Ever since Wings (1927), the first Oscar-winning film, was produced with Pentagon assistance, directors and producers have sought out military support to give their war epics a veneer of authenticity.
Often, the Department of Defense (DoD) provides military equipment as props and offers advice to ensure that the US military is depicted as accurately as possible. But sometimes, the Pentagon leverages the filmmaker’s reliance on their equipment to exert pressure for script changes that have a profound effect on the finished film.
10Black Hawk Down
Based on the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, Black Hawk Down (2003) follows the exploits of a group of soldiers involved in that disastrous military operation. When it was over, 18 Americans and an unconfirmed number of Somali were dead.
Considering that the Battle of Mogadishu was widely viewed as a military embarrassment, it was surprising that the Pentagon granted support to the Ridley Scott–directed feature. But the DoD may have believed that the American public would focus on the bravery of the soldiers rather than the gory details of the botched operation.
The US military provided the filmmakers with technical advisers, 100 real soldiers, and eight Black Hawk helicopters. The Pentagon also used their own public relations officers to promote the film and even arranged screenings on military bases.
When asked in an interview with Mother Jones if the film could have been made without military support, Ridley Scott quipped, “Yeah. We just would have had to call it Huey Down.”
With this reliance on military hardware, the Pentagon pressured the screenwriter to change certain aspects of the script. Most notably, the Pentagon asked that the name of Ranger John Stebbins be changed. The real-life Stebbins had been court-martialed in June 2000 for the rape of a girl under 12.
Presumably, the Pentagon wanted his name removed to avoid controversy. So in the film, John Stebbins became John Grimes and was immortalized on the silver screen as an example of bravery and valor.
Pearl Harbor (2001) may not have been well received by critics, but the sweeping war romance still garnered the third-highest gross receipts of any romantic drama made since 1980. The Michael Bay–directed feature was granted full military support and was even allowed to film scenes at the real Pearl Harbor.
Jack Green, a member of the Naval Historical Center’s curator branch, was made available to the production and spent a full eight weeks on the set. He offered advice on Japanese naval formation and the finer points of navy drinking songs. He also directly influenced one of the film’s characters.
Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle was originally depicted in the script as “a boorish, oafish type of fellow.” Green was unhappy with this portrayal and asked that the character be rewritten to make the lieutenant more sympathetic to the audience. The producers listened, and the character was altered to better fit with Green’s vision.
It would be wrong to assume that the DoD only gets involved in films based on real-life military operations. In recent years, they have also become much more open to assisting films in the fantasy genre. After all, when the army is fighting a race of evil aliens, it often sidesteps the murky, unflattering aspects of conflict that may be depicted by more realistic war pictures.
Such was the case with Michael Bay’s behemoth Transformers franchise. The second movie, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, was called “one of the largest joint films made with the military” by Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Bishop, the film’s military liaison officer. Revenge of the Fallen holds the record for most number of military branches appearing in one film.
The armed forces’ extreme visibility in the movie drew some criticism. Some have claimed that the military’s support for a franchise essentially aimed at children is a conspicuous attempt to influence future recruits. In an interview with Variety, Captain Bryon McGarry, the deputy director of Air Force Public Affairs, confirmed the criticism to some extent with this statement: “Recruiting and deterrence are secondary goals, but they’re certainly there.”
7 GoldenEye And Tomorrow Never Dies
Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as the superspy James Bond was another high-octane piece of escapist silliness that was granted full military assistance. In GoldenEye’s script, the military took umbrage with the depiction of an incompetent American admiral who gets seduced and killed by the movie’s femme fatale, Xenia Onatopp.
The scene was hastily rewritten to change the admiral’s nationality from American to Canadian. The changing of a character that may reflect badly on military personnel may seem overly sensitive, but it was nothing compared to the reasons for tweaking the script of Bond’s next outing.
In the original script for Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond is set to illegally parachute into Vietnam. Before he does, a fictional CIA agent warns him of the possible ramifications of his actions by stating: “You know what will happen. It will be war. And maybe this time, maybe we’ll win.”
The Pentagon was embarrassed by the line. At the time, international relations with Vietnam had just been reestablished, and apparently, a line of dialogue in a campy spy film had the potential to incite an international incident. The dialogue was changed and did not appear in the finished film.
6Clear And Present Danger
Released in 1994, Clear and Present Danger tells the story of a clandestine war between Colombian drug traffickers and the US. Due to the film’s large scope, a number of military branches reviewed the script and requested major changes that affected the finished movie.
The navy was unhappy with a scene that had naval personnel brushing off civilian casualties after an air strike. The DoD also raised objections about the way in which the Colombian government was depicted. They were concerned that a negative portrayal could damage US-Latino relations.
Due to these concerns, a scene with the navy bombing a civilian target was altered, and all references to the Colombian government colluding with drug traffickers were removed. The army also requested that their soldiers always fight trained and heavily armed combatants.
All military departments connected to the film were also concerned about the portrayal of the US president. In the original script, the president orders covert operations in Colombia, which was prohibited by Congress. Perhaps the military’s unease was partially due to the close resemblance between events in the film and the Reagan administration’s illegal support of the contras in Central America during the 1980s.
