Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 (2004) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ (2004) continued a long line of controversial films. In 1968, John Wayne decided to counter Vietnam War protests by turning The Green Berets, a collection of short stories by author Robin Moore about the superhero like exploits of the US Army Special Forces, into a movie. Eight years before, the Cowboy Star had taken a financial bath while producing The Alamo (1960) and he considered The Green Berets an appropriate freedom-fighting sequel.
Wayne, who never served in the military, hated being called a hero by the press while the young soldiers he visited in Vietnam were accused of being murderers. The Green Berets production problems ranged from a lack of cooperation from the Pentagon to battle scenes repeatedly being ruined when twirling helicopter blades blew the sixty-one year old actor?s toupee off. It took all of Wayne?s persuasive abilities to get Jack Warner to distribute the film. Upon its release many critics who opposed the war called The Green Berets vile and boring, but to their great distress it was a huge box office success. Wayne publicly thanked the East coast reviewers who hated the movie for bringing it more attention, and laughed all the way to the bank.
Controversial movies have been around since the beginning of the industry. In 1915, frustrated by his bosses unwillingness to let him make a feature length film, Biograph Studios Director D.W. Griffith decided to invest his own money to turn Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman into a two and half hour, sixty thousand dollar epic: Birth Of A Nation. During filming, some of the crew questioned D.W.’s creative choices. They felt that many scenes, such as the assassination of President Lincoln or a white woman leaping to her death to ward off the advances of a black man, were over staged and melodramatic. They were amazed at the powerful impact the assembled footage made, especially when accompanied by a full orchestra. One thrilling sequence featured horses racing toward the camera making sophisticated audiences duck down in their seats fearing the giant animals would leap off the screen into their laps. President Wilson called the Civil War Epic “History written with lightning.” Press reports exaggerated the stunning picture’s costs at two million dollars, and accurately or not, Griffith was credited with inventing modern cinematic techniques such as close-ups, panning, and crosscutting. For the first time, movies were considered an art form, but because the story featured clansmen as heroes and former black slaves as murderous thugs, the Director was branded a racist and the film was banned from several major cities. Griffith, the son of a confederate soldier from Kentucky, resented the charges of bigotry and went broke trying to prove his detractors wrong by financing expensive follow-up films such as Intolerance (1916). Historians later gave Birth Of A Nation credit for increasing membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
Walt Disney was more sensitive about how black characters in his films would be received by the public. In 1946, he hired old time radio actor James Baskett to play the wise, kindly Uncle Remus and Oscar Winner Hattie McDaniel to be Aunt Tempy in Song Of The South. McDaniel, who had convinced Producer David O. Selznick not to use the n-word in Gone With The Wind (1939), often suffered through long bouts of unemployment and depression. Black activists complained to Hattie McDaniel’s prospective employers that her maid-mammy portrayals reinforced negative stereotypes. Walt Disney appealed to Walter White, the head of the National Association Of Colored People, to read an early Song Of The South script and voice any objections to the story he might have. Walt was not a racist, he simply wanted to present Joel Chandler Harris’ stories in the most tasteful way possible. White refused to meet with Disney, waited till the movie came out, then, without seeing the film, blasted him for showing “happy slaves” on screen. Despite doing fairly good business and James Baskett winning a special Oscar, Song Of The South became a public relations embarrassment for the Disney Company and still has not been released on video or DVD in the USA. Ironically, the movie’s story took place after the civil war and the black characters were free laborers not slaves.
The biggest lightning rod in cinema since Birth Of A Nation and before Passion and Fahrenheit was Oliver Stone’s JFK (1992). The quasi-documentary film featured so many characters that Stone felt the only way for an audience to keep track of them all was to have an all-star recognizable cast. Critics pilloried the movie’s suggestion that Cubans, the Pentagon, President Johnson, and the Mafia had conspired to kill John Kennedy using Lee Harvey Oswald as a patsy before they actually saw the film. They pointed out that Stone misled audiences on a number of issues including that Kennedy was planning to pull out entirely of Vietnam when the actual plan was a partial reduction of troops in hope that the South Vietnamese would strengthen themselves. It was complete fiction that the film’s primary villain Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) had ever visited the office of right wing FBI agent Guy Bannister (Ed Asner). The gay prostitute convict Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon) who first reveals that there was a conspiracy to kill the President was a character invented specifically for the film. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) was remembered as a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist that physically intimated witnesses, not the kindly, Jimmy Stewart type he was portrayed as. Friends of the crazy pilot David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) felt the film maligned his character. Director Stone dismissed the criticisms, pointing out that he was creating a myth to counter the fabrication that the Warren Commission had put out when they ruled that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. Eighty percent of the film’s viewers said they agreed with Stone there was a conspiracy despite any evidence to the contrary.
Politics can make it difficult for Hollywood Studios to produce controversial movies. In 1940, Twentieth Century Fox head Daryl Zanuck assumed he would face internal difficulty in adapting John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the screen. The story of Depression era farmers migrating from Oklahoma to California in unreliable jalopies to become fruit pickers was scathing in its depiction of bankers and the US economic system. The novel had been banned from many schools and libraries. Winthrop Aldrich, head of the Chase Manhattan Bank, was also the most powerful shareholder at Twentieth Century Fox. Despite his personal anti-labor politics, Zanuck felt Grapes was a great story and decided that making it into a picture was a hill he was willing to climb. Aldrich could block the film and fire him; the Producer was willing to go forward anyway. In a tense meeting, Aldrich questioned Zanuck about whether he really planned to make the hot button book into a movie and the determined Zanuck replied he was. The banker smiled, “You know, my wife made me read that book. It should make a wonderful movie.” He turned out to be correct. The Grapes Of Wrath starring Henry Fonda was the studio’s biggest hit of 1940. A few years later, it was released in the Soviet Union as an intended piece of propaganda with Communist leaders eager to show their people the hard life in the USA. It backfired when many Russian moviegoers came away with the impression that America was great because everyone there owned a car!