In retrospect, it’s clear why America’s imperial project in Vietnam failed back in the ‘60s: you can’t win a war when your army doesn’t want to fight. In desperate need of soldiers to send into battle, instituting the draft seemed like the only option for the US military, when in actuality this choice was more like their great undoing.
Rounding up thousands of men and forcing them to ship out under fear of arrest instead of their own ideological volition created a fractious fighting force at odds with itself, unenthusiastic to resentful to outright insubordinate. A lot of the ordinary guys who weren’t already enlisting against their will soon joined the internal counter-cause after realizing they had been made pawns in a conflict fought over obscure financial imperatives, rather than any pretense of justice. To die face down in a rice paddy defending capitalism just didn’t have the noble luster of upholding all that was right against the dastardly Nazis; Americans understood Vietnam as the country’s first “bad war”, in which the presumed protagonists in the west came to suspect they might be the villains.
The FTA Show took shape as the inevitable consequence of this unrest at home and abroad. Led by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland with backing from activist folk musicians such as Len Chandler, the anti-USO variety extravaganza channeled the moment’s bitterness and frustration into rollickingly subversive protest-tainment. (The title tune clarifies the four-letter profanity directed at the army.) A little-screened 1972 documentary under the truncated title of FTA followed their tour of active bases from Hawaii to the Philippines to Japan, each performance packed to the rafters with disillusioned GIs eager to hear an alternative to the rah-rah party line of their “jailers”, as Fonda joked. The film spent barely a week in theaters before quietly vanishing from the schedule; director Francine Parker claimed that the distributor, American International Pictures, backed down upon receiving a call directly from the White House. But now, a restoration completed in 2009 has at last received a public release, sounding out a once-elusive call of defiance for all to hear.
The ragtag band of hippies, radicals and merry pranksters sought to turn the “political vaudeville” of Bob Hope on its head with satirical songs and skits undercutting the chain of command. Draftees often loathed their order-barking commanding officers, a contempt easily translated into MAD Magazine-styled punch lines. In one comic interstitial, a general asks one of his troops for a quarter, who offers it with an informal “Sure!” The senior-ranking serviceman chews out his underling for the familiarity and asks for the quarter again, this time receiving a hearty “No, sir!” In this instance as in many others, the spirit of disobedience compensates for the rather mild humor, not quite as uproarious as Laugh-In yet 10 times as dangerous. A musical number like Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Be in Indochina! is more bracing than anything else, hollering what many considered unspeakable from the top of the singer’s lungs.
Extensive interview segments bolster the boldfaced ideology with testimony from the men on the ground, and on both sides of the conflict. Among the most controversial elements was an introductory title card stating that the film had been produced in cooperation with not just GIs, but also their “friends” whose “lands they presently occupy”. The camera crew had no trouble finding Americans and Japanese united in a wish for the armed forces to vacate Okinawa and leave the island be, or Filipino demonstrators articulating a shared desire with the GIs to get them home. The military seems to alienate its people along every personal line, whether it be race (black soldiers discuss the discrimination they face among their own ranks, and the hypocrisy of fighting for a country that couldn’t care less about them), gender (Fonda’s song I’m Tired of Bastards Fuckin’ Over Me calls out sexism and harassment), or class (volunteers from dirt-poor communities realize that they’re risking their lives to make rich men richer).
The scant straight-faced moments – Sutherland reading an excerpt from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Okinawan musicians somberly singing in their native tongue – emphasize that the rabble-rousing show aspired to more than simple provocation. The opposition came from a place of compassion, a stance not of hatred for the soldiers themselves, but for the establishment powers-that-be forcing them to act against their own interest. The film makes sense of a dissonance that compelled conservatives at the time to wonder why “Hanoi Jane” wouldn’t just leave America, if she hated it so much. With 20/20 hindsight, we can see that it was specifically because she and her comrades loved the country that they devoted their energies and risked their reputations to better it, their criticisms the ultimate act of patriotism.
FTA is available in virtual cinemas in the US on 5 March with a UK date to be announced