Today is Independence Day here in America, the day we all get together to shoot things into the sky and celebrate the bravery of farmers turned soldiers who kicked an occupying force out of their adopted land. In a sense it's also a day we get together to celebrate a bigger picture, to celebrate soldiers who fought for what they believed in, who did something that most of us will never be able to comprehend.
Like a lot of you, I'll never experience what it's like to risk your life for something you believe in. Most of what I know about the military I learned from movies like Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks knew even less about the military than I do now, when he starred in Saving Private Ryan, having neither actually been in the military and not having had the benefit of seeing Saving Private Ryan. Most of us get everything we know about what it's like to be a soldier third hand at best, portrayals from people who often themselves have no idea of their reality, held up as examples to people who know even less. But not always.
This list is dedicated to real life fighters who went on to portray imaginary ones. Maybe in the process they brought a little of themselves to these roles, as men who played soldiers in real life who went on to play soldiers in fantasy, they had to know at least a little more about what they were doing than your average Bosom Buddy. These are our favorite movie military men who were played by real life, actual military men.
Henry Fonda is Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in The Longest Day
At the start of World War II, Henry Fonda famously said, “I don't want to be in a fake war in a studio,” and joined the United States Navy to help in the war effort. First stationed on the USS Satterlee as a Quartermaster 3rd Class, he spent three years in the service, eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade in Air Combat Intelligence and earned the Navy Presidential Unit Citation and the Bronze Star. It's hard to imagine that this history of personal heroism didn't help him in his portrayal of Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in The Longest Day.
While the film starred John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, Red Buttons and many, many more, Fonda's performance is a stand-out largely thanks to the real-life heroism of the character he played. The son of a former president and suffering from arthritis due to injuries sustained in World War I, Roosevelt actually petitioned to take part in the storming of Utah Beach on D-Day and was the only General sent in with the first wave. The Longest Day is one of the few examples of a true hero playing a true hero.
Alec Guiness is General Obi Won Kenobi in Star Wars
Pissed off that his anti-aircraft battery commanders didn't seem interested in actually engaging the enemy during World War II, Alec 'Rambo' Guinness went behind their backs and re-enlisted in the Royal Navy in order to actively kill more Nazis. He briefly worked ferrying soldiers back-and-forth to beach battles all over Europe before his superiors decided this tremendous son of a bitch would best serve the cause by acting in a pro-military Broadway play called Flare Path.
He did that for a few months, to great reviews, before returning to the front lines carrying more soldiers to and fro. It went well for awhile until a hurricane capsized his boat and mangled it against some rocks. No big deal. He just commandeered another one and went back to work. Ever wonder where Obi-Wan Kenobi got his incredible poise and confidence from? Just another adventure for a real life fucking war hero. Honestly, how the hell is Darth Vader (or death) going to scare a man when he's already bested Hitler and a hurricane?
Kirk Douglas is Colonel Dax in Paths Of Glory
In 1941 Kirk Douglas put a growing Broadway career on hold to enlist in the United States Navy at the start of World War II. During his time, he was stationed on a warship in the Pacific where his job was to locate and destroy Japanese submarines. Three years later, he was discharged for injuries he sustained. While Douglas serving his country with bravery and honor, his greatest war film sent him even further into the field of battle, not only on land during World War I, but fighting for the French.
Centered on a battalion of soldiers who break the chain of command when they refuse to go on a suicidal mission, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is one of the greatest war films ever made and one of Douglas's greatest roles. With the actor as Colonel Dax, an officer who comes to the defense of the court martialed soldiers, the audience believes that somehow everything will work out in the end because movie stars never lose. The movie only becomes more powerful when he does.
Gene Hackman is Capt. Frank Ramsey in Crimson Tide
An absent father and an alcoholic mother sent teenaged Gene Hackman into juvenile prison for shoplifting. When he got out, the 16-years-old joined the Marines. He served from 1946 – 1949, managing by coincidence to fit his military service into that brief period of relative peace between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean War. Yet the Marines set him on the right path and pushed him into showbiz. While in the Corps Hackman served as a field radio operator. When he was discharged in 1949, Gene used the GI Bill to study journalism and TV production.
Eventually his study earned him work as a radio announcer, and that in turn gave way to a career in acting where he played more than a few great military men along the way to Crimson Tide. There the film is built on Hackman's powerful portrayal of arrogant sub commander Frank Ramsay. Set in his ways and suspicious of anyone who thinks differently, the story pits Ramsay against his second in command, in a battle of military protocol beneath the waves. At stake: global nuclear warfare and an increasingly unhinged Ramsay is only too willing to push the launch button.
Morgan Freeman is Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins in Glory
Ever wonder why it took Morgan Freeman so long to make it in Hollywood? Well, upon graduating high school, he turned down an acting scholarship to join the United States Air Force. For almost four years, he worked as a mechanic, repairing planes and bypassing acting acclaim to be a cog in our country's well-oiled military machine. A man with that much talent, he knows he'll conquer Hollywood eventually, might as well be a true patriot while he's still capable of serving in obscurity. I'd tell you he handled the position with class, sophistication and competence, but what's the point? We're talking about Morgan Freeman here. Everything he does radiates awesomeness.
