Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Highway to the Danger Zone

Today, I would like to turn your attention back some 70 years ago.  The Nazi war machine was in full swing.  Pearl Harbor had dragged the United States kicking and screaming into the greatest armed conflict the world to this day has ever known.  In addition to the bombs, bullets and bayonets aimed at soldiers worldwide, there was a more insidious war at hand.  Spies and propaganda drifted through every theater and homeland of the combatants.  The world was frightened by shadows, and with good reason. The war of the spook had begun.

Against this backdrop, let me introduce you to the United States Army’s Signal Corps.  Created in 1860, the Signal Corps was responsible for one of the most important weapons in the army’s arsenal: communications.  In the beginning, this was largely about codes, messengers, supply lines and other standard battlefield issues.  As time wore on and communication methods and technology grew, the Signal Corps grew with it.  By the time World War II came, the Signal Corps was responsible for phone service, radio transmissions, codes & encryption devices, and the newly implemented radar technology.  They were also responsible for maintaining the moral and strategic integrity of the content within internal communications.  This meant they oversaw G.I. radio broadcasts, magazines, newspapers and everything else that was disseminated to the troops in the field including personal mail.  This was all known and part of being a soldier.  You just accepted that the Signal Corps was reading your mail in the hopes that none of your fellow soldiers were leaking information to the enemy that could get you killed.

What wasn’t as widely known was the extent to which the Signal Corps was responsible for disseminating propaganda within the United States itself.  A group of very gifted artists, filmmakers and writers were conscripted to push the army’s agenda, and push they did.  This group included a few men you might have heard of: Frank Capra, who directed the film, It's a Wonderful Life; Darryl Zanuck, who served as head of Twentieth Century Fox; Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss; and Stanley Lieber, better known as Stan Lee of Marvel Comics fame were all part of the Signal Corps. The 834th Signal Service Photographic Detachment was headquartered in Astoria, N.Y. at the Signal Corps Photographic Center and their job was to secure the hearts and minds of the citizens at home.  Judging by history, I’d say they succeeded.  In fact, two Academy Awards won by Signaleers are at the Signal Corps Museum and a third is in Washington, D.C.  Not bad, fellas.

Now, let us springboard from World War II and into the thick of the Reagan-era Cold War.  The year was 1986 and the movie that was crushing all box office competition was a little film that showcased US military might with a flashy Tom Cruise smirk and a driving Kenny Loggins beat.  Top Gun soared into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, especially impressionable young boys who waltzed into the theater dreaming of Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” and waltzed out wanting to get a missile lock on a Russian Mig.  The United States Navy went all out on this big-budget recruiting tool.  They granted director Tony Scott unprecedented access to military hardware.  They spent in 1980s dollars an average of $7,800 per hour on jet fuel alone, not to mention the loaning of the entire F-51 Screaming Eagles squadron of F-14s to a film crew for some shots.  All of this was done, like Red Dawn in 1984 to drive recruitment in an arms race that was quickly coming to a head.  A year after Top Gun was released, the U.S. military saw an increase of 20,000 uniformed personnel compared to the year before. Mission accomplished.

This might have been the first big-budget military movie of Tony Scott’s career, but it would not be the last.  With Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, Spy Game, Man on Fire, etc., Tony became the go-to director in Hollywood for a big-budget, military thriller.  In between those pictures, there were projects that got some press, but were ultimately shelved, including a supposed remake of The Warriors Tony was set to direct back in 2009.  For this remake, Tony wanted to move the setting to Los Angeles and drop the corny gang names of the original to create a more authentic film.  In an interview with MTV, Scott revealed that he had been speaking with local LA gangs, and was specifically naming gangs in the film the “Crips, Bloods, The 18th Street Gang [and] The Vietnamese.”  Scott went on to say that many of the gang members he’d interviewed had seen the original and were excited about the possibility of getting involved with the remake.

As we know now, there will be no remake.  Tony Scott has apparently committed suicide by jumping from a bridge in a bizarre end to his career.  While there is no hard evidence that Scott was a member of any propaganda unit of the US military like the Signal Corps back in the 40s, it doesn’t take Oliver Stone to link the man to military intelligence in some way.  As to why he jumped off that bridge, who can say?  I sincerely doubt we will ever know, and this will probably just float into history like Natalie Wood’s body.

It saddens me, though.  Propagandist or not, I liked many of Scott’s movies.  He had a kinetic visual style perfect for his chosen line of work.  He didn’t bore his audience with unnecessary dialogue, nor did he fail to tell a story worth telling.  Some of his work is better than others, but that usually goes back to the script at hand.  He was a capable director, and by all accounts an upbeat, positive man.  I don’t know why he chose to end his life, but I for one will not forget him.  I can only hope those charged with the investigation of his death feel the same way.

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