Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day if you’re in Canada) is right around the corner, this year falling on Saturday. Some of the more historically-minded among us might be tempted to watch war movies, or perhaps movies with big stars who once served in the military.
But what about soldiers or veterans who aren’t actors, but regular people who have nonetheless appeared in a movie or two? While rare, it’s happened. To honor these veterans, read on to discover a few movies that spotlight real soldiers and veterans in different roles.
The Outpost (2020)
The Outpost, directed by Rod Lurie, tells the story of the Battle of Kamdesh, the bloodiest U.S. battle in the Afghanistan War. At the isolated Combat Outpost Keating in a remote part of Afghanistan, a small unit of U.S. soldiers fought to protect themselves and their base against a deadly, coordinated attack from the Taliban. Because of that battle, Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV became one of the most decorated military units in history, and a few of the real-life soldiers from Combat Outpost Keating appear in the movie.
The 15:17 to Paris (2018)
While most movies that utilize real-life soldiers have them in background or cameo roles, Clint Eastwood’s movie The 15:17 to Paris cast the three veterans who were actually involved in the real-life incident as themselves in the movie. On August 21, 2015, three young Americans boarded the Thalys train #9364 bound for Paris and ended up thwarting a terrorist attack. Those Americans were Army Specialist Alek Skarlatos, Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, and Anthony Sadler, who was not serving in the military but whose actions were just as brave.
Despite having a few big-name stars attached to it and a fair budget, 1970’s Waterloo bombed at the box office and was panned by critics. The Italian-Russian project from Russian filmmaker Sergei Bundarchuk was ambitious, aiming to tell the story of not just the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but also the days leading up to the infamous campaign. Waterloo saw the end of the Napoleonic Wars with the Duke of Wellington soundly defeating Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies. And the movie may have failed, but in one area it succeeded brilliantly: It’s large-scale battle scenes that showed war on an epic movie scale long before Helm’s Deep or the Battle of the Bastards. And to pull off these giant battles with precision and efficiency, the production employed real soldiers for the scenes – 15,000 of them, to be exact, along with 2,000 cavalrymen.
Lone Survivor (2013)
Mark Wahlberg plays Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell in this reenactment of the real-life mission in June 2005 to capture or kill infamous Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. But after an ambush, Luttrell and his unit were forced to fight their way out or be imprisoned, with the firefight spanning the course of five life-or-death days. The main characters may have been played by Hollywood stars, but Lone Survivor actually used a number of military veterans as extras and smaller roles in the film.
Act of Valor (2012)
Act of Valor is an interesting addition to this list: a movie that uses real soldiers in the main roles and is a blend of original filmmaking and inspiration from true events. Active duty Navy SEALs portrayed themselves, or at least characters with their names and ranks, including Lieutenant Rorke Denver, Derrick Van Orden as Senior Chief Otto, and others. The story is pulled from real life with an embellishment, as well: When a mission to rescue a kidnapped CIA operative exposes a terrorist plot against the U.S., it launches the Navy SEALs into a global manhunt. Interestingly, because the cast were all active duty at the time, the movie had to be shot between their deployments and took a total of two and a half years to complete filming because of it.
A War (2016)
Simply titled A War, this was Denmark’s entry for best foreign film at the 2016 Oscars. The lead role of a Danish commander leading his troops in the Afghanistan War was actually played by professional actor Pilou Asbæk, but the majority of the supporting roles were all filled by soldiers who had served and seen real combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. Asbæk later said working with real-life soldiers made him step up his game. And they ended up being so good in their roles that one film critic even walked right past Asbæk at Venice Film Festival to praise the performance of the soldier who played one of the main characters.
Veterans Day 2023 is on Saturday, November 11th. We honor and thank all the real-life soldiers and veterans who have served to keep the rest of us safe.