The Man Who Brought War to Hollywood


David James/HBO

At the Emmy Awards here in Hollywood on Sunday night, The Pacific, the epic HBO miniseries about World War II, produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, is expected to sweep. The production, which premiered in the spring, has 24 separate nominations, more than any other this year. One of the key figures behind The Pacific is a man called Dale Dye. He is Hollywood's go-to man when filmmakers want to make an authentic war picture. Moviegoers and TV viewers have seen Dye's handiwork (and they might recognize him because of cameos in film and TV) but they have no idea who he really is.

Dye established his reputation on the 1986 Best Picture, Platoon, the story of a young soldier's introduction to war in Vietnam, written and directed by Oliver Stone. Platoon was innovative in how it immersed actors in boot camp training to make them appear like combat soldiers. Its depiction of warfare was fresh, too. These were Dale Dye's marks. His work revolutionized war films—the way they look, sound, and feel, giving them more authenticity and heft. He's even impacted the way in which war stories are told. Born on the Fourth of July, The Last of the Mohicans, Forrest Gump, and Band of Brothers—they're all productions on which Dale Dye served as senior military advisor.

Dye joined the Marines in 1964. He was involved in 31 major combat operations in Vietnam during two tours, and was awarded a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Through his company, Warriors, Inc., based in the San Fernando Valley, Dye has advised on approximately 50 productions. The Pacific is a passion project. "It took longer than anything I've ever done," Dye, 65, says, "I personally worked on it for about 13 months overseas, and then about six to eight months in post-production here in L.A."

We met at his home in L.A., and began by discussing the tempest set off last spring when Tom Hanks, out promoting The Pacific, said, "We viewed the Japanese as 'yellow, slant-eyed dogs' that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different," Hanks said. "Does that sound familiar to what's going on today?"

It's been a few months since Tom Hanks' comments. Now that the smoke has cleared, what's your take on his remarks?

Tom's statement was taken out of context and misinterpreted. I think what he was really trying to say was: Propaganda is as old as war itself, and if we talk about the enemy in an inhuman fashion so as to build fighting fervor, is that right or wrong?

Did his comments offend you?

If there's anyone who's a fan of the service and sacrifice of military people, it's Tom Hanks. This incident is just an example of you press weenies trying to fire up some kind of controversy—and I'm not going to be a part of it.

Why is "The Pacific" important?

Because Americans don't really know about what happened over there. It was as different from the war in Europe as night is from day. What we were doing there was a dollar job being demanded on a dime budget. Also, we were fighting an enemy that was culturally foreign to us. For the most part, the Germans looked, acted, and fought like us. The Japanese were a different issue altogether. I want people to know about the courage and sacrifice that was required to fight them.

Female viewers seemed to really appreciate The Pacific, and they aren't necessarily fans of war pictures. How did you win them over?

By telling a story that reflects the thousands of whirlwind wartime romances that happened during World War II. There's this great desperation element—I might get killed in the next six weeks, we've got to get married now—and females really identify with that. They get it.

There's a romance between two soldiers.

Yes. We have a tearjerker with Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, played by Jon Seda, and a female Marine, Lena Mae Riggi, played by an actress called Annie Parisse. Lena Mae is an upfront, straight professional, and she's doing her part for the war effort. She's fallen in love with John, another professional, who wants to do everything he can. That's a compelling story.

You first worked with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan. In addition to being the senior military advisor for the picture, you acted in that pivotal scene where Gen. George C. Marshall, played by Harve Presnell, reads the renowned letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Bixby.

That was Steven's idea. The script pages for that scene were still being written as we were starting to shoot. I knew I had a role in it, so I was anxious to learn my dialogue. I was familiar with that quotation from Lincoln—"I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom"—and when I found that Steven was going to use it, I was thrilled.

Of all the movie and TV directors with whom you've worked, who best understands the soldier?

Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg. Oliver understands soldiers because he's been one. And he gets combat because he's been in combat. He won't miss a dramatic beat in a war story. Steven has never been to war—but he has a deep understanding of human emotions. He's the consummate storyteller and he searches hard to find the emotional core of soldiers when he's doing a war film.

