U.S. Military Helps Create Hollywood Films on War and Warriors

October 6, 2006 at 2:10 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, a role for the U.S. military in Hollywood productions. NewsHour correspondent Saul Gonzalez of KCET-Los Angeles has our story.

ACTOR: Hit the deck! How are you, McFarmer?

ACTOR: I got hit.

SAUL GONZALEZ, NewsHour Correspondent: From the days of John Wayne storming ashore in the movie “Sands of Iwo Jima” to today’s special effects filled-blockbusters, it’s no secret that Hollywood has long loved telling stories about war and warriors.

But what’s not as well-known is the role the real-life American military often plays in helping to create and craft its depiction in films and television shows. The Pentagon’s partnership with Hollywood starts at this West Los Angeles office tower, where every branch of the military keeps a liaison office to the entertainment industry.

So are these examples of all the films that you’ve worked with?

ROBERT ANDERSON, Navy Office of Information-West: These are some of the films we’ve worked with.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Robert Anderson, a retired naval commander, has long been the Navy’s top man in Hollywood. Like his counterparts in other branches of the Armed Forces, Anderson’s mission is to be a kind of talent agent for his service, making sure the Navy gets exposure and a chance to polish its public image.

ROBERT ANDERSON: Our mission here is to get the Navy onto the big screen and the little screen every chance we get, with every production that wants to use us. I’ll be blatant about it: We’re trying to get the Navy out there.

SAUL GONZALEZ: And what do Hollywood studios want in return for giving the military screen time?

KATHY CANHAM ROSS, Army Public Affairs Office: Usually, it’s equipment. Usually, they’re looking for toys.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Kathy Canham Ross directs the Army’s public affairs office in Los Angeles. She says, when it comes to getting access to the latest in military hardware, no Hollywood prop house compares to the Pentagon.

KATHY CANHAM ROSS: For them, we’re a provider. We’re a supplier, like everybody else. And Hollywood, they want the real thing. If they can get the real thing, they want the real thing.

SAUL GONZALEZ: And cooperation doesn’t end with hardware. Hollywood often needs active-duty military personnel for technical consultation and even to do on-screen stunts. That was the case in the filming of “Blackhawk Down.” That production, shot on location in Morocco, used over a 100 U.S. Army personnel, including elite rangers. These real soldiers did these rappelling scenes and other on-screen combat sequences.

Of course, the military’s cooperation with Hollywood does raise some serous questions and concerns. Namely, is there a point where Uncle Sam’s help on a film or television project turns show business into government propaganda?

DAVID ROBB, Author, “Operation Hollywood”: The problem comes in with, who has the creative control over the product? Is it the filmmaker or is it the military?

Military censorship

SAUL GONZALEZ: Entertainment industry journalist David L. Robb is the author of "Operation Hollywood," a book that critically examines the relationship between the Department of Defense and the film and television industry. He's most concerned about the military's policy of script review and its power to demand changes in characters and plot points in return for cooperation.

DAVID ROBB: If you want the military's assistance, you have to give them five copies of your script. They review the script. They make changes to the script to make it conform to the kind of film that they want to see. Most Americans have no idea that the content of the films and TV shows that they're watching are being influenced by military censors, that the military or the government is telling filmmakers what to say and what not to say.

SAUL GONZALEZ: The Navy's Robert Anderson, who reviews 30 to 50 feature scripts a year, acknowledges his office's production clout.

ROBERT ANDERSON: If you want full cooperation from the Navy, we have a considerable amount of power, because it's our ships, it's our cooperation.

SAUL GONZALEZ: It's your stuff.

ROBERT ANDERSON: And until the script is in a form that we can approve, then the production doesn't go forward until that.

SAUL GONZALEZ: In the film "Windtalkers," set during World War II, the military got filmmakers to cut a scene depicting American Marines taking gold teeth from the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers.

KEVIN CONWAY, "Gen. Curtis LeMay," "Thirteen Days": All you got to do is say go. My boys will get those red bastards.

SAUL GONZALEZ: In the movie "Thirteen Days," about the Cuban missile crisis, the Pentagon had concerns about the portrayal of General Curtis LeMay, a real historical figure. Although archives indicate he wanted to bomb Cuba, the military wanted his character to be toned down and made less warlike.

KEVIN CONWAY: And return stability to the strategic situation.

DAVID ROBB: The military did not want to see that in a movie. They do not want to see the military being portrayed as dangerous to world peace.

SAUL GONZALEZ: However, the makers of "Thirteen Days" declined to make changes and went ahead without military support. But Robb says, on some projects, Department of Defense assistance is so important, film and TV producers can't say no to the military.

DAVID ROBB: More often than not, they cave in, by far because the cost-saving can be so great. And sometimes studios will tell the producers, "If you don't get military assistance, we won't green light this project."

SAUL GONZALEZ: The military people who work with Hollywood reject charges that they're censors. They say they're only trying to get film and television to show the people, duties and values of the Armed Forces accurately.

KATHY CANHAM ROSS: We want to see people coming out of it and going, "I never knew that about the Army before. I never knew they did that."

ROBERT ANDERSON: I've had scripts where a four-star admiral is actually in charge of a drug ring, you know, drug smuggling ring. That's not going to happen. Nobody is going to make four stars in the military and be engaged in criminal activity like that.

SAUL GONZALEZ: But would you have an admiral who helps to cover up a war crime? That's in the realm of possibility.

ROBERT ANDERSON: That could happen. Certainly, that could happen.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Would you support that?

ROBERT ANDERSON: Again, it depends on how the system plays out. If, in the end, the guy's held accountable for that, absolutely we'd support it, absolutely. But if it's like, you know, the guy -- he's a fictional character, and he thumbs his nose at the world and the Navy, and says, "Ha ha, I did this and I got away with it," we probably wouldn't support that.

Recruitment potential

SAUL GONZALEZ: Supporters and critics of the Pentagon's work in Hollywood do agree on one thing: It's how being seen on TV shows and feature films can be a powerful and cost-effective way for the military to reach potential recruits.

TOM CRUISE, Actor: I feel the need, the need for speed.

SAUL GONZALEZ: That's especially true, if it's a cool and sexy portrayal of the military, like 1986's "Top Gun."

DAVID ROBB: Recruiting is the number-one reason the military does this. They want to show positive images so that young people will join up.

KATHY CANHAM ROSS: They did a study several years ago. It was called the Youth Attitude Tracking Survey. They did it twice, and both times they found that young men of recruiting age cited movies and television as the primary source of their impressions about the military.

So it's very important. As I say, it's an opposition for them to see what the possibilities are and to see what being a soldier would be like.

SAUL GONZALEZ: America's current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are starting to get their Hollywood treatment. They've inspired plots for television shows and, on the big screen, at least two films portraying the Iraq war are in development.