Recently, photographic portraits of nine World
War I vets (all 105 or older when taken) were unveiled
at a Pentagon ceremony. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates then noted that, when
it comes to their war, "There is no big memorial on the National Mall. Hollywood
has not turned its gaze in this direction for decades."
If true, that is little short of a miracle – as Nick Turse indicates
below. Hollywood hasn't been able to keep its gaze off either war or
the Pentagon since "the war to end all wars" began in 1914 (and the
favor has long been returned). In fact, Hollywood and the Pentagon have
been in an intricate dance of support and cross-promotion for almost
a century, from a time when the Department of Defense was still quaintly
– if more accurately – known as the War Department. Today, however,
without leaving Hollywood behind, the Pentagon has branched out into
the larger universe of entertainment. Video games, TV, NASCAR racing,
social networking, professional bull riding, toys, professional wrestling,
you name it and the military-entertainment complex has a hand in it
– and don't forget about the Pentagon's links to Starbucks, Apple Computer,
Oakley sunglasses, and well, gosh? in one way or another, directly or
indirectly, just about everything that looks civilian in (or out of)
In fact, there's a remarkable new book that looks into all of this, while
doing the best job around of updating the old military-industrial complex, a
term whose hard-edged simplicity an ever-expanding Pentagon long ago left in
the dust. Whatever you do, don't miss Nick Turse's The
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. It's an eye-opener
on the degree to which we are, without realizing it, a militarized society;
it is, as well, the latest spin-off book from Tomdispatch.com, where some of
its parts were initially tested out. But let me just quote Chalmers Johnson
on The Complex: "Americans who still think they can free themselves from
the clutches of the military-industrial complex need to read this book. The
gimmicks the Pentagon uses to deceive, entrap, and enlist gullible 18 to 24
year olds make signing up anything but voluntary. Nick Turse has produced a
brilliant exposé of the Pentagon's pervasive influence in our lives."
In honor of its publication, I'm posting an adaptation of one small
section of The Complex, its only Pentagon-themed "game." Amid
all the weaponry, military bases, and contractors, it's certainly one
of the book's lighter moments. In it, Turse shows that just about every
actor to appear on screen from Charlie Chaplin's brother Syd to Dakota
Fanning and Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow can be linked to the Pentagon
in one way or another.
Oh, and by the way, you can even check out a brief Tomdispatch video
interview I did with Turse (with, as you'll notice, a silent "Sigmund
Freud" looking on) by clicking
here. It was produced by freelance documentary filmmaker Brett Story,
a new staff addition to Tomdispatch. Expect more Turse in the near future.
The Golden Age of the Military-Entertainment Complex
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Pentagon-Style
By Nick Turse
In the late 1990s, Six
Degrees of Kevin Bacon – a game in which the goal was to connect the actor
Kevin Bacon to any other actor, living or dead, through films or television
shows in no more than six steps – became something of a phenomenon. Spread
via the Internet (before becoming a board game and a book), Six Degrees has
taken its place in America's pop culture pantheon among favorite late-night
is a new variant of the game: The goal is to connect Kevin Bacon to the Pentagon.
A commonsense approach would be to consider Bacon's military roles – the ROTC
cadet in his first feature film, the 1978 comedy classic Animal
House, for example, or the Marine Corps prosecutor, Captain Jack Ross,
in the 1992 film A Few Good Men. But the game isn't as easy as it looks.
Animal House was hardly a pro-military project and the Department of
Defense actually denied A Few Good Men access to its facilities. The
script, the Pentagon claimed, reinforced "the conclusion that not only is criminal
harassment a commonplace and accepted practice within the Marine Corps, but
that it requires a sister military service to uncover the wrongdoings..." A
spokesman for the film understood why: "It is certainly not a recruiting film,"
So does that mean game over? Perish the thought. In reality, there
are no degrees of separation between Bacon and the Pentagon because
the actor began his career in a "recruiting film" – a real one. As
Bacon recalled: "After the [Vietnam] war was over in 75, I was
already thinking about becoming an actor and I got sent out on this
Army recruiting film. It was a soft-sell kind of thing. I was a guy
getting out of high school who didn't know what he wanted to do with
his life, so I took the gig. It was my very first paying acting job."
As it happens, however, the military puts Bacon to shame when it comes to
connections in Tinseltown. The Pentagon might, in fact, be thought of as the
ultimate Hollywood insider – a direct result of the ever-expanding military-corporate
complex or "The Complex" as I call it in my new book, The
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.
