image From halcyon to Hollywood Hell

There is a Hong Kong movie fan, named Kevin, who is friends with Robert Galotti (a weapons specialist). Kevin had typed the following on an Asian movies message board in October 4, 2000:

“Okay, we’ve heard a lot about what may or may not have happened to John Woo, regarding studio interference on his earlier American films. Even Woo and Terence Chang have said differing things at different times. Woo said he did Broken Arrow in a certain style to prove a point and that it was his vision. It seemed reasonable to me as I’ve read somewhat similar stuff before, but had no idea how much was real and how much was just Woo trying to keep up good relations with the studio (not bad-mouthing others).”

Kevin gets to the point after his preamble:

“Well, this is a message about what really happened. This came from a guy who worked on several of John’s Hollywood productions and had regularly personal (off-set) contact with Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, etc. as well.”

Here is Robert’s message:

“John was the ONLY voice on his Hong Kong films. When he came to Hollywood, he was really pushed around by the producers and executives. On Hard Target, John did anything asked of him because this was his first chance and he knew he had to make the studio happy. The film was taken away from him after production. He also had nightmare battles during production with JCVD, the producers and the studio. All Hollywood producers think they can make movies better than anyone, especially some Asian guy.”

Robert talks about John’s next Hollywood movie:

“John’s wonderfully humble nature was, again, taken advantage of. The producers forced him to hire a 1st A.D. that was nothing more than a spy for them. They would tell this A.D. what they wanted and didn’t want, then he would bully John into it. It may sound impossible to believe, but it is very true. The Hollywood studios can be very intimidating, so the producers used the “relative failure” of Hard Target to pressure John at every turn. He will not say it in the media, but he does not like Broken Arrow. He had a really good script to begin with, but by the time that Travolta arrived with his huge entourage and demands, Slater started rewriting scenes every day. Factoring in all of this, the producers were breathing down his back. The film was nothing like what it could’ve been.”

Robert talks about John’s third U.S. mainstream production:

Face/Off was the first Hollywood film that John had any sort of control over (I use that term loosely). Compared to his H.K. films, he still had nothing. But, at least, he was able to supervise 75% of the editing. If you look at this picture compared to the two earlier ones, it’s much more Woo. He had more Woo-friendly producers. Terence was able to produce for the first time, and Douglas/Reuther Productions was very protective of John. Again, he had to deal with star egos, but at least he was able to assemble his own team this time, including a great 1st A.D. named Arthur Anderson who I think will do all of John’s films from now on.”

Robert talks about the fourth film (whose release date was pushed back from December 17, 1999 to May 24, 2000):

“As for M:I-2, the studios and Cruise went overboard. They told John that they wanted “bigger than anything ever done” and he tried to give them that. The 2nd unit was longer than the first units of most movies. Cruise and his producers would watch scenes cut together then go have John shoot more stuff until they liked what they had. The budget was basically a blank check because the biggest star in the world was calling the shots. The “official” schedule will never reflect it, but this film shot more days than most movies in history. In my honest opinion, M:I-2 was a result of Hollywood people trying to make a H.K. film. Instead of just sitting back and letting John give them whatever, they tried to make their version of a H.K. picture.”

Robert talks about the fifth film (which began filming on Tuesday, August 15, 2000):

“I am excited for Windtalkers, although I pray that John and Terence do not let Slater pull his bull again. As far as the remark about more realistic action, I know John was very influenced by the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. He thinks that was some of the greatest film-making in history.”

Here is a response from M.C. Thomason on the same day that Kevin typed:

“Very interesting. The interview that I cited had occurred while Broken Arrow was in production. It sounds like even Woo’s modest proposals didn’t work in that situation. Then again, he may have very well known which way that the wind was blowing and decided to play an angle where he could still be his subdued self to the media. The same thing appears to have happened with M:I-2, where he was playing damage control to the media (a few weeks before it came out). The thing with him is that I think you have to trust other people to tell his story. Very rarely do you hear him say a disparaging thing about anyone. Usually those comments come from a third source like this person, Chow Yun-Fat or Terence Chang, just to name a few.”

Psychological insight is added:

“Woo has a habit of telling people what they want to hear. He’s a very complex man who’s very aware of how people might view him if he complained about his problems. In interviews, the unpleasant things are swept under the rug. Given that most interviewers know very little about Woo, and grossly underestimate him, it’s very easy for him to get away with that. One gets the feeling that he’s afraid of the tough questions that might arise if his studio battles were public news. There’s a lot to this guy that’s very guarded. One wonders what sorts of things which he confides in the people who he trusts.”

In the original screenplay of Windtalkers, a Marine nicknamed The Dentist creeps across a battlefield strewn with the bodies of Japanese soldiers. The Dentist would reclaim the gold in their mouths. At one point, The Dentist twists his bayonet because he struggles to get the gold nugget out of the corpse’s teeth. It’s one of several grisly scenes which you won’t see in the final cut of the film. The scene was written out of the script after the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense (which lent production assistance to the movie) complained about it.

When filmmakers ask the Defense Department for help, they have to submit their screenplays to Phil Strub – the head of the department’s film and TV liaison office in Washington. He reviews them for veracity and to determine whether they will help the military’s recruiting efforts. Hollywood’s top producers regularly trek to Strub’s office, pleading for assistance. Strub has clout. If he likes a script, he can recommend that the Pentagon give the movie’s producers access to military hardware. But if he doesn’t like a script, the producers will have to make the changes which he recommends if they want the military’s assistance.

