For those of us who were part of the unique community of University of Wisconsin students and enlightened faculty, residents and outsiders, and other anti-Vietnam War activists in the ’60s and early ’70s, it has been difficult to explain what it was like to be in Madison then. Fortunately, two people who were there, Glenn Silber and Barry Alexander Brown, made The War at Home, a seminal documentary about that time in the state capital when passive demonstrations gave way to street combat.
Their Oscar-nominated film includes rare archival TV-film footage, fascinating interviews, and compelling analysis of both the Dow demonstration in 1967 that radicalized thousands of students and the ill-fated, late-night bombing of the Army Math Research Center in 1970 that killed a graduate student. It made its world premiere in Madison in 1979 and is just as relevant today politically (while satisfying our nostalgia craving).
Indeed, a 4K restoration print just played at the New York Film Festival and this Friday it begins a week-run at the Metrograph, at 7 Ludlow Street in Manhattan. Then it will play in Detroit, San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Portland, and Chicago as part of a national rollout.
Don’t miss it on the big screen. Although the film is specifically about Madison in the protest years, it will be appreciated by everyone around the country who was in the Antiwar Movement and/or who has marched since Donald Trump took office. Significantly, it reminds us that sustained protest can be effective.
Watch the trailer:
Last week, Barry Brown, who is best known for editing Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Inside Man, and BlacKkKlansman, was in Alabama trying to get a film about civil rights activist Bob Zellner off the ground, but I was fortunate to sit in a New York diner with Glenn Silber, a two-time Emmy winner and two-time Oscar nominee, for this lengthy conversation about the history of the film.
Although we probably marched shoulder to shoulder 50 years ago, and have countless mutual acquaintances from our Madison days, we had never met.
Danny Peary: I’ve always been grateful to The War at Home because it is the only film that documents a major time of my youth, from 1967 to 1971, when I was a student and an anti-Vietnam War protester at the University of Wisconsin.
Glenn Silber: When I introduce the film at a festival or event, including in Madison, I say, “The War at Home is a number of things but for me, it’s also the story about my youth as a college student, because through the process of being in Madison in the ’60s and ’70s, I became the person I am today.
DP: When were you a student at UW?
GS: From 1968 to 1972. I came to Madison as an unformed, uninformed, suburban baby boomer from West Orange, New Jersey. Because of the war and the draft, if you went to the University of Wisconsin at that time, you became politicized very quickly. The day after I arrived on campus, someone from the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union slipped a leaflet under my dorm room door about organizing against the draft. And I went to a meeting in Ogg Hall with about 100 people. I became increasingly political as a result of the war and living in Madison from the fall of ’68 through the time I was working on this film.
DP: In those years, many of us went to classes or, if there was an issue, protested during the day, and went to movies on campus almost every night. Were you part of the film scene?
GS: I was very interested in film, and saw all those great movies that were being shown by various film societies on campus. But I dropped out of college after my second year, after the bombing of the Army Math Research Center that killed Robert Fassnacht. I was rattled by that but I was already planning on dropping out. That was in August of 1970, but you remember what it had been like in May of that year. With the protests after the killing of four Kent State students, I felt it was time to take a break.
My girlfriend and I went to Europe and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. My parents back in New Jersey, were understandably distraught. I got back in the winter of 1971 and, thankfully, I went back to Madison because I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I’d been doing a lot of photography and it kind of hit me like a lightning bolt: I was going to get into film. I signed up for a production class, laser-beamed into filmmaking and never looked back. I was going to be a filmmaker.
DP: There were many film societies—I ran one myself with Karyn Kay—and I saw hundreds of films and learned so much about film history while at UW, but there was no film department and there were no real opportunities to make film.
GS: There was no filmmaking. I remember there being one room in Bascom Hall where there was a Moviola. Still, I made my first two 16mm films there. The first was a 15-minute black-and-white short called The Common Market about an idealistic food co-op; that’s a pretty nice little film that you can see online. The other short was—how I can I put it—an “educational comedy” called Grow Your Own, which was fun to make during the summer when I was getting ready to graduate.
DP: Did you remain in Madison after you graduated, as many people did?
GS: After I graduated in the Summer of ’72, I moved to Milwaukee, where I had taught film appreciation for eight weeks to high school students as part of my practice teaching in the School of Education. I returned there to live with a girlfriend and her one year old baby in a house with others, but less than a year later, I moved back to Madison to try to start my film career, which didn’t really exist yet. In Madison, I was part of a community video group called People’s Video for a couple of years when small-format, B&W portable video came in and we had the beginnings of cable-TV access channel.
I also I fell in with friends who were part of the Karl Armstrong Defense Committee after he was caught in Toronto in February 1972 and returned to the U.S. in March of ‘73 and imprisoned. So when Jane Fonda, Phil Berigan and others came to town and were willing to talk for us, I’d usually be the one to run them around to the local media. I’d bring them in for an interview in the basement of one of the churches by the library mall. I think Pat McGilligan [the one-time editor at The Daily Cardinal who would become a major writer of film biographies] was working there. Pat, who was from Madison, and I became friends around Karl Armstrong.
