Cult leader David Koresh—and the 1993 Waco siege that resulted in 86 deaths, including his own—has remained a constant source of grisly fascination for Hollywood. The 1997 Academy Award-nominated documentary Rules of Engagement, the 2018 Paramount miniseries starring Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon, and the recent Netflix docuseries deep dive Waco: American Apocalypse are just a few of the titles that have brought the 51-day standoff back into the public consciousness. In fact, NBC bosses were so keen to bring the story to the screen they began filming a dramatization while the situation was still ongoing.
Remarkably, In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco was greenlit, scripted, and largely shot within the space of just five weeks in 1993. From a commercial viewpoint, this incredibly swift approach paid off. The TV movie pulled in the network’s biggest single-episode Sunday night audience in more than four years when it aired on May 23, just 34 days after the siege ended. The movie even received several glowing reviews, with Variety hailing it as an “engrossing affair with no signs of hasty production.” However, for many, including its own screenwriter, the rush release was a new exploitative low in television’s insatiable appetite for ripped-from-the-headlines drama.
Ripped From the Headlines
Director Dick Lowry was no stranger to adapting sensational real-life tales in record time, of course. In 1992, he had helmed A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story, which premiered just four months after its eponymous figure had been convicted of two second-degree murder counts. Lowry had also worked on four previous installments of In the Line of Duty, a series of factual dramas commemorating police officers who had lost their lives on the job.
Ambush in Waco actually begins in 1991, two years before the siege, when Koresh (Tim Daly) is busy recruiting members for his Branch Davidian cult. The film then attempts to paint an accurate picture of life inside the group’s Mount Carmel Center headquarters, a place without any heating systems or running water but boasting a recording studio, state-of-the-art computers, and an armory complete with more than 1 million bullets.
Alongside allegations of child abuse (Koresh reportedly had a harem which included underage girls), it’s the latter which sparks the interest of the ATF: Much of the film’s first half centers on their behind-the-scenes campaign to bring the leader to justice. Of course, it’s the depiction of that fateful day in late February—when their attack on the compound leads to the deaths of four officers and two Branch Davidians—that rubbernecking viewers really tuned in for.
Production designer Guy Barnes worked overtime (13-hour-days were the norm for many cast and crew members) nearly 20 miles outside of Tulsa to build a replica of the then-ongoing crime scene. Despite the strict time constraints, there was still an attempt to strive for authenticity; even the man who designed the flag for Koresh’s compound was brought on board.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the actors tasked with portraying the individuals still going through such an ordeal were left feeling unnerved, particularly during the shoots which coincided with the siege’s uncontrollable blaze.
“Between takes we were watching the real compound burning up on CNN,” Marley Shelton, who played cult member Laura, recalled to Entertainment Weekly at the time. “The character I’m playing in the movie—one of Koresh’s women—was dying in real life. It was a totally creepy experience.”
Daly, then three seasons into his role as pilot Joe Hackett in the NBC sitcom Wings, was equally perturbed: “Monday morning I was playing a guy who was alive, and Monday after lunch I was playing a guy who was dead,” Daly told EW. “Movie sets are strange places.”
Nevertheless, the actor was keen to defend the project from its detractors, telling Deseret News that the 24-hour news media were far guiltier of mining the tragedy for entertainment purposes. Daly said he hoped the movie would “put this entire episode in our history into sort of a human, emotional context.”
The movie’s creatives—at the time, anyway—were also quick to dismiss any talk that they were capitalizing on other people’s misery. Ahead of its premiere, executive producer Kenneth Kaufman argued that Ambush in Waco was a “very complex, very rich, very interesting film” all done in the best possible taste. Writer Phil Penningroth, meanwhile, claimed that his fastidious research efforts meant that “what you’re seeing on screen is basically what happened in real life.”
Penningroth, however, changed his tune in the years that followed. In a damning 2001 piece for online magazine Killing the Buddha titled “Righting Waco,” he essentially dismissed his own work as pure propaganda. Indeed, the writer admitted to feeling hoodwinked by the government version of events he’d been advised to follow, now believing that the situation was a lot more nuanced than the ATF-good/Koresh-bad narrative deployed: “In our lust for money and fame, I believed that we had missed the opportunity to tell that larger, more important story.”
Keen to capitalize on the film’s ratings success, the network had agreed to a sequel, The Sinful Messiah, which would focus on the wrongdoings from both sides. But within a week, and perhaps with the recent congressional hearings on television violence in mind, executives decided one Waco movie was enough. Which left Penningroth unable to help set the record straight.
So why was NBC so keen to get their hands on the Waco story in the first place? Back in 1993, the channel was a distant third behind CBS and ABC in its quest for ratings. As the May sweeps loomed, bosses concluded that tales plucked from the recent news headlines could be a potential secret weapon. And such cynicism worked. As well as Ambush in Waco, NBC also enjoyed success that month with dramas based on Hurricane Andrew (Triumph Over Disaster: The Hurricane Andrew Story) and the World Trade Center bombing (Without Warning: Terror in the Towers).
Like that latter title, Ambush in Waco only tells half the story, concluding long before Koresh’s compound dramatically went up in flames—a post-script informs those viewers unaware of the siege’s violent climax. But that didn’t matter to NBC. It may have pushed the boundaries of ethical behavior, yet in doing so, it had beaten all their competitors to the punch.