Whenever you see military action on screen the production has probably hired a military advisor to make sure things look accurate.
But what are the usual mistakes filmmakers make when portraying the military on screen? How does one become a military advisor? And why do action heroes always pull back the chamber of their pistol?
In order to find the answers to these questions and few more we spoke to John Adams from Universal Combat.
He has worked on projects as diverse as The Four Feathers, The Queen and the forthcoming The Mark of Cain. In the following interview he tells us about the world of military advice for films.
Ambrose Heron: What exactly do you do?
John Adams: I run Universal Combat Ltd., an agency which represents ex-military personnel and provides tri-service military advice and support to the entertainment industry. Universal Combat was formed in the year 2000 by former Commissioned Officers and NCOs representing Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine units from around the world.
Our primary goal was initially to provide the right military advisor to every specific project, but we quickly built up an extensive database of ex-military personnel and found that we could also provide small calls of trained background artists to perform specialist military action in front of camera. Basically, if a project features military action, we are there to advise the key production team and cast to ensure that it is as realistic as possible.
AH: Where are you based?
JA: Universal Combat is based in Chelmsford, Essex but I am also a partner in production company Cowboys & Indians plc and have an office at Shepperton Studios. The Shepperton office has proved vital because I am constantly aware of forthcoming productions and can ensure that we contact them at the earliest possible stage.
AH: How long have films had official military advice?
JA: To my knowledge, we were the first exclusively military agency in the UK and especially the first to set up with our aim to provide the correct military advisor with the relevant experience and qualifications specific to each project. However, military advisors have been commonplace in Hollywood for much longer. During the 1940s and 50s it was not uncommon for military support to be provided to productions by the Ministry of Defence as propaganda and to aid public relations.
More recently though, perhaps because modern films tend to be more politically and socially challenging, the MoD has tended not to become involved. Bear in mind that until 1960 we had National Service in the UK so it is a fair assumption that at that time most production team members and cast had a basic military training!
AH: How did you start out in the industry?
JA: Because of my military experience as a Commissioned Officer in the British Army, I was offered a nine month contract as a specialist background artist on Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers. It was during my time on Band of Brothers that I met my future partners in Universal Combat and developed my love for the industry and determination that my future was in film and TV. Band of Brothers was completed in November 2000.
We set up Universal Combat the following month and by mid 2001 we had provided a 76 year old former prisoner of war as an advisor to Hart’s War (starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farrell) and worked on The Four Feathers and submarine horror movie Below.
AH: What films have you worked on recently?
JA: Over the course of the last seven years, we have not only been employed on films but also on TV programmes, commercials, video games, live shows and even security contracts. Recent projects include providing advice and personnel to the Oscar nominated feature The Queen and a TV movie remake of The Shellseekers; training animators and designers from Electonic Arts developing the PS2 and X-Box video game Black in basic military skills relevant to the game; helping the writers of Eastenders to develop a new character for the series; and taking over the military advice role for the post production of the feature film Doom including providing US Marine voice artists for ADR work and writing additional dialogue.
AH: What did you do on The Queen?
JA: As far as possible, The Queen used original archive footage of the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana. However, one event for which they didn’t get the rights to use archive footage was the arrival of Princess Diana’s remains back in the UK at RAF Northolt on August 31st 1997. We were asked to recreate this as accurately as possible.
Initially, our intention was to use ex-soldiers from our database to perform the ceremonial coffin drills but because the RAF Regiment picked the youngest members of the Queen’s Colour Squadron to bear the coffin from the BAe 146 aircraft of the Royal Squadron to a waiting hearse we found that we didn’t have any ex-servicemen young enough for the roles. As a result, I trained a group of background artists in the correct drills and ended up in front of camera to whisper the commands and timings!
AH: What was the toughest challenge you had on a film set?
JA: Without mentioning any specific projects, providing military advice is always a compromise between the reality of a situation and the Director’s artistic vision for the film. Our job is to ensure that as much realism as possible is kept within the constraints of the project but in a way which compliments and helps the Director to achieve their vision without destroying the artistic integrity.
AH: What battle would you love to see re-enacted on screen that is yet to be done?
JA: Perhaps because of my military allegiances, I would love to see a film version of the battle of Salamanca. Salamanca was fought between the Anglo-Portuguese army of Lord Wellington and the French under Marshal Marmont on 22nd July 1812 as part of the Peninsular War. When Wellington observed that Marmont had made the tactical error of separating his left flank from the main body of his force, he allegedly threw the chicken leg he was eating over his shoulder and shouted, “By God, that will do!”.
During the course of the battle a young Officer from the 44th East Essex Regiment of Foot named Lieutenant Pearce captured the Salamanca Eagle from the French 62nd Regiment of Line. The 44th became part of The Essex Regiment which was subsequently amalgamated by stages into my unit The Royal Anglian Regiment in 1964. As an Army Cadet I was proud to bugle The Last Post and Reveille for veterans at the Essex Regiment reunion.
AH: What is the biggest mistake filmmakers tend to make when portraying the military?
JA: Strangely, it’s the little errors which stand out for me much more than the glaring ones. Most mistakes stem from a lack of knowledge which is understandable, but there are occasions when filmmakers show a complete lack of common sense! Again, I don’t want to cite specific projects we have worked on but my favourites are sentries smoking cigarettes at night and soldiers silhouetted against the skyline. For years military units around the world have been developing monocular vision goggles – a modern equivalent for the red dot you see in sniper movies at the intended point of impact except only visible to the sniper because the laser is at a frequency which can only be seen through the specific goggle he is wearing… All of this becomes irrelevant if a sentry is smoking at night because the heat of the cigarette creates an orange dot on his face! No professional soldier would risk his life for a smoke!
I’ve had conversations about soldiers on the horizon with directors on several occasions. Yes, it looks great on camera to have a silhouette of a soldier on the skyline at dusk, but he is breaking a fundamental rule of camouflage and concealment! The outline of a human shape lit from behind on a skyline is visible for miles. This may look artistic on film but it also means that the enemy can see him and his life expectancy just plummeted to about three seconds!
AH: In action films, characters often pull back the chamber of their pistol when preparing for a gunfight. Is this accurate or just Hollywood nonsense?
JA: It depends on the scenario. The weapon would almost certainly have been readied in advance and if silence is important then obviously a serious soldier would be confident enough not to check the chamber. However, once a firefight begins, it can be reassuring to check that a round is definitely loaded into the chamber and the weapon is ready to fire before exposing your position… and it does make a great noise!
AH: What other projects do you have coming up?
JA: We recently provided a military advisor to a feature titled Mark of Cain which is set during the most recent Iraq conflict and which is due for release early this year. Without giving too much away, we’ve also been asked to become involved in a film about the origins of the SAS; my production company Cowboys & Indians has two projects in development set in World War II; and as ever I will be attending the Berlin Film Festival next month and Cannes later in the year so hopefully this might be another busy year!
If you want to find out more about Universal Combat (or even hire them) just go to their website at www.universalcombat.co.uk