My group was People’s Video so I’d video the press conferences and interview whoever came to town to defend Karl. I did that till he was sent to prison in the Fall of 1973. A few years later, after Pat left Madison for Boston I took over as Karl’s only non-family visitor in Waupun State Prison for about two or three years.
DP: Were you thinking of making a feature documentary about Karl Armstrong at this time? Or him and the rest of “The New Year’s Gang” responsible for the bombing—his younger brother Dwight Armstrong, who was captured in 1977, David Fine, who was captured in 1976, and Leo Burt, who never was found?
GS: No. My idea was always to tell the Madison story as a microcosm of the national Antiwar Movement. I had loved Emile De Antonio’s political documentaries like Rush to Judgment, In theYear of the Pig, and Millhouse: A White Comedy, about Nixon’s early career, so I contacted him somehow and went to see him in New York around mid-1974. He had an office in the Movie Lab building on West 54th that was more like a jail cell because he liked to be isolated when he was working.
I thought he might want to make a film about Madison because he had the right politics for it. I was thinking perhaps I could convince him to do the film and maybe be his associate producer or co-producer. We hit it off and he said, “Glenn, this is a superb idea. I know all about the Madison story and Karl Armstrong, and think it has to be done. But I’m not going to do it. You’re going to do it.”
I thought that the film would require that we also show what happened at Columbia University in their ’68 student strike, and some of the antiwar protests at UC Berkeley. But De Antonio’s best advice to me was, “Glenn, don’t leave Madison’s story in your film, stay there. You don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Go the opposite way. Focus on what happened in your town.”
My father had died unexpectedly a year earlier, and for the next eight or 10 years D’ would be my mentor and kind of a father figure to me. I listened to him and by 1975 I had committed to do this film myself.
DP: What were you thinking? That you had to make this movie because…
GS: My motto that I said to myself, half-jokingly, was, “I will try to save the world with epic documentaries.” That was my goal. My third film, El Salvador: Another Vietnam , which was made as El Salvador was becoming a bloodbath during the U.S. intervention to suppress its Civil War, came even closer to that. With The War at Home, I wanted to make a film that would reach out to the people who had experienced this seven- or eight-year period and had been part of the Antiwar Movement. I wanted to people to remember and identify. And I didn’t want to wait years and let someone else tell our story.
DP: The war was over, Watergate was over, Nixon had resigned, and things were quiet, so did you ever think you had missed your time?
GS: No. My idea politically for the film, because the war had just ended on April 29, 1975, with the fall of Saigon, was to tell the story that millions of people had participated in and, by the end of the war knew clearly they had been on the right side. It had been a nightmare in which more than 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese died thanks to the warmongering policies of Johnson, McNamara and Nixon.
DP: Did you think it was a plus for your film that by this time they were all considered villains by a huge part of the population?
GS: I didn’t really think about that. They each get a soundbite in the film; but they weren’t on my radar. My film was going to be about the Madison Antiwar Movement.
DP: In the Press Notes, Barry says you wanted to make this film so your kids could see it. But I’ve always been grateful for your making it for those of us who were there during those protest years.
GS: That thing about “making this film for our children” was a bit of a conceit. We were in our mid-20s and weren’t thinking of having children yet. We just knew that this was history that we were living through and we needed to save it. If I thought of anything, I felt we had a great story—and it was about telling our story and the struggle to preserve the historical memory of that critical period in American history.
DP: Did you start by gathering material?
GS: I was living with three other people in a small house on East Dayton Street and spending a lot of time at the Wisconsin Historical Society trying to get a sense of what they had about the years I wanted to cover. George Talbot, a big burly guy, was the head of its Iconography department, which included photos, and a film department, and he was helpful, but it was shocking how little there was there that I could use.
I was getting frustrated when George approached me, and said, “Hey Silber, this could be your lucky day.” He said the Historical Society had just received a huge collection of all the local news film that was shot by one of Madison’s TV news affiliates, WKOW-TV, from 1959 to 1972. That was good news. But Talbot then said it had been stored in a hot shed and when they went to pick it up there were mice running around.
And it had all kinds of local TV news stories, ranging from perhaps a dairy producers convention, to a car crash on I-80 outside of town, to a story about 30 people demonstrating against the bombing in Vietnam on the library mall. But the collection was a total mess and nothing was indexed.
He said, “If you want to go through this mountain of material or if you can find a film researcher to work with you, here’s what you have to do to get what I can give you: I need someone to go through every single story, date and write a thumbnail for each story, clean the film, and fix the bad splices. If you do that, I will give you, free of charge, complete access for your film. It was like a “sweat equity” deal to which I, of course, readily agreed. It was indeed the luckiest day of my young professional life.
DP: Where was Barry at this time?
GS: Boston. Pat McGilligan had just moved there to take a great job as the Arts Editor for The Real Paper, an alternative weekly. And he was living with Barry Brown, who was his best friend at Madison West High School.
GS: When I met Barry in Madison, he’d had a small part in an Andy Warhol film, I think Flesh. He was the first person I ever met who had been in an actual movie.