So let's play a new version of the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,
with the military standing in for Bacon. The object is to follow a
few of the thousands of linkages and connections between Hollywood
and the military that have made the Department of Defense a genuine
legend of the silver screen, from the Silent Era to the ramped-up
military-movie complex of today, ending with – who else? – Kevin
Bacon. Just sit back with a big bucket of popcorn and enjoy the show...
Thirty Seconds Over Hollywood
Let's go back to 1915, when, in response to a request for assistance, U.S.
Secretary of War John Weeks ordered the army to provide every reasonable courtesy
to D. W. Griffith's pro-Ku Klux Klan epic Birth
of a Nation. The Army came through with more than 1,000 cavalry troops
and a military band. The film featured George Beranger, who would go on to star
with Humphrey Bogart and Glen Cavender in San Quentin (1937) – in which
a former Army officer is hired to impose military discipline on the infamous
prison. Cavender had also appeared alongside actor/director Syd Chaplin, Charlie's
brother, in A Submarine Pirate (1915), for which the Navy provided a
submarine, a gunboat, and the use of the San Diego Navy Yard. (The film was
even approved to be shown in Navy recruiting stations.)
Syd Chaplin later starred in the non-military A Little Bit of Fluff
(1928) with Edmund Breon, who appeared in the 1930 World War I aviation epic
The Dawn Patrol. That film was written by John Monk Saunders, who penned
another World War I drama, Wings
(1927), featuring Gary Cooper. Wings received major support from the
War Department (back in the days before it was called the Defense Department)
and won the first Academy Award for Best Picture.
Gary Cooper provides the link to Sergeant York, a 1941 film
directed by World War I Army Air Corps veteran (and The Dawn Patrol
director) Howard Hawks that was denounced by many as war-mongering
propaganda. Hawks went on to direct actor Ray Montgomery in Air
Force (1943), a Warner Brothers' film about a bomber crew serving
in the Pacific, which received assistance from the Army Air Corps.
In fact, the War Department even fast-tracked a review of the script
because the film was deemed "a special Air Corps recruiting job."
That same year, Montgomery also played a bit part, alongside Humphrey
Bogart, in Warner Brothers' Action in the North Atlantic (assistance
from the Navy). Bogart additionally starred with Lloyd Bridges in
Columbia Pictures' 1943 Sahara, a World War II epic made with
the full cooperation of the U.S. Army. Bridges would go on to appear
with both Van Johnson and Spencer Tracy in the non-military Plymouth
Adventures (1952). But long before that, both Johnson and Tracy
took off in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,
a film celebrating the 1942 "Doolittle Raid" – a U.S. terror-bombing
effort that decimated civilian sites including factories, schools
and even a hospital in Japan – made, of course, with the assistance
of the War Department.
Van Johnson fought his way through another MGM production, Battleground
(1949), which not only featured tanks and trucks loaned by the Army, but, as
extras, twenty members of the 101st Airborne Division. Battleground co-starred
John Hodiak, who, that same year, played alongside Jimmy Stewart in the World
War II adventure film Malaya. Stewart actually enlisted in the Air Force
in World War II, then served in the Air Force Reserve, and retired as a brigadier
general. While in the Reserves, he flew high in Strategic
Air Command (1955), a film conceived at the urging of Curtis LeMay,
the actual commander of the Air Force's actual Strategic Air Command (SAC).
Even with Cold War-era demands on its equipment, SAC provided Paramount with
B-36 bombers, B-47 jet bombers and a full colonel as a technical adviser.
But that was just one of SAC's (and LeMay's) connections to Hollywood. The
1963 film A Gathering of Eagles,
for example, received SAC's wholehearted support. Written by Battleground
screenwriter Robert Pirosh and featuring matinee idol Rock Hudson, it was praised
for its realism by none other than LeMay.
Rock Hudson later starred with John Wayne in The Undefeated (1969),
but not before "the Duke" made his military-entertainment masterpiece The
Green Berets (1968), which enjoyed the full backing of the Vietnam-embattled
Department of Defense. With loads of military input, The Green Berets
proved to be, said Variety, a "whammo" and "boffo" box-office success.
Critics, however, almost universally panned it. One New York Times film
reviewer went so far as to call it "so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and
false in every detail? vile and insane."
