Archival Spaces 236
F.T.A. (1971, Francine Parker) Restored
Uploaded 22 February 2020
On Saturday February 15, 2020, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association sponsored a series of restoration screenings, including the seldom-seen anti-Viet Nam War documentary, F.T.A. (1972), screened at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre. The film was introduced by Jane Fonda and after the show, Jane, Holly Near, Len Chandler, and other cast and crew members participated in a Q&A, while Robin Menken, one of the play’s original authors, participated from the audience. F.T.A.. was an acronym for “Free the Army,” or “Fuck the Army,” or Fun, Travel, and Adventure, the Army’s own original acronym, and was first presented as a vaudevillian anti-war stage show around American Army bases, a kind of reverse-engineered Bob Hope style U.S.O. Tour, that eventually traveled to numerous sites on the Pacific rim, including Hawaii, Okinawa, the Philippines, and Japan. The documentary, which includes interviews with numerous servicemen either on their way to or coming from the Viet Nam battlefield, got a review in the New York Times in July 1972, but was then pulled from distribution by American International after only a week, ostensibly a reaction to Jane Fonda’s infamous trip to North Vietnam that same month. According to director Francine Parker, “calls were made from high up in Washington, possibly from the Nixon White House, and the film just disappeared.”
Shot in a raw, off-the-cuff style in 16mm, the stage show starred Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, as well as Peter Boyle, Holly Near, Michael Alaimo, Rita Martinson, Len Chandler, and others. In various combinations the actors present skits and sing anti-war songs, with Fonda at one point calling a Vietnam battle as if it were a sports event, while Donald Sutherland at another point reads a passage from Dalton Trumbo’s novel of a World War I quadruple amputee, blinded survivor, Johnny Got His Gun (1939). Like the show itself, the film is a bit disjointed, but certainly reflects the passions and energy of the times. At two points the camera strays to capture militant Okinawan, anti-military occupation protestors and a Filipino pro-democracy rally, suggesting that the American left’s struggle is part of a larger struggle of Third World people, a common rhetorical trope. One of the dramatic high points comes when the troupe is denied entry to Japan, because they have tourist visas, but are planning to perform, i.e. work.
Having participated in the anti-war movement as early as 1968, when I was a high school student, and going to Washington DC in November 1969 for the country’s largest anti-war demonstration ever, the show brought back a flood of memories. Two things stood out for me. First, I was surprised by the feminism of many of the sketches, headlined by Holly Near and Fonda, reflecting the P.O.V. of a group of military women (Mostly nurses) talking about the fact that their male superiors expect them to “service” the troops. That feminist point of view can be attributed to the writers and director, whose only feature film this would be. In 1971, Parker, who had kicked around Hollywood as a television director since 1950, was only the eleventh women to join the Director’s Guild of America, but her career, like that of most women in the industry at that time, never really got off the ground.
Secondly, the film confirmed my belief that Jane Fonda and her compatriots were extremely sympathetic to the plight of ordinary soldiers who had often been drafted against their will to fight in an unpopular war. Indeed, most of the stories about “treason” surrounding Fonda’s trip to North Vietnam have been proven to be myths, according to https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/jane-fonda-pows/, but have nevertheless dogged her for decades. At one performance a group of conservative soldiers in the audience begin to heckle the performers, but the troupe does not verbally abuse them, rather they are gently lead off stage so that the show can continue. Meanwhile, the film continuously cuts away to interviews with African-American, Latino, and Caucasian soldiers who express their frustration with the government, the pain of their experiences clearly visible on their faces, and, in some cases, wounded bodies.
The new digital copy of the film was produced by Sandra Schulberg’s IndieCollect, an organization that has done wonders for film preservation in the last couple years, with funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Jane Fonda. Schulberg had initially tried to find the film’s original materials by contacting Docurama, the video streaming service for documentary films, since they had released the film on video in 2009, but came up short. However, she then contacted Ed Carter, the documentary film archivist at the Academy Film Archive in Hollywood, and he told her they had both a negative and an inter-positive (IP). However, since the negative was incomplete, Schulberg’s team used the IP to create a new, color-corrected digital master, which will hopefully now go back into distribution, almost 50 years after its suppression.