GS: He also had a tiny part at the end of Joe . He played a hippie kid who pleads, “Don’t kill me!” just before Peter Boyle blows him away at the end of the film. Barry didn’t seem like he was really all that political back then. He wasn’t a filmmaker at this point, but he wanted to be one as passionately as I did, and this film was his chance. I needed a researcher to help, because our doing a good job with the huge TV news archive was critical to our moving forward. He was willing to move from Boston back to Madison. He moved in with Kenny Mate, who is interviewed for our film as the co-editor of an underground paper called Takeover.
DP: Did you want someone to make this film with you?
GS: Not exactly. I didn’t see Barry as a co-director then. I saw him as a film researcher. I wasn’t inviting him to be my partner. I’d already made two short 16mm films and worked with my video group, People’s Video on cable access TV for two years, so I’d had five years of limited production experience and thought I knew what I was doing and the story I wanted to tell.
DP: When you approached the research, was there any realization you had?
GS: In order to do the documentary we wanted to make, we had to understand everything that happened in Madison from the ’60s on and to understand where that fit within the context of the war.
DP: Barry wasn’t the only one you hired to do research.
GS: He was the only one I was hoping to be able to pay. There really wasn’t any money to pay anyone else, at least not at first. Eventually the other two local TV stations donated their old film to the Historical Society so Barry had a big, important job to go through that material—and he was doing a great job. I later had a couple of friends from the UW-Madison sign on to do historical research on the Madison Antiwar Movement with me: Bob Newton and Ken Weiss.
With our two research buddies, we produced a really good 100-page treatment by the end of 1975. Then the four of us went off to a cabin somewhere for two or three days and as we went through it, Barry would say, “Okay, I have footage for that.” And he’d describe it in some detail—and we’d write it in italics into our film treatment to show what events actually existed on film or in photographs. It is a crucial lesson that when you do a film like this, you have to do your archive footage research first, before you shoot a single frame of interviews. Because once you know what exists on film, you can search for people who were there, and interview them to bring out their involvement in these events, their motivation, and what was going on in detail.
We were living hand to mouth at this time, but in 1975 in Madison, $200 a month would cover rent, gas, food, everything. However, in order to make the film, we had to hire a professional cinematographer to shoot our interviews, so we circulated the treatment to raise money because so far, I had raised none.
My first cousin, Alan Silber, who is a criminal defense lawyer, sent the treatment to an activist lawyer friend of his to see if he could help. By the end of the year I had finally raised $2,000 from a friend with a little family money and $1,000 came from Alan’s promising to do some legal work for a senior partner of his law firm. The treatment was then given to a 60 Minutes cameraman named Dan Lerner. I learned later that he was so sympathetic to us because his father had been a blacklisted film editor in Hollywood. So he and his assistant camera, Rick March, agreed to do it.
They came to Madison and stayed at my house while I slept on my couch, and we shot interviews for four or five days. Among them were former student antiwar leader, Paul Soglin, who was serving his first term as mayor of Madison; his Mayoral Assistant and former investigative journalist Jim Rowen; Quaker peacenik Betty Boardman, who was part of my video group and the only female in a group that sailed to Vietnam to deliver medical supplies from America during the war; and others. We shot about eight or 10 of the 22 interviews that would be in the movie. I did all of the initial interviews on film.
DP: When did Barry switch from becoming an archivist to a partner?
GS: While I was working on The War at Home, Emile de Antonio said to me, “There is another film that you really need to make. I did Point of Order showing the fall of Wisconsin’s most famous demagogue, U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, but remember, he died when he was only 47 and all of those people who helped his rise to power are still alive, out there in Wisconsin—go get them!” He told me to read Jack Anderson’s book McCarthy: The Man, The Senator, and the “ISM.” “That’s your road map.”
So now I divided my time between The War at Home and writing the proposal for the McCarthy documentary. I was being supported by the Wisconsin Educational TV Network, which was like all the PBS stations in the state. The number-two guy there liked me and was excited by the Joseph McCarthy idea, and that film project eventually received a grant for $84,000. That was the full budget to make this documentary on the rise to power of Joe McCarthy in Wisconsin, and later in the U.S. Senate.
Barry and I were driving to Chicago one day to do research on McCarthy and he brought up the idea that he should be my partner on The War at Home—because he’d “earned it.” I certainly needed his help and he’d already worked with me on the film for a year and a half for next to nothing, as I had. So I said, “OK.” I think if I had thought it through a little harder, I would have said, “OK, you can be co-director, but not co-producer,” because he’d never raise any money for the film, which is the producer’s job.
In any event, we now had something like eight hours of interviews shot on film by a really good cameraman, but it was still a struggle because of money. I had a girlfriend, Jeanne, whose father lived in Milwaukee and had made a small fortune in real estate there. She was in my video group and we were close. So I met her parents and really hit it off with her father. He liked my idea for the film and asked what he could do to help me. I said I needed a $10,000 loan so we could open a bank account and get credit cards with $300 limits and organize the material.” So he loaned me the money. We lived on that money for nearly a year-and-a-half.
Once the McCarthy film came through, that’s what I mostly focused on. Barry was the associate producer on that, doing some of the film research. We were making progress.
