This is an edited excerpt from remarks delivered to the U.S. Naval Institute's 126th Annual Meeting and 10th Annapolis Seminar, where the director of Rules of Engagement told how he made the movie.
Rules of Engagement is really Jim Webb's story. [See Proceedings, April 2000, pages 78-81.] It's a warrior's story. When the script came to me almost three years ago, it had been in development at Universal Pictures far ten years. During that time, the powers that be at Universal soon became the powers that were. But they all shared one thing in common—they all hated Rules of Engagement.
What drew me to this story was that I wasn't sure if Colonel Childers—the character played by Samuel L. Jackson and who is court-martialed and charged with murder—was guilty or innocent. So I made this film to try to discover that answer and its meaning for myself.
I'm now going to reveal a dark little secret about Hollywood: It is run mostly by limousine liberals who are primarily concerned about political correctness. A story that calls on military and civilian leaders to think about the unacceptable risks our military takes, when the rules of engagement are designed to fit the political interests of the moment, is not a commercial project.
As much as I was drawn to Jim's original script, I could see that it just wasn't going to happen unless dramatic changes were made. "Dramatic changes" often means putting a Hollywood spin on something and watering it down. In the case of Rules of Engagement, I think we took out a Hollywood spin that had accumulated over ten years in development hell.
In Jim's script, the embassy action was set in a mythical Central-American country. We moved it to Yemen, where this sort of situation is extremely plausible. There is a U.S. embassy in Yemen, and it is under constant threat by terrorists under the control of Osama Bin Laden. So we felt that Yemen was a good place to set this story.
As Jim originally wrote it, the Marine prosecutor was a woman. By day, she was trying to convict Colonel Childers; in the evening, she was carrying on a flirtatious affair with the defense attorney. We made the prosecutor a man, played by Guy Pearce, thus reducing the odds of a flirtation with Tommy Lee Jones.
In Jim's version, the two leads hated one another. We took out the hatred, but we kept the mutual respect. We added the opening sequence in Vietnam, and we added the ambassador's wife, played by Anne Archer, who refuses to contradict the testimony of her husband. We added the sequence where Tommy Lee returns to Yemen to witness the tragic aftermath of the embassy incident. And we added the Yemeni doctor, who testifies at the court martial that Yemen was not a training ground for terrorists and that no weapons were at the scene. We also added the fist fight between Tommy Lee Jones and Sam Jackson.
I think the most important addition we made, however, was the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] Colonel Cao, who ultimately testifies for the prosecution. The Vietnam sequence and the one in which Colonel Cao is called to the stand were the two scenes that gave Jim Webb the most trouble. In our new version, Colonel Cao gave his address, when he took the stand, as being on a farm near Sacramento. Jim felt that this would inflame the South Vietnamese population in this country. And he was angry about it.
We also had Colonel Childers execute three prisoners of war in Vietnam in order to save the platoon led by Tommy Lee Jones. Jim thought that to be severe overkill, and he convinced Dick Zanuck, the producer, and me that he was right.
Originally, I did not want to send this script to the Department of Defense or to the Marine Corps. I knew that it was controversial and that they were never going to smile with kindness on it. But as we were about to start production, a little voice sort of whispered in my ear: "Hey, you want to make a film that is pro-military. You want all service men and women to be proud of it and to feel that it, in some way, represents their experience. So why not seek their input?"
Literally days before we were going into production, I sent the script to the Marine Corps liaison office in Los Angeles. A day or so later, we received positive and productive comments from the Marines there, with a number of suggestions that made the story, I think, better and more accurate. And through their good efforts, we were able to film on board the USS Tarawa (LHA-1); we also were able to use actual off-duty Marines to play Marines, which was a tremendous contribution to the story.
The Marines reluctantly accepted the shooting of one POW, in the way that we had written it. But we had to add a reference at the end of the trial sequence that Colonel Childers eventually would face charges for the incident, even though it was 30 years later. That, I think, also strengthened the film.
Every officer, veteran, and enlisted person who sees or will see the film will be aware of a number of technical inaccuracies: mistakes in military dress or perhaps the way certain medals are worn. On a production this size, mistakes occur, even though we had as our technical adviser a man whom I consider to be the best there is, Captain Dale Dye, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired).
What I hope is that all of you take away from this film a sense of friendship, loyalty, and duty under extreme circumstances that I know many of you have faced—the dilemma faced by U.S. troops who are placed in mortal danger by complex, often ambiguous, rules of engagement.
I'm obviously proud of this film, or I wouldn't have come here. After all, there are some pretty good dinners in Los Angeles, too—but not with people like you, who have served the country and made it possible for me and my family and millions of others to have a life. There is no way to repay that. Your invitation to be here does me great honor. Rules of Engagement reflects not only Jim Webb's love and devotion to this country, but my own, as well.