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Pentagon Gets Into Act : Films Give Image Boost to Military

September 04, 1986|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

The Air Force is loaded with top-secret programs, but one that has occupied Hollywood's fantasies involves training monkeys to pilot jets on high-risk military missions.

"It is a totally unrealistic story," one earnest Air Force officer protested recently.

But not if you believe a film entitled "Project X"--not yet released--which features as the dashing hero of the skies a chimp who impresses Air Force officers as "highly intelligent."

Not surprisingly, the real-life Air Force concluded that "Project X" failed to serve the clean-cut, spit-and-polish image that it works so hard to cultivate. As a result, military officials rejected a request by producers at 20th Century Fox for technical assistance in making the film.

Pentagon Offended

Plenty of Hollywood's ideas offend the Pentagon: Everything from a general caught with his pants down to the notion of accidental nuclear war seems to rankle the military.

But films that give the Pentagon nothing but grief seem to be on the decline these days, for film and television producers are telling stories of a heroic and competent military. Their message is gaining wide public acceptance in a growing number of films.

"Top Gun," a flashy, high-tech story about young Navy fighter pilots, has become this summer's top-grossing film, thanks to its combination of aerial photography, rock music and sex idol stars.

Films Are Blockbusters

"The military films today are blockbusters, whereas in the past, even in the 1950s, the genre wasn't nearly as popular," said Richard P. Hallion, an Air Force historian who has studied the military in popular culture. "A lot of the older films were well done, but they didn't have the overwhelming public acceptance that they do today."

"Top Gun" hit such a responsive chord with audiences that some theater owners asked the Navy to set up recruitment desks right outside the theater to sign up young men ready for "Top Gun"-style action.

"We are getting what we want out of it, which are recruits," said Lt. Sandy Stairs, an officer in the Navy's public affairs office in Los Angeles who helped to guide production of "Top Gun."

Effect on Costs

Much of what the American public knows about military life is learned at the movies, so Hollywood is critically important to the military's image. But the Pentagon has clout in Hollywood as well.

Without the support of the military and its vast inventory of weapons that it rents as props, even a major film maker would face inordinately high production costs. A $100-million budget for a film is considered enormous by Hollywood standards--but it wouldn't buy the Pentagon three fighter jets.

So, technical assistance by the military can mean the life or death of some films, but cooperation also means that the Pentagon is allowed to review the script and negotiate changes in content. If the Pentagon does not like the script, it refuses to cooperate.

"We have no need to happily participate in our own defamation," said Cmdr. David L. Dillon, director of the Navy office in Los Angeles. "The hell with that."

Indeed, the armed services can afford to be choosey these days. Military films are among the hottest things going in Hollywood right now, and the public can expect plenty more of them in the years ahead.

"There has been an enormous increase in the number of scripts we have seen in the last 12 months," said Master Sgt. Chuck Davis, the Air Force's liaison for the entertainment industry. "We've seen more than 100 scripts in the last 12 months."

And that's not to mention the Army and Marines, who have a large number of their own projects with film makers. The only service that has not seen a dramatic increase in business is the Coast Guard.

'Largely Misunderstood'

"I had a lady call me the other day and say there was a sack of concrete on the 405 (freeway), and she wanted us to move it," said Cmdr. John R. McElwain, the Coast Guard's Hollywood liaison in Los Angeles. "We are largely misunderstood."

The Navy, meanwhile, is riding high on its successes, such as "Top Gun" and "Officer and a Gentleman."

"We have beaucoup scripts in here" for review, Stairs said. "I mean just oodles of scripts to do aircraft carrier pictures, submarine pictures, SEAL (elite troops) pictures. The only thing we don't have is a surface ship picture."

Navy Secretary John Lehman felt the "Top Gun" project was so important that he personally visited Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles to review film clips during its production and dined with the executive staff of Paramount. "Top Gun" producers became so chummy with Lehman that they gave him "a special thanks" in the film's credits.

The Lehman visit was symbolic of a new social and political climate, in which the often strange worlds of Hollywood and the Pentagon have joined forces to bring popular stories of patriotism to a public seemingly eager to renew its faith in America's military. Memories of the Vietnam War are fading and, with them, the public's war-weariness and distrust of the military.

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