Because we had a connection with the Wisconsin Educational TV Network, which included PBS, we were, like ”Government” TV—and that was very helpful in terms of lining up interviews. So when I called Ralph Hanson, who was in charge of the University of Wisconsin Protection and Security, and later, Madison Police Department Chief Inspector Herman Thomas, they agreed to be interviewed. Both interviews were pretty amazing.
Barry interviewed Hanson, who was candid about the events chronicled in the movie, and Thomas talked openly on camera about how he set up the police undercover operations against the Antiwar Movement, having his operatives sign their reports using covers named after “breeds of hogs.” It was incredible! We got all these great interviews because we were doing it for the state, and because the Antiwar Movement had been such a huge story in Madison—for the better part of a decade—and I think these people we talked to also knew they had played an important role in that history.
DP: When you interviewed Ralph Hanson and Herman Thomas, did they seem proud of their role in battling student protestors?
GS: I’m not sure about Hanson, but Inspector Thomas probably was proud of his role fighting the Antiwar Movement in Madison. He felt he held the line against people who were trying to somehow “take over” the city. With Hanson it seemed as if everything was directed at him. In the footage, we even see a protestor throw a punch at him during the Dow police riot that he had allowed to happen when he called in the City Police.
Later, when I came back to University Protection and Security, I got to look at all of their undercover photos because even though we were making an independent film, I could say, “We’re with WHA-TV.” So they’d say, “Okay, come on in.” I spent about two hours looking at hundreds and hundreds of photos of antiwar activists in Madison taken by undercover cops, some of which are in the film.
At one point, I’m starting to glaze over, and a campus cop, who was there to be my minder, points to a picture and says, “Hey, look at that. It’s Karl Armstrong.” There were three shots of Karl Armstrong in a December 1969 anti-Army Math Research Center protest. It’s worth nothing as an editorial aside that after Karl was captured in Toronto in February 1972, the whole theme of the government was that he was never involved in any protests, had nothing to do with SDS or AMRC, that the bombing was not a political act and that he was, in their words, an arsonist who took advantage of the movement to blow up things.
DP: Did making the McCarthy film for PBS give you cachet in regard to The War at Home?
GS: Even more than cachet, it gave us cash. Now that we had some money we could start to edit the interview material with some of the great archive film Barry was finding. So for about $200, we bought a broken-down 1965 Chevy van that Barry found, which we called “the Catalyst van” because my company was Catalyst Films, and drove it to New York City to pick up a Steenbeck editing machine that Barry got a really good deal on, and brought it back to Madison. We rented our office, literally, in the basement of a radical bookstore on East Gilman Street for $50 a month. We operated out of that dank, dark basement editing room/office for two years. I spent my mid-late 20s in Madison, not having much fun because I was so focused on the film. I wasn’t really even into the whole Watergate scandal. I wasn’t obsessed with the news back then and didn’t even own a TV. I just focused on work. The War at Home took four and a half years to make.
DP: When did you decide you had enough archival footage and new material to begin post-production?
GS: By 1976, we had something like 40 or more rolls of unexposed film. I brought it back to New Jersey where my parents lived and while I tried to raise money to get it processed, it stayed in my parents’ basement refrigerator, where it sat for about six months. I was introduced to Irwin Young, the President of DuArt Film & Video lab in NYC who told me to bring in the footage immediately. A few days later he had the work print for me. Irwin later told me, “You’re lucky that the film wasn’t ruined in the refrigerator. Don’t ever do that again. If you need to get your negative film processed, I can help you out to protect it from going bad.”
We didn’t start editing until we had a work print and sound and something to edit. Around that time the McCarthy film got funded and I was mostly working on that because it was a valuable, fully-funded project that was also paying Barry and our editor to work on what became The War at Home.
Three years later, we had a rough cut of the film that was something like two hours and 20 minutes long. That’s 40 longer than the final version. Barry and I disagreed about its length. I thought it was way too long and he was defending the length and we weren’t getting anywhere. Later, when we were almost done with the film, we had a group of five or six documentary filmmakers come in for a critical screening. They loved what they saw and we had a very energized conversation about it.
As the filmmakers were leaving, one of them said, “This is going to be great. I’d be willing to see it again when you get it under two hours.” And that’s when we both finally recognized and agreed we had to get busy and make some major cuts to save the film. Barry is certain that when we had to make radical cuts, it wasn’t that we cut out 40 minutes over a week or 10 days to bring the film down to 100 minutes. He says we bit the bullet and cut 30 minutes in just 3 days! So, after slaving away on the film for four-and-a-half years, we cut almost a quarter of it in 72 hours and saved it from disaster.
DP: Do you remember anything that was painful to cut?
GS: We cut out all kinds of stuff on various topics, always trying to narrow or our focus. For example, we had some brilliant footage from 1968 about this group called “The Milwaukee 14.” They were mostly from the local clergy and carried out what was like a military operation to break into the Milwaukee Selective Service office and remove all the draft files. They called in the media and TV news cameras rolled as the clergy poured gasoline all over the files, lit them on fire, and sang religious songs as they were arrested.
