Follow TV Tropes


Film / The General's Daughter

Go To

Sunhill: Why was she murdered?
Brenner: Well, possible motives for murder are profit, revenge, jealousy, to conceal a crime, to avoid humiliation and disgrace, or plain old homicidal mania. Right there in the manual.

The General's Daughter is a 1999 mystery thriller film, directed by Simon West. It was loosely based on a 1992 novel of the same name by Nelson De Mille.

The titular character is Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), a specialist in psychological operations. She is the daughter of Lieutenant General Joseph Campbell (James Cromwell), an ambitious man with political aspirations. Father and daughter serve in a Georgia Army Base. Early in the film, Campbell's nude body is found staked down with tent poles, strangled, and presumably raped. Warrant officers Paul Brenner (John Travolta) and Sara Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe) are called in to investigate.

The investigators soon find out that they have multiple suspects. Campbell was having affairs with most officers on base. The rape and the identity of the rapist no longer seem clear. She was into BDSM and maintained her own sexual dungeon. But looking into their murder victim's background, they discover another mystery.

Elisabeth used to be an honor student at West Point and was considered a prodigy. Then in her sophomore year, her grades slipped. She had barely graduated and seemed to be a much different person after graduation. The big reveal of the film was the reason for it.

The film was a moderate box office hit but a critical failure. Its political views are rather ambiguous, as the plot was less about politics and more about duty and integrity, and what happens when they are not upheld.

This film marked the international debut of the 1999 enhanced version of the Paramount Pictures logo. In North America, it debuted on South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, but the Paramount logo was not seen on international prints of that film as Warner Bros. held the international rights.

This film depends on several significant plot twists, so beware of spoilers.

