The Man Who Brought War to Hollywood
An interview with Dale Dye, a Vietnam veteran who has served as a consultant on more than 50 movies and TV shows, including Emmy-nominated "The Pacific"
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.
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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.
What did you say?
I told him my theory about why war movies sucked, and gave him my view on how to make a good one. He liked what I said and hired me. By the way, I still have that matchbook from the bar on Sunset.
What was your first order of business on Platoon?
I took 33 actors into the mountains of Central Luzon in the Philippines for three weeks, completely cut off from the outside world. The day I brought them back to civilization was the first day of filming. They were ready. They looked and performed just like the soldiers in Vietnam.
Were you the first to train actors in this way?
Yes, and it changed the methodology of war movies. Training had been provided, but there wasn't full immersion in it. Until Platoon, an actor wasn't going to submit himself to such indignities. Since then, a lot of people have copied my approach.
What makes yours unique?
I'll absolutely physically abuse you to the point where you're so tired you're cross-eyed. Then your ego goes away. That way, I can talk to your heart.
Do actors complain about your approach?
Absolutely. But so do the kids who climb off the bus at Parris Island who aren't actors. They whine, piss, moan, and complain that they're being mistreated. Nowadays, actors seem to come in to my program acknowledging, He's gonna nail my butt. He's gonna unscrew my head and pour all the crapola out and then put the right stuff in. And that's precisely what I do.
On Platoon, was it obvious during the production that you were making a different kind of war picture?
I knew we were on to something, and that I was working with a powerful, visionary film director. And because of the nature of the story, I knew that there were going to be detractors.
Did you disagree with Oliver Stone about certain story aspects?
Yes—and there were a few places where I succeeded at getting him to change things. In the original script, the G.I.'s of Bravo Company completely destroy a village with the civilians inside. I told Oliver, "You know damn well we wouldn't do that. You didn't do it when you were a soldier in Vietnam, and neither did I. So how about if those G.I.'s carry the civilians out? Relocate them. That's what we would have done." He agreed, and that scenario is the one that's in the picture.
Toward the end of Platoon, there's this bizarre scene where an American tank has a Nazi flag flying above it. U.S. soldiers also have German Shepherds on leashes, an image reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Why would American soldiers in Vietnam have a Nazi flag above the tank?
For the same reason that soldiers had flags with the skull-and-cross bones image on it. We carried state flags as well.
Did you see that when you were there?
Sure. But all that didn't mean that much to us at 19. We were young, rebellious kids. We weren't making political statements. We were making a military statement: We're Stormtroopers, we'll tear your ass apart. We also put horrible graffiti on our helmets and flak jackets.
And why the German Shepherds?
They were scout dogs. We used them all the time.
You trained Charlie Sheen for his role as Chris, the young solider in Platoon, so you worked closely with him. Why do you think Sheen can't stay out of trouble?
That's a very personal question. I'd rather discuss it with Charlie than with you. I'll say this: when I had him under my guidance and tutelage he gave it all he had. There's a big heart beating inside his ribcage.
You've had a recurring role on the HBO series Entourage, which is about a young movie star making it in Hollywood. Does that series really capture the movie business?
The hubris, arrogance, and ego fixations are accurately displayed. My favorite character is Johnny Drama, played by Kevin Dillion. He's great in the role of the struggling actor trying to make a comeback after one big success in a series. I run into guys just like him all the time out here.
Why have movies about the Iraq war performed so poorly at the box office?
Those films are too much too soon. It took Hollywood almost a decade to really take an unblinking look at Vietnam. We're a media-saturated society, bombarded with images from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's not a smart move to ask people to pay $10 to go see all that brutality again, especially when they may well have someone who's related to them fighting over there.
The Iraq war pictures have also had political agendas as well. Why can't filmmakers avoid that?
Hubris. That's really what causes filmmakers to make political statements in what are essentially entertainment vehicles. I'm not a fan of that approach. Shine a light on war and its consequences—fine. But don't make political comments. Americans gets plenty of that, thank you. They want something else from Hollywood.
Explain the political set-up in Hollywood to people who don't work here.
Well, if you were to create a Hollywood political spectrum, the writers, directors, producers, and actors would all be on the far left. On the right, for the most part, are the below-the-line folks—the blue-collar guys. This reflects our country. People think big business is completely conservative, but that's not true. The conservatives can be found down in middle management. They're stoking the furnace. It's the same out here in the movie business.
Why are so many of those writers, directors, producers, and actors you mention on the left?
They come from the arts and a humanitarian educational background. Very few have any military service—or any public service whatsoever. They deal in fantasyland. That's what we do here—tell stories and create images.
Where are you on that spectrum?
I'm a conservative, but I'm certainly not a neoconservative. Nor am I a reactionary. I believe this country was founded on certain timeless principles, and that we shouldn't be second-guessing the Founding Fathers.
Have those views ever impacted your employment in Hollywood?
Yes. Early in my career, the sentiment against me seemed to be, Ah, this is that right-wing wacko. He doesn't have a brain. He's a Marine. He's clearly from the South. He's toothless, probably can't read, and all he knows how to do is pull a trigger. But now, 20 years later, after 50 films, I've sort of overcome that.
When you were fighting in Vietnam, could you have imagined that you would be advising and acting on some of the most elaborate films and TV productions of all time?
I didn't think I'd live through Vietnam.
So what kind of perspective do you have today?
I've been all over this world three or four times, and nowhere else but in America could a farm guy like me, from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, educate himself and realize the great privileges that I have. Now, that may sound cornball, but it's the plain fact of the matter.