We had this whole scene that was so cinematic and brilliant. And we cut it. It didn’t happen in Madison, so it couldn’t be part of our film. And I cried because I loved it so much. So the only times in the film we went outside of Madison were to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, because Karl Armstrong went there to protest and was beaten by Chicago police, and the National Moratorium in Washington D.C. in October 1969, which I went to.
Our film was about conflict from start to finish and it wasn’t hard for us to dramatize to protest Nixon’s escalation of the war. But following Emile de Antonio’s advice to me, we were correct to keep it focused on Madison because I feel that telling the story with a microcosmic approach gave the film its value and strength.
DP: Were you always going to do the movie chronologically?
GS: Yes. It had to be that way. I felt, and Barry agreed, the only way anyone can understand the story is to see how things unfolded step by step and grew dramatically, as it did in the Madison movement.
DP: Did you ever contemplate having a narrator?
GS: No. Partly because of De Antonio—and also that wasn’t the style of the moment. But I’ll tell you what has haunted me. My film on Joseph McCarthy was very well received, was featured in TV Guide, and later won a duPont-Columbia Silver Baton, which is a very big prize for a national TV production. But on reflection, I think the mistake I made with that film is that we did not use narration. I realized that a couple of years later, when I saw Ken Burns’ film Huey Long, about another famous American political demagogue. When I saw it, I really thought that I had a better character, a more important story and better coverage of it, coming in at 84 minutes. But I thought Ken made a better film because he used narration and structured it in a stylish way.
DP: So you finished The War at Home and I was shocked that it received an Oscar nomination. Not because of the quality of the film, but the politics. I do think that voters were receptive of your film because by then most everyone accepted that the war had been wrong and that Johnson and Nixon were villains.
GS: After The War at Home was finished, and successful, I moved to L.A. in 1980. We opened the film there at the Fox Venice Theater and it got great reviews in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. Don’t forget this was only four years after the war ended. The film received the Oscar nomination we had dreamed about, and would have won if it didn’t go against the all-time most honored documentary, Best Boy.
Kevin Thomas of the Times wrote that it was between the two films. So we set up a film company to distribute it. It did well at festivals and a couple of years later it played on PBS. And we thought that was the end. I made only one big mistake: and that was not agreeing to a good deal that was offered by its founder, Karen Cooper, to play it at the Film Forum in New York City. She wanted to play it in June, but we wanted to open the film in March when we thought we had a good chance at an Oscar Nomination for Best Feature Documentary. We opened in New York, which cost us a ton—and we and our distributor lost a lot of money.
DP: When you were cutting the film, my guess is that you never thought of deleting the first part of your movie, about the early protests in what was a quiet, upstanding Midwest college town.
GS: That’s right. I thought the film could function on its own as a period piece. Paul Soglin was very good in recalling that early period, because he was there and had the right political sensibility regarding the zeitgeist of that time. Paul was actually there at the very first anti-Vietnam war demonstration, in October, 1963, captured on film no less, where many of the young, male demonstrators are seen wearing sports jackets and ties. He recalls in the film that he was at the first demonstration against U.S. policy in Vietnam of more than two people and he is amazing! I never thought there would be footage of the 1963 demonstration.
Can you imagine, that from that demonstration in October 1963 to just four short years later, when UW students are getting their heads cracked open by Madison cops in October 1967 at the Dow demonstration. When did the Madison Antiwar Movement start to pick up? Soglin talks about there being two or three hundred people who were organized and mobilized by ’65 in the aftermath of McNamara’s “Operation Rolling Thunder” bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese. They were to become the core of the Madison Antiwar Movement.
Soglin is important to our film. In fact, the original title of the treatment we circulated was All of Us after an editorial he wrote in the aftermath of the bombing of the Army Math Research Center in August, 1970. That was our working title for years.. He wrote very eloquently, “These appear to be the guys who did it, but it’s really on all of us.”
There were other key interviews. A very important one with Jack von Mettenheim, who led Madison’s “Businessmen Against the War.” He had moved from Madison to Seattle so I flew out there to interview him. He had experienced Nazi Germany as a teenager and was arrested and sentenced to death before he escaped, so it was important for us to have him to talk about what he saw in Madison in the 1960s; what he saw happening to America in the context of the war in Vietnam; and why he understood Karl Armstrong’s motivation, which he always did.
DP: It was impactful to also see Ernest Gruening, the 86-year-old former U.S. Senator from Alaska who always spoke against the legitimacy of the war, defend Karl Armstrong. I think that was you interviewing him for your video group a couple of years prior to when you started making your movie. It’s amazing that you documented that.
GS: I’m so glad you said that. I think Ernest Gruening does a better job of articulating what happened at the Gulf of Tonkin than Ken Burns’ recent epic The Vietnam War TV series did. I told you that when people came to Madison to testify for Karl, I’d interview them. Senator Gruening and Wayne Morse of Oregon, were the only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that Johnson used as a pretext to expand the war by sending tens of thousands of ground troops to Vietnam and massively bombing North Vietnam.
When I asked him on camera why he had come to Madison to support Karl Armstrong who was about to be sentenced to 23 years in prison, Gruening told me, “Mr. Kunstler asked me to testify for Mr. Armstrong. Just think, because we were lied into this war by Johnson, 55,000 of American boys are dead, and it is the duty of every American who knows these facts to protest. And Karl Armstrong was one of those protestors.”
