American Military Movies Cooperation: Pentagon-Hollywood Romance

The Birth of a Nation militaryLillian Gish and her Ku Klux Klan saviors in The Birth of a Nation

From 'The Birth of a Nation' to 'Iron Man': The love affair between Hollywood and the Pentagon

In's excellent March 2008 article “The Golden Age of the Military-Entertainment Complex: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Pentagon-Style,” journalist and author Nick Turse (The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives) traces the mutually rewarding – and very close – ties between the American film industry and the American military complex throughout the decades. And there goes Hollywood's reputation as a liberal enclave filled with unpatriotic, treacherous, anti-flagwaving pacifists.

As author and professor Tom Engelhardt explains in his introduction to Turse's article, “Hollywood and the Pentagon have been in an intricate dance of support and cross-promotion for almost a century, from a time when the Department of Defense was still quaintly – if more accurately – known as the War Department.”

In fact, when it comes to playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the military standing in for Bacon,” what's difficult isn't finding less than six degrees of separation between an actor or director or movie and the U.S. military – but finding any degree of separation at all. Using Kevin Bacon himself as the first example: Bacon, Turse tells us, got his first acting gig in a military recruitment film.

Cavalry troops for D.W. Griffith's 'The Birth of a Nation' – or rather, for Griffith's 'America'

The connection between American movies and the American military begins at least as early as 1915, “when, in response to a request for assistance, U.S. Secretary of War John Weeks [sic] ordered the army to provide every reasonable courtesy to D.W. Griffith's pro-Ku Klux Klan epic Birth of a Nation. The Army came through with more than 1,000 cavalry troops and a military band.”

Update: As one Alt Film Guide reader has pointed out to us, John W. Weeks, a former representative and later senator from Massachusetts, became U.S. Secretary of War only in the early '20s. In other words, Weeks couldn't have ordered any cavalry troops or military bands to take part in D.W. Griffith's 1915 Civil War epic.

So, is there any actual connection between The Birth of a Nation and the U.S. military? According to Lawrence H. Suid's Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film, the answer is definitely Yes. Griffith “turned to the Army for help while filming The Birth of a Nation in 1915,” Suid affirms, “when he requested technical advice from West Point engineers in preparing his Civil War battle sequences.”

Nick Turse likely used Suid's book as his source, but got The Birth of a Nation mixed up with Griffith's 1924 Revolutionary War drama America, which did have more than 1,000 cavalry troops and a military band used in its war sequences – courtesy of none other than Secretary of War John W. Weeks. Reportedly, the cavalry units loaned to Griffith's historical epic “constituted the largest number ever assembled outside actual war maneuvers.”

Less than six degrees separating the U.S. military from Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, George Takei

Back to Nick Turse: In his article, the military-The Birth of Nation connection is expanded to encompass other movies, as Griffith's blockbuster “featured George Beranger, who would go on to star [sic] with Humphrey Bogart and Glen Cavender in San Quentin (1937) – in which a former Army officer is hired to impose military discipline on the infamous prison. Cavender had also appeared alongside actor/director Syd Chaplin, Charlie's brother, in A Submarine Pirate (1915), for which the Navy provided a submarine, a gunboat, and the use of the San Diego Navy Yard. (The film was even approved to be shown in Navy recruiting stations.)” [Note: George Beranger and Glen Cavender have bit roles in the Lloyd Bacon-directed San Quentin, which stars Bogart, Pat O'Brien, and Ann Sheridan.]

Going beyond The Birth of a Nation, Nick Turse then proceeds to detail numerous degrees of closeness between the Pentagon and Hollywood, finding links between the likes of, among others, William Holden, Gary Cooper, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Star Trek's George Takei (!), and, gasp, John Wayne and his 1968 pro-Vietnam War drama The Green Berets, which was “almost universally panned […]. One New York Times film reviewer went so far as to call it 'so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail … vile and insane.'”

Lillian Gish in The Birth of a Nation photo: David W. Griffith Corp / Epoch Producing Co.

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