March 20, 2008

The Golden Age of the Military-Entertainment Complex

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Pentagon-Style

Tom Engelhardt of interviews Nick Turse, author of The Complex: How The Military Invades Our Everyday Lives.

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 drunken pursuits.

Here 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," he commented.

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 [19]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 action-drama U-571.

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 Bacon.

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 He has written for Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Adbusters, The Nation, the Village Voice and regularly for Tomdispatch. His first book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, has just been published in Metropolitan Books’s American Empire Project series.

Copyright 2008 Nick Turse

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. The role of the military, after listening to the interview of Nick Turse, certainly does seem to be ubiquitous in American society today. I will be picking up my copy of Mr. Turse’s book today to learn more of how the military has become so influential in the lives of America’s citizens. Another book which is similar to The Complex is a book which came out in 2007 entitled The Hollywood War Machine: U.S. Militarism and Popular Culture by Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard. In it, the authors examine how all aspects of American culture, and in particular the film industry, has been swept up and dominated, either overtly or in a more subtle fashion, by the aspect of American militarism.


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