This page is about the film. For the trope, see The General's Daughter.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Several plot elements in the film were not present in the original novel:
    • Brenner having met Captain Campbell before her murder.
    • Colonel Moore being secretly gay, as well as his subsequent suicide.
    • Brenner and Sunhill managing to solve the West Point rape.
    • Lieutenant Elby never attacks Brenner in the book. He also never slept with Elisabeth. He was just someone the General tried to set up his daughter with, but after she died, he ended up being posted to Guam.
    • In the book, the guy Brenner is investigating isn't trying to sell weapons to some Right-Wing Militia Fanatic, but to some group claiming to want to liberate Cuba. Said militia also never comes gunning for Brenner, so there is no fight in the beginning.
  • Adaptation Name Change: In the novel, Capt. Campbell's first name is Ann rather than Elisabeth. Similarly, Brenner's partner is named Cynthia in the novel, not Sara.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the novel, General Campbell accepts responsibility for ruining his daughter's life and contributing to her death and resigns on his own accord, rather than trying to cover it up to the bitter end and having Brenner expose him. The film also omits his acceptance of his gay son, although that may have been because it would have been a bigger deal in 1992 than in 1999.
  • All for Nothing: One of the General's reasons for the cover-up is that they likely would never be able to bring his daughter's assailants to justice, but the detectives are able to bust them all in a few days despite the trail being years old. However, the reasons why Brenner and Sunhill were able to identify the culprits so quickly were all a result of the time lapse. Campbell's former academy psychologist only revealed the name of one of the culprits after he was distraught by being informed of Campbell's death, and the methods used to get that guy to confess and identify the other perpetrators relied on forensic technology having sufficiently developed in the intervening years to make the threat credible. It's open to speculation how successful the investigation would have been if it were carried out immediately after the fact, and if the military would be willing to break medical ethics in regard to the severity of the crime; in the book, Brenner is confident the case would have been solved promptly had it been pursued, as such an elaborate conspiracy cannot be protected from the scrutiny of a real investigation. But then again, the point was the military, General Campbell included, decided that their image of integrity was more important than actually having integrity. By covering up Elisabeth's rape, they preserved West Point's image, and General Campbell even got a promotion out of it. All it cost them was Elisabeth.
  • Armies Are Evil: Not exactly, since while this film portrays some of the worse parts of the service, it also shows most of the soldiers themselves are normal, hardworking men and women and that it's just a few bad apples who end up doing all the damage... save that the key plot element is that the crimes of those "bad apples" are often covered up instead of prosecuted rather than suffer a scandal. In a flashback, after Elisabeth's gang rape by a group of fellow soldiers back at the academy, the pair of (male) soldiers who find her are both completely horrified. However, high command orders everyone to shut up — and the fact that everyone does keep their mouths shut for years is why Elisabeth goes stark staring mad, knowing that so many of her "comrades" including her father would conceal such a crime if they were Just Following Orders to do so.
  • Artistic License – Military:
    • Brenner tells someone that, "you have no right to remain silent," when Article 31 of the UCMJ allows precisely that. In the book, it was a valid statement. Brenner told the person that he was speaking to, "You are not under arrest and you are not a suspect in this crime, therefore you do not have the right to remain silent and you are required to answer my questions."
    • Psychological Operations or Psy-Ops as it is referred to here, does exist under Army Special Operations Command. However, their mission is primarily the generation of propaganda materials to demoralize enemy troops, or to turn the local civilian populace against an enemy. They do not figure out how to play head games with enemy combatants, as depicted in the movie. A lot of those "mind games" could be construed as dangerously close to torture.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Brenner is able to give Elisabeth the justice she deserves at the cost of his own career. But he makes the correct decision in choosing his own integrity over blind loyalty to the military.
  • Bondage Is Bad: Captain Campbell's sexual practices (seducing her superiors and then engaging in extreme BDSM sessions with at least one of them) are quickly used to establish that she had become mentally unhinged before her death. Brenner can't even stand to look at the tapes she shot, stating that it couldn't be the same woman he met a few days ago.
  • Brief Accent Imitation: At the beginning, while undercover as Sergeant Frank Whyte, Brenner takes on a "Cheesy Southern Accent," as described by Colonel Kent.
    Brenner: The only thing keeping me alive is that cheesy Southern accent.
  • Bury Your Gays: Colonel Moore dies in an apparent suicide shortly after being released from the brig. Later, Brenner realizes that his "attorney" - who conveniently showed up at his house just before his arrest - is actually his lover.
  • Call-Back: "When this whole thing began, I told you that we would find the son of a bitch, Sir. I didn't expect that the son of a bitch would be you."
  • Calling the Old Man Out:
