It’s easy to laugh at Hollywood when filmmakers use a basic blueprint to create one-dimensional “war hero” characters who are clearly clobbered together using stereotypes. But that got us thinking: What if Hollywood sees something in our military and veteran community that we’re too close to see for ourselves?
We talk so much about the disconnect between being a member of the military or being a civilian. It’s easy to see the differences and spotlight them – from language to attitude to what we choose to wear, a veteran always knows another veteran. But can a civilian spot one, too? Or is our community reduced to what film portrays us to see?
To help answer these questions, we turned to some of our favorite war movies and took a critical look at the main characters. We explored how they were presented – either as the hero, the anti-hero, the wildcard, or the leader, and then tried to distill what Hollywood is saying about us. What we discovered was pretty surprising. It turns out that Hollywood might just be onto something when they give us characters like Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglorious Basterds.
Here are the 5 most common archetypes we found in film.
Goose’s character in Top Gun did a lot to create this sort of irreverent service member who always has something quippy to add to briefs. Of course, we all know this person in real life, but the military is all about doing what we’re told to do, so when we see these jokester characters, it doesn’t totally ring true.
Ask civilians, and they’ll tell you that everyone in the military is just like Rambo … or at least, wants and tries to be as Rambo-esque as possible. We all know the type: a gym bro who spends all his extra hours building tree trunk thighs and a thick neck. Unfortunately, when we get characters like this in film, they’re all too trigger happy to be authentic. They’re so far from what real service members would consider a “superman” that the trope falls flat.
We’re really looking for a superman character who cares about those they lead, someone whose loyalty is unflinching and unwavering. A person who can take charge when needed and who possesses that rare confluence of confidence and competency. Sort of like Staff Sgt. Sykes in Jarhead. Sykes is funny, cares about his job, and those in his unit, traits that, by our count, make him a superman.
The strong, reserved and humble leader
Strong, humble leaders should be the cornerstone to our military, just like Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins in Glory. Rawlins’ insight helps him gain the trust of his command, which leads him to promotion. But even as he gets his stripes, Rawlins is still questioning his ability to lead well. That’s a big distinction here since most films show us leaders who are so overly confident and never do any self-assessments. We’d much rather see more Rawlins-type characters than leaders who lead their units into peril.
Lifers are only golden for a few years in the middle of their careers – somewhere between years eight and twelve when they have enough experience to see things differently and still have enough relevance to make change happen. At least, that’s the way we see it on film. Just take a close look at Heartbreak Ridge. Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway is all Marine, all the time. But as his years stack up and his influence begins to lessen, the lifer ultimately comes to a crossroads where reinvention is required in order to keep on living.
Here’s the thing: yes, many lifers have this experience, but many don’t. We all know plenty of people who have done their 20, gotten out, and started new and successful careers in civilian sectors. What we need to see more of is the way that the military helps shape second careers and how the lessons learned in uniform translate to what happens once the boots come off.
What’s not to love in a mentor character? Well, of course it’s all about recognizing talent early on and honing it. Pushing younger military members further than they think they can go is a big part of mentorship. Getting down in the weeds and explaining to younger members of a unit just what life is like is the only way to pass on lessons learned. Except all too often, we see mentors use this platform to their own advantage and to advance their agendas. Hollywood does a decent job of this – we’re thinking about Maverick and Viper in Top Gun.
Explaining the military culture to outsiders can be tough, especially if all they know about us is by watching war movies. What people seem to understand is that there are certain archetypes. Now it’s up to scriptwriters and Hollywood to make sure we get a clearer and more accurate picture of life in the military.