Early next year HBO will premier part World War II miniseries that The Pacific [www.hbo.com] , a 10- follows several Marines from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. Like the cable channel’s earlier Band of Brothers, the new program is based on real people and real events. Also like its grittily realistic and hugely successful predecessor, The Pacific will rely on retired Marine and Vietnam combat veteran Dale Dye to guarantee the highest level of military accuracy. Through his company, Warriors Inc., Dye and a cadre of fellow veterans ensure that military-themed films and television programs have an authentic look and feel and that performers can realistically and convincingly portray soldiers from virtually any period of history. Arguably the best-known military adviser in Hollywood, Dye often acts in the projects on which he advises and is soon to direct his first feature film—not unexpectedly, a war movie.
What led you from the Marines to Hollywood?
I thought that someone who knew military life and the realities of combat needed to show the Hollywood folks what the real military was like…how we look, think, walk, talk and fight in the real world. I wanted to work from the inside and find a way to make writers, directors and actors understand what it’s like to soldier. So, in 1985 I started making calls and kicking down doors and sort of turning it into an all-out frontal assault, but I wasn’t having much luck. Then I ran into director Oliver Stone, who knew from his own time as a Vietnam combat soldier that you can’t translate the experience believably without living the life in some sort of full-immersion training regimen. He let me do it my way on Platoon. When we eventually won four Academy Awards—including Best Picture—people became more receptive.
Why is realism so important in a war movie?
First, generations of Americans—but few filmmakers—have had personal military experiences. Second, we live in a media-saturated society in which live feeds from distant battlefields show audiences what real militaries and real conflicts look like. If filmmakers ignore that and ask audiences to pay to see make-believe soldiers with bad haircuts wearing uniforms the wrong way, rendering sloppy salutes, and all the other technical inaccuracies, no star or powerhouse director can make that film work.
I wondered why filmmakers got these simple, easy-to-fix things wrong all the time. That led me to develop my own techniques of getting it right by training performers and carefully staging combat scenes to reflect the realities of what people remembered from their own service or were seeing on the nightly news.
What are the keys to establishing realism and accuracy on a set?
You need to get the details right, but that’s usually the easy part. The big issue for a military adviser is trust. People with so much riding on a film or TV project want sound advice and direction from a guy who knows both the military and how films are made. The best way to do all this is to start with the writer and eliminate the inaccuracies in the script, but that’s not always possible, so I usually wind up suggesting changes on the fly. The real key is a thing called “feel,” meaning that audiences sense that what they are seeing has the right tone and tenor, that the characters don’t look or act like actors playing soldiers.
How do you establish accuracy in films that cover periods outside your own experience?
The simple answer is research. Warriors Inc. has a huge military library that covers all kinds of military historical periods and contains some really arcane references. We also interview veterans if they’re available. We consult with academic historians, but that can prove frustrating, because every historian believes he’s got the absolute correct take on events. A classic example is Oliver Stone’s film Alexander, in which we had to train performers to fight in the Greek phalanx formation. We needed to know what the phalanx could and could not do, but no one had ever put a full phalanx together and experimented with it. We did that on the edge of the Sahara in Morocco and discovered that a phalanx could do a lot of things the historians said were impossible. That’s very gratifying, and I think we prompted the revision of a few historical works along the way.
How do you go about training actors?
We put them through a full-immersion field-training regimen that people have come to call “boot camp.” We teach the actors—both the “good guys” and the “enemy”—how to look and act like field soldiers, how to handle weapons, equipment and their bodies so they look convincing on the screen. The length of the training depends on what the actors need to know. We tell the producers the time we think we need, and then they tend to cut it down for scheduling or budgetary reasons. In general, I don’t like to do less than five days, and the optimum is three weeks.
But the hands-on training is only a part of the equation—I’m more interested in getting to performers’ hearts and minds. In essence, we do for the actors what the real military does for soldiers. We tear them down and build them over again in the right mindset. That can be hard on actors full of ego and self-importance who grow up thinking, It’s all about me. I understand that, and it’s one of the reasons we make our boot camps so physically and mentally demanding. It’s rugged, but it works. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be allowed or encouraged to do it.
Which of your 35 projects stands out for you?
From the perspective of satisfaction derived as a military adviser, I’d single out Band of Brothers. It took us a year to get that done, and because of the training we gave the guys, we stayed in character as a World War II airborne infantry company the whole time. I’m also proud of the reality we brought to Saving Private Ryan, and I think that first 25 minutes on Omaha Beach stand as a classic in the genre.
And I’m very proud of The Pacific, which we finished late last year. It’s close to my heart as a Marine because it follows my old outfit—the 1st Marine Division—through all of its major World War II battles in the Pacific. I think it will prove to be just as popular as Band of Brothers, though it has a much darker tone, which accurately reflects the nature of fighting on those Pacific islands.
Why do you think war movies remain so popular?
Ernest Hemingway was onto something when he said, “War is man’s greatest adventure.” It’s so alien from most peoples’ normal life experience that it’s intriguing, and war makes for good drama. War movies are one genre where you can display the full gamut of human emotion. And World War II movies are especially popular because most Americans see it as the last of our nation’s military conflicts in which the bad guys and the good guys were clearly identifiable and unambiguous. For some elements of our society, that’s both refreshing and reassuring.
What’s your next project?
I’ve written and will be directing a World War II film titled No Better Place to Die, about how on D-Day elements of the 82nd Airborne Division had to take and hold open a vital bridge over the Merderet River in Normandy. Had those guys not held that bridge, the breakout from the beaches and capture of the vital port at Cherbourg never would have happened. And I’ve got three other military pictures I want to do: a film on the Chosin Reservoir campaign in Korea, a true-story Vietnam film and a story from Iraq that involves events in Mosul during the first free Iraqi elections. I’m approaching all this in the same way I approached breaking into showbiz in the first place 25 years ago: Fix bayonets and charge! I’ll get these pictures done through sheer force of will if nothing else.
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.