Intense Stories From Actors' Experiences Making War Movies

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Vote up the most intense stories of Hollywood stars working on war films.

Audiences are often profoundly moved by the depictions of significant historical battles. The best examples go beyond that, helping us to understand the psychological toll war takes on those participating in it. Who could possibly see Saving Private Ryan or Platoon and not come away moved?

Actors training for war movies often endure hardships for their art. Some are known to participate in brutal training sessions to prepare for filming, just as soldiers would attend boot camp in preparation for combat. This tests their mental and physical limits, but also makes what they do on-screen feel authentic. In other cases, going through the process of making a war movie somehow changes the actor as a person, giving them new insight into what it means to answer the call of duty. Either way, the act of making a war-themed film can leave just as indelible an impression on the people starring in it as it does on the people watching it.

  • Part of the power of Saving Private Ryan comes from seeing Tom Hanks in combat. We don't expect to see him there, and it increases our awareness of how many average Joes were drafted into WWII, forced to see and do things that did not come naturally to them. It's no wonder the movie has become a classic in the genre.

    As for Hanks, making the film caused him to feel that Omaha Beach was a "holy place." Although the movie's depiction of the storming of Omaha Beach was actually filmed at Ballinesker Beach in Ireland, the actor made a pilgrimage to the real location. He examined memorials at one end, and located a concrete wall honoring the unit portrayed in the movie.

    Hanks said, "And to see that there, after we had gone through this kind of thing, it was - kinda rocked me. Made the hairs stand up on the back of my head. And walking back down, back to the very famous cemetery there, I just realized I was in a holy place."

    458 votes
  • Andrew Garfield Was 'Soothed' By The Spiritual Clarity Of His Character In 'Hacksaw Ridge'
    Photo: Lionsgate

    Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Desmond T. Doss, a soldier who won the Medal of Honor for his bravery in saving the lives of 75 men during WWII. Even more impressively, he did this without a weapon, which he refused to carry on religious grounds. Andrew Garfield plays Doss in this Mel Gibson-directed film.

    The experience of portraying Doss was life-changing for Garfield. He had to interpret the unshakable sense of faith that was at Doss's core. That led to him feeling "soothed" by the spiritual clarity of the character. 

    Garfield elaborated, saying Doss "managed to transcend or get underneath the pervading cultural attitudes through his faith and become a symbol of, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'; of, 'I will sacrifice myself for my brother.'" 

    337 votes
  • Fury is an intense movie about a crew of five men inside a Sherman tank during WWII. Brad Pitt plays their commander, Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier. Director David Ayer wanted to strip Pitt and his co-stars of their Hollywood attitudes, so he made them endure brutal training sessions. No cell phones were allowed during these sessions, which included forcing the actors to physically fight each other, because "there's nothing more honest than walking into a punch."

    Pitt and colleagues were also forced to eat, sleep, and even address their bathroom needs in the tank so they would fully understand what life was like for actual Sherman tank crews. According to Pitt, the training "was set up to break us down, to keep us cold, to keep us exhausted, to make us miserable, to keep us wet, make us eat cold food." 

    He added that, "If our stuff wasn’t together, we had to pay for it with physical forfeits. We’re up at five in the morning, we’re doing night watches on the hour."

    311 votes
  • Jeremy Renner had a breakthrough role in Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. He plays Sgt. William James, a soldier in the Iraq War whose job is to defuse or, if necessary, detonate bombs. The film achieves great tension by showing James, bundled in a protective suit that we know will only go so far, carefully going through the steps to destroy the IEDs before anyone gets hurt. 

    Of course, in order to take bombs apart, one must know how to assemble them in the first place. To make his performance as authentic as possible, Renner was fully trained in the art of building and disassembling bombs. Renner recalled:

    I did intense bomb-suit training for like a week on base in California, then learned how to build bombs, then learned how to render them safe and blow a bunch of stuff up. And then, more importantly, got to talk to the guys off base, and they got to hang out at my house. They were really generous with their time and knowledge. I remember playing with blasting caps - I can't believe I'm playing with this stuff. But I felt pretty safe. They taught me really well.

    209 votes
  • Matthew Modine and Vincent D'Onofrio have been friends for a long time. In fact, the latter wasn't even famous yet when their friendship began. When director Stanley Kubrick was making his war epic Full Metal Jacket, he couldn't find someone suitable to play Private Pyle, so Modine suggested that he meet with his pal. Despite Kubrick's initial misgivings about D'Onofrio looking wrong for the part, it was a successful meeting, and D'Onofrio landed his breakthrough role.

    That triumph nearly ended the friendship, though. Both men have very different acting styles. Modine believes in using his imagination during scenes, whereas D'Onofrio comes from a school of training that emphasizes making a scene as real as possible. That discrepancy, combined with the demands of Kubrick's story, created friction on-set. Modine recalled:

    We stopped talking to one another to the point where we became so antagonistic toward each other that in many of those scenes where I’m teaching him how to make his bed or lace his boots or take apart and then reassemble a rifle, we wanted to kill each other. We were just so fed up and angry with each other.

    247 votes
  • American Sniper was a surprise blockbuster, earning $350 million at the domestic box office. No one anticipated that it would do anywhere near that well. Bradley Cooper stars in this true story, playing Chris Kyle, the Navy S.E.A.L. reputed to have been the most lethal sniper in US history. The movie details the psychological toll Kyle faced, not only ibeing in the middle of war, but also of having to decide whether to pull the trigger in situations that were not always black-and-white.

    Getting into that frame of mind had a lasting impact on Cooper, who said that Kyle "didn't really leave me" after filming ended. By putting himself into that mental state day after day during production, he ended up adopting some of the traits of the man he portrayed. Specifically, Cooper developed a habit of scanning for potential threats any time he entered a room, just as a sniper would moving into position during battle. 

    "After that, you're aware of everything," he said. 

    302 votes