All the buzz in the entertainment/tech world about the blockbuster new video game Homefront brings back memories of the 1984 film Red Dawn -- and rightly so. The creator of Homefront is none other than John Milius, the writer/director of the 1984 film that later became the deliberate namesake of the most famous operation in today's Iraq War. But it should also bring back memories of the larger militarist themes that continue to define our entertainment culture -- themes that ultimately bring up the direct but little-examined connections between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry. It is the legacy of those connections, first intensified in the 1980s, that continue to embed militarism in seemingly non-political products like video games and action movies.
As I show in my new book Back to Our Future, much of the video game industry was subsidized by the military and military contractors, and many of the earliest games were consequently martial in thrust. Think: Atari Combat and Missile Command, which then grew into a larger video game world that, as one Konami executive said in 1988, "takes anything remotely in the news and makes it a game." You could see that in Nintendo's Iran-Contra era game Contra just as you can see it in today's hits like Call of Duty. And in almost each of these games, the ideology of militarism (i.e. military action solving all problems) is reiterated and reinforced.
Same thing when it comes to the Pentagon-Hollywood relationship since the 1980s -- only in that case, we're now seeing military officials quite literally line-editing scripts to make them more pro-military.
Remember, the military has been working with filmmakers since 1927, when it helped produce Wings, the winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Picture. Pentagon involvement varied through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, but it always had kids in its sights. In the 1950s, for example, the military worked with Lassie on shows that highlighted new military technology and produced "Mouse Reels" for The Mickey Mouse Club, one of which showed kids touring the first nuclear submarine. As investigative journalist David Robb discovered, a Pentagon memo noted at the time that child-focused media "is an excellent opportunity to introduce a whole new generation to the nuclear Navy."
The 1970s saw far fewer Pentagon-backed war films for a public that was fatigued from Vietnam and its aftermath on the evening news. But according to The Hollywood Reporter, as Reaganite militarism began ascending, the 1980s saw "a steady growth in the demand for access to military facilities and in the number of films, TV shows and home videos made about the military."
For that access, the military began exacting a price. The Pentagon's focus on juveniles created the heavy hand it was beginning to use to shape popular culture in the 1980s. Increasingly, for filmmakers to gain access to even the most basic military scenery, Pentagon gatekeepers began requiring major plot and dialogue changes so as to guarantee that the military was favorably portrayed. In a Variety story from 1994, the Pentagon's official Hollywood liaison, Phil Strub, put it bluntly: "The main criteria we use [for approval] is... how could the proposed production benefit the military... could it help in recruiting [and] is it in sync with present policy?"
According to Strub, Pentagon-Hollywood collusion hit "a milestone" with 1986's Top Gun, a triumphalist teen recruitment ad about the navy's "best of the best," who, of course, never even think to ask the most basic of the basic questions. The movie's glaringly incurious characters and story were no accident. The script was shaped by Pentagon brass in exchange for full access to all sorts of hardware -- the access itself a priceless taxpayer subsidy. According to Maclean's, Paramount Pictures paid just "$1.1 million for the use of warplanes and an aircraft carrier," far less than it would have cost the studio had it been compelled to finance the eye candy itself.
As if that carrot-stick dynamic weren't coercive enough to aspiring filmmakers, the Pentagon in the 1980s expanded the definition of "cooperation" to include collaboration on screenplays as scripts were being initially drafted. "It saves [writers] time from writing stupid stuff," said one official in explaining the new process.
Such a cavalier attitude coupled with the box-office success of the Pentagon-approved Top Gun convinced studios in the 1980s that agreeing to military demands and, hence, making ever more militaristic films was a guaranteed formula for success. Consequently, between the release of Top Gun and the beginning of the Gulf War, the Pentagon reported that the number of pictures made with its official assistance (and approval) quadrupled, and a large portion of these action-adventure productions (quickly synergized into video games, action figures, etc.) were for teenagers.
The short-term impact of the military-entertainment complex was enlistment surges correlating to specific 80s box-office hits. As just one (albeit huge) example, recruitment spiked 400 percent when Top Gun was released, leading the navy to set up recruitment tables at theaters upon realizing the movie's effect. Medium term, of course, is the Red Dawn effect. Contemporary missions are now named after the film (and various other militarist fantasies from the 80s), tapping into the hardwired psyches of the "Wolverines who have grown up and gone to Iraq," as Milius recently called the 80s generation.
Then there are the standards that were set for the long haul. Today, the Pentagon offers Hollywood just as much enticement for militarism, and just as much punishment against antimilitarism, as ever. On top of the 80s militarism that is now endlessly recycled in the cable rerun-o-sphere, it's a safe bet that whichever Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay blockbuster is being fawned over by teen audiences is at least partially underwritten by the Pentagon, and as a condition of that support, these blockbusters typically agree to deliberately reiterate the morality of the military and war.
By contrast, as the director of The Hunt for Red October recounted, this new reality prompted studios in the 80s to start telling screenwriters and directors to "get the cooperation of the [military], or forget about making the picture."
This helps explain why for every one decidedly anti-war movie that's made, we see scores of movies made that glorify militarism. Since the 1980s, taxpayer dollars have been subsidizing militarist movies on the basis of their militarist content; at the same time those subsidies are withheld from anti-militarist movies on the basis of their anti-militarist content. That has created a movie market dynamic that then preferences the production of militarist films -- militarist films which have an obvious and ongoing psyche-shaping effect on our larger attitudes about militarist ideology.
NOTE: My new book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now is out this week. This post draws on the research I did for this book about the deep connections between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry -- connections that intensified in the 1980s and still shape our culture today.