The most authentic enlisted characters in military-themed movies
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Top 5 authentic enlisted characters in military-themed movies

Once you do a hitch for Uncle Sam, things never look quite the same. Military-themed movies are no exception. 

Like so many American males, I had always been drawn to the drama, action and patriotism of Hollywood war movies. The sense of duty exemplified by the protagonist during his hero’s journey clearly influenced my outlook in ways that seem obvious now.

After 20 years of military service, however, so many movie scenes now seem implausible and many of the characters hopelessly contrived. As well, the obligatory jingoistic speeches now strike a discordant note and images of front-line soldiers with perfectly-styled hair defy adequate explanation. 

Though many modern films boast incredible special effects and impeccable attention to detail, I still tend to gravitate toward classic war movies like A Bridge Too Far or Patton. I wasn’t sure of the reason for this preference but believe it was due to the fact that the enlisted characters I most admired or believed credible in these older movies were played by actors who had actually served in the military. 

Indeed, several famous post-war movie stars (Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Gene Hackman) used the GI Bill to pursue successful acting careers. 

I have selected a few characters veterans will hopefully recognize as authentic representations of life in the enlisted ranks. At times noble and at other times all too human, these characters resonated with me. Not all of the actors who played these roles served in uniform but clearly each took pains to understand the challenges and frustrations germane to duty as an enlisted member in the U.S. military.       

These are the most authentic enlisted characters in military themed movies     

1. Petty Officer 1st Class Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles (1966)

The Sand Pebbles is set against the backdrop of political and military unrest along the Yangtze River in 1926 China. Steve McQueen was perfectly cast as the tough, independent and rebellious Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jake Holman serving aboard the gun boat San Pablo

McQueen’s landmark performance as a seasoned machinist mate struggling to follow his own ethical compass amid internal and external tumult garnered the Hollywood icon his only academy award nomination during a stellar, decades-long career.  

Of course, McQueen was so convincing in the demanding role as the quintessential enlisted man in large part because he had actually been one in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1947 thru 1950. 

After a troubled and nomadic childhood that included a stint at the Boys Republic reform school in California, McQueen joined the Marines at 17 years old. 

the sand pebbles enlisted characters
Original film poster by Howard Terpning.

Assigned to the 2nd Tank Battalion, McQueen demonstrated sufficient leadership ability to command his own tank though at times he struggled with the rigid conformity of the Marine Corps.    

He once spent 30 days in the brig for going AWOL for several days from Camp Lejeune, N.C. However, McQueen soon redeemed himself by courageously risking his life to save fellow Marines who had fallen into the icy Labrador Sea during an amphibious training exercise.  

As Jake Holman, McQueen’s instinctive enlisted sensibility permeates the film but is particularly evident in a few revealing scenes opposite Shirley Eckhert, his love interest played by Candice Bergen. Asked why he joined the Navy, Holman ruefully explains that his decision stemmed from a judge’s decree back in his Utah hometown. Jail or the military remains a common Hobson’s Choice faced by scores of American boys possessed with a reckless streak.  

When she asked why a China Sailor prefers working on the engine of a gun boat rather than a larger ship he responds: 

“Too many guys tell you how to run it-on a small ship you get none of that military crap…..they leave you alone.”

Holman almost whispers the last part betraying a trace of doubt that proves well founded as all enlisted service members ultimately intuit. No one ever leaves you alone. 

Another keen insight: 

As long as you’re good at something, they can’t bust you down….like me with the engine.” 

Though he chafes at authority, Holman takes pride in being a subject matter expert and responsible for ensuring the ship’s engine runs smoothly.

McQueen’s Holman also reflects his personal enlisted experience through his friendly but detached demeanor. After arriving on the San Pablo and meeting the crew he deftly captures the feeling of being the new guy: Hey fellas, I’m not looking for trouble but won’t be putting up with any either.  

The Sand Pebbles is an excellent movie about friendship, loyalty and politics that stands the test of time. McQueen credits his Marine Corps tenure for his later success as an actor. In his poignant depiction of enlisted man Jake Holman, McQueen not only displays the immense talent that made him the “King of Cool” but pays this debt of gratitude in full.  