    • The entire reason for Campbell's undermining of her father's position by seducing most of his staff as revenge for the cover-up of her rape at West Point.
    • Subverted by Brenner in an offhand comment when questioned if he liked his own father.
    My father was a drunk, a gambler, and a womanizer. I worshipped him.
  • Cowboy Cop: Brenner disregards police procedure several times throughout the film, most notably not cooperating with the off-base police and having a crime scene crew initially search the victim's house, both of these actions would have helped him in the case much quicker.
  • Daddy's Girl: Subverted. We're initially led to believe that Campbell was an archetypal father's daughter military brat who emulated his choosing a career in the army, but as Brenner and Sunhill discover, they viciously hated each other and evolved into mortal enemies because of him helping cover up her rape at West Point in exchange for a promotion.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: Col. Moore's suicide is staged so he can be used as the fall guy.
  • Dirty Old Man: Colonel Moore is shown to be a rather sleazy sort, having engaged in hardcore bondage sessions with his "student" Elisabeth Campbell.
  • Driving Question: Beyond the Whodunnit of Elisabeth Campbell's rape and murder, Colonel Moore expresses the real driving question of the mystery ("What's worse than rape?") and states that Brenner will truly understand Elisabeth's death once he's discovered the answer. It's personal betrayal.
  • Driven to Suicide: Colonel Kent commits suicide via a Bouncing Betty mine when it is discovered that he killed Elisabeth.
  • Erotic Asphyxiation: Elisabeth got up to all kinds of kinky stuff, this included. There are elements of this in her rape and (consequently) murder, as well, as the perpetrators tied a noose around her neck during the assault, and her cause of death was strangulation.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: General Campbell is a scumbag who profited off his daughter's rape as a means of career advancement, (irreparably damaging her psyche and causing the issues that would later lead to her death), but he's aghast when Colonel Fowler admits to Brenner and Sunhill that he covered up the crime because he believed the General had killed his own daughter.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect:
    Col. Kent: Come up with anything yet?
    Warrant Officer Brenner: Just a preliminary list of suspects.
    Col. Kent: Who?
    Warrant Officer Brenner: Everyone.
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: This exchange:
    Colonel Robert Moore: Then wouldn't it behoove me to retain the services of an attorney? I know a good one.
    Warrant Officer Paul Brenner, C.I.D.: Two problems there. First the obvious: there are no good ones. Second, you're not a civilian, Colonel, you're in the army. You have no rights to an attorney. You have no right to remain silent. And if you don't cooperate, I may have to put you in jail, and that would make me feel really bad.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • While Brenner and Sunhill are looking through Elisabeth's belongings after her death, they see old news photographs of General Campbell holding his daughter in his arms while visiting a recently pacified warzone to prove to the press that the area under his command is now safe. Sunhill notes that the little girl looks terrified. This foreshadows that Campbell is not above using his daughter to advance his own career, ultimately denying her justice by covering up her rape at West Point for his own advancement in the chain of command.
    • Brenner tells Sunhill early on in the film that motives for murder include "profit, revenge, jealousy, to conceal a crime, to avoid humiliation and disgrace, or plain old homicidal mania." Kent murders Elisabeth out of homicidal mania because she told him he meant nothing to her/jealousy that she was sleeping with other men, and then killed Moore to conceal his crime. Elisabeth did what she did to get revenge on her father, the General, and Colonel Fowler, his aide, helped General Campbell to cover up his involvement so that the General could avoid disgrace. Literally everyone's motives are covered by this line.
  • The General's Daughter: Not a straight example, despite the title - Elisabeth tries to invoke this trope in order to discredit her father rather than any of the men under his command.
  • Hate Sink: General Joseph Campbell is responsible for his daughter's downward spiral and ultimately her death. He is shown to care more about his ambitions than justice for his daughter Elisabeth — as well as West Point's image of integrity over its actual integrity. Years prior, Elisabeth was gang-raped by a group of soldiers, and Campbell agreed to help cover it up in exchange for a promotion. When Elisabeth tries to recreate her rape to get him to redeem himself, he refuses and abandons her. As this is exposed, he tries to maintain the cover-up to the bitter end. When Campbell is court-martialed in disgrace, Warrant Officer Brenner cites that it was his betrayal that broke Elisabeth worse than her rape.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Brenner bounces Colonel Moore off the wall of his cell while interrogating him, and later gives Captain Elby a beating in order to get information out of him. It doesn't work on Moore - he doesn't reveal any information until Brenner is walking away - but Elby sings like a canary.
  • Just Plane Wrong:
    • At the beginning of the film, General Campbell is seen arriving on post in a Sikorsky S-61, essentially an H-3 Sea King without its outrigger floats. As its name implies, this aircraft was operated primarily by the Navy and Coast Guard. While some army aviators did fly the type as "Army One" before presidential transport duties were turned over exclusively to the Marines, it would be highly unusual for such a helicopter to be used as an Army general's personal transport, especially in the late 1990s.
