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A SECOND LOOK

Jane Fonda's antiwar years with the FTA

A documentary, long ignored, follows stars who took a political variety show to American troops in 1971.

February 22, 2009|Dennis Lim

A time capsule of the anti-Vietnam War movement, "FTA" is also a vivid flashback to a world-famous movie star's stint as a political radical. At the peak of her celebrity, which coincided with the dawning of her political consciousness, Jane Fonda abdicated her Hollywood throne and remade herself as the face of the anti-establishment.

With government agents and the news media watching her every move, she led a vaudeville troupe on a tour of U.S. military bases in 1971 -- a trip chronicled in this fascinating documentary, largely unseen since its brief, abortive release and finally available on DVD this week.

In the disc's only extra, a 20-minute interview, Fonda recounts how the project came about. She and Donald Sutherland, her costar in 1971's "Klute" (which won her an Oscar), were approached by Howard Levy, a doctor who had become an antiwar cause celebre for refusing to train Green Beret medics. He proposed that they put on a corrective to Bob Hope's gung-ho USO shows, giving voice not just to the growing peace movement but to antiwar sentiment within the ranks of the military.

The FTA troupe staged its first shows in the U.S., with Fonda and Sutherland (who had just played the irreverent Hawkeye in Robert Altman's "MASH") headlining a company that included Peter Boyle and Howard Hesseman. (The all-purpose acronym is short for "Free the Army" and a more profane variation.)

When it came time to embark on the two-week Pacific Rim tour, Fonda assembled a more politically correct lineup that stressed racial and gender parity -- equal numbers of black and white, and male and female, performers, including singer Holly Near and comedian Paul Mooney.

Fonda, Sutherland and company stopped off in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan (where they were initially refused entry). Denied permission to perform on U.S. bases, they set up shop in nearby coffeehouses and other venues, although military officials apparently tried to minimize attendance by publicizing incorrect show times.

All told, the troupe played 21 shows, which were attended by some 64,000 servicemen and women. Many of the male GIs, as Fonda ruefully concedes in the interview, must have been anticipating the Space Age sex kitten from "Barbarella" and not the righteous radical who took the stage in jeans, no makeup and a raised fist.

The show mixes protest songs with broad and bawdy skits, taking potshots at military chauvinism and top-brass privilege. But what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for with a raucous energy. Directed by Francine Parker (who died in 2007), the documentary alternates between the song-and-dance routines and behind-the-scenes footage of soldiers talking candidly to the troupe members about their frustration and anger at the ongoing war and the American presence in the region.

As fate would have it, "FTA" opened the same week in July 1972 that news broke of Fonda's trip to Hanoi, where she made radio broadcasts for the North Vietnamese regime and was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. Within a week, the distributor (youth-flick specialist American-International Pictures) had pulled the movie from theaters.

Fonda's career went into partial eclipse, and she remains to this day a favorite target of the right, but she recovered to win a second Oscar for the 1978 war-veteran drama "Coming Home." For years she quietly has distanced herself from her radical past, which might explain why "FTA," which she co-produced, has been out of circulation for more than three decades.

Its recent reemergence points to a change of heart and owes much to the efforts of filmmaker David Zeiger, who used footage from "FTA" in "Sir! No Sir!," a 2005 documentary about antiwar resistance within the military.

This week's DVD release was preceded by screenings at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York, where Fonda appeared as part of a fundraiser for Iraq Veterans Against the War.

The film also screens on the Sundance Channel this week.

Two other artifacts of Fonda's radical period have been issued on DVD in recent years.

"Steelyard Blues" (1973), a slapstick counterculture comedy that also costarred Sutherland, was released by Warner Home Video. And Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's scathing "Tout Va Bien" (1972), with Fonda as an American journalist caught up in a wildcat strike at a sausage factory in France, is available from the Criterion Collection.

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