Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This review, by Penelope Andrew, was posted to CriticalWomen.net, Februuary 10, 2009
Thirty-six years ago and about a minute before she was smeared and dubbed “Hanoi Jane,” Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and six of their “trouble-making” friends were the subject of a documentary film called FTA. They formed a touring company of activist actors, comedians, singers, and writers who performed in coffeehouses and other venues as close as possible to U.S. military bases in the states and later across the Pacific Rim. They were the thinking troops’ troupe, an anti-USO show, and an alternative to Bob Hope who had previously cornered the market on entertaining the military.
Recently, the IFC Center—the art house Villagers love so well--held two special screenings of this little known documentary by the late director (and incidentally, the first female member of the Directors Guild of America) Francine Parker. It’s hardly been seen since its original release in 1972. FTA is a multi-purpose acronym and variously defined as “Free the Army,” “Free Theater Associates,” or, the soldiers’ favorite term, “F*ck the Army.”
Upon learning of the event, a community organizer from the 1960s, former SDS member, long-time friend of Tom Hayden and busy social worker to this very day cut to the heart of the matter in a phone message, “I am going to go. I’ll be late, so save me a seat. You’ve probably figured out by now that FTA is about Jane and Donald Sutherland’s anti-war tour back in the old 70s when we only had ONE war.”
It’s very interesting that FTA’s re-release follows, by about a month, the theatrical debut of its contemporary first-cousin, Theater of War (2008)—at The Film Forum--which documents the making of the Public Theater’s 2006 production of Mother Courage and Her Children with a cast led by Meryl Streep.
These celluloid monuments drive home the genius of two of the most potent, anti-war writers who ever lived: Dalton Trumbo and Berthold Brecht. Both appeared before the HUAC. Trumbo was jailed for 11 months on contempt charges for failing to name names, while Brecht literally waltzed his way through with a performance of very broken English with a snappy German accent. In Theater of War, one is treated to a large dose of Mother Courage by way of a new translation by Tony Kushner and a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the artistry of Streep finding her character in a fascinating rehearsal process.
By contrast, FTA is raw. It underscores how infectious was the movement of the 60s and 70s captured through a lens that focuses on: a naïve, fresh-faced Holly Near acting (albeit poorly, but with a lovely enthusiasm) the part of a privileged officer’s wife; the effectiveness of songs (“We Will Not Bow Down to Genocide”) sung simply by folk musician Len Chandler and ballads (“Dear Soldier, We Love You”) performed and written by the talented Rita Martinson; and poetry and skits by the rest of a dedicated cast who worked at fever pitch unencumbered by a need for perfection. The gifted comedian, social satirist and writer Paul Mooney was also part of the company. He participated in a panel with Fonda that introduced the earlier screening of FTA.
The “a spit and a prayer production” as Fonda lovingly calls it traveled a long way to reach American troops who were questioning their roles and actions as military men and women. FTA offered much needed support for those who joined the perilous ranks of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (for one of its most famous members, Senator John Kerry, it may well have cost him the presidency).
The troupe organized communities at home and abroad (just like our current president did in Chicago, it’s obviously an effective and infectious way of getting important things done) and managed to form bonds both small and large regardless of where it landed. There are scenes with Fonda and cast sitting down with individual soldiers: Black-Americans reporting racism and abuse by their white (aptly named) master sergeants; heartbreaking commentary by wounded, shell-shocked, white soldiers who wander the streets of Japan; and young women soldiers retelling stories of being cajoled into getting on “the Pill” for the implied purpose of servicing their male counterparts. The footage of concerts and large-scale demonstrations involving the local talent of organizers, labor unions and artist/activists in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan is impressive.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Donald Sutherland recites from Trumbo’s 1939, anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun about a WWI soldier, Joe Bonham—not the average Joe that Sarah Palin nauseated the American public with but an extraordinary Joe--who has been maimed and disfigured beyond human recognition. One could hear a pin drop in the audience as the atmosphere filled with the fear all nightmares bring coupled with the majesty that occurs when a true artistic moment emerges. Sutherland—unlike the earthier James Cagney who performed the part of Joe in a radio adaptation of the book—speaks the part of the narrator trapped inside what is left of his own body on the scale of a preacher (perhaps reprising his role in Jules Fieffer’s Little Murders as the cynical 1972 review of FTA in The New York Times suggested), and one who is also well schooled in Shakespeare. Sutherland’s riveting oratory while clutching his beaten up copy of Johnny Got His Gun with its still-visible, iconic cover drew cheers from the audience and shouts of “Go Donald!”
