FTA: Fun, Travel, Adventure, by David Bax
Right now is probably not the most ideal time to be touting a movie’s new restoration overseen by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The scandal over that organization’s lack of diversity is only the latest controversy to plague Francine Parker’s FTA, which was first released within days of its featured subject Jane Fonda’s disastrous visit to Hanoi and then immediately yanked from theaters, not to be shown again until 2009. Regardless of its rough history, though, this new restoration (no matter who undertook it) is a benefit. The film is a rich document, a good time in its own right and, in some ways, still sadly relevant.
F.T.A. unofficially stands for “Fuck the Army” and was (or perhaps still is) apparently a common form of surreptitious grousing among disgruntled troops. The FTA Show was a response to Bob Hope’s USO show, a satirical revue that toured towns near military bases and offered free admission to GIs. FTA the movie is an account of that show’s tour through American military bases in Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan, where troops could see actors Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Pamela Donegan, Michael Alaimo and Holly Near, musicians Len Chandler and Rita Martinson and comedian Paul Mooney perform a variety of anti-war sketches and songs.
That means, for all the livewire issues jumbling around within in, the basic shape of FTA is that of a concert film (Fonda calls it “political vaudeville”). And even on that most superficial level, the movie goes off like hellfire. It’s rollicking, rousing and damned funny.
In 1972, though, your enjoyment of FTA probably would have depended on your politics. Public support for the war in Vietnam by that time was pretty low but one GI interviewed still urges the filmmakers to make sure the final product gets shown in parts of the country that still hold out support. Parker herself, though, allows almost no hawkish sentiments, even among the military, save for the handful of drunken brutes who try to disrupt the show and are quickly shouted down. Whether or not that’s disingenuous is no longer really important, though. The thing about a topical issues documentary is that, the further we get from the time it was made, the less its worth depends on the quality of its arguments and the more important it becomes as an historical object to be regarded at something approaching an emotional remove.
If you insist, though, on asking questions about how well FTA has aged, at least take into account the fashions and the undeniable potency of the film’s two biggest names, sex symbols both. Sutherland’s eyes burn with a laconic intensity even when he’s being goofy as hell and Fonda’s layered, shortish hairstyle would make her the coolest girl at the screamo show these days.
Spending too much time ogling the hot people, though, would pretty flagrantly miss the point, especially when Fonda, Donegan, Near and Martinson perform a viciously hilarious anti-catcalling song called “Tired of Bastards Fucking Over Me.” FTA‘s particular attention to issues of sexism and racism both by and within the military–testimonials from Black soldiers make up most of the non-concert portion’s most impactful moments–don’t mean the film has aged well. They instead highlight how out of touch and out of time organization like the HFPA can still be today. I mean, nearly half of the FTA Show‘s performers are people of color.