Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bob Hope Military Christmas Special (Hope Enterprises/NBC, filmed 1967, released 1968)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to pick out a film that would be at once historically interesting and suited for the end of the holiday season: the 1967 Bob Hope Military Christmas Special, with Raquel Welch, Barbara McNair, Elaine Dunn, Madeleine Hartog-Bell (Miss World, from Peru), Phil Crosby (one of Bing’s sons), Earl Wilson, Les Brown and his Band of Renown, Saigon, Long Binh, Bear Cat, Danang, Cu Chi, Pleiku, Lai Cay, Chu Lai, Foo Kat, Ban Rang and Cam Ranh Bay in Viet Nam; Guam; Wake Island; Clark Field in the Philippines; the U.S.S. Ranger and U.S.S. Coral Sea stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin; and Carat, Boo Dorn, Takh Li, Boo Bong, Na Kanh Pharam and Bangkok, Thailand. Though the copyright date is 1968 the special was actually filmed on location during Hope’s USO tour during the 1967 Christmas season, and what’s most fascinating about it is the extent to which it dramatizes the unspoken (and sometimes quite loudly spoken) conflict between the mainstream culture and the counter-culture of the time — between the so-called “silent majority” who still believed in Viet Nam and the fight against the implacable global enemy, Godless Communism (it was the Cold War era that redefined America’s relation between religion and politics, including putting “In God We Trust” on our money and defacing the Pledge of Allegiance with the words “under God,” so that militant Christianity became an unofficial state religion and atheists and agnostics were told, as they have been ever since, that they cannot be true Americans) and the hippies, the free-lovers and the political activists who were marching in the streets against the war and trying to figure out how to stop the juggernaut of American capitalist imperialism in a war that, even by its own standards, was silly (Viet Nam had no natural resources to speak of and our eventual loss of the war did not bring the Commies to the California shore, as the “domino theory” hysterics had told us it would).

What’s also fascinating about the show is how retro it must have seemed even then: aside from one song (Raquel Welch covering Linda Ronstadt’s first hit, “Different Drum” — and actually doing it surprisingly well; maybe she thought that since Ronstadt was half-Latina the song would also be suitable for the former Raquel Tejada from Tijuana, but she turned out to have a nice pop voice and to move well as she sang) that acknowledged what decade it was, and the fact that the special was filmed in color, this could have been one of Hope’s service shows from World War II: Dunn’s featured number is a tap dance to the big-band soundtrack of Les Brown, McNair is an African-American Broadway-style singer who delivers quite impassioned renditions of “For Once in My Life” and “Silent Night” but who clearly wasn’t going to be making it to the top of the charts in an era in which the top Black women pop singers were Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, and Hartog-Bell was dragged along simply as a straight person for Hope’s jokes and a chance for all those horny and female-deprived straight guys in the military at least to look at a woman. (One thing that definitely dates this show is the absence of female faces in the ranks, and the surprisingly few servicemen of color shown — a bit of a surprise for Hope, who despite his conservative reputation was anti-racist before anti-racism was cool: he’s described quite sympathetically in Billie Holiday’s autobiography and it’s clear that he took McNair along on the tour largely because he wanted to help a genuinely talented Black singer.)

Hope himself is in fairly good form, though his material is considerably weaker than it had been during World War II and interestingly he seems more energized doing the two shows on the aircraft carriers than he is during the rest of the special — his jokes are better and he delivers them with more snap and zing. There are also some quirky sequences in which the women challenge him for control of the show, eerily anticipating the feminist movement that would start a year or two later but still played exclusively as a joke. The most chilling moments were the sequences showing General William Westmoreland (“Waste-more-land,” as we called him in the peace movement) and South Viet Namese vice-president Nguyen Cao Ky (the man who peace movement sources quoted as saying, “I have only one hero — Hitler”) at one of the shows, with Ky coming to the stage and saying that he hoped within a year Viet Nam would be at peace because the Communists would realize dialogue was better than fighting. As someone who opposed the Viet Nam war when it was happening and has heard nothing to view it more kindly since — like the current U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was based on government lies and deceptions and all those nice young men we see in the hospital sequence gave their lives, limbs or health essentially for egomaniacal politicians — though back then we made the mistake of taking our opposition to the war out on the people who came home after fighting it and since then the peace movement has tried to carve out a difference between “supporting the troops” and opposing the wars (and particularly supporting the troops with medical and other benefits after they’re discharged, at a time when the Veterans’ Administration’s caseload is increasing while their budget is being cut back).

The contrast between the two wings of American society in the 1960’s couldn’t be more obvious in the Bob Hope Military Christmas Special, less from the few nasty jokes about “peaceniks” than simply from the clean, well-scrubbed (or as well-scrubbed as possible given that they were watching these shows in between battles), short-haired, clean-shaven faces in Hope’s audience and the shaggy, long-haired, colorfully dressed hippies and protesters back home; the version of Viet Nam we see here is emphatically not the nightmare of films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with its soldiers growing out their hair, partaking of the plentifully available local marijuana and heroin and listening to the Doors at their most apocalyptic!