How do you view them as filmmakers?

Well, first of all, Steven and Oliver are fans of each other's. Second, they both understand how to tell a story. Oliver knows how to push emotional buttons, and often doesn't care which one he pushes. Steven knows where the buttons are, but he's more cautious about why and how he pushes them. Oliver is more of an intellectual, while Steven is more of a technophile.

It's been a long time since we've seen a major movie star with a service career.

Well, Lee Marvin, George C. Scott, and Gene Hackman were all Marines. Occasionally—but not very often these days—I'll run into an older actor who has actually had military experience. He gets it in a heartbeat with very little coaching from me. The younger men and women who are the easiest to teach and assimilate are the ones who've had experience on high school or college sports teams.

Which actors really understand what it means to be a soldier?

Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman, Damien Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Cruise, Ron Livingston, and Tom Berenger are at the top of my list. There's just something in their backgrounds or mentalities that makes it easier for them to understand the soldiers' point of view. All these actors do lots of homework. They listen more than they talk.

So what do you consider your mission in Hollywood?

To correct misperceptions about the military and celebrate the courage, devotion, and sacrifice of the men and women who've worn our uniform. Now, that doesn't make me a Kool-Aid drinker or even a cheerleader. I served 22 years in the United States Marine Corps. I know when we screwed the pooch, and don't mind talking about that. That means if Oliver Stone wants to say, "Hey, you know, some of these draftees were smoking dope"—well, that was a fact, and I don't mind showing it. I don't think that kind of scene denigrates the people who served. But a director also has to show the other side of the picture in the same story.

What made you want to work here?

I'd retired from the Marine Corps, where I was shot too many times to want to become a cop. I knew I needed something. I'd always been a movie fan, and in fact had watched every military movie ever made because the military was my way of life. But those movies, they all pissed me off. I knew there was a better way to make them.

Were there any war movies that you thought were excellent?

The Big Red One and Steel Helmet, both directed by Sam Fuller, were excellent. Porkchop Hill, Hamburger Hill, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Twelve O'Clock High,and In Harm's Way are excellent depictions of wartime experiences. But I don't have a favorite war movie. The experience of mortal combat is unique and so difficult to quantify that directors really have to work at it in order to tell a story with all of this emotional distraction around it.

Does Apocalypse Now, set in Vietnam and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, meet with your approval?

It's entertaining, but I don't care for it at all because it has nothing to do with the average guy's experience in Vietnam. Coppola had rock-solid opinions about American soldiers in Vietnam, and the overall experience there. However, those views have no basis in reality—which isn't really what he was after anyway.

Did The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino's 1978 film about Vietnam, disparage the soldiers?

That movie was over-the-top, and not at all typical of what most of us went through. In terms of how the veterans were depicted at home after their tours, the movie was okay. But that thing with Christopher Walken and the Russian Roulette in a Saigon opium den—that was outrageous. Robert De Niro's goatee in dress uniform didn't do much for us, either.

Looking back at the John Wayne picture The Green Berets

Well, I don't particularly look at that movie.

What's your objection?

It was Duke Wayne hitting moviegoers over the head, knee-jerking to what he perceived to be negative imagery of the troops in Vietnam. Even the Green Berets themselves didn't like that film. The movie was just way too saccharin. Plus, the sun sets in the east at the end of the film. That's a stretch.

How did you break into the business?

I actually tried going on movie studio lots and knocking on producer's doors. I was funny and nobody talked to them like I did, so they tolerated me for a little while. Eventually, they'd call security and have me escorted off the lot.

Oliver Stone finally opened the door for you.

That's right. I read a story in the trades that said a relatively unknown writer-director by the name of Oliver Stone was going to make a picture based on his own experiences in Vietnam. And purely by accident, I ran into a writer who had been working with Oliver on another film. I took the writer to a bar on Sunset, got him drunk, and had him write down Oliver's home phone number on a matchbook. I called Oliver Stone the very next day.

Presented by

John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

Just In