John Travolta, Battlefield Earth, and Scientology

John Travolta's Alien Notion

He Plays a Strange Creature In a New Sci-Fi Film, but That's Not the Only Curious Thing About This Project

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 1999; Page G01

MONTREAL Something otherworldly is happening inside Hangar
12, something they're trying to keep secret. But we can tell
you this much: John Travolta is involved, and so are space

Soldiers have secured the perimeter. "Warning: This
establishment is under permanent surveillance by the
military police," a sign says. Absolutely no trespassing, by
order of Canada's minister of national defense.

But through the 10-foot-high chain-link fence topped with
triple strands of barbed wire, you can spy pieces of weird
aircraft. They look like menacing insects. Occasionally a
large, hairy creature will amble into view. 

It's only a movie, the authorities say. The Canadian
military is simply renting a secure facility to Travolta and
his film crew. Here is the official story:

Inside Hangar 12, they are making an $80 million sci-fi epic
called "Battlefield Earth." Travolta, the co-producer, stars
as a nine-foot-tall alien overlord with glowing amber eyes
set in a grotesquely elongated head. He has hooklike talons
for hands. "Planet of the Apes" meets "Star Wars": Travolta
as you've never seen him before.

Okay. But what's the real story? At the end of the
millennium, you can't believe press releases. On the
Internet, startling allegations are flying: about an
invasion fleet deployed from the Marcab Confederacy; about
mind-control implant stations set up on Mars; about the
parallels between the top-secret teachings of the Church of
Scientology and the novel "Battlefield Earth" by Scientology
founder L. Ron Hubbard.

So is "Battlefield Earth" a recruiting film for Scientology?

Nonsense, Travolta says. The movie, he keeps telling
reporters, has absolutely, positively no connection to
Scientology. No sirree. 

Travolta's publicists refused several requests from The
Washington Post to interview the star. See, he's already put
it all on the record:

Since 1975 he has been a devotee of Scientology, an "applied
religious philosophy" that claims millions of adherents. He
credits Hubbard, the late science-fiction author, for all
his worldly and spiritual successes. The actor believes that
Hubbard's teachings and writings hold mankind's hope for

Travolta calls "Battlefield Earth" one of the most popular
books published in this century. He has been trying to make
it into a movie for 15 years. But until now, he's told
reporters, he didn't have the Hollywood clout to do it. The
film will be distributed and marketed with backing from two
major studios--Morgan Creek Productions and Warner
Bros.--and is scheduled to open next May.

"The truth of why I'm doing it is because it's a great piece
of science fiction," Travolta has said. "This is not about
him [Hubbard]. . . . I'm very interested in Scientology, but
that's personal. This is different. This has nothing to do
with Scientology."

But maybe this has everything to do with a cult: a paranoid,
insular group that refuses to answer further questions from
the press because it hopes to wring as much money from the
public as possible and doesn't believe in giving away its
secrets for free. It's about a hierarchy that hopes to
dominate the world with its propaganda and turn us all into
robotic supplicants.

In other words, it's about . . . the movie business.

Dwelling Among the Stars

Who doesn't love John Travolta? Who wouldn't want to be
Travolta? He earns $20 million a picture, owns four homes
and four airplanes; he jets around the world with his
beautiful actress-wife, Kelly Preston, whom he is constantly
kissing in the vicinity of tabloid photographers. The couple
periodically lands to make movies and pose on magazine
covers and promote their movies, giving interviews about how
much they love each other.

John has given Kelly a bit part in his pet project. Like
him, she'll play one of the Psychlos--the horrible monsters
in "Battlefield Earth." The Psychlos are pitiless fascists
who have turned Earth into a prison planet in which humans
are hunted and killed for sport.

"I have a huge head, and I walk on these stiltlike legs,"
Preston recently told TV Guide's online edition.

