US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Cole is the deputy director of the US Army film and television liaison office in Los Angeles, and has worked on Hollywood blockbusters such as Fury, Man of Steel and Godzilla
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, was published in 2014.
Thursday 24 July 2014
Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Cole occupies a unique spot at the intersection of two major American institutions: the military and the movies. The 42-year-old career soldier is the deputy director of the US Army film and television liaison office in Los Angeles. In other words, whenever a Hollywood studio wants to check the medal configuration on a general's uniform, or to borrow a tank from the country's largest military service, Lt-Col Cole is who they call.
During production of this summer's monster blockbuster Godzilla, for example, Cole and his colleagues organised for film-makers to record tank and machine-gun sounds at Fort Irwin in California. In one scene, following the titular lizard's rampage in Hawaii, real Army soldiers appear on screen offering first aid and shelter to survivors. "The Army doesn't enter into discussions about how many scales Godzilla has," Cole explains, "but we do advise the production company as to how the US military would respond, if there were giant radioactive reptiles roaming the Earth."
Some military audience members queried the realism of the sequence, though Cole says they were less concerned by the epic battle between two prehistoric monsters than they were by the soldiers' choice of outfit. "Somebody tweeted me to say, 'Why are they wearing that uniform in Godzilla? That's the one we wear in Afghanistan.' My response was: 'Because that's the approved uniform for fighting giant reptiles.'"
Cole grew up in a military family in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has been in the Army for 19 years, including serving as an armour officer in a tank unit and teaching history at the military academy. His fellow soldiers are envious of his current role – although, he insists, "My intersection with the beautiful people is pretty much none. I don't take lunches in Malibu."
Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Cole is the deputy director of the US Army film and television liaison office
The function of the film liaison office is to manage the publicity that the movies offer the military, and also to ensure, where possible, that the Army is portrayed accurately on screen. "The reason we have an office in LA is so that people can learn a little about the army that their taxpayer dollars support," Cole says. "Not everybody is reading world news, but they will go and see Godzilla."
The relationship between Hollywood and the US Army stretches back to before the film industry even moved to California. As long ago as 1911, when the capital of the movies was still Edison, New Jersey, the Army helped to produce a silent short called The Military Air-Scout. And in 1927, when the First World War drama Wings became the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Army was again crucial, lending both troops and planes to the production.
The Army has even won three Oscars of its own, for the short documentaries Seeds of Destiny (1946), Toward Independence (1948) and Prelude to War (1942), the latter directed by Frank Capra, who served as a major in the Signal Corps during the Second World War. Originally conceived as a training documentary, Capra's was the first in a seven-film series entitled "Why We Fight".
Not every war movie earns the Army's support, however. A more recent Oscar winner, 2008's Iraq War thriller The Hurt Locker, was made without military backing because, Cole suggests, it was not a realistic depiction of Army life. "The Hurt Locker was about one man against the world, against the system," he says. "I understand that for a film the maverick archetype is easy to follow – but it's not really real. The Army is a team sport."
In 'Godzilla' soldiers wear 'the approved uniform for fighting giant reptiles' (Legendary Pictures)
Cole admits that the Army rarely participates in fictional films that present a negative portrayal of the military. "American taxpayers pay for the best and most powerful army the world has ever known. And to support a mo vie where we look incompetent is not in our interest."
The most common mistakes Lt-Col Cole spots on film are in the details of military uniforms – specifically, the configuration of soldiers' medal ribbons. "The military audience really, really cares about what order the ribbons are in," he says. "It's a matter of credibility. In a heavily military-themed film like Lone Survivor, for example, if you get a simple detail wrong, then a military audience is just going to switch off."
His own pet peeve is more general, though. "What drives me crazy is that your average American soldier was good enough to win two world wars and free the entire planet from tyranny, but somehow we're no longer special enough to be the lead in a movie," he says. "I understand why film-makers are attracted by the Special Forces. And it helps visually that they can grow beards and be distinguishable. I get that. But our regular young men and women out there are pretty incredible, too. I'd like to see Hollywood give more attention to the average soldier."
Earning his stripes: Lt-Col Cole's greatest hits
Due out later this year, 'Fury' stars Brad Pitt as the commander of a tank crew in the closing months of the Second World War. Lt-Col Cole's office organised for the cast to meet present-day tank crewmen at Fort Irwin. "The cast rolled into town late one evening. Brad Pitt went to get a six-pack of beer at the gas station, and the young lady behind the counter asked to see his ID. Pitt [who is 50] replied, 'Do you want to see it because you don't think I'm 21, or because you want to check who I am…?'"
The 2013 biopic '42' originally contained a real episode in which Jackie Robinson, the celebrated baseball player, who was also a lieutenant in the US Army, was arrested and court martialled for refusing to sit at the back of a bus in Texas. "We can't help what the US and the Army was like in 1942, but that's not the Army we are today, and we felt that the least we could do to honour Robinson's memory was to participate in this film." The scene they helped out on was cut from the finished film.
The 2013 film is based on the true story of four Navy Seals trapped in hostile Afghan territory after their mission is compromised.A US Army helicopter was shot down during an attempted rescue, and the film-makers borrowed Chinooks and Apache helicopters from Fort Hood in Texas to re-create the incident for the movie, which was shot in Albuquerque in neighbouring New Mexico.
Man of Steel
During last year's 'Superman' reboot 'Man of Steel', says Cole, some complained about a scene in which the film-makers plainly wished to show all their military hardware in a single frame. "There's enough combat power in one tiny spot in that scene to protect an entire air force base," Cole says. The shot also features a flying man wearing a blue rubber bodysuit and bright red cape, but apparently there were no quibbles about that.
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