I was born at the tail end of the Vietnam War era. By the time I was old enough to take notice of the world around me, the war was pretty much in the past. However, by the time I reached high school, My classmates and I were told tons about it in our history classes. If you were born around the same time I was then you know what it’s like to have ex-hippies as your teachers. One of the strange things for us 80’s teens was learning about the Vietnam-era protest efforts of Jane Fonda. “What, you mean the leg-warmer lady?” is what many of us were thinking. Fonda was pretty much just known to us for her workout videos that all our moms picked up at the local Blockbuster. Absent from the video store shelves, however, was our film today…the 1972 documentary FTA which disappeared from availability shortly after it’s initial release.
FTA was the name of a show that was performed near US army facilities in the Pacific rim in support of soldiers who were against the war. The show featured a number of actors and musicians, most notably Fonda and Donald Sutherland, who had just gained notoriety after appearing in MASH. The claim was that FTA stood for “Free The Army.” Sure it did, Jane. That “F” stood for “Free.” You just keep telling yourself that.
The film follows the company as they head to a number of different locations, including Hawaii, Okinawa and the Philippines. Much of the film is devoted to showing clips of the show itself, which Fonda describes as being “political vaudeville.” This consists primarily of comedy sketches and politically-charged songs. Much of the music is provided by Len Chandler, who famously covered the song “Green Green Rocky Road” which also makes an appearance in the Coen Brothers’ latest Inside Llewyn Davis. Occasionally the film takes a few moments to talk to US soldiers who have chosen to speak out regarding their objections to the war effort.
FTA was released by American International Pictures, the same folks that brought us the Frankie and Annette beach party movies. For some reason it was pulled from theaters shortly after its released (which coincided with Fonda’s notorious trip to Hanoi) and was not to be seen again until it was released on DVD just a few years ago. Of course, the implication is meant to be that the film was so controversial, so threatening to the powers that be, that AIP had no choice but pull it. Watching the film today, I have to believe that AIP realized they had a lousy film on their hands and did their best to save face.
Now, I’m not here to talk about the politics of the film…it was 41 years ago folks. What I’m interested in is does this work as a film, and in this case as a documentary. I have to say no. There is very little that explains what exactly we are seeing in this film. So we have this troupe of performers showing up at different places around the world and putting on a show. How was the show put together? What opposition did they face? What motivated them to do this in the first place? None of this is worthy of screen time for some reason. The film certainly has plenty of opportunities to go deeper but they slip right past the filmmakers. For example, toward the end of the film we see footage of an American G.I. who takes the stage and reads a list of demands which he and his like-minded friends plan on giving to their commanding officers. He reads each one with great emotion and then encourages his fellow soldiers to sign on their way out. And then, that’s it. Wait a minute!?! How many signed? What effect did it have? Was it ever even delivered and what consequences befell those who signed? None of these questions that the average journalist on a middle school newspaper would’ve come up with are tackled by these filmmakers. Instead we get footage of a glassy-eyed Donald Sutherland reading passages from Johnny Got His Gun.
I think the big problem we have here is made apparent in the opening credits of the film. I’m referring to the part where the “Produced by” credit includes the names Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. In other words, the subjects of the documentary made the documentary. That’s never a good formula, in my opinion. I mean think about it…in this day and age we call that sort of thing an “infomercial.” What’s happening on the screen is all very familiar to the people who made the film, but there is nothing to draw in the viewer or tell them why what they are seeing is significant.
FTA is pretty much only of interest because it is a film with a mysterious history. Having two notable celebrities in a film that pretty much vanished for 30+ years makes for a bit a curiosity, but that’s about it. With nothing to explain the motivations of these performers, or the results of their efforts, we’re left with a half-baked piece of documentary filmmaking.