Since the Second World War, American troops stationed overseas had been entertained by organisations such as the USO – most notably, comedian Bob Hope.
In 1971, for the first time, another kind of entertainment went abroad and, far from being welcomed by the military, it was greeted by official alarm and denunciation.
The show, headed by actress Jane Fonda, was known popularly as the “Free The Army” show and it travelled to the Pacific in support of a growing GI movement – a grassroots rebellion within the military symptomatic of the trauma in American life that was the Vietnam War. Few doubted what the “F” actually signified, in light of Jane Fonda’s well-publicised stance against the war in South East Asis (although “FTA” could just as easily have stood for “Free Theatre Associates” – the official name of the troupe.
Fonda insisted that the shows – self-described as “political vaudeville” – were staged as a feminist response to the girlie entertainment being offered to the troops by the likes of Bob Hope, but the army saw only anti-military anti-war propaganda and kept the troupe off its bases.
With an overall message that the enlisted man could end the war by simply refusing to fight, Len Chandler sang protest songs, Donald Sutherland read from Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Pamala Donegan recited black ghetto poems, Holly Near belted out counterculture rock and blues, and a number of sketches were fashioned by writers including Jules Feiffer, Fred Gardner, Barbara Garson and Robin Menken.
The FTA shows – in 15 cities in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan – were supported by private funds from liberal supporters raised by Fonda and Sutherland and filtered through the United States Servicemen’s Fund, the peace movement equivalent of the USO.
Inevitably, the left denounced the FTA as a vehicle for personal publicity for Jane Fonda, and the right dismissed it as the political pabulum of a poor little rich girl.
But despite being denied access to military bases and despite official objections, more than 64,000 men and women from all branches of the services packed gymnasiums, coffee houses, baseball stadiums, parks and even a bull ring, to see the show.
Seen now, the 94 minutes of songs, sketches, dances, readings and visual gags recorded in this documentary of the tour by Francine Parker are committed, but lacking in bite.