The following has been published with permission from Scott Levy. Scott is a USMC veteran, actor and active supporter of both OSD and Young Marines. We share this because of the reality that how our military and veterans are portrayed on television and in film significantly impacts perception, both positively and negatively, of the public at large. This perception then drives or kills policy that impacts our service members, veterans and their families.
Before you pick apart that statement, I’m using the word “Hollywood” as a blanket term referring to the entire entertainment industry. Sure they pay us a lot of lip service and give us a pretty decent war film about once a year, but it’s generally very begrudgingly and only because the producers and directors made it happen through sheer tenacity, usually despite the studio’s discontent.
I just finished watching History Channel’s trailer for Six, their new show based on fictional accounts of SEAL Team 6 derring-do. I also just recently watched the pilot episode of the new Shooter TV show and it appears that there are very few to no military veterans in either cast. I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a few years now and in light of those examples, along with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Hacksaw Ridge and Man Down, it’s now officially time to pull the metaphorical trigger.
Back in the day, military veteran actors like Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, George C. Scott and many others portrayed our military heroes on the big and small screen, with the rare exception of John Wayne and a few others. In fact, Audie Murphy, America’s highest decorated combat vet, actually portrayed himself in the film version of his life story. It’s almost impossible to imagine that happening today.
The 1960’s and ‘70’s changed all of that. Most likely, in reaction to the war in Vietnam and the social divisions that originated at that point and continue to this day, Hollywood started casting civilian actors in military roles. Apparently, they also stopped bothering with military technical advisors, as evidenced by films such as Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. Don’t get me wrong, the artist part of my brain truly enjoys both of those pictures but the veteran part feels something akin to fingernails across a chalkboard. There are so many easily fixable errors in those two movies, you almost feel like some of them were done on purpose.
Our two most currently notable military veteran actors, Dale Dye and R. Lee Ermey, are both Marine Corps vets and national treasures, but the fact of the matter is they are not Spring chickens. Who will rise up to replace these two warriors? Will we even be given the chance to try? Yes, there are other vets working in the industry today but it’s not the same, many of them aren’t even playing military roles. Can you imagine Full Metal Jacket without Gunny Ermey as Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann? Me neither. Read his book, Gunny’s Rules, to learn how he won that role over a civilian actor who had already been cast. He improvised, adapted and overcame. Oorah!
I grew up watching and studying war films, to this day, they are my favorite brand of entertainment. It doesn’t get much more dramatic than life and death, and when it’s done right, a war movie can transport you to another time and place in history, teach you things you didn’t know and make you laugh and cry with the characters on screen. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of many productions, the magical web that is suspension of disbelief, can be broken by one false moment in an otherwise flawless narrative. Active duty troops, veterans and people that love the military, can spot these inconsistencies from a klick away. A Marine being called a soldier, sloppy salutes, inaccurate uniforms, incorrect radio traffic over comms, etc. can and will ruin the experience for your target audience. Why take that chance?
Every project I’ve ever acted in, whether TV, film, commercial or video game, the production has benefitted from a free, additional military advisor because I want everything I work on to be authentic. The military technical advisor, who has sometimes recommended me for the job or even hired me, can’t be everywhere at once, so the more veteran eyes on set the better. I’ve made changes on every project I’ve ever acted in, after respectfully running them past production, of course. Whether it was adding or subtracting dialogue, changing physical actions that weren’t authentic or fixing another actors’ gear or weapons. Every little bit makes a difference and we’re trained to pay attention to detail.
Two extremely vet-friendly projects I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of, Medal of Honor: Warfighter and The Submarine Kid, exemplify the height of what we should be striving for. On Warfighter, producer Greg Goodrich hired members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (SEAL Team 6) as script consultants, used veterans of the Navy SEAL Teams and Army Delta Force as military advisors and filled out the cast with veterans of every branch working as motion/performance capture and voiceover actors. On Sub Kid, director Eric Bilitch and producer/military advisor Jon Barton, wrote and cast the Afghanistan flashback scene together and made sure everything was authentic.
As positive as those things are, one issue I’d like to address is the necessity of publicizing those facts once it comes time to marketing the product. I believe that if consumers were given the choice to pick between the movie, video game, TV show, etc. that hired vets and one that didn’t (given similar quality) they’d make the veteran choice every time.
The general movie-going public has become much more discerning due to the efforts of some great productions over the past 20 years. If you don’t believe me, try watching a double feature of Saving Private Ryan (1998) followed by The Longest Day (1962). It’s jarring to say the least. From Here to Eternity (1953) is one of my favorite movies, but the attack sequence in Pearl Harbor (2001) is far superior, for the obvious reason of technology. That said, there are some things they got right back then, that we just don’t now. Those things are usually related directly to the actor. You can’t fake the funk, the old saying goes and in this case the funk is many months and sometimes years of rigorous training. There are some great movie boot camps out there, run by some amazing military advisors that I know and admire. There are also some unbelievably talented and dedicated actors who can pull it off (I’m talking about you, Ben Foster), but the fact of the matter remains, most of the time, you can’t fake the funk.
