“I don’t believe in this war because nobody wants us in there.”
The recent release of Summer of Soul has been quite the triumph. That documentary, which spotlights the Harlem music festival in the summer of 1969, has been one of the most talked-about cinematic events of the year thanks to the way it brings to the forefront one of the most important, yet unsung, cultural moments ever recorded. It seems like this is the year for unearthed artifacts of documented events that had strong social significance, but for one reason or another, were kept away from their rightful place in history. One such event, F.T.A., has likewise enjoyed a recent return to public view thanks to the folks over at Kino Lorber. The documentary features Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland as they tour the Pacific in support of the GI movement against the war in Vietnam, showing their support through a variety show performed for soldiers which took aim at the war itself. Besides being a chronicle of the actual , F.T.A. also took the time to explore the GI movement by talking to the men and women behind it.
F.T.A. (or F*** the Army) featured Fonda, Sutherland and a small handful of other performers as they acted out skits and musical numbers, all of which criticized the war in one-way shape or form. The film, directed by Francine Mercer, captures plenty of the traveling show’s highlights, including numbers such as “My Ass is Mine,” “Join the GI Movement,” and the brilliant titular song. Fonda is a hoot as Pat Nixon in a skit where she’s panicked due to the white house being taken over by the marines and Sutherland has some great timing and delivery in a sketch as a baseball announcer describing the horrors of war with bombs and soldiers instead of baseballs and players with neither side winning. The show also called out the hierarchical nature of the army in a bit where the pregnant wife of an enlisted man is denied care because she isn’t married to an officer. But the crew from F.T.A. never forgot why they were there and punctuated the comedy with somber, poetic moments, the biggest of which remains Sutherland describing the importance of the classic novel “Johnny Got His Gun” before reading some of its more important passages. Throughout the tour, F.T.A. made sure it earned its doc credentials by showing the various happenings and setbacks encountered by the group including being held at customs upon arrival in Japan, Fonda speaking at a foreign press conference about the kinds of horrors the war has inflicted and dealing with heckles from pro-war soldiers, who snuck into the show only to eventually be driven out by the crowd through singing.
Beyond the brilliance of the traveling variety show the company put on, the heart of F.T.A. remains its compelling spotlight on the GI movement. Throughout the course of the film, Fonda is seen interviewing the protesting GIs about the forces which brought them into the war against their will and the motivations for their participation in the anti-war movement. “We were taught to question,” comments one soldier about his generation. “The army doesn’t let you question because they don’t have the answers; only orders,” he adds. Other scenes look at the underpinnings of class, strife, anguish, principles and racism that existed in the military and which only served to make the war more unbearable. A sequence showing a Filipino liberation group decrying American imperialism and the struggle to convince them about the GI movement gives a perspective that’s just invaluable. F.T.A.’s knack for getting to know some of the men behind the GI movement, most of whom were working class, a lot of whom were minorities likewise gives a rightful spotlight to a faction of the war that’s too often pushed to the side. “Black men should only fight where they’re being oppressed,” states one African American soldier, “and I’m not being oppressed in Vietnam.”
F.T.A. was successful enough to make it to the big screen, playing in a single Los Angeles theater for exactly a week before the Nixon administration made it disappear. Long thought lost by everyone involved with the film (including Fonda herself), it wasn’t until recently when a lone print was discovered. With funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the work of Indie Select and the distribution of Kino Lorber, this monumental film can, at last, take its rightful place in history. Watching F.T.A. today, the bravery and the boldness of this piece of work remains in tact. The biting critical humor and the more stark, bleak moments all seem to contain as much power today as they did then. In an interview to promote the film’s digital release, Fonda recalled Trumbo’s advice prior to the show’s launch, which was that no matter what happened, always make sure to remain joyful. For the famed writer, activism was a gesture of joy and passion. It was those emotions which he believed gave activism its importance and it’s those very same feelings that flow through this courageous and mesmerizing film.
F.T.A. is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.