The Red Scare Reaches the Red Carpet: Hollywood’s Infamous Pentagon Projects
By Cassidy Marshall
Cinema is BACK! Blockbuster hits of the past summer have clearly defined the desires of audiences across the world - and lined the pockets of the United States government. So-called ‘pentagon projects’ (media that has been funded in some way or another by the United States Department of Defense) have strategically snuck their way into the public’s good graces, further worsening the bad case of military-entertainment complex that Hollywood has been suffering from for decades. Many of your favourite Hollywood hits choose to be contractually bound to the Department of Defense, overseen by the lucrative ‘Entertainment Media Unit’ which is granted unparalleled control over film and media in the United States. It might seem like a dystopian nightmare of Machiavellian proportions that our military has an entire unit dedicated to manipulating media and entertainment, but at least it means we get guns in movies! (Surely this has had no effect on our present-day gun crisis.)
So, what exactly is a ‘military-entertainment complex’? In short, it is a system of manipulation where the government and movie studios enter into an agreement with one another that is mutually beneficial to them and staggeringly harmful to the public. If movie studios wish to use DoD resources of any kind (typically not available on the open market), they are required to be contractually supervised by the United States government. Once they do so, the government has a say in the entire process, effectively shaping the film to their liking, not the filmmakers’. This includes the insertion of ‘key talking points’ (such as recruitment or foreign policy) into the script, revising the plot or contents of a script to prevent anti-war sentiments from reaching the big screen, and even the placement of military recruitment ads within the film’s screenings or recruitment events being held at theaters where the movie is being shown (Sirota, 2022). Film studios that agree to give the government unwarranted access and control over their productions are showered in free or reduced-cost resources that are otherwise unavailable to film makers. Any projects that deny government access often do not get made.
They fund these projects without disclosure and often go to extreme lengths to conceal their influence in the entertainment industry.
For instance, in 1954, documentarians John Halas and Joy Batchelor created an animated film based on George Orwell’s 1945 fable Animal Farm. In case you slept through your English class in high school, here is a brief overview of Animal Farm: Set against the backdrop of a farm with anthropomorphic animals, the animals rebel against the farmer in the name of equality and peace. Their leader, a pig named Napoleon, betrays this rebellion and joins the side of the humans. The animals represent communism, Napoleon represents Joseph Stalin, and the farmer represents fascism. The point is, Animal Farm is a famously pro-communist story. This is important context to understand why the government did what they did to Halas and Batchelor’s’ 1954 animated version. After George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm, died in 1950, the Office of Policy Coordination (a CIA unit whose duties involved the use of culture to combat communism) approached his widow under the guise of being film executives and purchased the rights to a film adaptation of Animal Farm. This was done in secret and discovered four decades after the film’s release, by Tony Shaw, a Cold War historian reviewing archives of the film (Weikle, 2020). One of the more notable changes that the CIA made to the film’s plot was to alter the ending of the film; in the CIA version, the pigs of the farm (representing communists) are overthrown by the other animals on the farm. But they did not stop there - memos have been found regarding original script treatments where the film’s CIA investors found the character Snowball, a key communist character that defies Napoleon, to be too ‘intelligent, dynamic, and courageous’ (Leab, 2007). They demanded that Snowball be presented as a ‘fanatical intellectual whose plans, if carried through, would have led to disaster no less complete than under Napoleon” (Leab, 2007).
This sort of thing has been happening since the first World War and has led to the formation of what we know to be the military-entertainment complex. This complex not only damages our artistic expression but misrepresents and effectively rewrites history. By dampening their involvement in media, the government further conceals the harm that it causes. Any form of major media that exists in the United States is faced with a choice: grant the government control over whatever they want, or risk being buried altogether.
The government’s motivation for controlling our media as heavily as they do is probably exactly what you would expect from the United States military: it is all about recruitment. Much like a sorority at a southern university with a nationally-ranked football team, nothing is more important to the military than recruitment. As put by the Pentagon’s then-official ‘Hollywood liaison’ Phil Strub in 1994, ‘The main criteria we use [for approval of film projects] is…how could the proposed production benefit the military…could it help in recruiting? Is it in sync with present policy?’ (Sirota, 2022). They go to great lengths to ensure they move strategically so that you do not even know you are being recruited in the first place. In fact, the entire military-entertainment complex was born of the idea that the best way to recruit people is to pretend you are not recruiting people. Why else would you send out CIA agents in disguise to purchase film rights under false pretenses? Why else would you offer billions of dollars of equipment, locations, and unrestricted access to be made available to film studios? Why else would you create a complex to begin with? To hide behind it. To reach an unsuspecting audience. No one dreams of the realities of war - not until you plaster Tom Cruise’s face across it. In fact, when Top Gun was first released, recruitment spiked 400% in the U.S. Navy - prompting them to set up recruitment tables at participating theaters (Sirota, 2022). Documents from the Pentagon that were obtained and analyzed by journalist David Robb in his book Operation Hollywood were found to contain widespread statements targeted towards shaping children to become future military recruits (Sirota, 2022).
The indoctrination starts early and remains prevalent and targeted, resulting in a military who has no need for forced conscription; if all of your citizens view the military as desirable and heroic, why would anyone need to be forced into it? The higher the esteem granted to the military in the general public’s eye, the better the turnout on recruitment day. More blockbusters, more bodies. The military recruitment system is a well-oiled machine that has somehow, horrifyingly, found a way to make its citizens desire the idea of becoming cannon fodder. Uncle Sam is no longer a finger pointed from an archaic poster with a simple, upfront demand of ‘I WANT YOU!’, but a deliberate and formulated insertion of the United States military in the places you would least expect, or desire, for it to be.
Whenever you see a military ad plastered across the theatre’s screen prior to the newest action movie you are seated for, it’s no accident. Billions of dollars and countless man hours went into placing that ad before you. It was strategically created, planned, and placed where it is by decades of military involvement and at the behest of an all-powerful military complex. In the words of Napoleon the pig, all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.