By 1971, America’s involvement in Vietnam had steamrolled onward in full combat-&-bombing mode for six solid years, just about as long as the U.S. has currently been occupying Iraq. They’re different wars, but similar enough to make the evidence presented in the long-censored, long-buried, long-bootlegged film “F.T.A.” (1972) all the more astonishing: it was then, more than midway through the first Nixon term, that a couple of full-on movie stars (Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda) helped gather together a band of lefty anti-war musicians, actors and activists, and devised a cheesy vaudeville show to act as counterpoint to the Bob Hope pro-war paradigm. And then they toured, but not at home for other activists or mere American voters, but on or around military bases, for G.I.s, beginning at Fort Bragg (which wasn’t filmed) and ending up bouncing around the Pacific Rim from one installation to another. The delighted enlisted men showed up by the thousands, having been rebelling themselves in huge numbers by then, and it’s their catchphrase “Fuck The Army” that the show adopted as its own. The resulting rough-hewn documentary opened for a single week in 1972 and then was suddenly pulled (director Francine Parker thinks after a White House phone call was made to the distributor), never to be legally seen again, until now.
That was a different world, certainly; our contemporary Hollywood celebrities commit themselves, safely, to grieving over Darfur, but imagine, if you can, Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon (try and find younger stars, as Fonda was then) risking their careers by singing risible ditties about military injustice and genocide to grunts at bases in Baghdad and Kuwait. “F.T.A.” is actually, all on its own, barely a movie; the skits are self-consciously awful, the songs worse (except perhaps when balladeer Len Chandler belts out a Vietnamese folk song on his guitar, to the crowd’s approval), and the speeches are mostly tailored to the specific concerns of the enlisted men, including officer racism and the injustice of huge U.S. bases in the Philippines and on Okinawa being little more than massive chunks of real estate stolen from the natives. (The budget spent on the project was so minimal that the film’s poster, reproduced on the DVD, looks like it used ad art from the upcoming Fonda-Sutherland comedy “Steelyard Blues.”)
But who cares? It’s a document of disarming anti-authoritarian nerve, and the spirit of the thing is infectious and energizing, for as much of what the performers do as the grunts, who were sick of delivering bombs and laying waste, and were openly thankful for the opportunity to say so on camera. The film is, in any case, remarkable for how little it is known and how rarely it’s been seen, shepherded around only in illegal video dupes like Samizdat, a minor footnote to the American-Vietnam era that’s only gained volume because of its suppression. (Another Fonda-sponsored documentary from ’72, “Winter Soldier,” also enjoyed a semi-official disappearance.) It’s hard, too, not to sympathize with Fonda here, all young and fiery and absolutely correct, even as a play (“33 Variations”) she’s acting in today, at the age of 72, gets picketed by the Not Fonda Jane kvetchers. (In real terms — let’s be honest — her appearance on Hanoi Radio did not burn a single village or kill a single child.) Triple-billed with, say, Godard’s “Letter to Jane” and Ashby’s “Coming Home,” “F.T.A.” becomes a long-lost integer in the equation of a fascinating and resonant public woman, quite possibly the most heroic American celebrity since studio stars enlisted for combat during WWII.