Wayne's Green Berets costar, George
Takei (better known as Mr. Sulu on TV's Star Trek), was
no stranger to the military-entertainment complex, having appeared
in the 1960 Marines Corps-assisted Hell to Eternity and the
1963 film version of John F. Kennedy's PT 109. (For which the
Navy provided a destroyer, six other ships, and a few sailors.) Takei,
who would be "beamed up" in the Navy-supported 1986 film Star Trek
IV: The Voyage Home, also once starred with Grant Williams, an
actor who later showed up in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), a then-unbelievably
big-budget (at least $25 million) Twentieth Century Fox film. For
that movie, the Department of Defense provided research assistance,
stock footage, a technical adviser, an old airplane hangar (which
the film blew up), and the use of Navy ships at Pearl Harbor. Demonstrating
a new willingness to go above and beyond for Hollywood, the Navy even
loaded thirty "Japanese" airplanes onto the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown
for the attack.
In Rehab Mode, the Military Goes Civilian
Military-Tinseltown cooperation obviously goes back a long way.
But in the 1970s, a new, amped-up relationship was launched, largely
in response to a growing negative impression of the U.S. military
brought on by the Vietnam War – and by the daunting prospect of having
to field an all-volunteer military. The Pentagon was hungry for help
in rehabilitating its image – even lending support to "civilian"
flicks – and the film industry was happy to oblige.
Take Twentieth Century Fox's 1974 collaboration with the Navy on the non-military
The Towering Inferno (1974). The
Navy lent helicopters, and the studio said thanks in the form of an acknowledgment
in the credits. The film featured longtime military-entertainment stalwart William
Holden, who had already appeared in I Wanted Wings (an army-aided 1941
propaganda flick) and The Bridges at Toko-Ri (made with Navy assistance
in 1955). He had also co-starred in 1948's Man From Colorado with Glenn
Ford, who acted alongside Charlton Heston in Midway (1976), a production
that was allowed to use the USS Lexington aircraft carrier for two weeks
of filming. Heston, in turn, went on to star in Gray Lady Down – a 1978
submarine thriller that benefited from the use of a real submarine, ships, and
sailors, all courtesy of the Navy.
Gray Lady Down featured actor Stacey Keach, who starred in
1980's TV movie-adaptation of Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War.
The Marine Corps provided an adviser (who tempered some of the more
disturbing portions of Caputo's memoir), the use of military facilities,
and 30 marines. Brian Dennehy, who also starred in A Rumor of War,
would act alongside Scott Glenn in the 1985 western Silverado.
But before he became a cowboy, Glenn played the part of Navy test
pilot and NASA spaceman Alan B. Shepard in The Right Stuff
(1983). That film was partially shot at Edwards Air Force Base and
used various types of aircraft and equipment as well as Air Force
personnel as extras.
Ed Harris, who blasted into orbit as astronaut John Glenn in The Right
Stuff moved from the space capsule to the NASA control room in the 1995
blockbuster drama Apollo
13 (Air Force extras and equipment loaned by Vandenberg Air Force Base).
Beside him in the co-pilot seat was none other than? Kevin Bacon. Apollo
13 also featured Bill Paxton, who, a year earlier, had been in the Arnold
Schwarzenegger blockbuster, True Lies, which benefited from Marine Corps
assistance. Paxton had also acted in 1990's Navy Seals (helped by the
Navy) and, in 2000, would dive below the surface in the Navy-supported submarine
True Lies was but another link in the military-entertainment
matrix. The film's co-star, Tom Arnold, shared billing in Exit
Wounds (2001) with Steven Seagal (whose 1992 film Under Siege
and 1996 film Executive Decision received, respectively, Navy
and Army cooperation) and Bruce McGill, who would appear with Morgan
Freeman in 2002's The Sum of All Fears. Shot on location at
Whiteman Air Force Base and Offutt Air Force Base, The Sum of All
Fears featured numerous USAF aircraft and enjoyed the input of
multiple Air Force technical advisers.
Freeman's costar in The Sum of All Fears, Ben Affleck, had a lead role
in the 2001 historical drama Pearl
Harbor. Produced with the backing of the Navy, the film had its premiere
on the deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Affleck was joined in Pearl
Harbor by Cuba Gooding Jr. (who also starred in 2000's Navy-aided Men
of Honor), Tom Sizemore (from 1991's Navy-aided Flight of the Intruder)
and Josh Hartnett. That same year, Hartnett and Sizemore appeared in Ridley
Scott's blockbuster Black
Hawk Down, made with the full cooperation of the Army. The Pentagon
sent the film eight helicopters and 100 soldiers, including members of the 160th
Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
Pearl Harbor co-star Tom Everett appeared in Air Force
One (1997), starring Harrison Ford, which used USAF aircraft,
Air Force personnel as extras, and was filmed at both the Rickenbacker
and Channel Islands Air National Guard bases. Its director, Wolfgang
Petersen, also directed the George Clooney/Mark Wahlberg Air Force-aided
weather drama The Perfect Storm (partially filmed at the Channel
Islands base as well).
