Rumor Doctor blog archive
Why can't Hollywood get military uniforms right?
Published: November 3, 2011
Sometimes The Rumor Doctor can't shut up. A few years ago, The Doctor saw a particularly bad movie where the main character wore an Army uniform with the wrong camouflage pattern. Not only did the Doctor complain for the entire movie about how the uniform was wrong, but he still brings it up with his friends who had to listen to the original tirade.
Thus we have established that few things irk The Rumor Doctor more than when movies and TV shows screw up military uniforms, and one reader asked The Doctor if there is a reason why Hollywood can't seem to get it right.
"The pervasive urban legend I have heard is it is because it is against the law to impersonate military or police, but I have a hard time believing this," the reader wrote in an email.
Actually, the Supreme Court has ruled on this matter. Originally, actors were allowed to wear military uniforms as long as they did not "discredit the armed force."
But in 1970, the Supreme Court declared that limitation on wearing uniforms was unconstitutional in a case where an actor who had been convicted of illegally wearing a military uniform while performing an anti-war skit in front of an induction center.
While Hollywood has the right to show military uniforms correctly, many times it fails to do so. Critics of "The Hurt Locker," about a bomb disposal squad, noticed that actors wore a camouflage pattern that was not issued at the time the movie took place.
In one scene, the main character has his sleeves rolled up; his helmet does not match his uniform's camouflage; he does not have eye protection; and he is wearing fingerless gloves, all of which are inaccuracies.
So why does Hollywood get it wrong so often?
Not all movies hire a military adviser, said retired Marine Capt. Dale Dye, who has served as an adviser on a number of movies including "Platoon" and "Saving Private Ryan."
"They figure that the wardrobe people will do their research," Dye said. "The problem is wardrobe people who've never worn a uniform can do their research but they don't know what they're talking about. They don't know how to wear it. They don't have the insight."
In some cases, wardrobe folks like certain uniforms for the way they look, not whether they are authentic, he said.
"I don't allow that," Dye said, "If I see it, we go to blows. I've said to costume designers, 'Where the hell did you come up with this? What is this?' 'Oh, it just looked cool.' And it immediately comes off."
On movies where the Defense Department provides assistance to filmmakers, the department emphasizes the need to show military uniforms correctly, said Vicente Ogilvie, deputy director of entertainment media.
"We know that they are looking for accuracy and authenticity and so are we," Ogilvie said. "Every patch, every badge has its own history and its own story to tell."
Still, mistakes can happen, he said. During the shooting of "I am Legend," the Defense Department's adviser was not on the set the day Will Smith was filmed with a five o'clock shadow.
Still, Hollywood can get it right, Ogilvie said. In the HBO movie "Taking Chance," Kevin Bacon played a Marine officer whose uniform and ribbons were squared away. And the show "JAG" always had the characters' awards and decorations correct because creator Donald P. Bellisario is a former Marine.
Bellisario said he wants to be as accurate as possible when portraying the military. To wit, he pays close attention to Marine Corps uniform regulations.
"In the Navy and the Marine Corps, unless you have a sidearm -- unless you are under arms -- you cannot wear your cover, or cap, inside the building. That's just a flat-out rule," he said. "So there were times when I wanted to do it and I made sure that the person who was doing it was carrying a sidearm."
Bellisario said he does not consider paying that much attention to detail out of the ordinary.
"People who are proud of their service want it done right," he said. "It's the least we can do. It doesn't take that much to do it correctly."
THE RUMOR DOCTOR'S DIAGNOSIS: There is no law that prevents Hollywood from showing military uniforms correctly, but some filmmakers just don't put the effort into getting it right. Then there are folks like Dale Dye, Vicente Ogilvie and Donald P. Bellisario whose job it is to make sure war movies are as authentic as possible. Thanks guys, and Donald, if you have Catherine Bell's phone number handy, let's talk.