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Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes…

Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies

by David L. Robb

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Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors
the Movies

by David L. Robb

Prometheus, 384 pages, hardback, 2004

This is an important book, and thoroughly to be recommended.
It is also, unfortunately, a flawed one in terms of its
presentation, filled with clumsy writing and egregious
repetition: it reads like a collection of essays written, rather
hurriedly, at different times, and it's somewhat shameful that
neither the author nor his editor made the least effort to knit
these into a coherent text.

The appeal to moviemakers of enlisting the cooperation of the
military is obvious. For a fraction of the outlay that would
otherwise be incurred, the military can lay on helicopters,
battleships, nuclear subs and a cast of thousands. The peril of
accepting such a huge cash savings — which may very well
represent the difference between a movie being made and not made
— is equally obvious. The non-cash price the military
demands is script-approval, more usually euphemized as "technical
advice." In Operation Hollywood Robb draws up an almost
mind-numbingly wide-ranging roster of movies that have been
substantially — often absurdly — compromised by the
military's refusal to support enterprises that they feel fail to
convey "the right message."

The ethical core of the book is summed up in a few lines
about two-thirds of the way through:

And to get an idea of what's been lost by the sanitizing of
hundreds of movies that the Pentagon has assisted, imagine what
the films that the Pentagon refused to assist might have been
like if they'd been subjected to the military's approval process.
Imagine a "toned down" Jack D. Ripper, the mad army general
obsessed with the purity of bodily fluids in Stanley Kubrick's
Dr. Strangelove; or a "more positive" Colonel Kurtz, the
insane renegade army officer in Francis Ford Coppola's
Apocalypse Now; or a less bitter Ron Kovic, the paralyzed
hero-turned-war resister in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth
of July
; or a less goofy, more soldierlike Forrest
[italics sic]. How would we have known if the
producers of these films had toned down their characters in order
to get the military's cooperation? And how would we have known
that our movie-memories had been tampered with?

The answer, of course, is that we wouldn't, without the help
of assiduous researchers like Robb. A case in point is the
relatively recent movie Windtalkers, concerning the so-
called Code Talkers, Navajos enlisted to serve alongside Marines
in World War II because their language was totally
incomprehensible to the Japanese and, as an evolved rather than a
created "code", was invulnerable to decryption techniques. I saw
this movie after I'd read Robb's book; the person I was with had
not. My companion assumed the historical underpinning of the
movie was, aside from the obvious Hollywood-blockbuster
conventions, fairly accurate, and was quite horrified to find
this wasn't the case. In particular, among countless smaller
changes, institutionalized racism toward the Navajos was
downplayed (there is a single violently racist Marine, and even
he "learns better" as the movie progresses), and, most specific
of all, the instruction given to each Marine teamed with a Navajo
that, should his charge fall into enemy hands, his imperative
duty was to kill him, in case the "code" could be tortured out of
him, was almost completely written out of the script: it's still
there in tacit form, but it's no longer an important dynamic of
the plot.

The list of movies that have been similarly tampered with is
a long one, as noted, and it spans decades up to the present.
Even a listing of the more famous titles would be too long to
reproduce here. I can guarantee, though, that many of your
illusions about the integrity of your favorite movies will be

Also of interest are the tales Robb recounts of directors and
producers who simply refused to be cowed by the military "script
advisers" and who either scrapped their projects altogether or
had confidence enough in their own box-office draw to be able to
eschew the Pentagon's cooperation. Most such moviemakers have
been well established figures, for obvious reasons, but not all.
I was particularly struck by the story of Cy Roth, widely
regarded as one of the worst low-budget moviemakers of all time,
the qualities of whose three completed movies can be judged by
the title of one of them: Fire Maidens from Outer Space.
In 1953 he wanted to make a serious movie called Air
about racism aboard a World War II aircraft carrier.
The Pentagon not only refused all cooperation — how
preposterous to countenance that there might be racism in the
military! — but also went out of their way to try to insure
the movie never saw the light of day: at one point they even
enlisted the FBI to see if charges of Communism against Roth
might be made to stick. Despite such persecution, Roth refused to
lie down and shut up, and finally he made his movie. By all
accounts it's a rotten movie — and not just because of the
lack of cooperation — but one cannot help admiring his
courage and gumption in managing to make it against all the very
considerable odds.

An additional point of interest in Operation Hollywood
is that Robb has managed to obtain copies of various bits of
correspondence between moviemakers and the military censors, and
these he reproduces in facsimile form. He also presents a
convincing counter-argument to the defense of the Pentagon's
attitude that refusing cooperation is different from censorship
in that no one would accuse (say) Exxon of censorship if it
refused to assist a movie fiercely critical of the company's
approach to clearing up oil spills. Robb points out forcefully
that, unlike Exxon, the Pentagon is not a private company: it is
in fact the property of the US public, and thus has no moral
license whatsoever to rewrite its own and US history for the
purpose of keeping that public in the dark.

Despite the irritation — even exasperation —
generated by the total dereliction of auctorial and editorial
duty in the preparation of its text, Operation Hollywood
is one of those must-read books: no understanding of movie
history is remotely complete without it. It certainly deserves
far more attention than it so far seems to have received.

This review, first published by Crescent Blues, is
excerpted from my ebook Warm Words and Otherwise: A Blizzard
of Book Reviews
, to be published on September 19 by Infinity
Plus Ebooks.

( )
  JohnGrant1 | Aug 11, 2013 |
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"The only thing Hollywood likes more than a good movie is a good deal. For more than fifty years producers and directors of war and action movies have been getting a great deal from America's armed forces by receiving access to billions of dollars worth of military equipment and personnel for little or no cost. Although this arrangement considerably lowers a film's budget, the cost in terms of intellectual freedom can be steep. In exchange for access to sophisticated military hardware and expertise, filmmakers must agree to censorship from the Pentagon." "As veteran Hollywood journalist David L. Robb shows in this insider's look into Hollywood's "dirtiest little secret, " the final product that moviegoers see at the theater reflects less about what the director intends and more what the powers-that-be in the military want to project about America's armed forces. Sometimes a military liaison officer demands removal of just a few words; other times whole scenes must be scrapped or completely revised. What happens if a director refuses the requested changes? Robb quotes a Pentagon spokesperson: "Well, I'm taking my toys and I'm going home. I'm taking my tanks and my troops and my location, and I'm going home." Such threats can be persuasive to filmmakers trying to keep their productions on time and within budget."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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