In 1971, the stars of the new thriller “Klute,” Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, took off on a tour of U.S. military bases. When they embarked for the bases of the Pacific Rim — Hawaii and the Philippines, Japan and Okinawa — they brought a film crew with them.
They’d sing songs, perform sketches and poetry and dramatic readings, gathering their material from “GI newspapers around the world.” It was, Fonda said then, “political vaudeville.” It was, she says now, designed “to be the opposite of the ‘pro war’ Bob Hope shows” of the time.
But while they would be performing for thousands of troops, they wouldn’t be allowed on the actual bases the sailors, airmen, Marines and soldiers were stationed in. Because when you name your tour “F.T.A.” and the GIs know that to mean “F— the Army,” officialdom was never going to let that happen. Even if the show’s theme song (singers Len Chandler and Rita Martinson were on board) changed the acronym to “FREE the Army,” that was never going up the flagpole of any U.S. military base.
Filmmaker Francine Parker’s documentary “F.T.A.” is an often amusing, occasionally raucous and always musical memoir of that tour, slapped together for a quick release back in the election year of 1972, a release that never happened.
“Long-suppressed” film? Maybe. But now this fascinating artifact is available for mass consumption, restored by Kino Lorber and earning a theatrical and digital release on March 5.
A blend of comedy, song and dance, drama and male and female servicemember interviews, it’s funny, biting and tuneful, and it takes you right back there if you lived through it. And it might be an eye-opener for activist “Ok, Boomer” millennials.
Fonda sings duets with actress/folkie Holly Near, a goofy riff on “Carolina in the Morning” that goes “Nothing felt diviner than to be in Indochina making MOoooooney.”
Sutherland memorizes and mesmerizes performing a long monologue from Dalton Trumbo’s 1930s anti-war novel “Johnny Got his Gun.”
And folkie Len Chandler leads sing-alongs of some downright hilarious anti-war tunes, some composed expressly for this tour.
“First they draft your ass, then they uniform your ass, they arm your ass and then they train your ass. And then they bust your ass and then they break your ass and then they SHIP your ass and then they shoot your ass…”
He’s the stand-out performer here, but catching Sutherland channeling early George Carlin as he broadcasts a search and destroy mission in the manner of a college football play-by-play man is a hoot.
“The Hueys filled with our guys are landing, but no sign of Charlie…You know, the Vietcong are having a VERY good season.”
Fonda jokes with large (not “official” Hope base-visit “huge”) crowds, adding shows when they run out of room for the first performance, straining to get through all the material because “apparently, you have to be back in prison by midnight.”
None of which will play as funny to the generation — some of them veterans — who labeled her “Hanoi Jane.” And truthfully, despite the tour’s diverse cast and some stinging, funny seqments, not all of the material is aging well.
There’s a not-that-subtle suggestion of passive resistance and insubordination in some of their messaging, because that’s what prompted the tour. A lot of men and women in uniform were questioning the rationale, the inhumanity and the legality of what they were being ordered to do.
Over half the crew of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Coral Sea had petitioned against returning to action off the coast of Vietnam, an unheard of and nearly mutinous act, prior to this tour.
Fonda sat for a 20 minute interview that will be attached to this release, remembering both the impetus for the tour and the times it took place in. She won’t win over or convince anyone who ever called her “Hanoi Jane,” but she’s on the money in pointing out that even much of the military had turned against the war by ’70-71.
The proof is in every sailor, airman or soldier who recalls feeling “I owed my country at least two or three years of my life” who had the courage to ask “What the hell are we in Vietnam for?” on camera for this film.
MPA Rating: unrated, violent images, profanity
Cast: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Rita Martinson, Len Chandler, Paul Mooney, Peter Boyle and Holly Near
Credits: Directed by Francine Parker. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:37