By Peg Aloi
Exuding a guerilla theater, agitprop vibe (with touches here and there of vaudeville and live sketch comedy), F.T.A. is a thrilling expression of pacifism and accountability directed at the military.
F.T.A., directed by Francine Parker. Screening at Brattlite.
This new 4K restoration from IndieCollect gives contemporary audiences a long-awaited opportunity to see footage of a traveling anti-war show performed at military bases in 1971 during the height of the Vietnam conflict. Exuding a guerilla theater, agitprop vibe (with touches here and there of vaudeville and live sketch comedy), F.T.A. is a thrilling expression of pacifism and accountability directed at the military. Directed by Francine Parker, this documentary was released in 1972, soon after Jane Fonda’s controversial visit to Hanoi, which earned her the derogatory moniker “Hanoi Jane.” It made her a target of establishment types who accused the actress of exploiting the war for the sake of fame. The ruckus swirling around Fonda no doubt undercut the film’s release, and it may explain why Parker’s incendiary but uplifting chronicle, filmed soon after journalistic revelations about the 1968 Mai-Lai Massacre, has been little seen since. Until now, thanks to Kino Lorber and IndieCollect for making this counterculture gem available through virtual cinemas on KinoMarquee.com.
This lively documentary, full of original protest songs and poetry written at the time, is made up of live footage of performances at military bases in Hawaii, Okinawa, Japan, and the Philippines and filmed conversations with GIs and activists. The film and its featured performers are very clear about the message to be delivered: to expose the growing resistance to the war effort among the ranks of its soldiers and to expose the racism and sexism within various parts of the American military. The performers include Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Len Chandler, Pamela Donegan, Peter Boyle, Holly Near, Rita Martinson, and other assorted actors and musicians. (Fonda and Sutherland starred in Klute that same year. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, the film won Fonda an Oscar for Best Actress.)
Fonda introduces the new restoration with some helpful historical context. Internal military resistance to the war was something very few knew about at the time. Meanwhile, news networks and publications had begun to show imagery of the atrocities suffered by civilians and the destruction of poor villages. Thousands of the young men who were drafted could not afford college deferments: this included many young men of color. Soldiers who returned home, often wounded in body and mind, were spat upon and shunned. Another anti-war documentary was released in 1972: Winter Soldier focused on hearings held in Detroit in which over one hundred soldiers (including future Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry) testified to the war crimes they had witnessed or participated in. This film, like F.T.A., has also been little seen in recent years, outside of film forums or venues like the Harvard Film Archive. Mainstream awareness of this dark chapter in American history has all but faded from the popular consciousness.
F.T.A. is full of music, including many songs by folk musician and activist Chandler. The title refers to a song featured in every performance by the traveling troupe, an acronym that stands for various permutations of “Free/F*ck the Army.” There are comedy sketches, song and dance routines with a vaudevillian flair, including parodies of Richard and Pat Nixon, play-by-plays of military bombings relayed like live sports commentary, satirical voiceovers of war footage (done brilliantly by Sutherland), and a musical number performed by Fonda, Near, Donegan, and Martinson that calls out sexist behavior and asserts women’s bodily autonomy. Martinson performs a powerful feminist poem that explores emotional themes around relationships; she also sings a gorgeous ballad entitled “Soldier, We Love You.” Linking the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement were a crucial part of the show’s strategy: the goal was to expose the various forms of oppression encouraged by the U.S. government, and the importance of resistance movements of the ’60s and ’70s dedicated to protesting the mistreatment of women, the poor, and people of color. Interviews with young members of the Black Power movement, many of whom had been drafted, include candid statements insisting that fighting racism at home was more important than fighting communism in a foreign country. This criticism takes on sobering relevance given the looming specter of institutional and cultural racism today, emboldened during the Trump administration.
There is a good deal of footage of the young GIs in attendance at these shows, clapping and nodding along with songs that reflect their skepticism. They share their opinions about why the war effort is misguided as well as their horror stories about atrocities they were forced to participate in. We also hear, as the war dragged on and the protests increased, quiet admissions about soliders refusing to follow orders they found immoral. At one point, pro-war hecklers disrupt the proceedings; the troublemakers are shouted down by the performers and audience, but not before some scary physical confrontations take place. F.T.A. ends with a close up of Sutherland reciting a powerful passage from Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 novel Johnny Got His Gun. Impassioned, showing signs of exhaustion, Sutherland gives an artful reading of the text, brilliantly controlled but also colored by this actor-activist’s barely-restrained emotion. It provides a gutting, thought-provoking finale to a nearly 50 year old documentary that is still deeply, frighteningly relevant.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.