Naval Academy could be film star

Movie: Disney buys rights to idea for script about school's intramural boxing league.

March 21, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

They went by names like Annapolis Farewell, Midshipman Jack and Shipmates Forever, feature films that turned the U.S. Naval Academy into a virtual studio lot in the 1930s and fueled headlines about Hollywood's love affair with "Middy pictures."

But with the demise of the 1957 TV series Men of Annapolis, the academy's star in the entertainment world had flickered out. The nearest the military college has come to the big screen in recent decades was a chase scene in Patriot Games filmed outside academy gates in 1991.

Now, it seems, the Middy picture may be making a comeback.

This month, the Walt Disney Co. bought a movie idea set against the backdrop of the academy's intramural boxing league, a battleground that pits midshipman against midshipman in a clash of guts and willpower.

The story centers on a young man from a hard-luck town who fulfills his dream of admission to Annapolis. Once there, however, he struggles to prove himself worthy of the institution.

Disney bought the "pitch" -- or idea -- for the untitled movie two weeks ago, from a relatively new screenwriter named David Collard.

Movie studios make just a portion of the pitches they buy. But Collard, 30, a Boston native who now lives in Los Angeles, is something of a commodity these days. MGM reportedly paid him in the mid-six figures for his screenplay for Out of Time, a thriller that is set to star Denzel Washington as a small-town Florida sheriff doublecrossed by his lover.

Some experts say the cultural terrain may be ripe for a new crop of movies about military academies, as the war on terrorism lends new glamour to a military establishment viewed warily since the 1960s social and antiwar movements.

Collard's agent said that Collard has yet to begin writing a screenplay for the academy boxing movie, and so questions about film locations and stars are premature. "It is many months too early to tell if there will be filming at the academy or what actors will be attached," Michael Donkis, a spokesman for the Endeavor talent agency in Beverly Hills, said in an e-mail message.

Disney officials declined to comment, saying the company does not talk about movies until they near release. The Naval Academy's spokesman, Cmdr. Bill Spann, offered little reaction to the prospect of movie crews invading campus. "We look forward to hearing more about it," he said.

The Pentagon lets filmmakers onto military grounds and offers access to war machines if it believes a film will build public support for the military and aid recruiting and retention. Pearl Harbor, Behind Enemy Lines, Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers were all made with Pentagon cooperation.

Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Crimson Tide and Courage Under Fire, which portray soldiers as drug users, mutinous submariners or murderers, were not. "One thing that sets off alarm bells for us is when there's wrongdoing portrayed that's commonplace, widespread and unpunished," says Philip M. Strub, the Pentagon's special assistant for entertainment media.

But to judge from Strub's and others' reaction to brief description by a reporter, Collard's film idea appears unlikely to encounter headwinds. The Navy generally supports films that depict "the guy struggling to make it, and the Navy helping him," says Cmdr. Robert K. Anderson, director of the Navy Office of Information in Los Angeles, which reviews requests from the entertainment media for Navy support. "That kind of exposure is very positive for the academy."

Film history

Movies about the academy date to the silent-film era. The musical Shipmates Forever (Warner Bros., 1935) featured the showstopper "Don't Give Up the Ship."

But most faded quickly from public memory. A list kept by the Naval Academy's Nimitz Library shows the sort of fare these movies offered audiences:

Madam Spy (Universal, 1918): Midshipmen break up a German spy ring.

The Midshipman (MGM, 1925): Romantic triangle involving a midshipman, a civilian and a girl.

Salute (Fox, 1929): Brothers attend Naval Academy, West Point, play in Army-Navy Game.

Pride of the Navy (Republic, 1939): A mid is dismissed but attracts Navy's attention with his boat design.

The academy has even had a hand in scriptwriting. According to a 1999 article in the academy's alumni magazine, the producers of the TV series Men of Annapolis agreed to the academy's request to review and approve scripts. The academy withdrew its support after the first season -- and there was no second season.

The TV series, viewed as one of the more realistic portrayals of the academy, is credited with inspiring dozens to mail in applications.

According to the list at Nimitz Library, all but two of the 25 movies and TV shows about the academy in the 20th century were made before 1960.

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