2. Signalman First Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky and Gunner’s First Mate Richard “Mule” Mulhall in The Last Detail (1973)     

When a recruit raises his right hand and commits to joining a branch of the armed services, he can be forgiven for envisioning the heroic role he will undoubtedly play in the defense of the republic. We might emulate the stoic courage of Captain Tom Miller played by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan or perhaps the steadfast leadership exhibited by Gregory Peck’s Brigadier General Frank Savage in the USAF classic 12 O’ Clock High. 

Of course, few ever come close to attaining the peerless competence and dignity of these fictional characters. 

However, many do eventually resemble Navy time servers Signalman First Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) or jaded Gunner’s First Mate Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Marine Corps veteran Otis Wilson) in The Last Detail.   

Invariably, the reality of military life is often mundane and servicemembers ultimately end up fighting more battles against their own government bureaucracy than any foreign adversaries. 

enlisted characters in the last detail
Theatrical release poster.

Nicholson and Wilson adroitly capture the tension between reluctantly carrying out the ‘chickenshit’ detail of escorting a young sailor to a New England brig and the desire to escape “Shit City” or Norfolk Naval Base for a week on Uncle Sam’s dime. Despite their private protestations, the Navy lifers instinctively comply with the order and embark on an odyssey that would take the sailors through the worn out northeast American cities of 1973. 

The prisoner, Seaman Larry Meadows, (Randy Quaid) has been court martialed and sentenced to 8 years confinement at Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine for attempting to steal $40 from a charity sponsored by the CO’s wife. 

When the pair learn of the absurdly disproportionate punishment, Mulhall remarks: 

Jesus! Eight years and a DD (dishonorable discharge) for $40. I thought they only pulled that shit in the Army!”

The Navy shore patrol members or ‘chasers’ decide to give the kid an adventure enroute to prison while cashing in on the extra per diem rate. 

Buddusky declares that:  

“The Navy’s not going to give some poor bleeping kid eight years in the bleeping brig without me taking him out for the time of his life.”    

Throughout the film, the dialogue as well as the interaction between the enlisted characters feels genuine. 

When asked by Mulhall if he had ever been married, Badass eschews the expected sarcasm and explains that while living in California and he worked in TV repair. “I couldn’t do it, I just couldn’t do it,” he laments. 

As well, when Mulhall is asked by a hippie how he feels about going to Vietnam, he replies: “The man says go. We gotta do what the man says. We’re living in this man’s world, ain’t we?”  

Though bellicose and prone to reckless behavior, Nicholson’s Buddusky treats the naive Meadows with a paternal kindness and sensitivity. Perhaps this empathy derives not only from sympathizing with the kid’s plight but knowing it could have easily been him in a similar position as his young sailor. In one poignant scene, Buddusky lets the kid sleep in the double-bed while taking the folding cot for himself, the epitome of a stand-up NCO.        

The chasers treat the kid to several days of eating, drinking, fighting and whoring in a sincere effort to show Meadows the best time possible before the bell tolls.        

Despite these demonstrated acts of empathy, however, Buddusky and Mulhall are governed by the chain of command. When Meadows attempts to escape their custody, the chasers do not hesitate to administer a beating but neither of the parties takes it personal.     

A civilian viewer might hope for a happy ending. Perhaps the two Navy NCOs will turn the other way and let him abscond but a veteran knows better. Buddusky and Mulhall have far too much time in service. Like many movies produced in the early 70s (The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Chinatown, the French Connection) there are no happy endings in The Last Detail.  

Nicholson earned high praise for his performance earning an Oscar nomination. Variety Magazine said that “Nicholson was outstanding at the head of a superb cast.”    

3. Army Sgt. Eddie Bartlett in the Roaring Twenties (1939)

Between artillery bursts, an American soldier sprints across a pockmarked WW1 battlefield before diving into the nearest shell hole landing on top of one its occupants.

Now, do you always come into a rat hole like that?” demands Sgt. George Hailey, the annoyed doughboy played by a sneering Humphrey Bogart. 

What do you want me to do, knock?” replied Sgt. Eddie Bartlett played by James Cagney.

The Roaring Twenties begins on a French battlefield in 1918. An armistice is signed as the relieved American soldiers sit in a foxhole speculating about their life back to the good old US of A. Hailey plans to return to his saloon while another doughboy, a law graduate, looks forward to putting up his own shingle. Bartlett, an auto-mechanic, plans to save enough money to open his own garage in New York City. “That’s my idea of heaven, boys. A grease bucket, a wrench, and a cracked cylinder.”