She, too, embraces Scientology, saying it has "cleaned away
everything that was unwanted in myself." Other celebrities
say the church keeps them off drugs and provides balance in
the roller-coaster world of show biz. Newly arrived L.A.
dreamers sign up for courses, hoping to make connections
that will get them out of those bellhop jobs at the Mondrian
and onto the big screen.

Church counseling relies on a battery-powered contraption
called an "E-meter"--a lie detector-type device invented by
Hubbard that supposedly helps members locate sources of
mental and spiritual distress. Scientology says its
therapies can make people smarter, healthier, more

It seeks, in Hubbard's words, "a civilization without
insanity, without criminals and without war"--an ideal also
espoused by Travolta.

But there's a reason the church is often called
controversial. In France this month Scientology staff
members were convicted of fraud. A German court ruled that
Scientology used "inhuman and totalitarian practices." A
California appeals court branded its treatment of one member
"manifestly outrageous." (His award of $2.5 million for
"serious emotional injury" was twice upheld by the U.S.
Supreme Court, but he has never been able to collect.)
Scientology believes such findings are the result of
religious intolerance.

Church policy letters show that Scientology wants to
eradicate psychiatry and psychology, as well as gain
control, or the allegiance, of "key political figures" and
the proprietors of "all news media." Its avowed goal is to
"Clear the Planet"--that is, to turn everyone into a
Scientologist who has achieved the level of "Clear" through
Hubbard's books, drills and E-meter.

Celebrities are key to the crusade to clear the planet.
Hubbard realized in Scientology's early days that the public
adores and mimics celebs--not because they're necessarily
intelligent or enlightened, but because they're rich and
famous. In 1955--five years after publishing his cornerstone
text, "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health"--he
ordered followers to bring stars into the fold, knowing
their magnetism would attract ordinary pew-packers.

If Isaac Hayes, Tom Cruise, Jenna Elfman, Kirstie Alley,
Lisa Marie Presley and Chick Corea all groove on
Scientology, then it must be, well, groovy. Who wouldn't
want to dwell among the stars?


Writing "Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000,"
Hubbard revisited the space operas he'd churned out for
pennies a word before he started his own religion. It weighs
in at 1,050 pages in paperback and is considered by sci-fi
fans to be Hubbard's last good work, written while he was in
hiding in 1980. (He died at age 74 in 1986.)

Hubbard had disappeared to escape the scandals that engulfed
his church in the late '70s. Scientology was besieged by
lawsuits alleging fraud, brainwashing and criminal conduct,
and was tarred by the indictment of several top officials
who had infiltrated federal agencies, bugged an IRS meeting
and burgled files the government kept on the group. Hubbard
himself was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1978
criminal case; his third wife, Mary Sue, was sentenced to
four years in prison for orchestrating the schemes.

He turned to writing what he called "pure science fiction."
But it's not difficult to see connections between his
fiction and his religious teachings. 

For those who pay enough to achieve its top levels (as
Travolta has), Scientology offers a secret cosmology
centered on intergalactic travel, space battles and
encounters with aliens. Traditional faiths may embrace
visions of Heaven and Hell, redeemers and miracles, but
Hubbard says all those were merely "implanted" in humans by
extraterrestrials eons ago.

Since the early '50s, the founder's sacred writings have
focused on his belief that Earthlings are the pawns of
aliens. Hubbard taught that the psychiatric
establishment--which always looked askance at his
theories--was not just a present-day evil, but a timeless
one. In a distant galaxy, alien "psychs" devised implants
that would ultimately wreck the spiritual progress of human
beings, he said. The psychs and their "blackened souls," he
preached, were to blame for all crime, violence and sin.
"They destroyed every great civilization to date and are
hard at work on this one."

In "Battlefield Earth," Hubbard writes that the ruthless
Psychlo race was the tool of a medical cult that implanted
metallic capsules in Psychlo babies' skulls so they grow up
to become sadists. He writes that these "mental
doctors"--called "catrists"--made up the "real, hidden

Psychlo . . . catrist? It doesn't take a degree in semiotics
to make the connection.

