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Soldiers on Screen

By Daniel Ford      The Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2002

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While Paramount was filming Hamburger Hill (1987), the Defense Department gave the actors a course in infantry tactics, let off-duty servicemen appear as extras and supplied two jet fighter-bombers and a fleet of helicopters. In return, the studio agreed to delete a taunt that the movie soldiers were to have posted on Hill 937 in the Ashau Valley: "Was it worth it?" The film is one of the few Vietnam War movies that received military cooperation; perhaps for that reason, it is one of the most convincing.

Guts & Glory As Lawrence Suid shows in "Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film" -- a much revised and enlarged edition of a book that appeared more than 20 years ago -- such give-and-take has usually been the rule for nearly a century. The studios want men, equipment and know-how; the armed forces want to be shown in a favorable light. So it came about that Lt. Henry "Hap" Arnold, who would lead the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, appears with his Wright Flyer in "The Military Air Scout" (1911), delivering a message to his fictional commander through a barrage of gunfire.

Not much has changed over the years, though the degree of collaboration varies with society's view of the military. In the early Cold War years, Hollywood was usually eager to glorify the military. When Paramount filmed "Strategic Air Command" (1955), it employed a writer who had worked in SAC commander Curtis LeMay's office and a star -- Jimmy Stewart -- who was an officer in the Air Force Reserve. For his part, LeMay assigned a colonel as the movie's technical director. The moviegoer can scarcely tell whether the film (and there are many others from the 1950s) originated in Hollywood or at the Pentagon.

What a difference nine years made! In "The Americanization of Emily" (1964), James Garner portrays a coward forced onto the D-Day beach so that the U.S. Navy could claim the first dead hero. MGM didn't even bother to ask Donald Baruch -- the military's fabled emissary to Hollywood -- for help. Nor did Columbia when Stanley Kubrick made "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), which among other savagely comic moments shows U.S. Army troops in a shootout with Air Force guards below a SAC sign boasting "Peace Is Our Profession." It is almost as if the moviemakers knew that the Vietnam War was coming.

For Americans now alive, Vietnam is arguably the most important war in the country's history, as well as the longest and most contentious. Mr. Suid takes up John Wayne's heartfelt but fatuous The Green Berets (1968) on page 247 and doesn't lay down the Vietnam burden until page 544, when Flight of the Intruder (1991) makes an undeservedly quick exit from the big screen. (Mr. Wayne got military cooperation, of course. The Army even reassigned a platoon of Hawaiian soldiers and put them on leave so that the movie would have a supply of extras with Asian features.)

In this section, as in all his others, Mr. Suid offers an interesting, intelligent and never-pedantic analysis of a partnership that helped shape America's view of its military and the world. Though Mr. Suid never served on active duty, and indeed was an antiwar activist in his time, he understands the military better than most of the moviemakers he discusses.

Such acute understanding informs his discussion of "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), perhaps the most admired war movie of recent years. Disputing the conventional wisdom that it captures the essence of the D-Day invasion, Mr. Suid savages Steven Spielberg for technical errors (Tom Hanks wears captain's bars on the front of his helmet, a magnet for German bullets), boneheaded tactics (the Rangers bunch up and philosophize as they trek through hostile country), mistaken geography (no hedgerows) and an implausible thesis (the War Department couldn't know so soon that Ryan's brothers are dead).

The military cooperated with Mr. Spielberg but could give him little but moral support: World War II equipment had long since left its inventory, along with firsthand knowledge of the Normandy campaign. As with "The Green Berets," however, collaboration probably saved the movie from worse mistakes.

And "Private Ryan" foreshadowed better scripts to come, including "Black Hawk Down" (2001) and We Were Soldiers (2002). These movies are more foul-mouthed and bloody-minded than was the custom 50 years ago -- indeed, their graphic battle-violence is almost shocking -- but they get the small facts right, and they show American soldiers facing death with courage and skill, for no other reason than that their country asked them to.

The soldiers still bunch up, however. That's inevitable in a movie.

Mr. Ford's most recent book is "The Lady and the Tigers: Remembering the Flying Tigers of World War II" (iUniverse, 2002).

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