DP: That’s how I felt. They killed one innocent person and injured three others and we were really upset that happened—as they were—but we had to embrace them as part of the movement, and as being one of us. We all needed to accept partial responsibility for what they did.
GS: That clip of Gruening is all that survived of the many hours I shot with half-inch, black-and-white video. I was so green that I didn’t know you could actually kinescope half-inch video.
DP: Did you realize you had something special?
GS: It’s different when you’re there and getting an interview and two years later when you’re editing the film and trying to figure out where that moment fits in. I was just 23 when I did that interview. I did know that the Gulf of Tonkin was used as a pretext to dramatically escalate what was, really, an illegal, undeclared war. The U.S. government spent close to a trillion dollars and lost more than 58,000 American kids, and our political “leaders” never had the courage or the decency to actually declare war on Vietnam.
DP: It makes sense that the centerpiece of your film is the Dow demonstration, because that’s when everything changed.
GS: The demonstration that turned violent on October 18, 1967, against Dow Chemical’s recruiting on campus, wasn’t only the turning point in the Madison Antiwar Movement, but I consider it one of the most important demonstrations of political resistance in the history of the national Antiwar Movement. By the fall of ’67, the UW students’ political consciousness about the war had been raised for two years over the widespread use of napalm in Vietnam—burning people to death with this highly flammable petroleum gel, delivered by airpower, was, of course, something we in the Antiwar Movement considered to be a war crime.
In February ’67 there had been a demonstration against Dow, napalm’s manufacturer, and everyone played nice, simply holding up placards with photos of Vietnamese children who had been burned by napalm. But having this despicable corporation come back onto the campus to recruit students to be future napalm-makers was an outrage. If the University and Dow had been a little smarter, they’d just have moved their corporate recruiting in a hotel off campus, like most recruiting is done, and they would have gotten away with it.
There’s this photo of a guy holding a sign in the film which reads, “Confront Dow in Madison. Confront the Real Warmakers in Washington DC.” As a result of what happened in October in Madison, the movement changed from protest to resistance. Up until that week, the Antiwar Movement was still pretty much living in the land of non-violent, civil disobedience, following the Civil Rights Movement’s tactics. Dow changed all that in Madison.
DP: One of the optimistic things about the film is that we see more and more people being beaten and tear-gassed yet afterward there are even more people marching.
GS: As Paul Soglin points out in the film, “All of a sudden all these middle-class students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison are being beaten and clubbed. And there was a lot of politicization that took place when the cops just let go with everything they had.” Classes were changing at the time the Dow demonstration became violent and instead of there just being a few hundred students seeing what the police were doing there were three or four thousand students being affected by this thing.
DP: I know at that demonstration, many apolitical students, many from Wisconsin, came out of their buildings and saw their fellow students being bloodied by vicious police who had come on their campus. They could keep their distance from that, but not from the tear gas that blew into their faces. That changed so many of them forever.
GS: Dow was a radicalizing event. That sit-in in the Commerce Building was an organized event. My wife, Claudia Vianello, and I made a documentary on the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and they were in town when that demonstration happened.
DP: The Mime Troup performed at the Union Theater the night before and I remember one of them saying, “I’m going to be at the demonstration against Dow recruiters tomorrow. Will you?” And the next day, a couple of them led a march up Bascom Hill, drums beating, and then disappeared as we students filed into the Commerce Building.
GS: After the demonstration, someone, I think a police spokesman, said, “Reports will indicate that a squad of Madison policemen were sent to the Commerce Building and were met by an angry, vicious mob of 300 or more protestors led in some cases by outside agitators, from other states.”
DP: That became a constant theme of the police, the university and conservative politicians. Everything was instigated by outsiders, especially Jews from New York, many who were, supposedly, paid.
GS: I think that guy was referring to the San Francisco Mime Troupe radical theater company. And, in a sense, he may have been right. We used to laugh about that on-camera statement in the film, but it was not until we made our documentary on the Mime Troupe five years later that I realized that.
DP: Protesting could be exhilarating and gratifying. But there were times it was frustrating to protest against the war in Madison because it felt like no one elsewhere was paying attention. Did you have that feeling we were isolated?
GS: I didn’t because my world was Madison. I certainly knew that Berkeley, Columbia and Ann Arbor, Michigan were also on fire. But even the violent protests after the murder of four innocent students at Kent State weren’t the most compelling protests for me. The high point for me as an antiwar protester was the several days of demonstrations in Madison in May, 1972, after Nixon mined the ports in Hanoi and Haiphong at a time we thought the war could finally be brought to an end.
Those were some of the most violent demonstrations in Madison and I was part of that. There’s this tendency to think that the bombing of the Army Math Research Center two years before killed everything. It was certainly destructive, tragic act that killed an innocent young man and also did great damage to the Antiwar Movement; but there was still a strong corps of people protesting the war. There was also a growing sense of community in Madison, where a lot of people moved off campus and stayed after graduating.
