EDITOR’S NOTE: This op/ed by We Are The Mighty co-founder and CEO David Gale originally appeared on the Hollywood Reporter website on May 22, 2017.
In honor of National Military Appreciation Month in May, I decided to re-watch William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, which follows three WWII servicemen facing the challenges of transitioning to civilian life. The film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, and proves that a well-told, honest and authentic story is still the most powerful way to instill empathy and provide some understanding of even the most complex emotions and human experiences.
While our military is still a quintessential part of American culture, today’s Hollywood rarely gets it right, often resorting to stereotypes and common tropes to portray veterans as either dysfunctional misfits or larger-than-life heroes. Perhaps this misconception is an expected result when less than 1 percent of our population is currently in uniform. Those who come home to work in the entertainment industry, are more likely to be offered jobs making coffee and copying scripts, than to encounter an employer who authentically appreciates and values the leadership, skills and responsibilities of military service.
While there is a handful of successful vets in this business, most notably Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBCU, in my 30 years in entertainment, I never met an executive who served in the military and who has responsibility for making important creative decisions. This, even though we have been at war for 16 years and millions of veterans have returned home. While some studios and networks have helpful veteran hiring programs, and nonprofits such as Veterans in Film and Television are there to support veterans who work in this industry, there are few clear paths for vets to move into the creative and executive ranks of the business.
On the contrary, the cast and crew of The Best Years of Our Lives had veterans in nearly every major creative position. Wyler, the director, served in the Army National Guard; actor Fredric March served in the Army; the author of the book on which the film was based, MacKinlay Kantor, was a war correspondent who flew on bombing missions over Europe; Robert Sherwood, the screenwriter, fought with the Royal Highlanders of Canada; and Daniel Mandell, the film’s Academy Award winning editor, served in the Marines. Gregg Toland, the film’s acclaimed cinematographer, was a lieutenant in the Navy’s camera department; he also co-directed with John Ford a documentary about the attack on Pearl Harbor. And, of course, Harold Russell, who won the best supporting actor Oscar, was a WWII veteran and double hand amputee.
War and homecoming are undoubtedly part of the American experience, yet according to a study conducted by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, 84 percent of post-9/11 veterans believe that the American public has no understanding of the difficulties facing this current generation of veterans and military families. While we cannot expect the average person to comprehend what it is like to serve in the military, we can expect the media to do more to find and empower the storytellers who have served. Making sure veterans have more opportunities to play meaningful roles in entertainment and media is the best way for us all to begin to have some understanding of our military community and the challenges they face. This will allow us to discover the kind of extraordinary talent this next great generation has to offer. Not only is this good for our veterans, it is good for business; The Best Years of Our Lives was a huge financial success. In a time of perpetual conflict, in which so few are asked to do so much for so many, getting veterans right is also good for our country.