F.T.A. (1972)

5 Jan

Before she hawked cosmetics, became a workout queen or married a billionaire media mogul, Jane Fonda was ‘Hanoi Jane’, a Hollywood radical whose heated polemics against the Vietnam war made her a bête noire of the right and propelled her to the upper echelons of Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies’ list, joining Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Gregory Peck and Bill Cosby. She was branded a traitor for visiting Hanoi as the conflict’s endgame was unfolding, resulting in ‘F.T.A.’ being withdrawn from theatres after just a week.

Keen to escape the dynastic shadow of their famous name, the Fonda siblings actively engaged with the burgeoning counterculture and developed a social conscience which informed the work they did. Such flagrant partisanship was anathema to their venerable father, a small-l liberal who condemned his errant progeny for their extremism. The more they became associated with their activism, the more it was conflated with their onscreen personae.

‘F.T.A.’ – standing for Free the Army, or Fuck the Army – is probably the clearest expression of this synthesis. The film follows Fonda, Donald Sutherland et al. on a tour of military bases on the Pacific Rim, performing ‘political vaudeville’ for the dejected GIs fighting a protracted and increasingly unpopular war – sound familiar? Satirical skits and politically charged balladry from the likes of folk singer Len Chandler are interspersed with testimony from the ‘grunts’.

Depending on your political leanings, you’ll either find ‘F.T.A.’ an inspirational reminder of a time when dissidence was deemed the only moral recourse, or an infuriating example of privileged dilettantes jumping on the bandwagon and feigning solidarity with small sections of the military for career gain. Nevertheless, ‘F.T.A.’ is a valuable social document, capturing the disenchantment of those soldiers who believed the ‘red menace’ to be a flimsy pretext for an imperialist intervention, and that in their desire to escape poverty and/or serve their country, they had been exploited.

Much of the content of the show relates to the daily lives of the troops, which no doubt articulated their frustrations but obviously mitigates its impact and appeal to those on the outside looking in. Granted, these shows were never intended for a mass audience, but it does feel like listening to a string on in-jokes one isn’t privy to. Some of the most affecting moments in ‘F.T.A.’ are those involving the soldiers themselves, ranging from militant inner city blacks who feel a kinship with the Vietnamese to small-town Southern boys whose eyes have been opened by the grisly realities of war. The film would have been more coherent if it had focused on these interviews, rather than using them as a bridging device for the travelogue segments.

The trip to the US base in Okinawa provides a wider perspective for the political landscape in South-East Asia. Much like Vietnam, the strategically important island is a pawn in a wider struggle, passing from one sphere of influence to the next. The scenes in the Philippines are a powerful allegory for US economic imperialism, capturing slum dwellings in the shadow of a Coca-Cola hoarding and a totemic giant Coke bottle planted by the roadside. ‘F.T.A.’ is at its best when it is documenting the interaction between the bases and the life surrounding them.

Sutherland is a brooding, ornery presence, highlighting what a perfect fit he was for Hawkeye Pierce in ‘MASH’ (1970). Reciting passages from Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ (1939) in his sonorous, lyrical timbre, Sutherland brings a sombre air to the merriment, lending gravitas to the revelry. One of the more paradoxical moments occurs when a group of hecklers interrupts Sutherland – it struck me as bizarre and left a sour taste that rather than engage these dissenting voices, they are swiftly ejected for presenting an opposing viewpoint.

‘F.T.A.’ has much to say about the double standards of the military hierarchy and how the prejudices and iniquities of wider society are writ large on the chain of command. There are tales of racist invective being used with impunity, female soldiers being told that they are there solely to provide entertainment for their male counterparts and officers living in conspicuous opulence. This polarity is a microcosm for the upheavals occurring at home, where opposition to the war dovetailed into class, racial and generational tension.

Whatever the intentions of those involved, the F.T.A. tour serves to remind us how timid and cosseted today’s young entertainers are, shying away from using their influence to stand up to injustice. After all, dissent is a bad career move.

Hanoi Jane in full revolutionary mode. Don't worry, she's a born-again Christian now.

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