In 2012, a film called Act of Valor, starring active duty Navy SEALS in lead roles, was released to theaters. The film came out of nowhere, boasted no “star” names and was never in danger of winning any Oscars for acting, but those factors didn’t make a difference. Act of Valor went on to earn $81 million in worldwide box office on a budget of $12 million and became a beloved addition to many war/action movie connoisseurs’ film collections. I was positive that this was it! This was finally going to be the turning point in Hollywood’s hive mind! Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. One night, later that year, I found myself in a conversation with an extremely successful, Fancy Hollywood Producer.
It went a little something like this:
I think Act of Valor is a game changer, Hollywood can no longer claim that military veterans in leading roles can’t put butts in theater seats. It proved that you don’t need expensive, big name actors to sell your film anymore.
Fancy Hollywood Producer
Act of Valor won’t change anything. The industry will say it’s a fluke, a one-off that can’t be replicated because it’ll never be a fresh idea again. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice.
That’s crazy talk, the proof is in the pudding. I think you’re wrong, but I guess we’ll see. By the way, I just finished reading Lone Survivor, it’s amazing. You should try to get the rights to that book. Whoever produces that movie is gonna make a fortune.
Lone Survivor will never be made into a movie because war films don’t make money. The American public is tired of war, they’ve seen it on TV every night for the last 11 years and they’re sick of it. Every war movie made since 9/11 has bombed spectacularly. Lone Survivor will never be made.
Those movies bombed because they were horrible, anti-military, propaganda films. People aren’t going to pay their hard-earned money to go see anti-American hogwash that portrays our troops in a negative light.
Lone Survivor will never be made.
In 2013, Lone Survivor was released to the tune of $154 million in worldwide box office on a $40 million budget. The film featured a few vets in unremarkable acting roles, including Marcus Luttrell, the author of the book and actual lone survivor of the operation. Another Navy vet, Dan Bilzerian, loaned the production $1 million in exchange for at least eight minutes of screen time and 80 words of dialogue, but ended up appearing in the film for less than one minute and had just one line. He’s currently in the process of litigation with the production company.
In 2014, US Army draftee, Clint Eastwood directed American Sniper, the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Much like Lone Survivor, the film boasted a high-profile lead actor and very few vets in lead or supporting roles. I believe this was a dreadful missed opportunity for a military veteran director to send a strong message out to his Hollywood contemporaries by hiring military veteran actors in lead and supporting roles. American Sniper earned $547 million on a $58 million budget, an enormous achievement. In my opinion, that success was not based on the cast, it was due to the public’s love for and interest in Chris Kyle and their desire for patriotic, pro-military entertainment. I applaud the efforts of production, including screenwriter Jason Hall, to audition and hire veteran actors, but I believe that with a little extra effort, more vets could have been added to the cast and that would have been a bonus for their audience.
Fun fact: I personally know five military veterans who worked on American Sniper. Three of them were MIA from the final cut of the film and the other two were so minimized and marginalized that they ended up being nothing more than glorified extras. I have no reason to believe that this was based on the quality of their performances because, oddly enough, the fake baby made it into the final cut and it’s performance was fairly plastic.
Another military veteran directed a war movie in 2014. US Navy vet, David Ayer’s WWII film, Fury, starring another big-name Hollywood actor, earned $211 million worldwide on a $68 million budget. I only know of one vet in the cast, there may be more, but I doubt it. Now here’s something very interesting, only $85 million of the total box office was earned domestically, that strikes me as very odd. Would more Americans have gone out to the theaters and supported a film about our WWII heroes, if at least some of them were portrayed by our current day heroes? I believe so.
2016 brought us 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, another war movie with very few veterans in the cast and none in lead roles. I’m very thankful this film was made and I personally thanked Michael Bay for directing and producing it, I believe Benghazi should never be forgotten and I can only imagine how badly the studio didn’t want to make this movie. 13 Hours earned $69 million worldwide on a $50 million budget, not exactly what you’d call a blockbuster. Most people chalked it up to the fact that it was a very divisive picture, released during one of the most hostile election seasons in recent history, into an America that is more divided down partisan lines than at any other time most people can remember. Here’s the thing with that though, according to almost every survey, the one thing Americans can agree on is that they respect, honor and trust our countries active duty military and veterans. It begs the question once again, would those numbers have been any different if more of our real life heroes had been up there on that silver screen? You already know what I think about that.
In the process of researching and writing this, I realized that there’s probably enough material about this subject to write an entire book. I have so much more to say about Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and many, many more. Hopefully somebody more skilled than I will take up the mantle and run with this subject matter, I believe it’s very important to the future of our nation. America and the world needs heroes right now, maybe more than we ever have before. The irony is that we already have heroes, I think it’s time to celebrate them.
In the meantime, here are my modest proposals:
To the studios, production companies, directors, producers and casting directors: Hire the best person for the job, but please, make the effort to read some vets for active duty, private military contractor and veteran roles. It’s a win-win situation, you can create a better, more accurate product while employing a vet who served this country honorably and most likely possesses a work ethic unsurpassed by many. I see Universal just released another unnecessary Jarhead sequel straight to Netflix and there doesn’t seem to be a vet anywhere in the cast. Ron Meyer, the Vice Chairman of NBC Universal and Marine Corps veteran is probably a good place to start this campaign.
To the audience: Use your voice and the power of the purse. Call, email, Facebook and Tweet the studios and production companies and let them know that you would like to see military veterans acting in military movies. Let them know that if they can’t support the troops, you can no longer support their businesses in good conscience and wait until you can see it for a dollar from Redbox. It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.