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The U.S. military's Hollywood connection

The relationship between the services and the film industry has served each side's needs over the years but not without tension and constant debates over access.

August 21, 2011|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • At the Camp Pendleton base theater before a special showing of the new movie "Warrior," one of it's stars, Tom Hardy, autographs a marque poster for U.S. Marine GySgt. Ben Holmes. Holmes was injured by an IED bomb in Afghanistan.
At the Camp Pendleton base theater before a special showing of the new movie… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Camp Pendleton — — On a sultry mid-July afternoon on this military base, a few hundred Marines, some with spouses and children in tow, were mustering for a free screening of the movie "Warrior" at a squat cement cinema house on Mainside, the section of the 200-square-mile facility reserved for civilian comforts like the Stars and Strikes bowling alley and Smokey's House of BBQ.

In the film, which won't arrive in theaters until September, a Marine just home from Iraq (played by Englishman Tom Hardy) and his estranged brother, a fighter-turned-teacher (Australian Joel Edgerton), train for a mixed martial arts tournament.

The military's involvement ran deeper, though, than just throwing open the doors to the Bulldog Box Office at Camp Pendleton. The "Warrior" script was vetted by a Marine Corps liaison to the entertainment industry, and more than 200 real Marines appear in uniform in a crowd scene.

Photos: Hollywood and the military

The Department of Defense regularly cooperates with Hollywood on projects large and small, from Lifetime's fictional Army base-set series "Army Wives" and CBS' naval police procedural "NCIS" to Paramount Pictures' warring robots franchise "Transformers" and Sony's Columbia Pictures film "Battle: Los Angeles," about Marines fighting an alien invasion. The military has allowed Universal Pictures to film its upcoming action movie "Battleship" on the battleship Missouri and permitted Navy SEALs to appear in Relativity Media's February thriller "Act of Valor."

Over the decades, the relationship between Hollywood and the military has served the needs of both sides: Filmmakers gain access to equipment, locations, personnel and information that lend their productions authenticity, while the armed forces get some measure of control over how they're depicted.

That's important not just for recruiting but also for guiding the behavior of current troops and appealing to the U.S. taxpayers who foot the bills. Given that less than 1% of the U.S. population is currently serving in the military, entertainment — including movies, TV shows and video games — is key to shaping the public's idea of what it means to be a soldier.

"Hollywood feature films have served as the most significant medium to argue for the military," said Lawrence H. Suid, author of "Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film." "Americans love violence, and war movies provide all that violence without the danger."

But controversy over an upcoming movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden — and how much U.S. officials should assist director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal — has shed light on some of the minefields that must be navigated by real-life warriors and the showbiz engine that seeks to portray them.

There are constant tensions over how troops are depicted — the military brass is often uncomfortable with the defiant, cocky heroes that filmmakers, and moviegoers, like to embrace. And rank-and-file troops have complaints from everyday details like the color of a soldier's boots to broader questions about the true character of men and women in uniform. There are debates about how much access is too much and even whether certain films might serve partisan purposes.

On the surface, cooperating with filmmakers on a movie about the Bin Laden mission would appear to be a no-brainer for the Defense Department — after all, the operation was a spectacular victory for U.S. forces.

Bigelow's movie — which was gestating long before May's deadly raid in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs and CIA operatives — is slated for release by Sony in October 2012 and will attempt to chart the decade-long pursuit of the terrorist leader. The filmmakers haven't locked a script or announced casting or location shooting plans.

Though many details remain to be determined, the story of an anonymous team of highly trained soldiers working successfully off the intelligence of multiple agencies and political administrations would seem to please the military and stand in stark contrast to many of the most iconic pop culture images of soldiering. From George C. Scott's swaggering World War II general in 1970's "Patton" to the counterculture Korean War Army doctors in "MASH" (both the 1970 film and the long-running TV series) to Robert Duvall's unhinged air cavalry commander in 1979's "Apocalypse Now," the most remembered military heroes in movies in the last 30 years are arrogant, independent mavericks.

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