Rules of Engagement (film)

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Rules of Engagement
Rules of Engagement Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by William Friedkin
Produced by Scott Rudin
Richard D. Zanuck
Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan
Story by James Webb
Starring Tommy Lee Jones
Samuel L. Jackson
Music by Mark Isham
Cinematography William A. Fraker
Nicola Pecorini
Edited by Augie Hess
Release dates
  • March 31, 2000 (2000-03-31)
Running time
128 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $60 million
Box office $71.7 million

Rules of Engagement is a 2000 American war-drama film directed by William Friedkin and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson plays U.S. Marine Colonel Terry Childers, who is brought to court-martial after men under Childers' orders kill a large number of civilians outside the U.S. embassy in Yemen.

James Webb, to whom the story is credited, is a former U.S. Marine combat officer, lawyer and U.S. Secretary of the Navy. Webb later served as a U.S. Senator from Virginia.


The film opens with Operation Kingfisher, a disastrous American advance in the Vietnam War, and shows Lt. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) execute an unarmed prisoner to intimidate a Vietnam People's Army officer into calling off an ambush of U.S. Marines, thereby saving the life of Lt. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones).

The movie jumps to 1996; Col. Childers and his Marine Expeditionary Unit are called to evacuate the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from the embassy grounds, as a routine demonstration against American influence in the Persian Gulf turns into rock-throwing and sporadic fire from nearby rooftops. After escorting the ambassador to a waiting helicopter, Childers returns to the embassy to retrieve the American flag; meanwhile three Marines are killed by snipers on nearby rooftops. Childers, after appearing to see firing from crowd below, orders his men to open fire on the crowd and "waste the motherfuckers", resulting in the deaths of 83 civilian protesters and injuries to over 100 more.

Back in the States, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Bill Sokal (Bruce Greenwood), decides to proceed with a court-martial to try to deflect negative public opinion about the United States, shouldering all the blame for the incident onto Childers, and salvage American relations in the Middle East. Childers still keeps in touch with Hodges, whose life he saved. Hodges is now serving in the U.S. Marine Corps Judge Advocate Division, and Childers asks him to be his defense attorney at the upcoming tribunal. Hodges is reluctant to accept, knowing that his record is less than impressive, and Childers needs a better lawyer. But Childers is adamant, because he would rather have an attorney who has served in combat before.

Most of the evidence is stacked against Childers, particularly the fact that no-one else in his team can testify to having seen gunfire coming from the crowd, and his poor choice of words when giving the order to open fire. Sokal is determined for him to be convicted and, at one point, burns a videotape of security camera footage revealing that members of the crowd had been armed and fired at the marines; evidence that would potentially exonerate Childers. He also blackmails the ambassador Childers rescued, Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley), into lying on the stand and saying both that the crowd had been peaceful and that Childers had been violent towards him and his family during the evacuation. However, at the trial, Hodges presents a shipping manifest proving that a tape from an undamaged camera which had been looking directly into the crowd—the tape Sokal had burned—has been delivered to Sokal's office, but has failed to show up at the trial, arguing that this tape would have been damning evidence against Childers if it had, in fact, shown the crowd was unarmed. Also, when the prosecution presents the Vietnamese colonel who witnessed Childers execute a POW in Vietnam, Col. Cao, as a rebuttal witness (arguably a violation of Rule 404 of the Rules of Evidence concerning character evidence, which prohibits the prosecution from presenting evidence of a defendant's character trait to show that the defendant acted in conformity with that trait except when the defense has already presented evidence of that character trait; Rule 404 is applicable to military courts), Hodges cross-examines him and gets him to testify that, had the circumstances been reversed, he would have done the same thing.

The film ends with Childers being found guilty of the minor charge of breach of the peace (for having disobeyed his order to just show his Marines' presence), but not guilty of the more serious charges of conduct unbecoming of an officer (eligible for a Dishonorable Discharge) and murder (eligible for life imprisonment, and even the death penalty). A final titlecard reveals that no further charges were brought against him, and that he retired honorably from the Marines. Sokal is found guilty of spoliation of evidence and forced to resign, while Mourain is charged with perjury.



The script was based on an original screenplay by James Webb, who developed it with Scott Rudin. William Friedkin was hired to direct, but then had trouble collaborating with Webb on rewrites of the script. Rudin passed the project over to Rickard Zanuck, who then hired Stephen Gaghan to work on the screenplay. Webb hated Gaghan's work and frustrated the filmmaker's attempts to get cooperation from the Department of Defense. Eventually this was obtained. Location shooting took place in Morocco.[1]



The film received mixed to negative reviews with rotten tomatoes giving it 37% with some critics stating 'the script is unconvincing and the court room drama dull'. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee described it as "probably the most racist film ever made against Arabs by Hollywood".[2]

Director William Friedkin, however, dismissed accusations that the film was racist:

Let me state right up front, the film is not anti-Arab, is not anti-Moslem and is certainly not anti-Yemen. In order to make the film in Morocco, the present King of Morocco had to read the script and approve it and sign his name ... and nobody participating from the Arab side of things felt that the film was anti-Arab. The film is anti-terrorist. It takes a strong stand against terrorism and it says that terrorism wears many faces ... but we haven’t made this film to slander the government of Yemen. It's a democracy and I don’t believe for a moment they support terrorists any more than America does.[3]

Friedkin later claimed the film "was a box office hit but many critics saw it as jingoism".[4] He says that James Webb later saw the film on the recommendation of his friend Colonel David Hackworth; Webb then rang Friedkin to say how much he liked it.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Friedkin p 430-431
  2. ^ Whitaker, Brian. The 'towel-heads' take on Hollywood, The Guardian. Friday August 11, 2000.
  3. ^ Films - interview - William Friedkin. BBC. Retrieved on 2014-05-22.
  4. ^ Friedkin p 433
  5. ^ Friedkin p 434
  • Friedkin, William, The Friedkin Connection, Harper Collins 2013

Further reading[edit]

  • Clagett, Thomas D. (2003). "12 Angry Men and Rules of Engagement". William Friedkin: Films of Aberration, Obsession and Reality. Silman-James Press. pp. 363–386. ISBN 978-1-879505-61-2. 
  • Semmerling, Tim Jon (2006). "Attack from the Multicultural Front (2000): Rules of Engagement". 'Evil' Arabs in American Popular Film: Orientalist Fear. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-71342-0. 

External links[edit]