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Home Classic Movies American Military Movies: Hollywood-Pentagon Romance from D.W. Griffith to ‘Iron Man’

American Military Movies: Hollywood-Pentagon Romance from D.W. Griffith to ‘Iron Man’

7 minutes read

The Birth of a Nation military
American military movies: Besides depicting the Civil War, D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 feature The Birth of a Nation had the Ku Klux Klan saving heroine Lillian Gish.

From ‘The Birth of a Nation’ to ‘Iron Man’: The love affair between Hollywood & the Pentagon

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

In‘s excellent March 2008 article “The Golden Age of the Military-Entertainment Complex: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Pentagon-Style,” journalist and author Nick Turse (The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives) traces the mutually rewarding – and very close – ties between the American film industry and the American military complex throughout the decades. And there goes Hollywood’s reputation as a liberal enclave filled with unpatriotic, treacherous, anti-flagwaving pacifists.

As author and professor Tom Engelhardt explains in his introduction to Turse’s article, “Hollywood and the Pentagon have been in an intricate dance of support and cross-promotion for almost a century, from a time when the Department of Defense was still quaintly – if more accurately – known as the War Department.”

In fact, when it comes to playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the military standing in for Bacon,” what’s difficult isn’t finding less than six degrees of separation between an actor or director or movie and the U.S. military – but finding any degree of separation at all. Using Kevin Bacon himself as the first example: Bacon, Turse tells us, got his first acting gig in a military recruitment film.

Cavalry troops for D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ – or rather, for Griffith’s ‘America’

The connection between American movies and the American military begins at least as early as 1915, “when, in response to a request for assistance, U.S. Secretary of War John Weeks [sic] ordered the army to provide every reasonable courtesy to D.W. Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan epic Birth of a Nation. The Army came through with more than 1,000 cavalry troops and a military band.”

Update: As one Alt Film Guide reader has pointed out to us, John W. Weeks, a former representative and later senator from Massachusetts, became U.S. Secretary of War only in the early ’20s. In other words, Weeks couldn’t have ordered any cavalry troops or military bands to take part in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War epic.

So, is there any actual connection between The Birth of a Nation and the U.S. military? According to Lawrence H. Suid’s Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film, the answer is definitely Yes. Griffith “turned to the Army for help while filming The Birth of a Nation in 1915,” Suid affirms, “when he requested technical advice from West Point engineers in preparing his Civil War battle sequences.”

Nick Turse likely used Suid’s book as his source, but got The Birth of a Nation mixed up with Griffith’s 1924 Revolutionary War drama America, which did have more than 1,000 cavalry troops and a military band used in its war sequences – courtesy of none other than Secretary of War John W. Weeks. Reportedly, the cavalry units loaned to Griffith’s historical epic “constituted the largest number ever assembled outside actual war maneuvers.”

Less than six degrees separating the U.S. military from Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, George Takei

Back to Nick Turse: In his article, the military-The Birth of Nation connection is expanded to encompass other movies, as Griffith’s blockbuster “featured George Beranger, who would go on to star [sic] with Humphrey Bogart and Glen Cavender in San Quentin (1937) – in which a former Army officer is hired to impose military discipline on the infamous prison. Cavender had also appeared alongside actor/director Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s brother, in A Submarine Pirate (1915), for which the Navy provided a submarine, a gunboat, and the use of the San Diego Navy Yard. (The film was even approved to be shown in Navy recruiting stations.)” [Note: George Beranger and Glen Cavender have bit roles in the Lloyd Bacon-directed San Quentin, which stars Bogart, Pat O’Brien, and Ann Sheridan.]

Going beyond The Birth of a Nation, Nick Turse then proceeds to detail numerous degrees of closeness between the Pentagon and Hollywood, finding links between the likes of, among others, William Holden, Gary Cooper, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Star Trek‘s George Takei (!), and, gasp, John Wayne and his 1968 pro-Vietnam War drama The Green Berets, which was “almost universally panned […]. One New York Times film reviewer went so far as to call it ‘so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail … vile and insane.'”

‘Iron Man’: The Air Force as ‘rock stars’

Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. are connected to the Pentagon by way of the Air Force-aided Iron Man (2008), and so is Dakota Fanning “at the side of top-gunner Tom Cruise” in Steven Spielberg’s Army-aided 2005 remake of War of the Worlds. (Image: Iron Man 2008.)

Oscar winners and/or nominees Jennifer Jones, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, and once again William Holden (not to mention O.J. Simpson, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, and Robert Wagner) are all in thanks to John Guillermin’s 1974 blockbuster and Best Picture Academy Award nominee The Towering Inferno. “The Navy lent helicopters,” Nick Turse explains, “and the studio [20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.] said thanks in the form of an acknowledgment in the credits.”

Regarding Paramount’s Jon Favreau-directed Iron Man, Air Force master sergeant Larry Belen remarked: “I want people to walk away from this movie with a really good impression of the Air Force, like they got about the Navy seeing Top Gun.” Nick Turse adds that “Air Force captain Christian Hodge, the Defense Department’s project officer for Iron Man, may have said it best when he unabashedly predicted, ‘The Air Force is going to come off looking like rock stars.'”

Now, there’s no mention of U.S. military cooperation on Robert Altman’s MASH or Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. It could be, of course, that there was no cooperation, as in these two Best Picture Academy Award nominees the military comes off looking like anything but rock stars.

The ‘New York Times’ Renata Adler vs. John Wayne’s Vietnam War movie

The Green BeretsNew York Times reviewer mentioned in the previous post was Renata Adler. Below is the full quote from Adler’s review of John Wayne’s 1968 pro-Vietnam War drama:

The Green Berets is a film so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail that it passes through being fun, through being funny, through being camp, through everything and becomes an invitation to grieve, not for our soldiers or for Vietnam (the film could not be more false or do a greater disservice to either of them), but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus in this country. Simplicities of the right, simplicities of the left, but this one is beyond the possible. It is vile and insane. On top of that, it is dull.

Besides John Wayne himself, The Green Berets features David Janssen, Jim Hutton, Aldo Ray, Bruce Cabot, Raymond St. Jacques, Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne, and Star Trek‘s George Takei. Ray Kellogg and veteran Mervyn LeRoy (Gold Diggers of 1933, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Random Harvest) reportedly gave Wayne a hand behind the camera.

The year after the widely reviled The Green Berets was released, John Wayne starred in True Grit. This old-fashioned, Henry Hathaway-directed Western comedy-drama would earn the veteran Wayne a sentimental Best Actor Academy Award at the 1970 Oscar ceremony.

More on the connection between American movies and the American military

Other articles discussing the pervasive Hollywood-U.S. military symbiosis include the following:

  • Abraham Riesman’s “Bombers in Hollywood: The Price of Military Tech Assistance in Hollywood Movies” at
  • Kay Steiger’s “CIA and Pentagon have long-running influence over Hollywood’s representation of military” at The Raw Story.
  • Steve Rose’s “The US military storm Hollywood” in The Guardian.
  • The PBS report “U.S. Military Helps Create Hollywood Films on War and Warriors.”
  • Julian E. Barnes’ “Calling the shots on war movies” in the Los Angeles Times.


Iron Man image: Marvel Studios / Paramount Pictures.

Lillian Gish in The Birth of a Nation photo: David W. Griffith Corp / Epoch Producing Co.

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