Editor’s note: Army Times senior reporter Davis Winkie authored his master’s thesis in 2019 on the early years of the DoD’s Hollywood liaison program, as well as a number of blog posts and articles. The director of this film contacted Winkie in 2020 to ask about a Marine Corps Times story he penned about a John Wayne film that was never made. Winkie shared some public domain archival documents with him but wasn’t involved in this film’s production.
Movies often have warnings and mandatory disclosures during their previews — a film’s official rating from the Motion Picture Association, anti-piracy warnings and more.
A group of academics and film industry professionals want to add a new disclosure: whether a movie or show received production support from the Defense Department, as more than 2,500 productions have since the military established a Hollywood liaison office in the late 1940s.
The list is extensive, including both Top Gun films and a host of other blockbuster films.
It’s the subject of a new documentary, Theaters of War, directed and narrated by University of Georgia communication studies professor Roger Stahl.
The idea behind the DoD’s production support program is simple: Hollywood producers who want to make a movie or show portraying the military can get access to DoD gear, vehicles, personnel and more if they are willing to turn over a copy of their script for approval.
Sometimes filmmakers make edits to their scripts or films to receive Pentagon support, which can exponentially lower filming costs. And some films that can’t get approval never get made.
The documentary leans heavily on interviews with two avowedly anti-war journalists — Tom Secker and Matt Alford — who have obtained countless documents about the program over the years via the Freedom of Information Act, as well as other Hollywood figures like Oliver Stone.
Secker and Alford’s crowning discovery is a database tracking production assistance requests, allowing for unprecedented systemic understanding of the program.
Stahl describes a list of “showstoppers” that can keep a project from receiving military support, unless they’re handled with extreme care. These include friendly fire incidents, fragging of officers, American war crimes, military sexual assault, suicide and more.
All the interviewees agree that this system amounts to a silent propaganda push that lets the military influence the way it’s depicted on screen.
But is it really censorship or propaganda, and do Americans even care? Whether the Pentagon production support program amounts to censorship or propaganda depends on the beholder.
I described the program’s early years as soft censorship in my thesis. That was mostly because, in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, there weren’t private-sector options for filmmakers to obtain the equipment and vehicles they needed. While many think the military shouldn’t be forced to help unfavorable productions, the impact on that era’s war movies was real.
Thus, the military’s support decision was often life-or-death for a project, and not even John Wayne was immune to the Marine Corps denying cooperation on a proposed film in 1954.
“Giveaway Hill” never made it onto the silver screen because of the Corps’ offense with “the bloody carnage depicted in many areas of the script” and “the calling of fires on own troops by a Marine battalion commander,” among other issues.
Many cut out “objectionable” scenes to keep the Pentagon’s support flowing, effectively cleansing early Cold War-era war movies of darker topics, such as American war crimes, racism in the ranks and more.
But in the decades since, projects with big enough budgets have been able to spend their way out of that bind.
Theaters of War describes how one film, “Thirteen Days” from 2000, had to find fighters and air bases in the Philippines and borrow a destroyer from a museum to overcome the Pentagon’s limited willingness to support a movie about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Even if it’s not censorship — or propaganda — Stahl and Theaters of War just want you to decide for yourself. And that’s a start.
Theaters of War is available for streaming on Vimeo for $4.99.
Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.