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 Jim Webb
Starring Tommy Lee Jones
Samuel L. Jackson
Music by Mark Isham
Cinematography William A. Fraker
Nicola Pecorini
Edited by Augie Hess
Release dates
  • April 7, 2000 (2000-04-07)
Running time
128 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $60 million
Box office $71.7 million

Rules of Engagement is a 2000 American mystery war-drama film directed by William Friedkin, written by Jim Webb 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.


In 1968, Operation Kingfisher, a disastrous American advance in the Vietnam War has 2nd Lt. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) executing an unarmed prisoner in order to intimidate a Vietnam People's Army officer into calling off an ambush of U.S. Marines. His act thereby saves the life of wounded 2nd Lt. Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones).

In 1996, Col Hodges is about to retire from the Marine Corps, and is reminiscing about his years in uniform. As a result of wounds he sustained during Operation Kingfisher, he was no longer able to continue as an infantry officer, so the Marine Corp sent him to law school and he continued his career as a JAG officer. He subsequently enters the Camp Lejeune Officers Club, where numerous Marine officers wait to honor his service at a pre-retirement party. Hosting the event is his old friend, Col Terry Childers, who is now the commanding officer of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).

Subsequently deployed to Southwest Asia as part of an Amphibious Readiness Group, Col Childers and his embarked MEU are called to evacuate the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from the embassy grounds, as a routine demonstration against American influence on the Arabian peninsula and in the Persian Gulf turns into rock-throwing and sporadic automatic rifle 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 with more gun fire following. Childers then 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), pressures the military 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 subsequently approaches Hodges and asks him to be his defense attorney at the upcoming tribunal. Hodges is reluctant to accept, knowing that his record as a JAG officer 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.

With little time to prepare a defense, Hodges visits Yemen only to find an uncooperative government and firsthand account of the serious injuries the crowd members endured. 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, in particular Capt. Lee (Blair Underwood) who hesitated to follow Childers' order.

Sokal is determined for him to be convicted and is met by the overzealous prosecutor, Major Biggs (Guy Pearce) who believes Childers to be absolutely guilty. Sokal at one point, burns a videotape of security camera footage revealing that the crowd were indeed armed and firing 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.

Col. Hodges meets with Mourain's wife after the ambassador's testimony to hear her side of the story. Although she admits Childers had been valiant, she refuses to testify and destroy her marriage.

Back 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 — had been delivered to Sokal's office, but 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.

Capt. Lee is grilled on the witness stand by Major Biggs, and despite trying to give favorable testimony, leaves doubt of Childers' innocence.

Childers himself eventually takes the stand, with he and Biggs locked into a fierce verbal battle. Biggs produces a tape which contains the recording of Childers' poor choice of words when giving his order. While defending his actions, Childers loses his temper while stating that he would not sacrifice the lives of his men to appease the likes of Biggs.

Already at an advantage, the prosecution presents the Vietnamese colonel who witnessed Childers execute a POW in Vietnam, Colonel Cao, as a rebuttal witness, trying to drive home the idea that Childers is malicious. Hodges cross-examines him and gets him to testify that had the circumstances been reversed, Col. Cao would have done the same thing. After the trial, Hodges visits Sokal and asks him what had happened to the tape; Sokal denies its existence and Hodges replies "Have you ever had a pissed off Marine on your tail?"

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 Dismissal from the Service, similar to a Dishonorable discharge for enlisted personnel) and murder (eligible for life imprisonment, and even the death penalty). A final title card reveals that no further charges were brought against Childers, and that he retired honorably from the Marine Corps. The title card also explains that both Sokal and Mourain lost their jobs after being convicted of destruction of evidence and perjury respectively.



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, Nokesville, Virginia, Warrenton, Virginia (military base scenes), Hunting Island, South Carolina (Vietnam scenes), Mount Washington, Virginia (Gen. Hodges' estate scenes).[1]



The film received negative reviews upon release, with Rotten Tomatoes giving it 36% 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-Muslim 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]