After receiving the original Windtalkers script on January 28 of 2000, Strub passed it along to Captain Matt Morgan, the head of the Marine Corps film liaison office in Los Angeles. Morgan liked the script, but had some major reservations. He described the Dentist scene in a March 3 memo to Strub. Morgan wrote:

“This has to go. The activity is un-Marine. I recommend these characters be looting the dead for intelligence or military souvenirs – swords, knives, field glasses. Loot is still not cool, but more realistic and less brutal.”

A few days later, Morgan sent a memo to Terence Chang:

“The ‘Dentist’ character displays distinctly un-Marine behavior. He is, in fact, committing an atrocity. While I recognize the war in the Pacific was brutal, I don’t see a need to portray a Marine as a ghoul. I mean, you just got a guy who shows up and he’s doing it like he was washing his car or something. If you’re gonna portray this, let’s deal with it. The why. The how. Was it reciprocal? You know, because the Japanese were doing awful things to the Marines, too.”

Terence’s memo:

“You know what? John doesn’t like this scene either. It’s gonna go away.”

By two more drafts, it was gone. Chang said that the scene was cut because the movie was too long anyway – not because the Marines complained. Joe Batteer and John Rice (the screenwriting duo) fought to keep the scene in the film, but eventually sequestered. Batteer said the scene was dropped only after the Marines objected. He said:

“Through Terence Chang, we had received the word. It was – You gotta lose the filling-pulling. We saw Morgan’s missive about the ghoulishness. We argued that it was true, but we ultimately relented and yanked it, no pun intended. We tried to argue our case, but it was a fine line because we had to appease the Marine Corps and the studio. The studio wanted the cooperation from the Marines.”

Rice agreed:

“They said a Marine would never do that, but who can say one Marine would never do that?”

The guy on the right is Dan King. He was the Japanese Military Technical Advisor. Despite Rice’s claim, even Morgan acknowledges that such crimes were committed:

“You can look at various books about Marines in World War II. I am very proficient on my Marine Corps World War II history, and I know that these things happened. Horrible, awful atrocities happened, especially in the Pacific.”

Another scene that Morgan and Strub didn’t like involved a war crime committed by the lead character – Sergeant Joe Enders, played by Cage. In the original screenplay, Enders kills an injured Japanese soldier who is attempting to surrender.

In his memo to Strub, Morgan wrote:

“Enders uses the flame-thrower to toast the Japanese cave. One of the soldiers attempts to surrender, and Enders happily roasts the unarmed man. Killing this man is potentially a war crime, and an experienced Marine in a signal unit would know how rare and valuable a Japanese prisoner is.”

Morgan relayed his qualms to Terence, and that scene, too, was written out. Chang said:

“Myself and Woo hated that scene because it was too brutal. It would be very hard for the audience to sympathize with Enders later on in the movie.”

Once again, the screenwriters fought to keep their vision intact. It showed that Enders was enraged and racist. Batteer remarked:

“We didn’t want to paint him in a positive light. We wanted to show him as a damaged guy.”

It didn’t matter in the long run. What’s gone was gone for good. The military also wanted the producers to change a scene in which Enders is given orders to kill his Navajo code talker should they face imminent capture. The battle over this scene raged for weeks, and once again the Marine Corps version of history won. Only this time, the screenwriting duo’s version was backed by the code talkers. Even the U.S. Congress concurs. In the original script, a Marine Corps major tells Enders:

“We can’t risk one of our code talkers falling into enemy hands. If there’s a chance that he might be captured, the code will be deemed more important than the man. If it comes to it, Enders, you’re going to have to take your guy out.”

Morgan, however, described such kill orders as fiction. Joe recalled that one of the producers called to say the Marines were concerned about the scene:

“They essentially denied that such orders were given. The Pentagon requested that the language be altered to make it not quite so specific.”

Terence, of all people, said he still believes that Marines had been ordered to kill the code talkers rather than to allow them to fall into enemy hands:

“The whole movie was based on that assumption. We did talk to code talkers, and they said that was true. Why would they lie to me?”

In the end, Chang agreed to make the change requested by the Marines. In the movie, the major now tells Enders:

“Under no circumstances can you allow your code talker to fall into enemy hands. Your mission is to protect the code at all costs. Do you understand?”

Several of the Navajo code talkers have said that there were indeed orders to kill them in the event of capture. John Brown Jr., one of the original 29 code talkers, told Reader’s Digest:

“The Marine order was to let them shoot you if you were captured. That was war. We were obligated.”

In his imperfect English, code talker Carl Gorman (who died in 1998 at the age of 90) told CBS Evening News in 1997:

“Orders were given that if any of the code talkers being captured, shoot the code talkers.”

In 2000, Congress passed a bill awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the original code talkers. The medals were presented by President Bush to four of the five living original code talkers at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda. Batteer and Rice sat just a few rows back from the honorees. As he watched the ceremony, Rice was unmistakably aware that the language which the Pentagon had forced the producers to remove from his screenplay was part of the very bill that Congress had passed authorizing the medals. The legislation states:

“Some Code Talkers were guarded by fellow Marines, whose role was to kill them in case of imminent capture by the enemy.”

The Marine Corps, however, still insists that no such orders were given and is trying to get Congress to rewrite the legislation. The writers said they were relieved that the Pentagon didn’t insist on more changes.

Batteer elaborated on what is now the twist to Woo’s Hollywood Hell:

“Everybody has an agenda. It’s a collaborative art form. You have the writer, the director and the studio. In this case, you also, have the U.S.M.C. and everybody has their point of view, so everybody compromises.”

Regardless, Woo must have found pleasure in being able to have control over the writers.

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