Military actions and life have long been a subject for the film industry. Virtually every war in which American troops were involved, and many in which they were not, have been given the Hollywood treatment. In most film and television presentations, much of what Hollywood portrayed of military life was and is simply wrong. One reason for the errors is the absence of military experience among the writers. Military advisors, usually retired, often support filmmakers, and official support of the military is also fairly common, but only if the script is approved by the service involved. Often such approval is withheld, as in the film Crimson Tide. The Navy disapproved of the storyline and script, and refused to cooperate in making the film.
Similarly, the US Army denied support for the 1975 epic film, Apocalypse Now. Other films, such as John Wayne’s The Green Berets, received enthusiastic support from the military, but still got several things wrong in its depiction of military life. The abrupt transfer of a Marine to the Army Special Forces shown in the film is just one example. Film editors, directors, and producers are focused on entertainment and the bottom line, rather than strict adherence to reality. Here are ten things Hollywood gets wrong about the military, and why.
10. Combat is simply good guys versus bad guys
Greatly simplified, military units are often depicted as fighting for good on the one side, and fanatical proponents of some evil or another opposing them. To add to the drama, those on the side of good are often presented as the underdog. Life’s not that simple. Not everyone enters the military for reasons purely patriotic, or moral, or because of a desire to served their country. Many simply needed a job, or the training to get one after a short hitch in the service. Some simply wanted a change of scenery, a new town, or a means of getting away from a bad relationship.
Portraying American troops as invariably heroic, motivated by patriotism and love of country, reached its peak during films made during and just following World War II. Before then, Hollywood was less jingoistic. For example, in the 1930s classic The Roaring Twenties, Humphrey Bogart’s character is shown shooting a German soldier after being informed the Armistice had been signed, presumably killing him for the sake of killing, rather than during combat. No such depiction occurred in World War II films. The war censors wouldn’t have allowed it.
9. Uniforms are frequently worn incorrectly
For years, an urban legend held that fictional soldiers and sailors in films and on television wore their uniforms incorrectly because a law prevented them from dressing as actual soldiers. There is a law addressing the subject, though it says the opposite. In 1970 the United States Supreme Court held that actors portraying military personnel could be in complete and accurate uniforms if they, “did not discredit the armed force”. Nonetheless, many actors in Hollywood productions have worn their uniforms incorrectly, a fact which often grates on veterans.
In the US Navy and Marine Corps, officers are not saluted when they are indoors, or aboard ship in an enclosed compartment, unless the person offering the salute is under arms (in other words, carrying a weapon). Hollywood frequently ignores the fact, depicting sailors and Marines saluting superiors in offices and aboard ships at incorrect times. Such a breach of military etiquette is a minor one, but once again irritating to veterans of the sea services.
8. Hollywood often ignores the grinding boredom of military life, and its negative results
Military veterans of all services have a phrase to describe military life. It is “hurry up and wait.” Hollywood has no means of depicting the sheer boredom of long days and weeks with little to do without boring, and presumably losing, its audience. But boredom makes up a great deal of military life, whether deployed overseas, aboard ship, or at a domestic base. It always has. For most of history soldiers fought ennui by spending their spare time gambling. Even the Bible tells of Roman soldiers drawing lots. Movies depicting past wars often featured gambling with dice among soldiers. In World War II films they became a stereotype.
Officially the US military bars gambling between officers and enlisted men, and all forms of gambling are discouraged, at least officially. It’s kind of like states posting signs of the perils of gambling addiction at the sites where their lottery tickets are sold. Gambling in the military includes on base slot machines and video poker. Most service clubs offer bingo. There is gambling on the golf course, in sports pools, and in contests between units. For many in the military, gambling created financial problems, as well as disciplinary issues. Hollywood has long ignored the detrimental effect of gambling upon the military, and instead presented it mainly as harmless fun among young enlisted men, a means of alleviating the boredom of their existence.
7. In the movies, morale is always high
In films and on television programs depicting the military, morale is seldom shown as being low among the troops. In real life it frequently is. One reason for declining morale is a sense of futility among the men. Another is inadequate leadership. Still another is long deployments away from home and families. Keeping up morale is a major concern in all branches of the military, including among the elite units and special forces. The military spends a great deal of time and money solely for the purpose of ensuring morale remains at satisfactory levels among the troops.
Hollywood has long depicted American troops as liberators and protectors of the peoples which they have freed from enemy oppression. In truth, those people have long looked at American troops as oppressors themselves. Americans are often considered outsiders, representatives of a different, and often strange culture, religious, and political system. Films often overlook the thinly concealed hostility towards Americans. During World War II, American troops which liberated parts of France were welcomed at first, before they became – in many cases – as resented as the Germans which preceded them.
6. Enemy militaries and the brass of one’s own are often presented as incompetent
From World War II films depicting the German Army, one could assume that nearly every German officer from Major on up wore the Iron Cross. The medal is ubiquitous in Hollywood productions, appearing so frequently it could be considered part of an officer’s standard uniform. Even the hopelessly inept Colonel Wilhelm Klink of Hogan’s Heroes, wore an Iron Cross First Class, along with a clasp signifying a second award. Despite that program’s obvious politically incorrect premise, it remained popular throughout its run, and plans for a reboot of the series surfaced in 2018.
