Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland Commit Their Anti-Vietnam War Comedy Tour to Film.



In a show-business career that is now well past sixty years in duration, Jane Fonda has experienced absolute pinnacles of success as an award winning and critically acclaimed actor. She almost single-handedly created the micro-genre of watch-at-home fitness videos with “Jane Fonda’s Workout”, the top-selling VHS cassette of all time, and has established herself as a much-admired fixture of American pop culture that continues to this day. She’s also endured periods of informal blacklisting in the movie industry and harsh, persistent criticism in many circles due to her outspoken activism on a number of highly polarizing political and cultural issues. Her longevity as a performer and her ongoing relevance to the prevailing social discourse of 2021 makes her quite a compelling character to consider at this point in time, even though she does not seem ready to settle into the kind of retirement that calls for a comprehensive career retrospective quite yet. 

One of her most elusive performances of those past six decades has just recently been made widely available in a new release on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber.  Pulled from distribution and heavily censored by its studio after only one week of theatrical availability in 1972, F.T.A. (short for “Free the Army”) is a documentary feature chronicling a “political vaudeville” theatrical roadshow that she developed along with Donald Sutherland and toured in a variety of settings adjacent to US military bases in 1971. The acronym embedded in the title is a sanitized and undeniably coy allusion to “fuck the Army”, a phrase coined by troops and often cited during the late phase of the Vietnam War, though I have no doubt that the roots of the phrase and the general sentiment it expresses predate that conflict by decades and is most likely a thought that has crossed the minds of countless soldiers since time immemorial.

Fonda and Sutherland emerged from their collaboration on Klute (for which Fonda won a Best Female Actor Oscar trophy) with a shared interest in lending their voices to ongoing protests against the US government’s prosecution of the war in Southeast Asia. At that time, Nixon was president, the conflict had already spilled over from Vietnam into neighboring countries Laos and Cambodia, and opinions both within the overall American populace and the military personnel responsible to engage in that combat were growing more strident in insisting that the war was a horrendous waste of life and resources, based almost entirely on bad-faith premises if not outright lies. 

One tangible expression of the dissent that was growing among the enlisted ranks was the emergence of independent and underground magazines and newspapers that spoke in bluntly critical but often profane and darkly comical terms about the abuses of power witnessed by people in uniform. That material was initially intended to speak directly to the troops, but it also caught the attention of leaders within the antiwar movement. Many of the satirical anecdotes, skits and diatribes that filled those pages were adapted as part of the FTA show that Fonda, Sutherland and others worked on and presented over the course of several months in late 1971, aiming to serve as a counterpoint to the decidedly hawkish and 100%-government approved USO tours presented to American soldiers by Bob Hope around this same time. The film provides a unique and historically valuable record of this most remarkable entertainment. 

What makes the program notable isn’t so much the brilliance of its performers (there’s a fair degree of nervously affable “amateur hour” theatrics on display), the biting insight of its wit (many of the gags are clunky, corny and haven’t aged very well) or the innovative filmmaking techniques on display (the visuals are pretty standard fare, whether they capture moments from the stage program or behind-the-scenes interviews). In many respects, the film has all the hallmarks of a low-budget production that was hastily put together under less-than-ideal conditions. Obviously, a viewer’s political affiliations will have a huge influence on what one thinks of the material itself. I’m pretty sympathetic to the causes espoused throughout F.T.A. – not just the antiwar stuff but also the themes of women’s liberation and racial justice that are just as strongly proclaimed over the course of the film’s 96 minutes, but I don’t think there are any arguments presented here that are likely to initiate conversion experiences for war hawks or others of a more politically conservative, socially regressive temperament. 

But what makes F.T.A. a compelling viewing experience is simply the evidence that such a presentation was ever allowed to reach as many audiences as it did. The tour began in March 1971 near Fort Bragg in North Carolina and made its way across the country. Sections of the film also showcase performances that took place near American military bases in Okinawa and the Philippines. As to be expected, the military establishment exerted pressure to dissuade troops from attending the show, but they were  unable to shut it down altogether. The audacity of the project is often stunning to behold and serves as evidence that the anti-war movement was connecting powerfully with people who had up close and personal involvement in its execution. By December of 1971, the tour had run its course, but not before an impressive amount of footage from various shows and conversations with actors, singers, soldiers and activists from the USA, Japan and the Philippines had been captured for posterity.

There can be no dispute that the intentions of the production were to stir up dissent, even to the point of blatant insubordination, with multiple jokey references to fragging, the act of retributive homicide committed by soldiers against their commanding officers, typically justified due to unresolved grievances and abuses of power that the combatants had experienced in the course of their duty. The humor is often very grim and incendiary, the kind of gut punching riffs and crude jibes that inevitably flourish in an environment where death and destruction are so prevalent, especially when the rationale for such carnage is seen to be either non-existent or based on insidious fabrications and malice, as many believed was the case in the Vietnamese theater of military operations. While accounts of the film’s suppression are discouraging, they should not come as much of a surprise to anyone sufficiently informed about American cultural history. 

The advantage of having performers with the star power of Jane Fonda, already well-established as an appealing personality on account of her sexy and comedic performances in films like BarbarellaCat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park, and to a lesser extent Donald Sutherland, who was just beginning to establish himself as a compelling lead actor after his breakout in Klute, obviously played a significant part in the creation of the FTA stage show and the subsequent film. However, Fonda to her credit did not seem very interested in making the program all about her, nor is there any evidence that she was hopping on the anti-war bandwagon as a canny form of self-promotion, as some of her detractors might suspect or assert. It’s accurate to say that whenever she’s on screen, her familiarity and charisma definitely attract attention, but to me, the standout performances come from lesser-known figures like Len Chandler and Rita Martinson, each of whom contribute songs that ground the program as expressions of genuine grievance rather than simple defiance or sullen rebellion. 

Though F.T.A. works most effectively as an example of “preaching to the choir” (as I doubt that anyone who currently remains supportive of the US military efforts in Vietnam would have much patience sitting through this documentary), I think it does have additional value for younger viewers who would benefit from knowing more about the political discourse of that era and how messages proclaimed from the stage and in the audience speak to our contemporary concerns.

As a home video package, the quality is enhanced by a new introduction by Jane Fonda, recorded specifically for this release as the film was finally about to be broadly distributed after half a century buried as an obscure footnote. Also included on the disc is a 2005 documentary titled Sir! No Sir! that includes some scenes from F.T.A. but takes a broader look at what was known as the GI Movement against the war in Vietnam. This 85-minute film is especially helpful in putting F.T.A. into a fuller historical context as it provides plentiful evidence of just how divisive and unpopular the war was with those who were under orders to carry it out. Paired together, F.T.A. and Sir! No Sir! make for a compelling 1-2 punch that certainly sheds light on a path of protest and cultural crisis management that current and future activists may have to follow once again when the powers that be try to guide our society into another foolish and futile venture like the one that we went through in Vietnam.