    • Captain Campbell's casket is seen being loaded aboard a C-123 Provider. All such aircraft had been retired from even Reserve and National Guard service by the time of the film.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Despite being emotionally shattered by her father's betrayal it is implied that Elisabeth Campbell was this. She was kind enough to help Brenner, a total stranger, with his flat tire, This act gives Brenner a personal stake in solving her murder. She also ran a support group for female military personnel that have to deal with harassment from their male counterparts.
  • Lying to the Perp: When questioning a suspect of the gang-rape, Sunhill pulls out a pair of women's underwear in an evidence bag and leads him to believe that they're Captain Campbell's DNA-evidence-filled underwear from the night of the assault. He promptly starts talking about how he tried to stop the rape and reveals the identities of the other men involved.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Kent fell in love with Elisabeth after she slept with him repeatedly, explaining that he "just wanted to be with her forever." He kills her when she rejects him because, as Sunhill explains, she was too emotionally damaged to love anybody.
  • Mercy Killing: Brenner sees General Campbell's betrayal of Elisabeth by covering up her rape as what really killed her, and that Kent's murder of her just put her out of her misery.
  • Motive Rant: The killer doesn't give his until he's asked. A more eager and unsolicited Motive Rant is made by Col. Fowler, the General's adjutant in an effort to justify the actions of the person he mistakenly believes to be the killer — General Campbell.
  • Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: When Brenner accuses General Campbell of how his Parental Betrayal is what lead to Elisabeth's murder, the general swears he loved her but the complication of her rape at West Point meant he and the other general's had to protect the Army's reputation for women. But Brenner points out he got promoted immediately after, a bribe almost, only keeping silent for the advancement of his career.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: An oddly diegetic example—"O Fortuna" happens to be playing in Col. Moore's home when he's found dead.
  • Parental Betrayal: Turns out to be the key element. General Campbell helped cover up his daughter's rape in exchange for a promotion; he tries to justify it by protecting the honor of West Point, the base where the rape occurred, but he got another star out of it. Elisabeth could probably have recovered from the rape, as she was already smiling at her father when he came back from overseas to visit her. The betrayal was significantly more traumatic, and destroyed her.
  • Phallic Weapon: During a flashback sequence of Captain Campbell's gang rape while at West Point, a soldier is shown stroking the barrel of his rifle in a way that is highly suggestive of masturbation.
  • Plot-Irrelevant Villain: Colonel Kent may have been the one to kill Elisabeth, but other than being one of the men she had an affair with, he played no other part in her downfall. He wasn't one of the rapists or an officer who was involved in the coverup, he was just a jilted lover. When Brenner accuses General Campbell of killing his daughter, he points out Kent is the one who strangled her. Brenner's response is that all Kent did was put her out of her misery and that Parental Betrayal is what killed her.
  • Powerful People Are Subs: Colonel Moore is shown to have been the submissive party in the late Elisabeth's BDSM play, inverting their official mentor-protegé relationship.
  • Promiscuity After Rape: Captain Elisabeth Campbell became a sexual deviant after enduring a horrific gang rape years before during her training at West Point. However, this is revealed to be a subversion: she wanted to get revenge on her father the General, who helped cover up the rape, by seducing most of his staff to embarrass him. The main character concludes that this was the real cause of her Sanity Slippage, not the rape itself.
  • Rape and Revenge: A more elaborate example than usual is the reason why Elisabeth Campbell seduced all of the men under her father's direct command over the course of several years — so she would be able to humiliate the general as vengeance for him covering up her rape. It's even called "an exercise in psychological warfare" by one of the accused. General Campbell actually allows her death to happen because he wants her to stop hurting him.
  • Rape as Drama: The mystery is mostly an excuse. Most of the film focuses on the rape(s), to the point the murder ends up dismissed as a secondary detail by several characters. And ultimately it's defied; As Brenner explains at the end of the film that while Kent killed Elisabeth, in a metaphorical sense her father was the true killer, as he destroyed her as a person with his betrayal.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Brenner spends the whole movie trying to figure out who killed Elisabeth, which leads to an investigation of her rape while at West Point, which was covered up. During his search for truth, he is told by Col. Moore that what happened to her was worse than rape. His response, "What's worse than rape?" is pure this trope. The answer is: Betrayal. The General agreed to help cover up his daughter's rape in exchange for a promotion.
  • Rape Leads to Insanity: Subverted. It turns out that it wasn't her brutal gang rape during military school that lead to the late Elisabeth Campbell's Sanity Slippage. The betrayal of her General father, who refused to investigate the crime further because he thought they wouldn't be able to apprehend the suspects and because he allowed himself to be bought out by his own superiors, was the event that broke her mind and sent her into a downward spiral.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Brenner hits on Elisabeth with a basket full of bath products. Elisabeth doesn't respond that well due to her psychological problems... At first.