Parker, Brecht and Trumbo may have passed on, but anti-war, anti-genocide and anti-poverty spirit continue in the genre of the documentary as practiced by the soothsayer Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), in the poetry of the images of Heddy Honigmann (Crazy), through the artistry of Errol Morris (Fog of War) and in the passion of Spike Lee (When the Levees Broke). Parker’s FTA has been restored from an archival print and is out on DVD with a bonus feature, a 20-minute interview with Jane Fonda revealing a ton of fascinating back story. Fonda—finding time between rehearsals for a new play 33 Variations—showed up to introduce both screenings of FTA and continues to set the record straight. “Go Jane!”
FTA (1972) directed by Francine Parker with Michael Alaimo, Len Chandler, Pamela Donegan, Steve Jaffe , Rita Martinson, Paul Mooney, Holly Near, Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda. DVD 97 min. with bonus feature: interview with Jane Fonda.
Theater of War (2008) directed by John W. Walter with George C. Wolfe, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner, Austin Pendleton, Jay Cantor, Meryl Streep and others.
This review, by David Kehr, was published by the New York Times, Februuary 22, 2009
FTA was the slogan adapted by a group of self-styled political vaudevillians — including Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Holly Near and Len Chandler — who toured United States bases in the Pacific in 1970, presenting antiwar songs and sketches to servicemen. This documentary record of the tour, directed by Francine Parker, played briefly in theaters in 1972 (released by American-International, youth-exploitation specialists) and then disappeared. Seen today, it is a fascinating period piece: the counterculture answer to Bob Hope’s U.S.O. tours, filmed at a moment when peace signs were giving way to power salutes. There is a self-congratulatory air to some of the proceedings, but Ms. Fonda’s antiwar speech before the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo may be one of the most powerful performances of her distinguished career. (Docurama Films, $26.95, not rated)
This article was originally published in Canp News, Vol. 2, no. 2, March 15 1971
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - In the end, it was the GIs who pulled it all together, who gave dignity and unity and burning purpose to the passionate but scatterbrained counter-USO show put on here over the weekend by Jane Fonda.
This is a GI town. The streets are full of young men wearing motorcycle jackets, bell bottoms, beads, funky hats and outrageous shirts, but betrayed by their short haircuts.
Saturday afternoon they hung around the Haymarket Square GI Coffeehouse waiting to buy $2.50 tickets for the anti-war show that has had much publicity by getting barred from Fort Bragg.
Around the corner and all the way down Bragg Blvd. were some of the reasons why the Coffeehouse was established: the topless go-go bars, the pawn shops, the sleazy jewelry store whose proprietors stand outside on the sidewalk and try to collar the wide-eyed and slow-footed, the skinflicks (at the King Theater "101 Acts of Love") and the heroin pushers, whose gift to Fort Bragg and to the nice middle-class, straight all-American boys is a nightmare addiction problem and the horrendous plague that accompanies it.
The thing that came through again and again during the hectic weekend was that these are not only elite soldiers of proud paratrooper units but that they are small-town kids, some of them barely able to raise a mustache, brought up in the langorous innocence that only Americans believe they can afford to preserve well past the teens. But the shock of sudden contact with the Army, the war and the world has hit many of them hard. Here's what some said:
"When I enlisted I was really strack (gung-ho). I pressed my field jacket, did spit shines, everything. I thought this was going to be my life. That was seven months ago. I feel I'm about 100 years old now."
"Yeah, we're Vietnam returnees, 173d Airborne Brigade. Yeah, we're privates. Only reason a lot of them put up with this is they don't know their rights. I'd say 90 per cent of the returnees feel this way. Man, we are mad. You know 45 per cent of our outfit is in the stockade right now?"