Wahlberg had a bit part in the 1994 Danny DeVito comedy Renaissance
Man (made with Army involvement). In fact, the Oscar-winning,
military-themed Forrest Gump received only limited help from
the Army, in part because Renaissance Man and another 1994
comedy, In the Army Now, starring Pauly Shore and David Alan
Grier, sucked up so much military attention that year. Grier went
on to appear in the non-military The Woodsman (2004) with Benjamin
Bratt, who had previously been cast in the 1994 Army-aided thriller
Clear and Present Danger and would star in the ABC TV series
E-Ring, a self-proclaimed
"pulsating drama set inside the nation's ultimate fortress: the Pentagon."
Its producer and co-creator Ken Robinson had worked in the actual
Pentagon over "a couple decades." At Bratt's side in the non-military
The Woodsman was not only Grier but – you guessed it – Kevin
The Pentagon, the Sequel
In fact, one could take many (if not all) of Bacon's non-military
roles and quickly find connections that lead directly to the Pentagon.
For instance, have a look at Bacon's distinctly unmilitary Wild
Things (1998) and you'll find movie veteran Robert Wagner, who
was featured not only in such Navy-supported fare as The Frogmen
(1951) and Midway (1976), but also in the Marine Corps?aided
Halls of Montezuma (1950), Stars and Stripes Forever
(1952), and In Love and War (1958); the Army-assisted Between
Heaven and Hell (1956); the Air Force-supported The Hunters
(1958); and finally The Longest Day (1962), an epic about World
War II's D-Day landings made with the cooperation of the Army, Navy,
and Marine Corps.
When it comes to military-entertainment connections, the point is: Bacon isn't
special. Almost any current actor – from Academy Award-winner Gwyneth Paltrow
(in 2008's upcoming Air Force-aided Iron
Man) to young actress Dakota
Fanning (at the side of top-gunner Tom Cruise in the Army-aided, Steven
Spielberg-directed 2005 remake of War of the Worlds) – could be linked
to the military. The reasons are simple. As David Robb, the author of Operation
Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, observed:
"Hollywood and the Pentagon have a collaboration that works well
for both sides. Hollywood producers get what they want – access to billions
of dollars worth of military hardware and equipment – tanks, jet fighters, nuclear
submarines and aircraft carriers – and the military gets what it wants – films
that portray the military in a positive light; films that help the services
in their recruiting efforts."
But recruiting is just part of the equation, and the phrase "a positive
light" is even a little soft. At the movies, the military gets sold
– at least in those legions of Pentagon-aided films – as heroic,
admirable, and morally correct. Often, it can literally do no wrong.
This, of course, is no accident. Something must be exchanged for the
millions of dollars in otherwise unavailable high-tech weapons systems
and equipment, not to speak of personnel and military advisors, necessary
to make the sort of "realistic," eye-catching war, action, and sci-fi
movies that Hollywood (and assumedly its audiences) demand.
Speaking about the big-budget, live-action blockbuster Transformers
(2007), Ian Bryce, one of its producers, characterized the relationship
this way, "Without the superb military support we've gotten? it would
be an entirely different-looking film? Once you get Pentagon approval,
you've created a win-win situation. We want to cooperate with the
Pentagon to show them off in the most positive light, and the Pentagon
likewise wants to give us the resources to be able to do that."
On the military side, Air Force master sergeant Larry Belen spoke
of similar motivations for aiding the production of Iron Man:
"I want people to walk away from this movie with a really good impression
of the Air Force, like they got about the Navy seeing Top Gun." But
Air Force captain Christian Hodge, the Defense Department's project
officer for Iron Man, may have said it best when he unabashedly
predicted, "The Air Force is going to come off looking like rock stars."
On the Silver Screen, you can be sure of three things: the Complex
is forever; the Pentagon has no equal (sorry Kevin!), and there will,
most definitely, be a sequel?
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com.
He has written for Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Adbusters,
The Nation, the Village Voice and regularly for Tomdispatch. His first book,
How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, has just been published in
Metropolitan Books's American
Empire Project series.
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse