“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” Sven Lindqvist, from ‘Exterminate All The Brutes’
I chose to work with Bo over ten years because I needed to understand how he was part of history (as much as what history). I am fascinated by profound questions of responsibility – on the part of ourselves and others. There can be no moral high ground or hierarchy if we are genuinely seeking to understand extreme behaviour. We are part of a system that makes enormous profits out of structural and political violence. Bo is really a witness to the excesses of the military-industrial complex. I wanted to explore how a highly intelligent man came to believe, through cultural and social conditioning, that killing in such a way and on such a scale might be perceived as virtuous. My years with Bo recorded his reflections on life before, during and after his time as ‘the real Rambo – the American Warrior’- when the reasons for transgressing these boundaries had shifted.
Bo is a man of a thousand faces. His is a public life lived in the media age. It is a life made from fragments, from different positions, both politically and in terms of their mediation. His life is contradictory and assembled from all these shards. There is no single ‘right’ life or reading of his public activities.
My portrait of Bo is drawn mainly from original material, which I shot over ten years, but it also includes found footage from the world’s first truly public archive – the global online media bank, scattered across numerous platforms.
My structural approach is instinctual, distinctive, and formally rigorous articulated in tightly selected montages – each emotional unfolding is countered with a denial of feeling, hence producing a confliction emotional experience, truer the creative maladjustment necessary when grappling with structural and political violence and their spectacular representations through Hollywood (dominant) cinema. While working with a broadly chronological, autobiographical narrative, I also operate associatively, tracking parallels and seeking echoes and refrains of action and reflection across the decades of Bo’s diverse military, political and social experiences.
The exploration of this complex and constantly changing relationship between event and image is one of my key intentions in and for the film. When contentious ideas and actions enter this social mediated space, all too often crude binaries (of action and reaction, right and wrong, etc…) are created. These are, as is evident across the world today, extremely dangerous. I see my film being in creative dialogue with Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate all the Brutes, a seminal work exploring the origins of totalitarian thinking.
The film is an inquiry into the nature of human conscience and the limits of deniability. Over the course of a decade of filming, it became clear that the focus must be Bo’s own relationship with his public image, activities and response (underpinned by the known and covert activities of his military career).
Director’s Statement on the Relationship with Cinema:
Fiction creates reality. Hollywood and political structures in the United States are tightly knit. On a material level, there are exchanges of personnel and funds. Hollywood regularly employs (often retired) covert operators and military staff as advisers and the story rights of military operations often become the properties of major studios. Whereas the purchase of such rights is, by definition, often after the fact, on occasion funding precedes the event. For instance, a covert prisoner-of-war recovery mission led by Bo Gritz was in part financed by Clint Eastwood in return for a possible option on the story. It is variously claimed, that Bo is the soldier who the Rambo series is modelled on.
The flow of funds from Hollywood to the military is not exclusive. The Pentagon contributes by providing army assistance (military advisers, helicopters, use of bases, etc…) to productions that it deems supportive of US policy. Such films inform climates of public opinion within which policy operates. They open imaginative spaces and arenas of ethical consideration in which certain kinds of military operations are validated. Furthermore, Hollywood cinema serves as a curious, discursive space for policy makers (and thus for speechwriters as well as scriptwriters). Ronald Reagan, on numerous occasions, publicly drew on the Rambo series to articulate his foreign policy vision and promote his political aspirations:
“After seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do next time this happens.” [Ronald Reagan, 1985]
Where Reagan at times dipped into the movies to illustrate an argument, Bo is produced as if he were a movie star, by both the media and by his own public performances. On January 31st, 1983, CBS News described Bo’s foray into Laos as “the stuff from which movies are made…a case of life imitating art”. The inadvertently implied elision of difference between ‘life’ and ‘art’ in this strictly nonsensical news-speak is telling. Does the above mean that ‘this mission is a model for movies that this mission is modelled on’?
Touring the country for his own presidential campaign, Bo is hailed on national television as the ‘real-life Rambo’ as well as the “model for the real life Rambo”.
The description of Bo as a mythical figure has been drawn in terms of another such character: Colonel Kurtz. A journalist on Nevada Regional news, declared that Bo is “[…] the mythical Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now…”. It was not just the news media however, that tried to fuse Bo with the ‘mythical’ Colonel Kurtz. In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola’s production company approached Bo during the making of Apocalypse Now to ask for permission to superimpose Marlon Brando’s face over Bo’s. As Bo explains, “he wanted to use the photograph in General William C. Westmoreland’s book showing me with Nurse Toi kneeling in front of a lot of really mean-looking Cambodian mercenaries as the headliner for his new movie. Colonel Kurtz was commanding a Cambodian army and I was Major Gritz, and I did command a Cambodian army. Matter of fact I was the first to do so”.
What does it mean that Bo so eagerly figures himself as the man who inspired these representations? After all, he is not unaware of the fact that Coppola’s Kurtz and indeed, the entire plot of Apocalypse Now, is taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and set in the context of the Indochinese war. Rather, Bo’s suggestion that ‘Kurtz’ is a play on ‘Gritz’ not only indicates a desire to project himself as famous and infamous, it also points to a willingness to perform his own history, including that of his covert operations, in accordance with the conventions of Hollywood cinema.
Bo’s willingness to perform according to a ‘script’ (both inspired by Hollywood and subsequently itself adapted and produced by Hollywood in a feedback loop between the silver screen and covert policy) gives the POW ‘production’ an actual star – a star who becomes a simulacum of the Hollywood characters and vice versa. Bo’s authenticity is produced not only by his own insistence that he is the basis for his Hollywood avatars, but equally by his parallel insistence that he has no interest in these figures or, as he dismissively puts it, ‘Hollyweird’ and its ‘play acting’. This denial, by masking his desire to identify himself as the ‘original’, therefore makes his identification more plausible, precisely by producing him as ‘the real thing’.
The chicken comes back to roost
Rambo III was released in 1988. The film ends with a dedication printed over its final scene: ‘This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan’. At the time of its release, the Reagan administration’s covert funding for operations in Afghanistan was at its highest. The film premiered as President Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, a policy decision that was welcomed by none more than the marketing team working on Rambo III. The film rode the wave of euphoria for US political and military ‘success’. This was, then, a historical context which enabled the film’s hero to be figured – both by the film’s marketing team and, indeed, by audiences, who read the film in the social and discursive context of the times – as individually responsible for the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan.
There is another, utterly un-distributed film that stands as testimony to the Reagan government’s dedication to the ‘gallant people of Afghanistan’. Untitled and shot on Super 8 Sound film in the autumn of 1986, it is the record of a secret training program for Afghan Mujahedeen on US soil. Bo claims that the training program was initiated by the National Security Council (NSC) under the direction of State Department official William Bode and that the funding was allegedly channelled through Stanford Technology, a CIA front-company.
Bo was part of a world where deniability lies at the forefront of action on the uncertain line between knowing and unknowing (post-truth before the event …). The spectral nature of covert operations resides in their being officially, ‘neither confirmed, nor denied’. Thus the spectral is produced by official discourse, but admissible to it only as that which cannot be admitted. However, rather than being a product of official denial, it is a product of ‘deniability’. This involves not the denial of a particular event, but the denying of official authorisation of an event. Dislocating action and intention, cause and effect, creates a shadow realm from which strategic operations march forward like zombies. An operation appears to have been carried out in the absence of an originating order. The action is spectral in as much as it seems to escape the laws of causality that govern the rest of the world – it is an effect without identifiable cause.
A methodology of making
This led me to develop a filmmaking approach through which I have tried to understand the person within this context of visibility and invisibility – between deniable reality and fiction. There is a curious symmetry between the careers of Reagan and Bo. On the one hand there is the actor turned politician, who became President and imagined he’d been a soldier; and on the other there is the soldier who would have been President, who flirted with the movies and now defines himself as ‘real’ in contra-distinction to them. The relationship between Bo and the President he served has surely been subject to Bo’s mythologizing autobiographical imagination. Nonetheless, the speculative discursive space that has opened around the relationship (in biographies and autobiographies, in news reports and internet conspiracy sites) has effected a conflation of political drama and movies, of covert operator (whose modus operandi is disguise, dissemblance, subterfuge) and movie actor. And so, focusing on such a figure as Bo, has allowed me to trace a series of discursive and imaginary movements that issue not so much into an exchange between domains, as a conflation of domains. Bo seems to induce a certain ontological confusion, a collapse of fiction and history, biography and popular myth, which is not restricted to his own imagination. It is a confusion that the media are happy to propagate (this is so for his detractors as well as his champions, for the major news channels and fringe internet conspiracy blogs alike). And how timely for our times this is…