"I got a buddy who had both his legs blown off a year, and a half ago. In Cambodia. You get it? A year and a half ago."
"Vietnam is a very good radicalizer. I was superstraight until I came into the service. Spent four years in the Marine Corps. I enlisted." The kid shakes his head. "Man, if I had it to do over, I would have gone to Canada."
"The GI movement has really sprung up this past year. It's no one base thing." (There are now 26 coffeehouses and 75 underground GI newspapers. The Haymarlset is the third Fayetteville coffeehouse: The first two burned down.)
A GI who works at the Coffeehouse says: "We won't let any known-pusher9even in the door. Anytime we see someone we don't know go into the can, someone follows him in to make sure he doesn't plant some dope or smack or anything. We plead with the guys not to carry any kind of dope in here. The brass would nail us in a minute."
So when the actors came to Fayetteville to present an alternative to the Bob Hope show - which even the Pentagon had to admit was panned by the GIs - the young soldiers swarmed to the Coffeehouse seeking, if nothing else, a relief from the ugliness to which they are exposed. The rest of the town appeared hardly aware of the event, aside from a bit of head shaking at the long-haired entourage.
The stars arrived exhausted. Miss Fonda and Donald Sutherland (of "M A S H") flew in Saturday from New York, where they had been up most of the night rehearsing. Elliott Gould didn't make it at all; he has been near physical collapse, from overwork. Peter Boyle, the bald hard hat of 'Joe," flew with them - as did Gary Goodrow and Alen Myerson of The Committee, plus a group making a film of the making of the show and press people.
From the first there had been trouble ever where to do the show. Fort Bragg had barred it summarily, as it has barred Miss Fonda from its premises for life. A municipal auditorium rejected it, fearing the kind of damage rock groups have inflicted there recently and objecting to what Miss Fonda stands for: the GI movement.
On the very eve of the show a federal court injunction forced the public auditorium to open its doors, but there was still a matter of $100,000 liability insurance - $1,000 cash down and ticket takers, bodyguards and other expenses. So the show was moved to the Haymarket, seating 450.
As curtain time approached Saturday evening, the Army had little more to say.
Lt. Gen. John J. Tolson, base commander and a chief architect of the Army's new liberal look, was out playing golf. Information officer Maj. Jimmie Wilson explained that the script had been sent to the general and he had found it "not so much anti-war as poorly done and he felt he couldn't allow it. He didn't want to be put in the position of sponsoring it."
However, Wilson emphasized, the Army has made no efforts to stop the show in town, had not contacted local officials in any way, and had no intention of preventing Army personnel from going to see it.
"There won't be any bunch of spooks down there taking names," said Wilson. "I'm going to see it myself."
If the Army was keeping its cool, it was by no means at ease. A tour of the base uncovered the fact that some 50 Jeeps and trucks had been removed from the 503d Military Police unit's motor pool and placed on alert behind the barracks. The stockade was blocked off, with MPs manning access points. A report circulated that "half" of the Old Airborne had been sent out on field maneuvers, although they just came back from the field two days ago. Actually, a third of Bragg's 55,000 soldiers are always on field duty, in rotation. It is true that more than the usual number of GIs seemed to be on weekend duty.
The show opened with Swamp Dogg, a rock group that was seriously bedeviled by sound problems. Then folksinger Barbara Dane talked and sang - in a vibrant alto voice not great but haunted by the ghost of Bessie Smith.
Comedian Dick Gregory came on for a solo spot. He had just rushed in from Texas. He talked about Army spies who might even be at the Coffeehouse ("look out for spit-shine sandals"), about how we would feel if Russia invaded the United States to protect its troops in Cuba, about race: "Well, it's almost summer . . . the riot season. Last year we didn't show, and the whole country looked around: 'Where are they? Where are they?"
He got a standing ovation for his final remarks. "Your being here means more to me than my being here means to you, because I got eight little children."
The last act was a series of blackouts, dominated by Goodrow, the superbly skilled Boyle, a veteran of Chicago's Second City group, and somewhat to his own surprise Sutherland, who had done little live stage work. It went like this:
Mrs. Nixon, in flowered hat, tells the-President that dissidents are storming the White House demanding an end to the war.