Their tours extended to police the Rhine, Bartlett’s unit was among the last detachments of the American Expeditionary Forces to sail home. Two years after the Treaty of Versailles the remaining troops return home largely forgotten by all but their relatives and friends.

Eddie arrives at the garage wearing his Army uniform but is greeted coolly by his boss, Mr. Fletcher.

Mr. Fletcher :  What are you gonna’ do?

Eddie Bartlett Oh, rest up a couple of days, see a few of the boys, and then I’m ready to go to work.

Mr. Fletcher : That’s fine. Whaddya’ gonna’ do? Where ya’ gonna’ work?

Eddie Bartlett :  Whaddya’ mean, “Where am I gonna’ work”? I was gonna’ come back here.

Mr. Fletcher : Sorry, Eddie, I haven’t got anything for you.

Eddie Bartlett : Now wait a minute. Maybe I’m in the wrong garage. What was that line you handed me about my job always waiting for me when I got back?

Mr. Fletcher : Times have changed, Eddie. That boy over there’s been working almost two years. Whaddya’ want me to do, can him just because you came back?

Eddie Bartlett : No… no, I couldn’t ask you to do that, could I? All right… Thanks.

Sadly, Eddie’s timeless experience demonstrates that ESGR was as effective for the doughboys as it is for OEF/OIF veterans today. 

Though, crestfallen Bartlett still has fight in him. When his replacement and another mechanic make a few snide remarks, the soldier knocks both lugs out in one stroke. Cagney reportedly added this scene to the script because, well, he was James Cagney. 

An anguished Bartlett pounds the pavement to no avail and tells his old west side buddy that: “He is tired of being pushed around. Tired of having doors slammed in my face, tired of being just another guy back from France.”       

His loyal pal Danny Green, played by Frank McHugh, offers Bartlett the use of his cab in his off hours. 

Bartlett personifies the veteran who arrives at the realization that promises to support the troops are hollow little more than bumper sticker patriotism. Notwithstanding a neighborhood friend, Bartlett was on his own. Though grateful for the hack job, he soon grows frustrated at his underemployment and finds himself drawn into the Prohibition bootlegging rackets.  

Bartlett takes to the business and soon rises to become a syndicate kingpin. Ultimately, he dies of lead poisoning during a climactic gun battle but it sure beats driving a cab. 

The Roaring Twenties, a classic gangster picture that not only entertained audiences but also underscored the hidden costs of war, remains relevant 83 years later. Cagney gives a powerful performance in a role that connected with American audiences.

Hollywood would soon yield to one-dimensional flag waving films with the U.S. entry into WWII and nuanced films chronicling the rank and file would not emerge again until the early seventies.  

Honorable Mention authentic enlisted characters in military themed movies:

4. Army Sgt. John O’Neil in Platoon (1986) 

As Sgt. John ‘Red” O’Neil, John McGinley plays the consummate suck up character in the raw Vietnam War Oscar winning movie directed by combat veteran Oliver Stone. Regardless of branch, the sycophant is invariably represented in every unit. Blindly loyal to Staff Sgt. Barnes, O’Neil personifies the troop that laughs louder at the bosses’ joke. In Platoon, he falls in lockstep with Barnes throughout but unlike real life, however, O’Neil’s shameless fealty does not payoff. Barnes denies him a three-day pass prior to an expected massive NVA offensive.          

5. Army Staff Sgt. William Hill in Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Although he appears only in one scene in the iconic war film, Paul Giamatti gives an evocative performance in the role of Hill, an exhausted squad leader with the 101st Airborne Division in the immediate aftermath of D-Day France. 

Pumped full of adrenaline and speaking in a staccato stream of consciousness fashion, Giamatti steals his scene. His jowly countenance and average joe appearance only make Hill more convincing as the frantic NCO complaining about ‘having the ankles of an old woman.’  

When asked by Hanks’ Captain Miller about the German voice on the PA system he sarcastically replies: “That’s Dagwood Dusseldorf, our friendly neighborhood morale officer.”     

Giamatti’s entire performance accurately depicts an individual who has recently experienced severe trauma. An overlooked scene in a remarkable production, Giamatti stands out among a stellar cast. 

Great art in any form endures. These enlisted characters are authentic due their flaws not despite them.

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