DP: In the film, you could have had Karl Armstrong say anything from the interview you did with him. You chose to have him narrate what happened to him at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, which made him decide to no longer be a non-violent resistor; and, when looking into the camera, say he is remorseful for the bombing of the Army Math Research Building because it killed someone.
GS: I didn’t know what he was going to say. He was and is remorseful and he has good reason to be—given that the unintended consequence of his actions killed a 33-year old graduate student who was working in the building that night. That wasn’t the New Year’s Gang’s plan. They did the bombing at 4:23 a.m. on a Sunday in the summer between semesters, called in a warning, which was ignored, to University Protection and Security to get them to clear Sterling Hall. Their plan was to destroy the Army Math Research Center, give themselves up afterward and have a political trial. They expected to go to jail for 10 years to protest the UW’s involvement with the war machine. If it had happened as planned, they would have been considered heroes by many in the Antiwar Movement. But the death of Robert Fassnacht changed all that because it was used against the Antiwar Movement.
Karl Armstrong is one of the central figures in our film. He had never been interviewed. He was in The New Year’s Gang with his brother Dwight and they had done some outrageous acts, leading up to the bombing. I didn’t feel I had to defend his action in order to understand it was born of the pain and tremendous frustration many felt seeing B-52 bombers drop tens of millions of tons of bombs on Vietnam—more bombs than were dropped by the U.S. during the entire Second World War. The bombing of the Army Math Research Center is part of history of the Madison Antiwar Movement and in the film we tell the story of how it came to happen.
Part of the story you may not know is that the film actually got him out of jail. The film opened at the Majestic in Madison, and the theater manager said the theater owners wanted me to invite the mayor and the Madison City Council, to the world premiere. One guy who came was a young libertarian Republican city councilor from the 5th District who most of us had never heard of. Apparently, he was extremely moved by the film because four years later he put in a resolution at the City Council meeting that Karl Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine, and Leo Burt should be “pardoned” for their actions.
Karl had just been denied parole. The City Council, which wasn’t even a particularly liberal one at that time; changed his language from “pardoned” to “paroled” and they voted 13-8 in favor, and, with the help of Representative Robert Kastenmeier, Karl walked out of jail five or six weeks later. It was amazing. That was winter of 1980. He had served seven years of his 23-year sentence.
DP: Why did you choose to end the film with Karl Armstrong’s father speaking?
GS: We didn’t have a strong ending we could agree on. I had gotten close to Karl’s family and and at the end of the day, we felt that his father, Donald Armstrong, represented the so-called “Silent Majority” that Nixon liked to talk about and who, he claimed, were the real Americans who supported his massive air war. Donald had gone through hell seeing his sons get caught up in what happened. He was a classic “Greatest Generation” kind of guy. He came home from the war, got a job in a factory, raised a family with three kids—and it all blew up in Madison, Wisconsin. So we felt, all things being equal, we’d give him the last word since he’s talking about his own transformation as well.
We know from seeing the film that there was a lot of controversy in the early years. Protesters were chastised for not understanding the Asiatic mind and being stupid and being unpatriotic. The Dow demonstration was called “un-American” by right-wing Wisconsin state senator Gordon Roseleip. It took a while for the country to wake up. But they did wake up and, in the end, being anti-Vietnam War became the majority sentiment.
DP: What happened to your film after its initial release and Oscar nomination?
GS: As time passed, we got a distributor for schools and put out a DVD. My life progressed.
I had two great kids. I worked for CBS News in L.A. for seven years. Then I moved to New York had 13 very good years with ABC News. I did that to make a living because I wasn’t making a living as a “radical filmmaker.” That was rough after 12 straight years of making award-winning films.
Four years ago, we moved from New Jersey to Santa Fe, New Mexico, but I wasn’t really connecting to the community for the first couple of years, until the huge Women’s March across the U.S. after Trump got elected. All of a sudden, this little berg I had moved to had something like 8,000 people marching downtown against Trump’s inauguration and I finally realized I was living in a pretty progressive place and connected to it. So, I took the DVD of The War at Home and walked into an arthouse cinema and introduced myself as a new New Mexico filmmaker. I told the programmer at the Jean Cocteau Cinema that the film was very much in synch with the marchers, but it never opened theatrically in Santa Fe.
The programmer loved the film and so we played it as a “test run” and it did well enough to be held over for a second week. What was astonishing to me is that people who saw it for the first time or had no recollection of seeing it were not just inspired but empowered by it. People came out of the theater on fire, having seen a long resistance campaign that had confronted two war-mongering presidents—who I’d argue were taken down by the movement. I later showed my other Oscar-nominated documentary, El Salvador, and it felt good to be considered a radical filmmaker again.
DP: How did the 4K restoration of The War at Home come about?
GS: After the test run in Santa Fe, I thought, “Wow, The War at Home is ready for an Act II, and this could be my contribution to the Resistance today.” I called the Film Forum arthouse cinema in New York and explained to Karen Cooper that we were going to re-release the movie, and maybe we could show the film there, after my turning down her offer 38 years earlier. Karen was receptive to the idea, but film programmer Bruce Goldstein said that the only way the Film Forum would show it for more than a day was if it was restored to a 4K Digital Cinema Package, DCP.
