The Oddly Specific Reasons The Military Refused Assistance To 12 Movies
Vote up the films that most deserved support.
Making an action blockbuster tends to be an incredibly expensive business, and there’s not a studio executive alive who doesn’t want to cut production costs wherever possible. One way to have all the neat stuff on screen and still keep the bean counters happy is to borrow some gear from Uncle Sam. The US military and Hollywood have been working together for the better part of a century. Provided the producers of war films are willing to meet conditions and make requested changes, the Pentagon is only too happy to help.
The support of the military can make or break a project - where else can you borrow an aircraft carrier, or a jet, or hire thousands of extras without actually having to pay them? But there is a price for that level of cooperation, and not every writer or director is willing to meet it. To qualify for military support, there are three main conditions:
- The film must portray the military in an authentic and accurate way.
- The film must inform the public and present the military in a positive way.
- The film must have a positive impact on recruitment and retention.
This collection examines the times films asked for help but wouldn't meet the demands of the US Department of Defense, and were thus denied approval.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
In the film’s original treatment of the novel of the same name, Gump serves in a unit comprised entirely of men similarly lacking in intellect. This was a major sticking point for the US Army; officials didn’t like the idea of being represented by a dim protagonist or the suggestion that such a unit existed in the Vietnam War.
One small problem: it most certainly did exist. While Gump is of course a fictional character, there really was an effort to recruit low-intelligence soldiers into the Army to serve in Vietnam. Project 100,000, an initiative by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, drastically lowered recruit intelligence standards to allow vulnerable young men to serve in combat. About half of the men cruelly dubbed “McNamara’s Morons” by other members of the military had an IQ of 71 or less, which would make Gump one of the outfit's smarter members.
The Army also took issue with how Gump referred to his commanding officer as “Lt. Dan” and was appalled at the scene of Gump mooning President Lyndon B. Johnson while in uniform. The Army refused to support the project, but the Marines would have stepped in to help had the producers simply made Gump join the Marines instead; they weren't nearly as bothered by the prospect of an unintelligent recruit. However, the film's creators felt the Army was an important part of the story, so they declined the offer.
- Actors: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field
- Released: 1994
- Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
It certainly wasn’t for want of trying, but the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day wasn’t approved for military assistance. The Pentagon had several concerns over the script, which screenwriter Dean Devlin was actually quite willing to address - save for one.
The US Air Force was unhappy with the suggestion that an advanced space-faring civilization would defeat them so easily in combat. Additionally, Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) wasn’t seen as an ideal representative of the Air Force because of his cockiness and relationship with an exotic dancer. Those wisecracks that audiences ate up weren’t becoming of an officer in the Air Force.
There was also concern that drunken crop-duster pilot Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) could fly an F-18 without any real training. The Pentagon also didn’t like that it was civilian David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) who saved the day, so his character would have to be rewritten to have a military background.
Devlin could have lived with all of those changes, but the real sticking point was over Area 51 - all references to it had to go before the military would sign on. Could you imagine a version of the movie without that scene? Well, neither could the studio, so the production went ahead anyway and the proposed revisions that would have made for a cheaper production - but a worse story - didn’t materialize. Despite the eye-watering costs, the film was a monster hit.
- Actors: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch
- Released: 1996
- Directed by: Roland Emmerich
- Photo: Orion Pictures3123 VOTES
It’s not terribly surprising that the Pentagon’s Office of Communications gave a thumb's down to writer/director Oliver Stone’s bleak tale of a platoon’s actions during the Vietnam War. Drawn from his own experiences in Vietnam, the screenplay pulled no punches when it came to portraying the darker aspects of the incredibly divisive conflict.
After reviewing the script, Pentagon public affairs official Donald Baruch made it clear the Pentagon had little interest in assisting with production:
There are numerous problem areas in the script. They include: the murder and rape of innocent Vietnamese villagers by US soldiers, the coldblooded 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.
