Against the star-spangled, quilted backdrop of what looks like it could be a friendly, amateur Fourth of July talent show, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and the company of the FTA Show raise their fists and middle fingers to the United States Armed Forces. They’re accompanied by the raucous cheers from thousands of enlisted service members who make up a fraction of the reported 64,000 total GI attendees over the course of the FTA Show’s tour through U.S. military bases in Hawai’i, the Philippines, and Japan. At each station they delight in having an outlet to tell their employers to screw off and set the date to get them back home.
It’s hard to call an anti-Vietnam doc anyone’s idea of a good time, which is the exact expectation F.T.A—the film, the show it documents, and the stars of both—so brilliantly subverts to its advantage. Charting the exploits of the political vaudevillian theatre troupe and anti-war GIs they serve, Francine Parker’s film is a freewheeling, critical, resonant archive of dissatisfaction and uprising from inside the war machine. Abruptly pulled during its theatrical run in 1972, this cheerfully searing indictment of American imperialism has a shiny new restoration courtesy of IndieCollect, a second-run distribution by Kino Lorber, and new, contextualizing intro by the perpetually engaged Fonda.
There could not be a more perfect time to bring this film out of its enforced, premature retirement. Its mixture of concert documentary, investigative journalism centering the words of American GIs, Filipino, and Japanese civilians, and commentary on a changing global geography under capitalism manages to re-historicize what they don’t teach you about the slogging end of the Vietnam War. At the time of its creation it sought to break the impression that enlisted troops supported a conflict increasingly protested by those stateside, and instead communicate that the anti-war protests led by students across the country were matched by organized resistance overseas. Now it serves as a unique testament to the confluence of supposedly opposing identities standing together for a way out of top-down violence. With the help of a tremendously talented group of performers and activists, F.T.A. broadcasts the passion and joyfulness possible in collective action.
As Fonda explains, the FTA Show was conceived after a meeting with Howard Levy, the physician infamously court-martialed for refusing to train Green Berets. It sought to use the conventions of Bob Hope’s recognizable army-base comedy tours, turning his pro-war, often sexist rhetoric on its head. Its title song, “F.T.A.” sets the literal stage for further antics as Fonda, Sutherland, and company players—including Len Chandler, Pamela Donegan, Rita Martinson, Michael Alaimo, and Holly Near—give a brash, tongue-in-cheek performance (“FTA” stands interchangeably for “Free” or “Fuck the Army”) to a friendly crowd.
The documentary’s first minutes make clear that these players relish their roles––perhaps none so expressively as Fonda––and that their material, approach, and ensemble makeup are strategically chosen to reflect who’s in the crowd. Irreverent skits draw directly from the GI Coffeehouse movement and independent network of pro-free-speech newspapers circulating hand-to-hand throughout the US military, and almost every joke is accompanied by a wave of audible recognition—it’s clear the FTA Show speaks directly to the weariness and increasing resentment of drafted Americans.
In one such skit, a pathetically rendered commanding officer (played by Alaimo) approaches his unit, urging them to kindly “volunteer” to help their colonel with a laborious task. The listless troops, smoking pot and playing blackjack, refuse to do so much as respond to a “ten-hut!” To the laughs of the packed audience, the officer is ignored, ridiculed, and eventually coerced to join the ranks of insubordination when his own boss comes knocking.
The skit could be seen as an instruction in civil disobedience, but interviews with attendees––the white marines of the striking USS Coral Sea; the Women in the Airforce (WAF) disgruntled by accusations of their own sex tourism; the Black soldiers instructing each other in the hierarchies of nationalist oppression––evince the FTA Show is there to energize and support protestors in staying steadfast. The organizing is already happening, but within the ranks of a heavily policed organization that dissuades breaking rank by thought alone, a show such as this, with its rambunctious and ruthless satire, is a balm. The higher-ups of the military knew so too, and the documentary takes care to note that both U.S. and Japanese governments did their best to make shows inaccessible. As the troupe is denied entry to Japan based on tourist visas, Japanese peace effort activist Tsurumi Yoshiyuki explains that the Japanese government sees the show as a possible ground zero for reconciliation of GIs and civilians. Art, yet again, is classified as a weapon of peace.
In a quieter moment of documentary and show, ensemble member Rita Martinson introduces her song that speaks to this want not only to entertain but directly reinvigorate those struggling against their enlistment. “Soldier, We Love You” is a tranquil, warm thank-you to those resisting service even as they’re thousands of miles away from home. When paired with Len Chandler’s rousing singalong protest songs (including the delightful “My Ass is Mine”), and Sutherland’s somber, nomination-worthy closing monologue from a maimed soldier predicting the future of global conflict, the show performs a sort of ritual catharsis, with a full cycle of entertainment, participation, thanks, and sober reflection on where to draw from in order to keep fighting.
F.T.A.‘s coverage of the show is engaging in and of itself, though there’s deeper satisfaction in watching Fonda, fresh off her dive into much twistier, darker political fare with the surveillance drama Klute, and her symbolic refutation of a much-coveted, hyper-feminine wardrobe and hairstyle. Fonda’s derisive “Hanoi Jane” nickname would be awarded in the same year of F.T.A.’s release––a nickname still used today to “own the libs” who praise her by reminding us the now 83-year-old actress has been an unapologetically vocal, FBI-profiled figure for the majority of her career.
In F.T.A., only a year or so into her serious work with the anti-war movement, Fonda is surrounded by performers who wholeheartedly support art as activism, and intentionally combines camera-grabbing charisma with a content that matches both her professional skill and personal hunger to bring change. It’s delightful to watch an actor, especially one so well-known at that time for being the ultimate projection of desire, glom onto a goofy, late-night-variety-style role and embody it with a radiant, shit-eating grin. Offstage she’s an insatiable interviewer, comfortably eliciting personal stories, confessions of total disillusionment, and pleas to spread the truth to mainlanders.
Much has been made of Fonda’s career in the last few years, with documentaries like Susan Lacy’s Jane Fonda in Five Acts,and Karina Longworth’s excellent Fonda- and Seberg-centric installment of You Must Remember This, illustrating the evolution of an ostentatiously political cultural icon. A restoration of F.T.A. is a delightful time capsule in the way Fonda’s legacy doesn’t just have to be historicized––it’s an active, newly accessible portrayal of what it looks like to effectively utilize an easily irredeemable platform.
Against today’s background of such dark, capricious, and continually isolating circumstances, it may be difficult to imagine joy of any kind, especially with the effort it takes to rail against political authorities over and over. Through the familiar avatar of Fonda, interviews with soldiers that have long been suppressed, and the solidarity found among civilians of all nationalities, F.T.A. can be an exemplar of exuberant defiance. All art is certainly political, but some art reminds us why we turn to it to keep ourselves struggling forward, even when there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
F.T.A is now available in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee.