Based on a True Story
Eight Decades of On-Screen Heroes
May 28, 2014
War stories are as old as civilization itself, with tales of unexpected heroism and stories of courage in the face of defeat spanning centuries. In America, we’ve been putting our military stories on film for decades. Here are eight films spanning eight decades that honor some our nation’s true-life heroes. (And be sure to check out our Military Movies Pinterest board.)
The Fighting Sullivans
True story: This movie tells the tale of the Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa (population of 50,000 in 1942): George, Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert. The two oldest (George and Francis) had done a stint in the Navy when the younger three decided to enlist after a friend of theirs was killed on the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor. They just had one condition: they all wanted to serve aboard the same ship. The five were placed with the USS Juneau, despite Navy rules that prevented siblings from serving aboard the same ship (rules that were clearly flexible). The light cruiser was part of a battlegroup taking supplies to Marines at Guadalcanal in 1942 when it ran across part of the Japanese fleet. The ship survived a torpedo hit during the initial battle, but not another one sent its way the following morning. It would be ten days before help arrived. The brothers all perished, and the Sullivan family became the epitome of those who sacrificed everything to help defend our nation.
Movie facts: The film implies that all five died when the Juneau sank. In reality, three were reported to have died during the sinking, another drowned the next day, and the last one the day after that (from what is believed to have been a shark attack). IMBD page
To Hell and Back
True story: Audie Murphy was a true battle hero, receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions in January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France. His unit faced a withering German attack and began to retreat. Murphy, however, stayed behind to help direct artillery fire at the enemy and hold them off as long as he could. This included jumping on an M10 tank (in the movie, an M4 Sherman serves as a stand in) and using its .50-caliber machine gun to slow the enemies’ advance. Despite being injured and having almost no cover at all, he single-handedly turned back the German forces.
Movie facts: Audie plays himself in the film. In fact, he had a film career spanning 21 movies, most of them westerns. IMDB page
True story: Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 and its captain—a guy named John F. Kennedy—were part of a group stationed near Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands that was trying to spot and destroy part of the "Tokyo Express," the Japanese supply route that ran through the area. A few days after a failed attempt to stop the convoy, PT-109 was struck by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri, sending the crew into the water and damaging the boat beyond repair. There were nine survivors, including two that couldn’t swim and another that was gravely injured. The non-swimmers were placed on planks while five of the others took turns towing them; Kennedy pulled the injured sailor by putting part of the sailor’s life vest in his teeth. The group spent nearly a week swimming from island to island, trying to stay hidden from the enemy, until they found a local tribe friendly to the Allies, who sent for help.
Movie fact: PT-109 was the first commercial film about a United States President that was released while that president was still in office, coming out in June 1963—just five months before JFK was assassinated. IMDB page
A Bridge Too Far
True story: Campaign “Operation Market-Garden” was an Allied attempt to capture several key bridges in Germany during the later stages of World War II. The goal was to secure paths for the eventual Allied march to Berlin, which was becoming more inevitable with each battle, and end the war by the close of 1944. War had been raging for more than half a decade in Europe and many were ready for it to all be over. Despite some success early on, the plan did not succeed, thus delaying the defeat of Germany for several more months.
Move fact: The film was praised for its historical accuracy, but was not well received in America. It also had a cast made up of some of biggest names in the business, including Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Laurence Olivier, Maximilian Schell, and Richard Attenborough (who also directed the film). IMDB page
True story: The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was the first formal unit of the US Army to be made up entirely of African American men. Their leader, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, was tasked with training the men despite the doubts of other Union military leaders, many of whom might have opposed slavery, but weren’t convinced that African Americans could preform a stalwart role in battle. As proof of these doubts, the unit was sent on what was essentially a suicide run: an effort to take Battery Wagner, a near impenetrable fort that had a single strip of open beach as its only land access. The attack wasn’t a success (half of the 54th was killed, and Union forces never did take the fort) but the bravery shown by the men proved they were more than worthy and inspired the Union to recruit more African Americans for combat roles. One soldier involved, Sergeant William H. Carney, even became the first African American to earn the Medal of Honor—although he didn’t receive it until 37 years after the battle.
Movie facts: The opening battle scene, meant to be the battle of Antietam, was actually taken from two places: footage from the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, where 15,000 re-enactors took part during celebrations in 1988; and in McDonough, Ga., where the director shot more close-up scenes involving the actors in the film. IMDB page
True story: During Vietnam, the U.S. had been helping villages in the south become self-sustaining as a way to help fight off the allure of communism. For one village, that involved harvesting lumber. There was just one problem: they had no way to get the lumber from their village to the sawmill several miles away. After spending six months trying mechanized means—and having a pile of destroyed vehicles to show for it, thanks to the harsh conditions—Captain John Gantt with the 5th Special Forces came up with the idea of using elephants. The next problem was how to get those elephants to the village. That issue was solved thanks to an agreement from the Air Force, a C-130 airplane, a pair of “Jolly Green Giant” helicopters, and liberal doses of tranquilizers.
Movie facts: This Disney film took many liberties with the truth and wasn’t well received. But at least the elephant they used was well taken care of: her food and water were shipped from the U.S. to Thailand (where they shot a great deal of the movie) and she was bathed every day in purified water. IMDB page
Black Hawk Down
: The 1990s might have been a time of relative peace, but there were still areas of the world where military force was necessary. One of those was in Somalia, where on Oct. 3-4, 1993, elite U.S. Soldiers arrived to try and capture a renegade warlord’s top lieutenants. This included dropping the troops deep into Mogadishu, the nation’s capital and home to a great deal of civil unrest. The Americans certainly expected resistance, but nothing like what they faced once they arrived. Hundreds of armed rebels were roaming the streets, some with rocket propelled grenades—and two of those grenades connected with Blackhawk helicopters. What was supposed to be an hour-long mission to rescue the crews turned into an overnight battle. When it was over, 18 U.S. Soldiers were dead, 80 were wounded, and one was captured. The number of Somali deaths is estimated to be anywhere from 300 to 3,000.
Movie fact: Ridley Scott, the film's director, was a stickler for authenticity. He used some of the real radio transmission and satellite imagery thanks to DoD cooperation, and the helicopters and pilots used during filming were from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, most of whom had been in the actual battle. IMDB page
Act of Valor
True story: What makes this movie “true” isn’t the mission depicted in it—it isn’t based on a specific event from real life but, rather, from parts of different missions. Instead, what makes the movie real are the actors: they are actual Navy SEALs. SEALs prefer to avoid the limelight, so it took some effort to get them and the Navy to approve their roles in the film. Doing so, however, gave the film a sense of realism when it came to the tactics and actions used.
Movie fact: The names of the SEALs do not appear anywhere in the movie. Instead, the credits list all of the Navy Special Warfare personnel killed since Sept. 11. IMDB page