"You'd better call the 82d Airborne," he replies.
"But you don't understand, Richard. This IS the 82d Airborne."
The cheer that followed was more than a cheer. It was a roar, a visceral reflex that burst from 45O throats in the seame instant.
The war was presented as a sport event ("Nixon would have liked to be here at this great game today to throw out the first grenade") and a magic act again (Sutherland's hobby, and he is good at it). Mr. Nixon was shown getting image advice from his TV coach to brighten up his presentation with the gnong-gnong gesture, the wa-wa necktie, the rubber chicken and other vaudeville paraphernalia.
The finale depicted a group singing the national anthem, becoming incensed at Sutherland as a nonstanding, nonsinger, and attacking him, stomping him into a frazzled corpse with staring blue eyes, then regrouping in time to finish the song.
This review, by Roger Greenspun, was originally published in the New York Times , July 22, 1972
By now most people must know something about the political vaudeville troupe formed by Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and others to offer soldiers an alternate entertainment to say, Bob Hope, or whatever shows are provided by the U.S.O. The troupe called itself F.T.A., which stands for Free Theater Associates, or for other things such as, Free the Army.
Last year, against considerable official opposition, it toured United States military bases in the Pacific. Francine Parker's "F.T.A.," which opened yesterday at the Baronet and Victoria theaters, is a documentary about aspects of that tour.
The film divides its attention pretty evenly between the performers and their audience, and a lot of time is given to interviews with dissident, or merely disillusioned, servicemen. Some hate the war in Vietnam. Some just voice dismay at certain truths about the military like "They don't want you to be an individual") that have been perpetually rediscovered by raw recruits at least since the Battle of Thermopylae.
So much time is given to the audience, whose insights, though real, are neither original nor profound, that the actual performance comes across in scattered bits and pieces.
A lot of the show must have been very funny, with a kind of humor genuinely in touch with the desperation borne of simply being in the service. (Army doctor prescribing to obviously pregnant wife of enlisted man: "Go home and take two A.P.C. tablets and come back when your swelling goes down.")
But as presented in the movie, most of the show doesn't seem very funny, except inadvertently—as when Donald Sutherland seriously recites the prose of Dalton Trumbo with a straight-from-the-shoulder solemnity that happens to be perfectly in keeping with his phony-preacher characterization in Jules Feiffer's "Little Murders."
Occasionally the F.T.A. troupe becomes involved with the local population, so that we may hear the Just Grievances Against American Imperialism of the people of Okinawa or Japan or wherever Miss Fonda and her colleagues happen to be listening. I found most of this a predictable bore, but it did allow for the film's only really striking sequence: an anti-American guerrilla theater pageant in the Philippines that momentarily turns revolutionary passion into a romantic gesture of extraordinary beauty.
Otherwise there are a few good things. There is the lovely ballad singing of Rita Martinson (most of the singing, by Len Chandler, isn't so lovely), some hints at lively routines, an occasional glimpse of deep happiness in eyes of Miss Fonda or of Holly Near. But the spirit of F.T.A. must lie elsewhere, in other times and special places. For all its agility and pressing close-ups, the film doesn't capture that spirit—or even adequately show the kind of experience that might have let it grow.
F.T.A., directed by Francine Parker; written by Robin Menken, Michael Alaimo, Rita Martinson, Holly Near, Len Chandler, Pamala Donegan, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Dalton Trumbo; editors, Joel Morwood and Michael Beaudry; camera, Juliana Wang, Eric Saarinen and Joan Weidman; music by Aminadav Aloni; produced by Miss Parker, Miss Fonda and Mr. Sutherland. At the Baronet Theater, 59th Street at Third Avenue and the Victoria Theater, Broadway and 46th Street, Running time: 94 minutes. This film is rated R. Released by American International Pictures.
With: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Len Chandler, Pamala Donegan, Michael Alalmo, Rita Martinson, Holly Near, Paul Mooney and Yale Zimmerman.
The following photographs and flyers were taken during the FTA Tour of the United States and the Far East.
They include reproductions of the cast on stage, and at play, as well as active duty audience members responding to the show.