Against Congressional decree, Reagan had secretly and illegally allocated funds to the contras to aid their fight against the left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua. A similar act occurred in Clear and Present Danger’s original script. Regardless of the reason, the scenes featuring the US president were altered so that the operation was deemed top secret but legal.
5The Right Stuff
The Right Stuff, a 1983 film that was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2013, followed the story of navy, marine, and air force pilots who took part in aeronautical research before America’s first manned trip into space. Based on the 1979 Tom Wolfe novel of the same name, The Right Stuff is an example of the military’s surprising candor about their reasons for getting involved in Hollywood.
The movie’s original script closely mirrored Tom Wolfe’s book. It featured colorful language that would have made the film more adult in tone. However, this predilection for vulgarity didn’t sit well with the US military.
The film’s producers received a letter complaining about the foul language. The military was worried that the vulgarity would guarantee the film an R rating and reduce the number of teenagers who could see it. As teenagers were the primary target for military recruiters, the Pentagon was aware that the film could drum up interest in military careers.
The Right Stuff’s producers bowed to the military’s request and removed much of the salty language from the film.
In the decades that followed World War II, the CIA funded a large number of cultural artifacts that were pro-democracy and somewhat anticommunist. These cultural artifacts included books, journals, and movies.
In the 1950s, the CIA obtained the film rights to George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, producing a film version that was released in 1956. Ignoring the deceased Orwell’s wishes, the film version deviated from the novel’s plot.
For example, the ending was completely different for the main character, Winston. In the movie, Winston defiantly shouts, “Down with Big Brother.” Then he is gunned down. But in the novel, the protagonist was completely defeated by the totalitarian state, ultimately realizing that he “loved Big Brother” after his failed attempt at rebellion.
Orwell’s estate seemed to be embarrassed by the CIA-funded film and had it removed from circulation after the distribution agreement expired. For years, the film appeared to be lost. Then in the early 2010s, it was made freely available on YouTube.
3The Quiet American
Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t the only classic novel to have its film adaptation manipulated by the CIA. For the 1958 movie version of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, CIA operative Edward Lansdale worked with Joseph Mankiewicz, the film’s director, in reversing the perceived anti-Americanism of the book.
Lansdale and Mankiewicz changed the story’s ending so that the communists were responsible for a city bombing and not a US-backed general as in the novel. Aiden Pyle, the titular quiet American, also had his profession changed from the arms dealer of the book to a toy manufacturer in the film.
Greene was horrified at the movie version of his novel, calling it a “propaganda film for America.” He took it as a personal insult and was quoted as saying: “One could almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and the author.”
2The Sum Of All Fears
Considering the amount of outside interference in the 2002 film The Sum of All Fears, it’s amazing that a coherent movie was made at all. The film was based on the 1991 Tom Clancy novel of the same name, which tells the story of radical East German separatists and a Palestinian terrorist cell that plan to blow up a football stadium.
Before work even began on the movie’s script, producer Mace Neufield began receiving complaints from the Council on American-Islamic Relations about the film’s likely use of Muslim terrorists. To avoid generating negative publicity, the Palestinian enemy in Clancy’s novel was changed to a neo-Nazi group.
After the movie was granted Pentagon assistance, the production was provided with an arsenal of weaponry. B-2 bombers, F-16 fighter jets, military helicopters, and an aircraft carrier with its crew of 5,000 soldiers were all made available for filming. But this expensive specialized equipment wasn’t provided without the military having a hand in how it was portrayed on-screen.
The CIA and military advisers on the movie objected to a scene with an aircraft carrier that was attacked and sunk by enemy combatants. The military was uncomfortable with the suggestion that an American vessel could be so easily destroyed. The scene was changed so that only the aircraft carrier’s flight operations were destroyed in the attack.
1Zero Dark Thirty
Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) told the story of the worldwide manhunt for Osama bin Laden. During the writing of the script, a strange symbiotic relationship developed between the film’s writer and director and members of the CIA’s counterterrorism unit.
In the immediate aftermath of bin Laden’s death, Zero Dark Thirty’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, began meeting with CIA officials to work on the script. Boal was even invited to a special awards ceremony that honored the soldiers involved in the raid that killed bin Laden, despite the fact that classified information was revealed during the ceremony’s speeches.
US Senator Dianne Feinstein criticized the movie’s implication that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT), such as waterboarding, provided vital information that led to bin Laden’s whereabouts. Feinstein referred to the film’s plot as a “false narrative.”
Considering how closely the CIA was involved in the writing process, it’s little wonder that Zero Dark Thirty’s plot matches the CIA’s official stance on EIT, a practice that the agency insists was instrumental in providing vital information in the hunt for bin Laden.
However, this conclusion was disputed by the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who decided that there was no evidence that detainees subjected to EIT provided useful information in the bin Laden manhunt. After Zero Dark Thirty’s script was completed, the CIA requested seven changes, one of which directly influenced the on-screen depiction of EIT.
Boal was asked to change a scene in which a detainee was threatened with a dog. The CIA claimed that it would never use dogs to intimidate prisoners. This wasn’t strictly true as the CIA had used dogs as part of their EIT in the past.
Pictures that surfaced during the Abu Ghraib scandal clearly showed military personnel, under orders from US intelligence officials, intimidating prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison with dogs. However, this detail didn’t make it into the finished film as Boal listened to the CIA and removed the dog scene from Zero Dark Thirty.