Film

Review: Newly Unearthed Vietnam-Era Doc F.T.A. Follows Fonda, Sutherland on Protest Shows to Troops

In what is a surprisingly adept footnote to the history of protests during the Vietnam War, the recently unearthed and restored documentary F.T.A. offers a contextual look at a ragtag group of actors, singers and other performers who toured U.S. military bases in Southeast Asia (with stops in Hawaii, The Philippines, and Okinawa) circa 1971 in support of soldiers who wanted no part of the war any longer but couldn’t get out until their tour of duty was done. The revue was called F.T.A., mocking the original Army recruitment slogan “Fun, Travel, Adventure,” and renaming it “Free the Army” or “Fuck the Army.” They performed sketches, sang protest songs, and generally stirred shit up to the delight of enthusiastic crowds of men and women—despite the Pentagon attempting to derail the show.

FTA Jane Fonda Donald Sutherland

Image courtesy of the film

Led by award-winning actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland (who had just worked on Klute together), the group also included comedian Paul Mooney (who I wish they had more footage of in this era), writer/actor Michael Alaimo, and singers and activists Holly Near, Rita Martinson, and Len Chandler. Directed by Francine Parker, the resulting original documentary was released in 1972 and promptly pulled from theaters (effectively censored) in less than a week, presumably never to be seen again until its recent unearthing and 4K restoration by IndieCollect.

The performances were messy, loud, angry, funny, and such an unfiltered middle finger to the military that it’s almost difficult to believe that the Nixon administration and the Pentagon would allow these radicals anywhere near the troops. But it’s evident from the many interviews with enlisted men and women that the antiwar movement within the military was a growing and powerful force, with actual discussions of killing any officer that might order soldiers into harm’s way. The satire on stage is sloppy, not always as clever as the performers thought it was, and some of the protest songs are subpar sing-a-longs. But I’m not really here to review the F.T.A. shows as much as I am this fascinating documentation of the circumstances surrounding their creation and staging.

As a film lover, it’s incredible watching Fonda and Sutherland from a purely performance standpoint, with her taking on the role of ringleader and song & dance enthusiast while he dives into sketches and adds to them a bit of characteristic gravitas. At one point, Sutherland recites a passage from Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun, and the normally rowdy crowd settles to the point of rapt silence, resulting in the film’s most powerful moment. As disjointed as the documentary can be at times, the cumulative impact is both educational and inspiring at times, as it reminds us of a time when the world was a bit less controlled and confined, and protest was often an effective and creative means of communication.

This restoration of F.T.A. is preceded by a new video introduction by Fonda, who provides much-needed historical context and explains the impetus that led to the creation of the F.T.A. troupe. The film is available Friday via Facets’ Virtual Cinema.

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