Bob Hope and his band of renown aren't the only ones who can put on a good show for and about the military. Jane Fonda, Don Sutherland and an anti-military troupe known as the FTA ("Fuck--free the Army") recently traveled to a number of U.S. bases in the Pacific to show that even if war can be funny, it is no laughing matter.
The film by the same name, which has played for two weeks in Boston, follows the group as they island-hop all over an illustrated map, bouncing through satiric routines on the bungling authority that got us involved in Vietnam. Sutherland reports a battle with the Viet Cong as if it were a traditional football game ("They are the home team, you know"); four women members of the troupe do a song-and-dance about their liberation from service to the military men; folksinger Len Chandler leads the audience of servicemen and women in a handclapping rendition of "My Ass is Mine" or something with a similarly didactic title.
While all the skits in the show are of course very much "message" oriented, the lessons often fall on willing, if not welcome, ears. The routines and the film anticipate that a certain set of opinions will be held by the audience, that the young military people and the young movie-goers will share its anti-military, anti-Vietnam position. Emile de Antonio's "In the Year of the Pig" presented a case against the war that must be considered even by those who might favor combat; in FTA the case is closed, with the laughter more of a reiteration than a recognition.
For example, a group of servicemen, in one "off-stage" sequence, squint through the camera lights as they try to outdo each other in telling Ms. Fonda how fucked-up the service already is. One soldier gripes to the camera as he stands quite conveniently in front of a Coke sign, another in front of an advertisement for Patton. A reading of largely symbolic demands by some servicemen at one base literally becomes a part of the night's performance. Even so, the show seems to have been a real outlet of grievances for Army personnel; the film, however, is closed.
The two most interesting parts of the film comment on the staginess of the rest. In one sequence, a group of pro-war servicemen (I had begun to wonder just who was left to fight the war) heckle a performance, and, although they are soon removed by others in the audience, for a few minutes there is an actual dialogue--unrehearsed, unlike the virtual monologue of the rest of the show and the rhetoric of Fightin' Jane's familiar phrases. It is a moment when the tone and the punch-line aren't predetermined.
In another, obviously contrived phraseology provides a bit of harsh irony that says everything the FTA people might have wanted to say, but didn't. A few of the performers tour the museum at Hiroshima, looking at the photographs of the devastation to the people and the city as a taped American voice guides them. The voice has a removed, almost boastful tone of facts-and-figures, like the voice that accompanies one in the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument. Director Francine Parker chose to rush through the tour, eager to get back to the stage, but that brief sequence (unless the voice too was staged) said more about a disregard for life than any number of song-and-dance routines.
Like most concert films, FTA is largely a record of a traveling show that is expected to reach more people as a film. We see little more of the performers than the soldiers did; almost all the "off-stage" sequences are clearly planned. Unless a viewer is completely unaware of the traditional as well as recent disgruntlement in the armed forces, it informs us of little and convinces us of less. With a little less politics and a little more flair, this could have been a film of Bob Hope's Christmas tour. But, then again, you might not believe in Christmas.