Just look at Glory. At fifty-two, Freeman's John Rawlins, a ditchdigger turned soldier, may not be as physically imposing as his fellow fighters in the 54th, but that doesn't mean he can't use fiery rhetoric to rally the troops. He's willing to die, but as God as his witness, the rest of the world will know he died standing up and he did it for freedom.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is Dutch in Predator
Before he could start pumping up, Arnold Schwarzenegger had to gear up and join the Austrian Armed Forces. In 1965 military service was compulsory in the country, and 18-year-old Schwarzenegger did his duty, mostly. Even then he was in to bodybuilding and at one point during basic training Arnold went AWOL to participate in a bodybuilding competition. He spent a week in military prison for his escapade.
On screen Arnold's military persona is and always has been that of a dedicated, viciously determined military man. In Predator you might say he plays the ultimate military man, the greatest soldier Earth has ever spawned pitted against the greatest killer the galaxy has ever known. That Arnold who skipped basic training to whip off his shirt and pose probably wouldn't last long against a fully grown Predator, but Dutch is the most unstoppable force America's military might has ever spawned.
R. Lee Ermey is Gny. Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket
Wanting his war film Full Metal Jacket to have absolute authenticity, Stanley Kubrick decided to hire a soldier to advise him every step of the way. He chose R. Lee Ermey, an eleven year veteran of the Marine Corps., highly decorated for his fourteen month stint in Vietnam and two separate tours in Japan. Numerous injuries had forced Ermey out of active service, but thanks to the GI Bill he'd learned acting in the Philippines and parlayed that experience into a few smaller film roles.
Before principal photography began, Ermey put together some fake drill instructor footage to help with the dialogue. Kubrick was so impressed he hired his advisor on the spot and even gave him full improvisational power. The result remains one of the most brilliant, chilling and fucked-up performances in the history of war movies. Whether threatening to shit down people's neck holes or demanding to see war faces, R. Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman not only stole every one of his scenes, he became the predominant image of a drill instructor in popular culture. Ruthless but fair, he hates everyone the same, except the honest ones. They're free to come over to his house and fuck his sister.
James Doohan is Commander Montgomery Scott in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
On screen you know James Doohan as Scotty, the ultimate military engineer, the man behind the scenes who makes the mighty Enterprise's weapons fire, and keeps her engines pushing her on through battle at maximum Warp Power. Doohan's real life military service was far more impressive. He is without a doubt, the biggest hero on this list and a genuine badass who risked life and limb to save the world from Nazi aggression.
James joined the Royal Canadian Artillery at the start of World War II and was there on D-Day at the invasion of Normandy. Lieutenant Doohan was a real life, badass hero who stormed Juno Beach and shot two snipers. Then he lead his men through a field of land mines to high ground to take up defensive positions. During the night, James was shot eight-times by friendly fire, his life saved only by a cigarette case which stopped the bullet that impacted with his chest. He lost his middle finger that night, but it didn't stop Doohan from later training as a pilot, where he spent the rest of his military career flying support aircraft for the Canadian Artillery. There he was labeled the “craziest pilot” in the Canadian Air Force, known for risky flying stunts.
George C. Scott is General George S. Patton Jr. in Patton
Unlike many of the actors mentioned in this feature, George C. Scott never served in active duty, as World War II ended in the same year that he enlisted, but his service is still worth noting. With the Marines from 1945 to 1949, Scott was stationed at the 8th and I Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C where he was both a teacher at the Marine Corps Institute and a guard at the Arlington National Cemetery. The experience of the latter weighed heavily on Scott and eventually led to a serious battle with alcoholism, once saying. “You can't look at that many widows in veils and hear that many taps without taking to drink.” You wouldn't know of this opinion about war watching his most iconic performance in Franklin J. Schaffner's Patton.
Playing the title character, Scott's turn as the legendary general is considered by many to be one of the greatest in the history of the genre. The film is truly incredible, from the opening speech against the giant flag backdrop to the brilliant score. Yet Patton has one of the most humbling Hollywood stories attached to it, as Scott refused his Oscar for the film on the grounds that he didn't agree with the idea of competition between actors.
Robert Duvall is Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now
Robert Duvall has so much military heritage that we could probably call him a veteran even if he hadn't served himself. In addition to being born to William Howard Duvall, a career military man who eventually became an admiral in the US Navy, the Oscar winning-actor is also a descendant of famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Not to be upstaged, Duvall also spent a two-year stretch in the United States Army achieving the National Defense Service Medal and reaching the rank of Private First Class. He followed that up by putting his stamp, forever, on military popular culture.
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Duvall may have only been featured briefly in Francis Ford Coppola's war epic Apocalypse Now, but his performance is a standout. Playing the surf-loving, Civil War campaign hat-wearing, desensitized Col. Bill Killgore, Duvall was genius as a man clearly off the deep end, but normalized by his surroundings. If only he had gone on to win the Best Support Actor Oscar he was nominated for, I have could made a “smells like victory” pun.
Add to our list by telling us about your favorite movie characters, played by real life soldiers, in the comments section below.
Enthusiastic about Clue, case-of-the-week mysteries, the NBA and cookies at Disney World. Less enthusiastic about the pricing structure of cable, loud noises and Tuesdays.
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