Veterans in the Movies

Today is the day when we celebrate the courage and heroism of those who have given and  risked so much for this nation. While the contributions of veterans can never be overstated, it does not end with their service. Men and women in uniform have had a profound impact on our culture before and after their time as active duty. This influence is evident through American filmmaking.   

Some American military personnel  pursued acting careers after serving, such as Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy, who became a movie star. His career took off and he even had the opportunity to play himself in the autobiographical movie To Hell and Back. On the other hand, others left behind their acting careers to fight, as with Major Donnie Dunagan, a Marine drill instructor who earned three Purple Hearts in Vietnam. He had mixed feelings when his wife revealed that as a child, he had voiced the titular baby deer in Disney’s Bambi. Not all of these stars saw combat as some served behind the lines, like Golden Girls’ star Bea Arthur, who drove a supply truck and rose to Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve during WWII. Regardless of when or how they served, all these veterans not only defended our way of life but helped to define it on screen.  

This contribution extends to some of the most beloved films from the golden age of Hollywood.  One of the most influential films of all time, Gone with the Wind (1939), starred two soldiers. A few years after the film was released, the movie’s leading man, Clark Gable, then in his 40s, served as an aerial gunner and photographer during WWII. The man who played his rival in the film, Leslie Howard, was a British veteran of WWI who spent WWII using his star status to travel around and encourage the Allies until he died when his civilian airliner was shot down by a Nazi fighter plane. 

Seemingly far removed from the horrors of war, the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life had  WWII veterans as both its star and director. James “Jimmy” Stewart, one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, who appeared in over eighty films, entered the second world war as a private and left a colonel after serving as squadron leader of B-24 bombers. It’s a Wonderful Life was his first film after returning to civilian life, and his role of world-weary George Baily earned him an Academy Award nomination. His director in the film was Frank Capra, an immigrant who had earned his American citizenship for his military service in WWI and in the next global conflict made informational films for the army.  

Star Trek is well-known for changing the face of science fiction media forever; however, its influence goes beyond the screen. Four members of its crew fought to save the world before “going where no man has gone before.” DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy) served as a military air traffic controller in WWII, Leonard Nimoy (Spock) became a sergeant in the army reserve during the Korean War, and Canadian, James Doohan (Scotty) was shot six times after landing at D-Day, losing a finger in the process. Finally, the man who dreamed up the hopeful and adventurous world of Star Trek, director Gene Roddenberry, flew an estimated eighty-nine combat missions over the Pacific in a B-17 bomber and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.  

While the universal nature of WWII involved more Americans than any other conflict after the invention of film, many have continued to shine in more recent years. Before becoming the legendary voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King, James Earl Jones was in officer training during the Korean War. He later served as an Army Ranger before pursuing acting. Another actor in the Star Wars franchise, Adam Driver, joined the Marines after 9/11 before eventually finding himself playing the ambitious warrior Kylo Ren in Disney’s sci-fi epic. One of Hollywood’s toughest names, Chuck Norris, came by it honestly while serving as a policeman in the Air Force. Another Air Force veteran, Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice and acting style have resonated with viewers for over fifty years. 

Whether action stars like Clint Eastwood, comedians like Gene Wilder, or musical stars like Elvis, those who serve in the armed forces have changed the film industry as they continue to change our world. Though the movie stars and directors cannot help but stand out, they are just the tip of the iceberg. No matter their calling, those who serve, those who have served, and those who will serve continue to touch the lives of those around them.  So, as a nation, we are grateful not just for what our veterans have done, but for what they continue to do.