Q&A: David Robb
The Film Liaison Office is a branch of the Department of Defense that serves as a link between the Pentagon and Hollywood. To ensure positive portrayal of the military in films, the Film Liaison Office works with producers to prescreen film in exchange for the use of miltary equipment as props. Though the office maintains an unknown factor of the Hollywood film-making process, David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood, is reponsible for extensive coverage of the relationship. Robb sat down with Buzzsaw to talk about his research on the Film Liaison Office.
Buzzsaw: Could you walk through the process that producers go through with the Film Liaison Office?
David Robb: They have to give them three copies of the script, and the film liaison offices will look at it and see if there’s anything in it for them. What they want is a script that will show the military in a positive light because they want people to see it and then join the military. They want to make the military look good, so if it’s a really negative story, they are not going to assist it at all. Or if it’s a script that they like, but there’s something they don’t like they say, ‘Okay, we’ll do it, but you have to take out this line or change this character, change this dialogue or this story point.’ Then they make notes, and if the producers agree to make those changes, then they work together and they’ll supply them with the things that they want—the tanks, the planes, the submarines, the military bases.
B: Does the government give it to the studios for free?
DR: Basically, they give it to them for free. If you want to go out on an aircraft carrier, they’ll take you out there and they’ll let you film. If you want to put your camera in one of the planes and fly up in the air, they’ll charge you for the gas. They don’t charge you for the plane, the pilot or their time, but you have to pay for the gas. It’s a form of the Pentagon subsidizing films that they like.
B: Can you explain how you first came across this and explain why you thought it was so important to write your book about it?
DR: Well, I had heard about it for years, and every once in a while a story would come out about in the papers. So I always thought what it would take to make the book, though, was more than just calling the producers and saying, ‘Hey, what did you have to change in your script in order to get the military’s assistance?’ I needed actual documents. So when I started finding documents, I found that the Pentagon had donated some documents to the Georgetown University’s Special Collections Library. So I went to Georgetown and found pages of scripts and recommendations and negotiations between the producers and the Pentagon on hundreds of films. Then I went around to each of the military branch film offices in Los Angeles, and asked if I could look at their files, and everyone said “no” except the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps let me stand in their office, small room, floor-to-ceiling shelves with nothing but scripts and documents of films they worked on. So they let me copy everything that they had, the Marine Corps were the only ones that weren’t afraid. They said they had nothing to hide. Really, the Army, Navy and Air Force did not want this kind of thing coming out—the kind of thing that they do.
B: I’m not surprised. It doesn’t seem fair that they have that much control.
DR: They think it’s great, because it’s their job to get positive portrayals of the military into the values of millions of people. It’s been going on since World War II. They especially target children; I found all sorts of documents that one of their prime targets for the message in movies and televisions shows is children because they are the future recruits. They made deals with the Mickey Mouse Club, the old Lassie TV show: They need positive portrayals of the military so that the kids will see it and want to join when they grow up.
I believe that it’s unconstitutional, because the Supreme Court has held in numerous rulings that the government cannot favor one form of speech that it likes and not give the same benefit and favors to speech that it does not like. It can’t give tax breaks to newspapers that write positive things about them and then not give those tax breaks to newspapers that write bad things about them. But that’s what they do with the movie industry: If you are willing to play ball and say good things about the military, they’ll roll out the red carpet and help you and save you millions of dollars. And if you want to say something negative, that’s true, they won’t help you and it can cost you millions of dollars doing a computer-generated image of the submarine instead of doing the real thing.
B: Why do you think so few people are aware of what’s going? How does the secrecy benefit the pentagon, and how does it benefit Hollywood?
DR: Let me say first that the benefit to Hollywood is that they get lots of free stuff and access to free stuff, and they know that audiences like to see stuff that’s real. And the military benefits because it gets free advertising—product placement that the audience is not aware of. It’s not a secret, because I wrote a book about it, but the fact that so few people know about it is just sad. I think that if people knew about it, they’d just be outraged. If they knew that their children were being targeted for subliminal advertising, which is also illegal, in film and TV shows. There are all kinds of TV shows. If you want to see recent movies that have been helped out, go on to IMDb and type in Phil Strub, and you’ll see all the pictures he’s worked on.
They are talking about cutting back the military budget, and I think they should start with the film office and eliminate the office altogether. The police departments around the country don’t do this. We’ll take you out in our car if you change your script: Doctors don’t do this when they want assistance from doctors—they don’t say, ‘We need to see the script to help you.’ Hollywood loves heroes. Hollywood needs heroes, and they don’t have to be bribed to make doctors heroes, lawyers heroes or police heroes. And they don’t need to be bribed to make the military heroes: There will be plenty of military heroes without this bribery.
B: What do you think the lasting repercussions of having this relationship will mean for the industry?
DR: Well, there was a time a few years ago when they were talking about getting rid of Phil Strub’s office and having only the branches do it themselves. Hollywood executives, including Jack Valenti, the head of the MPAA, wrote dozens of letters saying that they want to keep Phil Strub: They want this. They like this in the film industry. The lasting implications, I believe, on the American people is that it’s made America over the last 50 years of having the people bombarded with positive images, paid for by the military, has made us a more war-like people. When Hitler invaded France and was bombing England everyday and rolling over Denmark and Europe and Poland, we didn’t enter the war until we were attacked ourselves at Pearl Harbor. The people then wouldn’t let Roosevelt go to war. The people were very much against war. There is a steady drip, drip, drip of having the military put into film and television products. It’s had a very bad effect on the American people. People now are ready to go to war at the drop at a hat—we’ll invade countries that didn’t invade us or anything! Or fight wars against wrong people.
B: Is there anything else that I forgot to ask or that you want to mention that you think is important?
DR: Just that, if you look at the films that the military assisted, every film they made are films of detriment. There was a film, The Great Santini with Robert Duval. It was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar. I found the documents and they made him take out what the producers thought was the funniest—this was sort of a black comedy film, serious with some funny elements—they made them take out what was the funniest scene in the whole film because they thought it was detrimental to recruiting. It didn’t win, but who knows: If you take the best scene of a picture that won Best Picture, is it still the Best Picture? I don’t know, I just know that America—which its job is to protect the creative and economic rights of its members, those are the two stated goals—has done a terrible job. They’ve done nothing. They’ve done nothing to protest this for its members whose scripts are being changed by the government. It’s important to remember the producers can always say no. There are plenty of people who said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ They can’t stop you from doing a film they don’t like, they just won’t help you, and it’ll cost you. Sometimes studios won’t even make the picture if the military won’t agree to help them because it costs too much. There are films that were never made because the military won’t help them.
B: Is there anywhere to view a list of the scripts that they used?
DR: The list is so long, my book was just a fraction. The documentation was just really shocking, where they made them take out lines. If I were to show a whole list, it would be in the hundreds, many hundreds of pictures. I would just advise people when they see a film, if they use the military, at the very end there’s always a thank you at the end saying, ‘thank you to Phil Strub’ or ‘Thank you to the Department of Defense for the assistance in the making of this motion picture.’ People should watch and see films that they think what they’re seeing is propaganda, which is what it is. If they watch all the credits, at the very end, down with the MPAA sign and the little Fuji Films, see if what you’ve just been watching was the vision of the writers, directors, the actors and the artist or the vision of the military you’ve been looking at. And you can always tell—if it’s really positive, you know that there’s been military assistance. And if it’s all negative, it didn’t get military assistance. But people should know that what they’ve been seeing has been meddled with by the military.