaluate requests for support of projects on the basis or the script and make a decision as to whether or not we can support a given project. It is then entirely, and properly, up to the producers as to where they want to go from there.
As such, Shrout lied repeatedly in this interview – saying that the decision as to whether to support Crimson Tide was still under review, when it had already been turned down in the meeting with Katzenberg, and saying they don’t request script changes, when they’d requested a ‘major rewrite’. As to A Few Good Men – it is true that the Marine Corps had issues with the script and it ultimately only qualified for very limited support, and that the Jack Nicholson character was a problem, and the Navy knew this as they were part of the script negotiations. Indeed, Shrout’s name comes up in the file on A Few Good Men multiple times.
In essence, the DOD and US Navy wanted the Crimson Tide writers to remove the entire second act of the film, after the initial argument between the CO and the XO. No one gets locked in their quarters, no armed mutiny, no counter-strike to retake the ship. Presumably there’d be one argument, the CO would agree not to launch the missiles until they’d got comms back up, they would then sit around for 40 minutes, the message would come through and they’d go on their merry way. Not exactly the high-stakes melodrama the producers had in mind.
However, perhaps the more astonishing thing is that the Navy saw fit to simply lie about how they negotiate with Hollywood screenwriters. This is a long-running feature of their management of their own public image – to downplay and trivialise their actions, which is the sign of a guilty conscience or narcissistic liars (or possibly both, the latter being a response to the former). Strub has lied. The current chief of Pentagon-Hollywood operations Glenn Roberts has lied.
If what they were doing was so innocent, and legal, and constitutional, then why lie so often? If your job doesn’t involve trying to bully filmmakers into only pushing the thematics and messaging that you choose, then why not be open and honest?
Documents on Crimson Tide
US Navy/DOD file on Crimson Tide (1995) – from the Robb archive
US Navy/DOD file on Crimson Tide (1995) – from the Suid archive