Mini Take: How War Films Lie to You About Age

Retirees in helmets, or, the cast of Saving Private Ryan.

Several months ago, I wrote an article discussing how, by its very nature, the medium of film tends towards positive portrayals of warfare. I forgot to mention, however, one of the most important ways that movies tend to warp the reality of war—by inflating the age of combatants.

About 70% of American servicemen in World War II were age 25 or below. A significant number were teenagers. Yet war films tend to disregard all that. The four leads of Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks, Edwin Burns, Matt Damon, and Tom Sizemore, were ages 42, 30, 27, and 36 when the movie came out in July 1998. In Band of Brothers, members the main cast were mostly in their early 30s at the time of release. Even when portraying real historical figures, movies tend to cast older actors. Colonel Robert Sink was 38-40 during the events of Band of Brothers, but the series cast Dale Dye (57) for the role. The trend of casting actors in their early 30s to play low-ranking soldiers has persisted into Vietnam movies like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, even though the average American who died in Vietnam was a mere 22.8 years old.

An iconic 1965 photo of a young American Marine in Vietnam
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) is a rare example of correctly-aged leads in war films. Fionn Whitehead (pictured here) turned 20 the week the film was released.

There are, of course, reasons that Hollywood casts overage actors in war movies. Studios prefer to bring in famous actors with a proven record. Child labor laws make it very difficult to use actors under the age of eighteen in normal shooting conditions (this is partly why Hollywood never uses real children for high school movies). By now, audiences are so familiar with the idea of the private in his early 30s that many viewers would see anything else as strange.

Hollywood’s age changes have serious implications for the movies we watch, and by association, the way most of the American public thinks about war. We like to say that we value every life equally, but the idea of college-aged kids in uniform still makes many viewers do a second take. I have sometimes wondered whether we should look at casualties of war less in raw numbers and more in terms of the years of life lost.

Whatever your views on war, we can all agree that war films should try, whenever possible, to convey truth. Pretending that most combatants are in their 30s or older is a form of deception, and has real consequences for how people perceive war. It’s time for that to change.

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