"Battlefield Earth" wasn't the first time Hubbard mixed
themes from Holy Writ and blazing ray guns. In 1977, he
penned a screenplay titled "Revolt in the Stars," featuring
an intergalactic overlord named Xenu and his psychiatric
advisers, Stug and Sty. They carry out a holocaust by
rounding up "unwanted" beings from every planet and
transporting them to Earth, where they are put in volcanoes
and slaughtered with atomic bombs. This extermination
operation, which occurred 75 million years ago, is called
"Phase III."

The plot of "Revolt" mirrors a sacred Scientology text
called "OT III" (which stands for Operating Thetan Section
III). It is revealed to Scientologists only after they pay
tens of thousands of dollars and undergo many hours of
intensive "processing" to prepare them for the Xenu message.

The scripture--widely leaked by disgruntled
ex-members--describes how the exterminated alien beings were
fused into clusters in the volcanoes and attached themselves
to human spirits. To become truly free, Hubbard teaches,
parishioners must detect these aliens and get rid of them
using the E-meter device. (To do this, you hold a metal can
in each hand and focus on a point in the body where a
sensation or pain is perceived.)

"Revolt" was shopped around Hollywood in late 1979 but never
made it to the screen. Undaunted, Hubbard turned his
imagination to a book he titled "Man, the Endangered
Species"--later to be called "Battlefield Earth." Also
around this time, a young actor named John Travolta began
his journey into the uppermost levels of Scientology,
learning about the secret agenda of the aliens, the
implanters and the psychiatrists.

Secrets of the Universe

In the summer of 1974, Ernest Borgnine took a role that, for
an Oscar winner, must have marked a low point. Made up to
resemble a demented goat, he played Satan in "The Devil's
Rain," a cheesy horror flick being shot in Mexico. Also on
the set: John Travolta in his first movie role. He had lines
like "Blasphemer! Get him, he is a blasphemer!"

Heavily influenced by his mother, a suburban New Jersey
drama coach, Johnny Travolta grew up something of an acting
prodigy; as a teenager he aced auditions for Broadway roles
and for TV soaps, and toured nationally in the musical
"Grease." But when he came to Los Angeles to break into
films, he was just another struggling no-name.

"He was in need of friends. He was depressed. . . . It was a
very lonely time for him," actress Joan Prather later told
Rolling Stone magazine. Prather, who also appeared in "The
Devil's Rain," gave Travolta some Scientology books while
they were in Mexico. By 1975 he was relying on Hubbard's
E-meter to handle his neuroses instead of continuing to see
a therapist.

"It made sense to me right away because it seemed like a
means of self-help," the actor is quoted as saying in the
biography "John Travolta: Back in Character," by Wensley
Clarkson. "A meter shows you when you're responding to a bad
experience in your past. You find the source of pain,
acknowledge it, deal with it."

A lackluster student who had dropped out of school after the
10th grade, Travolta declared that he didn't need a formal
education: "Now I'm into Scientology, the science of the
mind." By 1980, Travolta told Rolling Stone, he had achieved
the state of "Clear," which he described as "cleansed of
unwanted feelings and mental images."

As he rocketed to fame in the sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter"
and such movies as "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease,"
Travolta became a revered figure at Scientology's Celebrity
Centre in Los Angeles, which was established to expand
Hubbard's teachings into the artistic world. He was
identified in a church photograph as an Operating Thetan--a
super-being who could claim powers beyond the heightened
awareness and intelligence levels achieved by "Clears."

He was unlocking, as he later told a Scientology
publication, "the secrets of the universe." 

Operating Thetans learn about the evil Xenu, survive the
so-called "Wall of Fire" and begin to divest themselves of
alien infestations. The revelation that humans are
controlled by alien spirits prompts some Scientologists to
quit the church, but to others it confirms Hubbard's genius.

