I just cannot get behind this Star Trek rebirth. The whole thing is just so unrealistic. Not the warp speed or phasers or beaming about the universe - those are at least remotely plausible. I am talking about the fact that the starship Enterprise is composed entirely of officers and yet it still seems to function. Where are the non-commissioned officers (NCO), the petty officers and sergeants who actually make any military organization run? No, I can suspend disbelief over Klingons and tribbles, and I actively support the notion of green alien hotties. But the idea of a functioning military unit without sergeants is just a wormhole too far.
Hollywood movies often focus on the commanders, the captains and colonels, but they have also managed to highlight some great sergeants as well. When you are picking out DVDs for next weekend, remember that May 16th is Armed Forces Day and consider a few selections that show the sergeant in all his gruff and grumbling glory.
If you have never experienced the joy of going through basic training and do not plan to, your first stop should be Full Metal Jacket, with R. Lee Ermey’s legendary portrayal of a Marine drill instructor who must have missed out on the block of instruction on sensitivity. I saw this in the theater about a week before I reported to Basic. That was a poor idea.
The Marines I know seem to prefer Jack Webb in the more realistic The DI, but I am partial to Warren Oates as the “Big Toe” of a platoon of Army foul-ups in Stripes. This is one great performance - as Sergeant First Class Hulka, Oates is both hilarious and moving. You can see how this veteran NCO (his character wears the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, meaning he had seen action) truly cares about teaching his men to survive, and you kind of sympathize with him when Bill Murray’s smart-assery pushes him into slugging our hero in the gut. Hulka’s contemptuous rejoinder to “Psycho” - “Lighten up, Francis” - is classic, as is his inventory of baffled expressions while watching the antics of his recruits. I remember getting some of those looks myself from Drill Sergeant Whittlesey.
And do not forget Louis Gossett, Jr. as another Devil Dog making Naval officer candidates earn the right to receive his salute in An Officer and a Gentleman. My only objection to this movie is that it made Squid School look a lot more fun than Fort Benning’s Army Officer Candidate School, but then I didn’t look like Richard Gere.
The tough sergeant turning a band of screw-ups into a well-oiled fighting machine is classic Hollywood. The archetype is Marine Sergeant Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima, in which John Wayne supposedly utters the quintessential NCO aphorism “Life is tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid.” But even if the Duke actually never says those words in the film, he should have, and generations of NCOs have shared that particular insight with their soldiers.
Right up there is Clint Eastwood as another jarhead in Heartbreak Ridge. It’s a good action flick, but what was particularly interesting is how he developed his nerdy lieutenant into a tough, confident leader who ends up saving the platoon. But not all sergeants get to work with top notch officers. In the miniseries Band of Brothers, Donnie Wahlberg does a great job as Easy Company’s First Sergeant Carwood Lipton, who was faced with protecting his men from a cowardly commander. He does, but suffers a terrible fate - he receives a battlefield commission and becomes a mere lieutenant. As Colonial Marine Gunnery Sergeant Apone in the fantastic Aliens, Al Matthews not only contends with an incompetent platoon leader, but flesh eating space bugs and Bill Paxton’s loudmouth Private Hudson. “Game over, man! Game over!”
The definition of an NCO is someone who makes things happen - whether or not strictly within the bounds of the regulations. Don Rickles embraces this as the entrepreneurial and sharp-tongued supply sergeant Crap Game in Kelly’s Heroes. Steve Martin played another NCO who didn’t let little things like rules get in the way in Sgt. Bilko. James Caan, as real-life WWII Staff Sergeant Eddie Dohun, rescues his critically wounded officer from the battlefield and takes him to an aid station in A Bridge Too Far. When the doctor refuses to look at what seems to be a hopeless case, SSG Dohun did what any good sergeant would do and improvised - by sticking his cocked .45 in the surgeon’s face. The wounded officer lived.
Behind every good officer are literally dozens of great NCOs. Even Lee Marvin could not have handled The Dirty Dozen without Richard Jaeckel’s Sergeant Bowren. In Crimson Tide, the feuding officers vie for the support of the Master Chief Petty Officer, the “Chief of the Boat.” Tom Hanks may have been the commander, but the heart of his company was Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) in Saving Private Ryan.
That is not just a Hollywood cliché - that is real life. In fact, some of the best portrayals of NCOs in the movies have simply been the telling of the true stories of what they really did. Black Hawk Down accurately shows modern urban combat as a confusing and deadly amalgamation of separate firefights involving small units led by young sergeants. Josh Hartnett does a good job as a Ranger squad leader trying to keep his men alive, while Eric Bana and William Fichtner are Delta sergeants who take the fight right to the enemy.
But the portrayals that best show the reality of the American NCO are that of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Johnny Strong as Delta Force Master Sergeants Gary Gordon and Randall Shugart. As the movie shows, when one of the Blackhawk choppers went down, they repeatedly requested permission to fast rope in to protect the injured crew knowing it would mean near certain death. Finally getting permission, they set up a perimeter and fought until overrun, littering the streets with the bodies of Somali militiamen and saving one member of the crew. They earned the Medal of Honor, but I suspect that if we could ask them both would say that they were simply doing what NCOs do and nothing more.
Sam Elliot played another real-life hero, Command Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, in We Were Soldiers. As the movie shows, most enlisted troopers in the Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, and the wise officers as well, treated CSM Plumley with an awe verging on terror. But when the battalion was surrounded by a division of North Vietnamese at Ia Drang, CSM Plumley stayed cool, keeping morale strong in the face of what should have been a massacre. In the film, and in reality, these cavalrymen fought a massively superior force to a standstill.
Though I am a former cavalry commander, my favorite NCO portrayal is of an infantry sergeant in the British Army. Zulu depicts the true story of the legendary near-last stand of a company of Welsh soldiers at Rourke’s Drift in South Africa. The tiny band held their ground against a brave and deadly enemy force forty times their size. As Colour-Sergeant Bourne, Nigel Greene is the ultimate NCO. From keeping up standards in battle - “Button your tunic!” - to advocating for his exhausted men to facing down an iklwa-wielding Zulu warrior with his bayonet, Colour-Sergeant Bourne was the backbone of the company.
Sergeants truly are the backbone of the Army and of the other services. Right now, a young buck sergeant is leading his Marine fire team through the mountains of Afghanistan, a platoon sergeant is prepping a cavalry patrol through the streets of Kosovo, and a command sergeant major in Iraq is double checking his troops before another convoy mission. These men and women are the heart of our military. Take a moment to think about them as you pop in a movie and sit back and relax next weekend, safe and secure. And raise a beer to them. I will.
Originally published on May 11, 2009, at Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood blog.