One of the coolest things I get to do in the Global SOF Foundation (GSF) is seeing the development of SOF films. I had no training in cinema, but I do love a good movie– especially if the movie is based on a true story. Some of the SOF films out there are documentaries and others are full-length feature films; my only hope for them is that they are accurate. I don’t have to like them, but if they are portraying SOF then I want them to do so accurately. For a SOF-focused film to be true, actual SOF have to be involved in the development of the film from the beginning to the end.
Many SOF leaders want nothing to do with the media, Hollywood studios, or documentary producers. That posture has allowed several films to be developed that are not truthful or accurate, which can confuse and mislead the audience.
As an Army Special Forces officer, I watched the SEAL community support a lot of films and books; I struggled to decide whether it was right for them be so open. The SOF community is really divided on this issue…the divide between sharing the truth and being a quiet professional. To be frank, there is nothing wrong with anyone writing a book or making a film about SOF as long as it is done right and does not share any classified information.
The Green Berets
If you think about impactful SOF movies, you have to start with The Green Berets. This was the first movie that educated the nation on what SOF does, and it inspired a whole generation of special operators. The movie came about after Robin Moore wrote the book The Green Berets, for which the Department of Defense tried to indict him for “releasing classified material.”
At that time, John Wayne was one of a handful of actors in Hollywood that was untouchable, and he wanted to make a pro-military movie. In 1966, John Wayne flew to Vietnam and spent some time with Special Forces (SF) units. Wayne returned to Hollywood inspired to make a movie about SF, so he bought the rights to the book The Green Berets.
Wayne didn’t waste any time; he shot most of The Green Berets in the summer of 1967. This was prior to some of the heaviest fighting in Vietnam–the most unpopular war in American history. Wayne was constantly challenged by the film executives to not make the movie because they felt it would be a huge failure and seriously tarnish his reputation. But Wayne had the full and complete support of the U.S. Army and SF, and their involvement had a huge impact on the quality of the film.
The Green Berets was released in 1968 and received terrible reviews from movie critics–but audiences loved it. It blew up at the box office, earning Wayne a lot of money and realigning many Americans toward the U.S. military.
The movie had a huge impact on many of the people that joined SF, helping fill the ranks when most services were struggling with high Absent Without Leave (AWOL) numbers. The movie did have some “Hollywood additions” that embellished some of the actions, but for the most part it told an accurate story and followed the book. In the end, The Green Berets had a huge impact on SOF culture.
Black Hawk Down
The next major SOF film was Black Hawk Down, a film based on the 1999 non-fiction book of the same name by Mark Bowden, which in turn was based on the 29-part series of articles published in The Philadelphia Inquirer. All of these products chronicled the events of a 1993 raid in Mogadishu by the U.S. Army soldiers from the Ranger Regiment, Task Force 160 the Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), and 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. The raid was aimed at capturing faction leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
This movie received the full support of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, and it became the second highest grossing military film after Saving Private Ryan. What I loved about this movie was that it stuck very closely to the book and articles, telling the story of an epic battle where SOF showed their capabilities. Most people that watched that movie were moved by the horrors of combat, giving them their first real look into SOF in combat since The Green Berets.
Next came Lone Survivor. This film was based on the 2007 non-fiction book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson. The movie was released in 2013 and took over eight years to complete. Peter Berg, the director, wanted to make the movie accurate because he knew that scenes from the movie would depict the death of service members. The way that those men died would be seen by their families, so Berg worked hard to make the families comfortable with the film. Berg actually spent so much time focusing on accuracy and the families that HBO did a documentary on the making of the film (“Lone Survivor: Will of the Warrior”).
Lone Survivor involved Marcus Luttrell, the real-life survivor of Operation Red Wings, throughout the entire process and it was also supported by the DoD. My key takeaway is that this film was the public’s first exposure to the fighting in Afghanistan and educated viewers on how hard modern SOF operations can be.
If you look back at some of the amazing things SOF have done over the last 2 decades and you read some of the award citations, you know there will be more SOF movies. The development of these films is an emotional thing for the SOF community and regardless of what we think, these films make money and they will continue to hit the big screens.
The important thing is to get SOF involved from the beginning and make the films accurate. Ignoring these films will only ensure that the film misleads or lies to the public, further ensuring that people are ignorant about the truth of SOF operations. If done well, films like these also have a huge impact on recruiting, and the millennial generation is a huge viewer of films. As SOF struggles to fill the ranks we need to be cognizant of the value these films have on recruitment.