    Brenner: I like the pink soaps... I like the skin softener, and I particularly like the bath beads. Sometimes I fill the tub with skin softeners and bath beads. I light a few candles, put on some Coltrane, and soak my troubles away.
    Elisabeth: Very good, First Sergeant. I levied an accusation of sexism at you, and you took it three times around the dance floor.
  • The Reveal: Colonel Bill Kent killed Elisabeth after he became obsessed with her and she rejected him.
  • Secret Room: After the esteemed Elisabeth Campbell's mysterious murder, Brenner and Sunhill investigate her house. Nothing looks out of the ordinary until they find a secret room filled with bondage equipment, revealing Elisabeth's secret sex life and videotapes implicating much of the base's staff.
  • Secondary Character Title: Captain Elisabeth Campbell is the impetus for the plot, but since it revolves around the investigation of her murder, she's neither one of the leads (Brenner, Sunhill) nor one of the bad guys ( Kent, General Campbell).
  • Self-Disposing Villain: When Kent reveals himself to have strangled Elisabeth after he found her tied up, then rejected him after he tried to help, he kills himself by stepping on a landmine rather than face justice.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: Colonel Robert Moore was suspected of having something to do with Elisabeth's murder because they were first name basis friends, and his fingerprints were even found at the crime scene. Not only was he Acquitted Too Late, but he was secretly gay (negating any accusation he was taking advantage of her), and only tied her down as part of Elisabeth's plan to twist her father's arm, and he couldn't talk her out of it.
  • Smug Snake: General Campbell, as he sucks up to Brenner when it seems he can bribe him into covering up his role in hushing up his daughter's rape and later his own involvement in the events that lead to her murder. When Brenner makes it clear he's going to have the general court-martialed, all courtesy and respect goes straight out the window and the general tells him that 'he doesn't have the balls.'
  • Straight Gay: Col. Moore and his attorney.
  • Taking You with Me: The killer deliberately steps on a landmine in an attempt to blow up Brenner and Sunhill along with himself. He's the only one caught in the blast.
  • That Man Is Dead: Played with. When Brenner is accusing General Campbell of killing his daughter when he told Elisabeth to forget her rape, the General is adamant that Kent did it by strangling her. Brenner explains that all Kent did was put her out of her misery, but what killed the original, brilliant Elisabeth Campbell was when he chose to commit Parental Betrayal, ensuring that all that was left was a shell. Even her therapist described her as having "Gone away inside."
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted. Campbell's psychologist at West Point did all he could to help her recover from the trauma of the gang rape and her father's betrayal. It didn't help, as she had already closed herself off to outside support by then.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: Throughout the movie, Brenner is put in situations where he has to decide whether he has to solve the case quickly (possibly letting justice go undelivered), or solve the case thoroughly and jeopardize his career.
    General Campbell: Are you a soldier or a police officer?
  • Treachery Is a Special Kind of Evil: The film combines this trope with Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil. A female officer, the eponymous General's daughter, is revealed to have endured a horrific gang rape from male soldiers while she was enrolled at West Point. The rape was already traumatizing, but she might have recovered from it until her father betraying her by covering the event up to get a promotion for himself broke her psyche completely. The investigator (played by John Travolta) ends up concluding that it was her father who really killed her and promises that he'll prosecute both him and the rapists for their crimes.
    Brenner: Someone once asked me what's worse than rape. Now I know the answer. Betrayal.
  • Undying Loyalty: Colonel Fowler was tasked by General Campbell with dealing with Captain Campbell after her explosive confrontation with her father. When he found her dead body, he immediately assumed that the General snapped and killed her in a rage for her humiliating improprieties that damaged his command (as it turns out, Fowler was wrong; the General did not kill her). Instead of reporting what he had seen, he covered up for his superior and later, after Brenner reveals his findings, was willing to fall on his own sword to protect his reputation.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Army generals who covered up the rape at West Point. It was considered unsolvable (indeed, forensic DNA testing had only been accepted in American courts in 1992, the same year the rape took place) and the generals chose to cover it up rather than risk the Academy's reputation destroyed by this kind of unsolvable crime. The rape in question was not solved for seven years when the threat of a DNA test spooked a witness (if not a rapist himself) to rat out the rapists.
  • Wham Line: Colonel Fowler gives one that makes Brenner realize he's been lied to. Once More, with Clarity makes it clear that Kent is the murderer.
    Fowler: Then, when we realized she was...Fucking everybody, from Bill Kent to Jake Elby.
  • Working with the Ex: Brenner and Sunhill have a... complicated history.