The true grim nature of life in a prisoner of war camp are hidden beneath the incompetence of the Gestapo, the camp guards, and the buffoonish German victims of Hogan’s various sabotage schemes. Hollywood’s treatment of serious military issues in a lighthearted vein as in the show was nothing new. Other’s which pricked the military’s hide included Gomer Pyle USMC, McHale’s Navy, (series and films), F Troop, and Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko. All were popular among military members of the time, and veterans, probably because they lampooned the branch in which they served.
5. Saluting is usually depicted incorrectly, as is standing at attention
In Top Gun, when Tom Cruise presents himself at attention, his posture is all wrong. Standing at attention and saluting are usually presented incorrectly by Hollywood in film. Standing at attention in the US military means; heels together at a forty-five degree angle, legs straight but not stiff at the knees. Arms hang naturally, with the thumbs along the trouser seams and palms inward. The posture is erect, but not stiff. Nor are the heels clicked in the US service when called to attention. In Top Gun Cruise stood stiffly, palms pressed to the side, with an exaggerated brace of the upper body.
Salutes are to be rendered with the hand a wrist straight, not bent as is so often seen in films. The salute is rendered with the palm rotated slightly toward the face, not outward. Saluting is one of the most basic military courtesies towards superior officers, and sloppy salutes as presented by Hollywood are not tolerated in military life. Also, in the American sea services salutes are not rendered when uncovered (not wearing a hat or cap). Nor are they finished with a flourish. The arm is returned to the side directly.
4. Communication procedures and military time (24-hour clock)
Everyone knows the military uses a 24 hour, rather than a 12-hour clock, rendering 1:00 p.m. as 1300, 3:30 p.m. as 1530, and so on. Following the time in Hollywood films is invariably the word hours. In the US Navy and Coast Guard, “hours” is not used in reference to the time, only the number. For the Navy, 6:35 a.m. is spoken as “zero six thirty five,” not “Oh six thirty five hours” as Hollywood usually does it. Names of individuals are not used in communications at any level on radio; code words are substituted.
Military communications via radio are precise, with each word conveying an exact meaning. For example, when a transmitter had completed his communication, and he or she is awaiting a response the word over is sent. If no response is expected and communications are complete the word out is sent. Over and out, a feature of Hollywood productions since World War II, is never used, except by the performers of their films.
3. Handling weapons is never performed as it is in Hollywood
Firing heavy military weapons from the hip, often with just one arm, is a Hollywood staple, but a military impossibility. So are extended bursts from automatic weapons. So are handling the barrels of machine guns while firing the weapon. Automatic weapons reach temperatures while firing which preclude touching the barrel, and the recoil would render it impossible to control during firing, however Rambo-like the soldier on the screen.
Soldiers are trained in the proper use of their weapons, and firing from the hip is not standard training. Yet Hollywood depicts such shooting in film after film. And in military films, as well as in gangster films, westerns, cops and robbers, and other genres, ammunition seems to last much longer than in the real world. For example, the M4A1 military carbine with a standard 30-round magazine, on full automatic, empties its magazine in mere seconds, rather than the length of time on Hollywood screens.
2. Non-commissioned officers are often stereotyped
Non-commissioned officers are presented in various ways by Hollywood, not all of them accurate. Drill sergeants in particular are misrepresented in many ways. Often they are abusive, excessively bullying (think of Full Metal Jacket), or completely psychotic (Christopher Walken in Biloxi Blues). While a certain amount of bullying is an essential part of the indoctrination of recruits in all branches of the military, it seldom, if ever, reaches the levels displayed in some films. Non-commissioned officers are for the most part highly professional, dedicated to a career in the branch in which they serve.
In reality, the senior non-commissioned officers in the military are the backbone of the services, responsible for training the enlisted men below them in rank, as well as guiding junior officers as they learn their profession. As officers rise in rank, they recognize the value of their non-coms, and lean on their support. Junior enlisted learn the once fearful sergeants are their most valued resource in adapting to military life, with the experience to help them avoid the pitfalls of hidebound bureaucratic organizations. Which, by the way, describes all branches of the military, in any military of the world.
1. The military is made up of mostly average men and women
Most of the military, especially those who’ve remained beyond an initial period of commitment, either enlisted or commissioned, are average people. Average that is, in the sense that they are not supreme physical specimens able to kill with their bare hands, or use any weapon they get those hands on. They are part of their communities, mow their lawns, watch their kids play soccer or football, are active in their churches. Elite units make up less than 10% of the military. The rest perform jobs as clerks, communications specialists, data entry specialists, programmers, food service, and other jobs with civilian counterparts. Their role is logistical. It is also crucial. Hollywood doesn’t make movies about them.
The vast majority complete their time in service without ever firing a weapon in combat, enduring enemy fire, or even serving in a combat zone. Yet without them the military couldn’t function. Their military careers are no more or less dramatic than those holding similar jobs in civilian life, though their dedication to their duty and country is obvious, and admirable. The lack of drama and danger is probably the reason they have never been immortalized in film. For example, in World War II in Europe, about two million Americans served. Well less than half of them engaged in combat with the enemy.