Travolta stopped taking Scientology courses for about a year
and a half after reaching the Operating Thetan stage. He
expressed dissatisfaction with the church's management,
which was then undergoing purges and an onslaught of
negative publicity for harassing its enemies.

"I don't believe in the way the organization is being run,"
the actor told Rolling Stone in 1983. But he called
Hubbard's teachings "pretty brilliant. . . . I try to
separate the material and the organization."

He rallied to Scientology's defense in the mid-'80s after
juries awarded former followers millions of dollars for
fraud and mental abuse they say they suffered as church
members. (One judgment was upheld on appeal, and others were
settled out of court.) When some of the sacred
scriptures--including the Xenu story--ended up in a court
file, 1,500 Scientologists crammed the courthouse to block
public access to the documents. In 1986 Travolta himself
marched into Los Angeles Superior Court, hoping to make a
pro-church speech in the case where the documents had been
revealed. (The judge instructed Travolta to sit down, and he

Detecting Enemies

He's legendary among reporters for being a gracious and
accommodating interview subject, known to give a hug or
offer to relieve a sore throat using Scientology techniques.
Many acquaintances talk of Travolta's warmth and kindness.
But he shows a more pugnacious side when talking about
church enemies--described in Hubbard's writings as
"suppressive persons." Skeptical journalists, ex-members who
sue Scientology, government investigators or family members
antagonistic to the sect would all qualify.

Travolta has taken special courses to help him detect
enemies. "I don't think anyone should be tolerant of
suppressive acts," Travolta said in a 1990 interview with
the church's Celebrity magazine. "I no longer doubt when I
am in the presence of suppression. And I am very
unreasonable about it."

In Scientology writings, a suppressive person deserves no
mercy. He may be "deprived of property or injured by any
means by any Scientologist," according to a 1967 Hubbard
policy letter. "May be tricked, sued, or lied to or

Travolta never speaks about such policies in mainstream
publications. Nor does he mention his Operating Thetan
status, which, according to church teachings, gives him the
ability to control "matter, energy, space, time, form and

Travolta renewed his OT studies in the 1990s after teaming
up with fellow advanced-level Scientologist Kirstie Alley
for the "Look Who's Talking" pictures. In 1996, he told a
Scientology magazine about a new course he was taking called
"L10"--which, according to church literature, helps
Operating Thetans "unleash potentials not seen in this
sector of the galaxy for a long, long time." (Price: $1,000
per hour.) At the time, Travolta was starring in
"Phenomenon," playing a lunkhead who, after a presumed alien
encounter, becomes a genius with superhuman powers.

In the same Celebrity interview, the actor cited the
popularity of his '90s films "Pulp Fiction," "Get Shorty"
and "Broken Arrow" as evidence of his "upwards statistics,"
thanks to Scientology. But he has never publicly faulted
Hubbard's teachings for his career lows. According to
Scientologists, the founder's technology can never be wrong.

Travolta's career seemed to enter a death spiral in the
1980s. "He was poised on the edge of oblivion," Clarkson
writes in his otherwise gushing biography. "He was accepting
bad parts, and turning down good ones, with unerring
consistency. By 1989, he was seriously considering a new

His comeback was launched when he accepted the role of a
heroin-addicted hit man in ultra-violent "Pulp Fiction,"
directed by Quentin Tarantino. The filmmakers were offering
Travolta a fee of only $150,000. According to some former
Scientology insiders, the church wasn't enamored of the
grisly role. None of that deterred him.

"It is a very anti-drug, anti-crime story," Travolta told
Celebrity in 1993. "It shows the brutality and crudeness of
it all."

The part won Travolta his first Oscar nomination since
"Saturday Night Fever," and good scripts started coming his
way again. Soon he was commanding fees in the millions. In
1994 the church named him as L. Ron Hubbard's "personal
public relations officer" at a Los Angeles ceremony, and he
has since become its best-known disciple.

