Hollywood’s big on psycho soldiers

Ramrod military men with impulse-control issues may be rare in real life but not onscreen


Hollywood’s big on psycho soldiers

When Col. Russell Williams, commander of Canada’s largest air base, was charged with two counts of murder and two counts of sexual assault, shock and disbelief soon gave way to another natural reflex: it’s like something out of a movie. And no wonder. Psycho soldiers may be rare in the real world, but they are remarkably common in Hollywood. Recently, the big screen has been overrun by ramrod military men whose iron discipline masks mental disturbances that range from borderline personality disorder to psychopathic cruelty. Three of the actors nominated for Oscars this year are being recognized for portraying soldiers with serious impulse-control issues—Jeremy Renner as a bomb-squad daredevil in The Hurt Locker, Christoph Waltz as a demented Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, and Woody Harrelson as a volatile sergeant in The Messenger. There’s also Tobey Maguire, who was not nominated but erupted with scary intensity in Brothers as a traumatized veteran from the war in Afghanistan whose heroic homecoming devolves into a domestic meltdown.

Hollywood’s top-ranking villain du jour, meanwhile, is Col. Miles Quaritch, the square-jawed tyrant played by Stephen Lang in Avatar. The manufacturer’s modest description for the colonel’s toy action figure describes this soldier as “a ruthless, troubled and aggressive man who has very little respect for living things, specially the Na’vi.” In fact, he’s a raving psychopath. But Quaritch is just a blunt instrument compared to Col. Hans Landa, the insidious SS officer who’s played with such perverse relish by Waltz in Inglourious Basterds.

And what is it about colonels? These are the officers whose sanity always seems to be the most precarious, in the movies at least—from Marlon Brando’s soul-destroyed Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (“Horror and moral terror are your friends”) to Jack Nicholson’s pressure-cooked Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men (“You can’t handle the truth!”). Scratch a colonel and you find a psychopath—or so it goes in Hollywood’s military ranking of organized evil.

The thing is, Hollywood has found no better containment unit for repressed rage than a military uniform. The flamboyant sadist portrayed by Waltz is a special case—Col. Landa wears his demons on the outside, so the Nazi uniform and the monster are one and the same. And with his multilingual coup as the Holocaust’s comedian from hell, Waltz has emerged as a favourite to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But Harrelson, nominated in the same category, is just as impressive—if not more so, because his character is drawn on a more human scale.

In The Messenger, which hits theatres in Canada next week, Harrelson plays Capt. Tony Stone, an officer in the U.S. Army’s casualty notification service. When a soldier falls in battle, it’s his job to inform the next of kin. As the story begins, he has to take on a reluctant new partner, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a war hero just back from a harrowing tour of duty in Iraq. At first, Stone appears to be a hard-boiled, by-the-book soldier who’s completely unflappable. In briefing his new partner on the protocol of knocking on doors to deliver shattering news, he instructs him to follow the script with cold precision and avoid any physical contact with the bereaved—no hugs. And he guards against sentiment with a grim, cynical wit, reminding Montgomery that, in their line of work, there’s “no such thing as a satisfied customer.”

As the sensitive Montgomery steps out of line, going so far as to pursue a crush on a soldier’s widow (Samantha Morton), Stone comes down on him hard. But as a begrudging camaraderie grows between the two men, Stone’s own rigid composure begins to crack. Turns out he’s an alcoholic who likes to fall off the wagon and raise hell. He suffers the opposite of post-traumatic stress syndrome: as a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, he’s tormented by the fact he never saw combat.

Navigating both sides of an embattled psyche, Harrelson goes from macho swagger to emotional fragility. But don’t expect him to win an Oscar. Though he’s one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors (as he again proves in the Canadian gem Defendor), the Academy will have trouble embracing this battered toy soldier. America likes its military men served straight up, as psycho heroes and villains. In The Hurt Locker, a colonel walks up to the army daredevil played by Renner and says, “That’s hot s–t! You’re a wild man!” In the movies, that’s called a model soldier.


Hollywood’s big on psycho soldiers

  1. That's why the Army supports The Messenger more than the other films…I read a comment by a soldier who applauded the film for showing them as real people.

  2. You have to laugh at some of the things the media reports to the public. We are quick to forget the name of the person who reported the United States Government who faked missile tests to sell anti-missiles . We are quick to forget the police officer who alerted all of us to institutional abuse of children in Cornwall. We are as quick to forget the man who alerted us to the Federal Government spending on the sponsorship scandal or the teacher who alerted us to sex offenders being allowed to teach in our schools.
    Col. Williams could happen in any place where authority is allowed to have no checks and balances such as our government, our schools and our military.
    Who really cares about movies….they are used to entertain us not govern our society. A sad reflection of our times. Maybe… But we are very very quick to forget the deaths of our military doing Canada's business in other places at Canada's direction.

    • "in any place where authority is allowed to have no checks and balances such as our …..military. " Are you kidding me?! What an ingnorant and untrue comment!

  3. Hollywood types are just projecting their own character flaws onto their characters.

    If there's one thing we see exemplified in real-life Hollywood personalities it's impulse-control problems.

  4. Back in 2005, a Chinese-language communist newspaper editor in Peking coined a phrase for Hollywood actors with "causes", silly know-nothing people over whom the MSM gushes and the proletariat drool: "propaganda clowns".

  5. I like the movie inglorious bastards. You really can feel the way they act their character as if it was real.