By Tom Secker, British-based investigative journalist, author and podcaster. You can follow his work via his Spy Culture site and his ClandesTime podcast.
The 4th of July weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the wildly popular 1990s alien invasion blockbuster “Independence Day,” a tall tale about the US military battling a worldwide incursion of gigantic flying saucers.
You would think this is a story the US Department of Defense (DOD) would like, and recently obtained archive files show how the producers contacted the Pentagon to gain access to military bases. for filming, as well as F-18 fighter jets so that they can record sound and video for dogfight footage.
These never-before-seen “Independence Day” records were obtained exclusively from the archives of the Lauinger Library in Georgetown and the Marine Corps Historical Division. They go into detail about how the film was ultimately rejected after lengthy script discussions. Unusually, some of the changes demanded by the Pentagon were incorporated into the script for the shoot, even after the military rejected the project.
Things got off to a good start when producers pitched “Independence Day” to Hollywood liaisons as a potential recruiting boon.
A memo from producer Dean Devlin to Phil Strub at the Pentagon read, “We’re going to make Star Wars and Top Gun look like paper airplanes!” Wait, there’s never been aerial footage like this before. If that doesn’t make every boy in the country want to fly a fighter jet, I’ll eat this script. »
But the Laughter Police were unhappy with the script, and the records detail months of tense negotiations between producers and Army script reviewers.
According to records, a recurring problem was that the Department of Defense felt the story had “no real military heroes”, because Will Smith’s character drinks beer, dates a stripper, steals a helicopter and gives fireworks to a child.
The producers removed the beer and beefed up some of the other military characters to try to compensate, but Smith’s character remained a bone of contention. Even after several criticisms, the military still asked the screenwriters to “energize and clean up Steven’s actions”.
The military also had issues with the overall story and the ineffectiveness they displayed in the face of a hostile alien takeover.
A memo on ‘Independence Day’ concluded: “The overall storyline does not leave the public with a positive impression of the military and its capabilities. We see military bases and aircraft decimated by the aliens and ultimately it takes a civilian to stop the alien takeover. »
Files reveal that in one version of the storyline, Randy Quaid’s alcoholic crop hunter saves the day by flying his crop hunter plane into the giant UFO. The script reviewers did not like this climax, where a civilian saves the human race, and so the script was changed to have Quaid piloting a military aircraft. The Ministry of Defense nevertheless felt that this was problematic, as they did not want the public to think that anyone could fly a high-tech aircraft and that they could not have a drunk pilot.
Script notes sent to producers say, “Make Russell (duster) be a former fighter pilot; increase the time between the last drink and the flight of the plane. The producers complied — Quaid’s character was rewritten to have a past as a military pilot, and he sobered up before flying off in the fighter jet and then sacrificing himself to help fend off the aliens. »
Other changes, according to the records, were made to try to make the film a story of American military heroism – the character of Jeff Goldblum, a computer expert, trained in military intelligence, and the military history of the president was put forward. This helped ease the concerns of the Ministry of Defense that the hero was someone other than themselves, but other arguments were on the horizon.
In early scripts, the initial alien attack is quite devastating, including a sequence that the Department of Defense has deemed deeply objectionable, for fairly obvious reasons. As a draft script puts it, after the destruction of the White House and Capitol, “beneath the WALL OF DESTRUCTION, the Pentagon too is shattered.”
The destruction of their headquarters was apparently considered unacceptable by the Department of Defense – they were happy to see the whole facade of American democracy destroyed in an alien holocaust, but someone has to run the country in the post-apocalypse. A fax pedantically tallied all military property destruction in the scenario, leading the Department of Defense to demand that the Pentagon somehow survive the fiery decimation, and mitigate the other damage.
We’re sick and tired of hearing that the US government is capturing aliens.
The strangest dispute concerns the portrayal of Area 51, a secret US Air Force installation in Nevada, and the Roswell incident. The makers asked the Department of Defense for permission to film at Groom Lake, the real Area 51, but the Pentagon didn’t like the idea that they were hiding aliens and crashed spacecraft there.
A series of script notes read: “The incident at Roswell Air Force Base is a myth; the Department of Defense does not want to support a film that perpetuates the myth; the Department of Defense cannot hide information from the President (i.e. aliens and a craft in custody)”.
To solve this problem, according to the records, the military made various suggestions, including “a popular civilian group can protect the alien spacecraft on an abandoned base” and “Change the guardians of the aliens and the spacecraft into a popular public protection group. (or at the very least, a nebulous government agency). »
The producers re-wrote this footage to remove references to Area 51 and place a fictional agency called NIA in charge of the secret base, but the Department of Defense apparently still wasn’t satisfied. A memo responding to this version of the script reads, “Area 51 – no way, fictional agency or not. We are tired of hearing about the capture of aliens by the US government. »
The document then suggests that instead of the $30,000 toilet seat joke explaining where the money for the base comes from, a character should ask “if any Medicare funds were used to maintain aliens.” Clearly the Department of Defense was concerned that American taxpayers’ money was going to fund a life of luxury for creatures that aren’t even Earthlings, let alone Americans.
In the most surreal moment of the ‘Independence Day’ records, the military official’s memo went on to say that the base “should be completely private – perhaps with an alien at its helm, turned into a media contractor.” global billionaire. Obviously someone thought they were a screenwriter, or maybe read too much of David Icke.
Ultimately, the producers pulled out of negotiations, after making numerous changes, but the MoD raised further issues and objections and sent an official letter rejecting the production. Independence Day” was produced without military support, thanks to the clever use of a decommissioned fighter plane and numerous computer-generated images.
However, while the Area 51 storyline was restored to its original form, some of the changes requested by the Department of Defense were incorporated into the film. Quaid’s character rewrite, removal of the destruction of the Pentagon, and increased role of the military in the film all made their way into the version we saw.
This shows that the Pentagon can wield considerable influence over movie scripts, even if it does not support production. The military can get some of what it wants even if it offers nothing in return and a project is rejected by its entertainment liaison officers.
So ask yourself on this 4th of July: is this freedom and independence as you conceive them? If the American dream is to have any meaning, should the government stop interfering in films and censoring them?