Political Film Society - Newsletter #70 - April 15, 2000

April 15, 2000


The imperatives of foreign policy clash with the desires for justice in Rules of Engagement, directed by William Friedkin from a story by former Navy Secretary James Webb, whose nostalgia for the Cold War appears unquenched. In 1968, during a battle in a Vietnamese jungle, Terry L. Childers (played by Samuel L. Jackson) saves the life of Hayes Hodges (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Fast forward to 1994, when Hodges retires from the Marines as a Colonel, presumably mandatorily (because he did not distinguish himself enough to be promoted to the rank of general), but not before getting a law degree at Georgetown and becoming a mediocre lawyer who most enjoys trout fishing. Childers, a colonel, comes to the retirement ceremony from his duty station, the aircraft carrier Kittyhawk in the Indian Ocean. When he returns to the Indian Ocean, a peaceful demonstration outside the unguarded American Embassy in San`a, Yemen, so intensifies that U.S. Ambassador Mourain (played by Ben Kingsley) calls for Marines to provide protection and, if needed, evacuation. Childers is assigned to lead a detachment of Marines to San`a (actually, a set constructed in Morocco). Upon arrival, the embassy is being assaulted by snipers from a building opposite the embassy and by firebombers from below. While the ambassador and his family are rescued, three Marines are killed by snipers; the rest are so clumsily deployed that they are pinned down by sniperfire and in danger of being massacred. Childers, on observing rifles aimed at the embassy from the front row of the demonstrators, orders the second in command to wipe out the opposing firepower. However, the deputy orders his men to shoot at the crowd, resulting in civilian casualties consisting of 83 deaths and about 100 injured, while the armed Yemeni disappear with their weapons. The world press then reports a massacre of peaceful demonstrators by trigger-happy Marines, and National Security Adviser William Sokal (played by Bruce Greenwood) demands a scapegoat so that relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other friendly Arab governments will not be jeopardized. Sokal tries to absolve the U.S. government of culpability by destroying an exculpatory tape from an embassy surveillance camera and suborning perjury from the American ambassador.

When a court martial convenes at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Childers selects Hodges as his attorney to plead a supposedly hopeless case in which there is no rebuttal evidence. The tagline states, "A hero should never have to stand alone." Friedkin's longstanding fascination with the "thin line" between criminality and heroism is played out in the court-room in regard to whether Childers violated the Marines' "rules of engagement." Despite amateurish witness interrogation and overdramatic summary arguments on both sides, the inevitable happy ending involves a compromise in which Childers is found guilty of the lesser of three charges. Childers leaves the Marines honorably, while Sokal and Mourain are convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury, respectively. Consequences of the compromise for American foreign policy, however, are not explained, as if to imply that international resentment over American misconduct is easily assuaged by the dispensing of American justice. Although the ending has already inspired Marines and other rednecks in the audience to leave the moviehouse feeling that those fanatical Arabs got what they deserved, it is unlikely that Rules of Engagement will play well outside the United States, where the film is already seen as yet another tiresome example of American arrogance, ethnocentrism, and irresponsibility. MH

A paper presented at the recent Western Political Science Association convention has been published as the fourteenth in the Political Film Society's Working Paper Series:

Michael Krukones, Hollywood's Portrayal of the American President in the 1930s: A Strong and Revered Leader

To obtain any of the fourteen papers, send a donation of $5 each to Political Film Society, PO Box 461267, Hollywood, CA 90046.

Political Film Society member Ernest Giglio (giglio@lycoming.edu) currently seeks papers for a panel at a conference on American presidents in film, scheduled for November 10-12 at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. His deadline is May 1.