Published June 1, 1999
The General’s Daughter, directed by Simon West from a screenplay by Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman, adapted from the novel by Nelson DeMille is yet another example of Hollywood’s grotesquely misconceived representation of life in our country’s armed forces where, we are constantly asked to believe, kinky sex vies with political plots and murder as the principal pastime of the officer corps. In this movie—whose ending, in case you are foolish enough to want to see it, I am about to reveal—we are asked to believe not only that a group of West Point cadets on a night exercise would gang rape a fellow (female) cadet and then successfully cover it up, but also that the victim’s father, a prominent general, would be complicit in the cover-up for fear of derailing his own career. And if that does not seem far-fetched enough for you, try this: the girl takes her revenge on daddy by seducing every man under his command—many of whom, by the way, seem to like the kind of sex that comes with whips and chains and leather.
Daddy, who has political ambitions, refuses to react to this provocation, even though his daughter and his principal aides are behaving with flagrant disregard for army regulations about fraternization. He seems to have no fear of exposure. So, with the help of her only close friend, a closeted homosexual army shrink, his daughter stages a re-enactment of the rape, which involves her being spread-eagled, naked, and staked out with tent pegs in the middle of the base in the middle of the night. To this theatrical entertainment, her unfeeling father is invited so that he can—well, we’re not quite sure what he is supposed to do on finding his daughter thus exposed and vulnerable. But what he does do is turn his back on her and drive away, leaving her helpless and naked in the middle of the night. There she is discovered by one of her more disgruntled lovers, whom she proceeds to taunt until he kills her. Sure. Must happen all the time.
What provides the twist in this otherwise familiar scenario is that it has a point to make which (I think) is meant to be appealing to conservatives. The reason, that is, that the general is persuaded not to pursue and punish either his daughter’s rapists or her murderer is that the accompanying publicity would, it is thought, produce a public backlash against women in the military. It is certainly true that there is abundant reason for believing that the powers that be are terrified of defying or resisting or even slowing the political impetus towards further feminization of the armed forces. The Navy’s craven response to the Tailhook affair and the facts that have emerged about the death of the naval aviator, Lt Kara Hultgren, are evidence enough of that. But what might have been a sympathetic treatment of the argument against female soldiers and sailors discredits itself by the fantastical nature of the lurid drama in which it is set. It also makes no attempt to understand the case against lady warriors and presents their anonymous detractors as motivated by nothing but jealousy and resentment of those who “have to squat to piss.”
Or is it that men, serving beside women in the field, won’t be able to prevent themselves from raping them? I don’t know which characterization of the conservative case is more offensive. But it should be pretty clear to anyone watching the film that the point about women in the forces, such as it is, is little more than an excuse for the sensational appeal of the weird sex-and-death stuff on the one hand and for the pretty standard issue witty dialogue between the odd-couple team of detectives that crack the case. This is Paul Brenner (John Travolta), a warrant officer with the Army’s criminal investigation division and Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe), a rape counselor who is also, for some reason not quite made clear, authorized to flash a badge. And what do you think? The two of them are former lovers and cannot agree who ended the affair. Now they are wittily embittered with each other and mock resentful of having to work together. “We’ll always have Brussels,” says Paul. See what I mean about the witty dialogue? And yet somehow you know that they still care for each other. Deep down inside. Stop me if you’ve heard this one.