Baruch did, however, leave the door open for cooperation, provided Stone made substantial changes to the script, though it’s hard to imagine what a sanitized version of Platoon would even look like. The production took place in the Philippines - amidst a military coup - and stayed true to Stone's vision. The uncompromising brutality of the picture made it a critical and commercial success, scooping multiple Academy Awards.
The war crimes inflicted on Vietnamese civilians in the movie had real-life equivalents, and “fragging” - the slaying of one US soldier at the hands of another - was documented to have happened. As for rampant drug use and the less-than-stellar intellects of the troops, that too may have been a little too close to the real thing.
- Actors: Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Forest Whitaker, Francesco Quinn
- Released: 1986
- Directed by: Oliver Stone
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
An adaptation of Walter Wager’s novel 58 Minutes, Die Hard 2’s screenplay was written by Steven E. de Souza, a prolific screenwriter in the 1980s and '90s. His script drew upon the Iran-Contra Affair, a scandal that dogged the Reagan administration's latter years, and also upon the campaign against Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
De Souza reflected that elements of the backstory were essentially a mash-up of all the American meddling south of the Rio Grande - hardly something the Department of Defense would be comfortable with.
It’s not too difficult to see parallels between Noriega and the villainous General Ramon Esperanza, and along with the main antagonist being a traitorous American ex-Special Forces operative, this was a project where military support was never going to fly.
- Actors: Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, William Atherton, Reginald VelJohnson, Franco Nero
- Released: 1990
- Directed by: Renny Harlin
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Douglas Day Stewart’s screenplay was drawn from his real-life experiences in the US Navy in the 1960s, but the Navy didn’t want anything to do with the film. The script was described as “profane and morally objectionable throughout.”
Among the many objections was the recruits chanting a Jody call with the gruesome line “napalm sticks to kids” - a line the Navy said might have been used in the past, but no longer. There were also problems with Zack Mayo’s backstory in the Philippines, the language used by Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley, and the suicide of a cadet who washed out.
Director Taylor Hackford took a trip to Pensacola, FL, for research and verified aspects of the script, including the fact that the “napalm sticks to kids line” was still in use. Stewart wouldn’t budge, so the studio had to turn to the Canadian Navy for assistance.
When the US Navy got wind of this, a few calls were made and the Canadians pulled out. The US Marines weren’t nearly so picky and offered to help out; their only request was that the protagonist joined the Marines instead. Even the cadet taking his own life angle could stay - an official apparently remarked that if you actually washed out of Marine school, you probably should take such drastic measures. But this offer was turned down, as Stewart’s story was about the Navy.
The Marines helped still helped out with the movie, albeit unofficially. A harrier just so happened to do a low fly-by where Hackford coincidentally happened to have a film crew set up.
After all the furor from the Navy, the film actually had a positive effect on recruitment, and Stewart remarked many years later:
It was only later, when I visited the Pentagon to see a friend who worked there, that the Admirals wanted to thank me. Because after the movie there was a new level of appreciation for the military, and a 30% higher enrollment across the board. So they thanked me and said sorry we didn't support you.
- Actors: Richard Gere, Debra Winger, Louis Gossett, David Keith, Robert Loggia
- Released: 1982
- Directed by: Taylor Hackford
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Tim Burton’s zany sci-fi comedy featured an ensemble cast and a reliance on special effects that drove the production cost through the roof. Support from the military might have eased the tortuous production, but the Pentagon didn’t see the funny side and refused to participate.
The military’s main objections to Mars Attacks! were just how blindingly stupid the generals were, how inept the military was at handling the Martians, and the fact that a civilian discovers the aliens' only weakness by chance. As screenwriter Jonathan Gems recalled, making the bizarre movie was an ordeal:
This film was a f*ck of a job - writing it and making it. I worked my ass off, but Tim worked twice as hard as I did. By the end, he was burnt out. He was a wreck. I think he went to India with his girlfriend for about a month. I think I remember him telling me at that time that he didn’t want to ever make another movie again.
- Actors: Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, Danny DeVito
- Released: 1996
- Directed by: Tim Burton