I thought about that and by a lucky coincidence, an old friend and colleague of mine, Sandra Schulberg, who was one of the original distributors of The War at Home, contacted me and told me about this great non-profit company called IndieCollect that she’d set up for the sole purpose of remastering older, faded 16mm and 35mm films to 4K restorations. Sandra is the niece of Budd Schulberg and is someone I consider to be the “godmother” of the independent film movement.
IndieCollect was in the process of restoring a number of dramatic and documentary films, including The Atomic Café; and I decided we needed to have it done, so I contacted Barry and he agreed. We worked with Sandra on the restoration of the film. We raised the $16,000 we needed—40 of the 45 donations came from my old Madison friends and UW alums—and got the process going. All told, it took a year to restore the film from its 16mm origins. After it was in process, I reached out to several distributors and got one not-great offer. So we decided to do it ourselves, beginning with a Kickstarter campaign to raise the minimum amount we needed—$35,000—to cover the costs of re-releasing the film this fall, during the run-up to the midterm elections. I hired a great publicist and Jasper Basch to be our film booker, and we were off to the races.
DP: It just played at the New York Film Festival, will play for a week at the Metrograph here in New York beginning Friday, October 12, and then will expand to many other cities.
GS: So far, my company, Catalyst Media Productions, is distributing the film. I booked it into the Metrograph, and Jasper has already got the film booked into good, week-long playdates in Detroit, San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Portland and Chicago. We got into the New York Film Festival because of Jake Perlin, who runs the Metrograph. He was so excited to book it. He saw it as a teenager and fell in love with it and that has carried to this day.
When Barry and I sat down with him, he said, “I want to help you launch your film. I have a secret plan for it.” Barry and I looked at each other. “Number one, I want to try to get you into a major film festival to announce that The War at Home is back for real.” He got us into the New York Film Festival, right before it played at his theater. He said, “This is special for me so I want you to try to make it into an indie cinematic event. Go get Michael Moore and your high-profile friends to do the Q&A with us.”
So I got Michael Moore for the opening on Friday night. I got my friend Alex Gibney to come in Saturday, former Columbia ’68 Strike student leader Mark Rudd to come after the screening on Sunday, and “Democracy Now” TV Host Amy Goodman for Monday night. That’s not bad! Let’s see if it works.
DP: Were you anticipating the audience reaction to your film?
GS: It’s astonishing to me how well it plays today. Now, I really do feel that we should show it to our children. Because the millennials have no clue about what happened in the 1960s, other than the classic rock. But when you think about it, maybe it’s not their fault. Think about it. We’re now as far away from 1968 as we were in 1968 from World War I. Does that put things into perspective?
DP: A lot of people now, including women and students, aren’t following a tradition of political demonstrations, but have the good instinct to protest.
GS: The last time our country was this polarized was around 1968, when so much was going on. The growth of the Antiwar Movement, Black Power, the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy winning the Wisconsin Democratic primary because of his opposition to the war, the Chicago Convention, the election of Nixon, the continued dramatic escalation of the Nixon’s air war. At that time, we young women and men, with some self-interest no doubt, created a political culture that is the foundation of what we have today.
If we hadn’t had those experiences in the ‘60s, I don’t think we would have had massive Women’s, Climate Change, and Anti-Gun Violence marches. I think you can actually draw a direct line from ’68 to ’72 to now. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Presidency was destroyed by Vietnam—and the movement against it. Only this week did we learn from declassified documents, unearthed by Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss, that General Westmoreland had a plan to move nuclear weapons into South Vietnam in 1968!
If he wanted to do that, then he was obviously considering using them. LBJ killed that potential nightmare scenario shortly before he decided not to run for office again—I think it was the national Antiwar Movement that prevented Johnson from approving such a thing. And, as I said earlier, I think it was ultimately the Movement that got rid of Nixon. He became so paranoid about his “Enemy’s List” and everything else that he basically self-destructed.
DP: What is your goal with the film this time around?
GS: If we can get the film out there, we can really remind people that the Antiwar Movement at its core was a sustained, eight-year political resistance campaign with one goal: to stop an insane, criminally-prosecuted war. So when we’re tearing our hair out and freaking out about the current occupant of the oval office and his abomination of an administration, I hope seeing The War at Home will compel people to take action, and take to the streets when necessary and make a difference until we take back our democracy from this fake President.
It has to be well-organized and determined—and we have to learn the lessons of the ‘60s. We can’t be violent or blow up buildings; especially in a post-9/11 world that would lead to fascistic response. If people see the film, today, I think we can begin to have the conversation that has been missing from the narrative about resistance, and how we can make it work. People need to know that just going to a demonstration will not get it done. The challenge is to get this film seen not only by aging baby boomers, but by millennials and other new audiences.
We have a non-theatrical distributor who will try to get it back onto college campuses. I believe The War at Home plays stronger than ever. Re-releasing it now is a way to preserve and restore the historical memory of what we experienced and learned in the Vietnam Era and pass the torch to a new generation. I guess we can finally say, “We made The War at Home for our children.”
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies,Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).