The General’s Daughter

The General’s Daughter, based on the novel of the same title by Christopher Bertolini which in turn is constructed from a true story, is a powerful film about discrimination against women in the military, recalling the publicity over the Tailhook incident and similar exposés. Directed by Simon West, the film takes place at a Fort MacCallum, Virginia, where a woman employed in the psychological warfare unit is killed. Paul Brenner (played by John Travolta) and Captain Sarah Sunhill (played by Madeleine Stowe), of the base’s criminal investigation division, are summoned by General Campbell (played by James Cromwell) for instructions on how to investigate the murder. The general’s adjutant, Colonel Fowler (played by Clarence Williams III), informs them that in solving the case, “There are three ways of doing things: The right way, the wrong way, and the Army way,” meaning that a scapegoat should be found quickly so as not to tarnish the reputation of the general, who is being considered for the vice presidency. The most exciting element of the film is the investigation, which goes farther than the “army way.” Brenner first discovers that the victim is Elisabeth Campbell, the general’s daughter (played by Leslie Stefanson), and tapes hidden in her home reveal that she is a dominatrix who has enjoyed mind games with many military personnel whom she has chained and strapped in her basement. Further investigation takes Brenner and Sunhill to a psychiatrist at West Point, and filmviewers are led to believe that the daughter’s sadomasochism was a psychological adjustment to the post-traumatic stress resulting from an incident during a military exercise while a cadet at West Point, where she was held down, spread-eagled, tied to four stakes in the ground, and gang-raped. She never got over the fact, when she needed compassionate support, that her father told her to forget the incident due to the deleterious impact that a public accusation of gang rape would have on the armed forces in general and the military’s effort to recruit women in particular. Her murder in the film occurred when she tried to assume the nude spread-eagled position on the ground at the Virginia military base in a vain effort to get her father’s attention, but one of the original rape attackers saw her on the ground and killed her. Titles at the end of the film note that 200,000 women now serve in the U.S. armed forces and predict that soon women will occupy every position now held by men, but the sidekick role assigned to Sunhill belies the apparent message. Presumably, severe criminal penalties and the “right way” of investigating allegations of rape will deter future male harassment of females in the don’t-ask-don’t-tell military, or so the film would have us believe. For the aim of alerting the public to the seriousness of the problem of sexual harassment in the armed services, The General’s Daughter is the third film of 1999 nominated by the Political Film Society for an award in the category of human rights. MH