(When quizzed in recent interviews about the impact of gory
imagery and murder in his last film, "The General's
Daughter," Travolta said he didn't think the media inspired
anyone to commit acts of violence. What's to blame for
crime, he declared, are psychiatric medications. He
mentioned Prozac and Ritalin. It was pure Hubbard-speak:
Psychiatry causes crime.)

In 1996, after winning a Golden Globe award for "Get
Shorty," Travolta acknowledged and quoted "a great man, L.
Ron Hubbard." Later, backstage, he told reporters he wanted
to make a movie of Hubbard's life. 

A Subtle Strategy

When Hubbard's swashbuckling epic was published in 1982,
Scientologists immediately saw parallels to the life of its
author. Some figured Hubbard had based its fair-haired hero,
Jonnie Goodboy Tyler--who almost single-handedly liberates
Earth from the vile Psychlos--on himself. 

"This was Hubbard building his own mythology," says Gerry
Armstrong, a former Hubbard aide who lost faith in the
founder in 1981 and left after a dozen years on staff.
"Hubbard had developed his own hagiography."

In "Battlefield Earth"--the book and the movie--Tyler takes
on the head of the Psychlo security force, Terl, who lords
over a mining operation on Earth. Terl rounds up humans and
feeds them a diet of raw rats. He is obsessed with spying,
blackmailing and manufacturing evidence to be used against
his enemies. (Some who had known Hubbard and personally felt
his wrath detected traits of Hubbard in Terl, too.)

Soon after the book came out, Hubbard autographed a copy for
Travolta, says former Scientology public relations official
Robert Vaughn Young. "I delivered it into his hands," Young
recalls. "I am sure that Hubbard wanted John to play Jonnie
Goodboy Tyler. It surprised me to learn that, as it ended
up, he was going to play Terl."

(This summer, at his only news conference about the movie,
Travolta said he'd always wanted to be Tyler but too much
time had passed. "I'm too old. . . . Imagine me, as fat as I
am, running around with guns.")

No matter what Travolta's role, disaffected former
Scientologists say the movie will serve to boost the
church's membership and reinforce Hubbard's anti-psychiatry
message. But Young--who worked as an image-builder for the
church for 20 years before he became disgruntled and quit in
1989--detects a more subtle strategy.

"In one sense, John Travolta is right--this is not a book
about Scientology," he says. "But it's a way for people to
discover Scientology. It's a lead-in."

Scientology officials have been hoping to see "Battlefield
Earth" made into a movie since at least 1984, when they
unleashed a 30-foot-high inflatable figure of Terl on Sunset
Strip as part of a publicity blitz. A director was hired and
auditions were held in Denver, but the project fizzled. 

Around that time, Travolta first took interest in making the
movie. He just didn't have the juice in Hollywood to pull it
off. Over the years, the script went through about 10
revisions. In 1998 Travolta contacted Corey Mandell, a
33-year-old screenwriter who had worked with Ridley ("Blade
Runner") Scott but had yet to get a script produced.

"I am not a Scientologist," Mandell declared in an interview
with The Post. "I came on board because John asked me to
read the book and said, 'It's not a religious book. It's a
science-fiction story. There's nothing sacred about the
story, nothing of the religious philosophy.'

"I was given this to read purely as science fiction--to see
whether it was intriguing as a movie. And it was."

Travolta and his longtime manager, Jonathan Krane, arranged
financing and distribution. They hired Roger Christian, who
had worked with George Lucas on "Star Wars: Episode I: The
Phantom Menace," to direct.

"It's the pinnacle of using my power for something,"
Travolta told the New York Daily News in explaining how he
came to finally make "Battlefield Earth." "I can get things
done that a studio might not normally do. I told my manager,
'If we can't do the things now that we want to do, what good
is the power? It's a waste, basically. Let's test it and try
to get the things done that we believe in.' "