When you think of
veterans in movies, your mind likely drifts to obvious examples like Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, the brothers in Legends of the Fall, or Tom Hanks’ role in Forrest Gump. But what about those characters for whom the military is part of their backstory, but not the main arc? What about the characters you find endearing or admirable for one reason or another, but who also happen to have a past in the service?
In honor of
Memorial Day, we did a deep dive into some of our favorite movies and the characters in them who have a military background but whose war stories aren’t necessarily front and center in the spotlight. Some of them you might recall as having experiences as servicemen, while others will come as a complete surprise.
Here are 10 inspiring movie characters who served in the military.
Cover Photo: Working Title Films
Veteran Movie Characters
Walter Sobchak of ‘The Big Lebowski’
Everyone worships The Dude, but his best friend and bowling teammate actually has a more complex backstory. Walter Sobchak is a Vietnam veteran who has seen some shit – including witnessing his fellow soldiers dying face-down in the mud – and may or may not be suffering from PTSD. No wonder, then, that as a civilian, he became the owner of a security shop.
Frank Sheeran of ‘The Irishman’
Martin Scorsese’s movie version of the real-life Frank Sheeran is shown as a veteran who served with the 45th Infantry in Italy during World War II. His experience bullying German POWs to dig their own graves before killing them is used to explain his later career as a mafia hitman. The real-life Sheeran served 411 days of combat duty – over four times what was considered standard at that time. He also claimed to have participated in numerous war crimes, including the grave-digging scenario shown in the movie.
Michael Corleone of ‘The Godfather’
After Pearl Harbor, Corleone drops out of Dartmouth and enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps (much to the chagrin of his father, who had gone to great lengths to buy his son’s draft deferment). He fought in World War II in both the Pacific and Europe before getting wounded in combat, returning home with both a Silver Star and the Navy Cross. Not too shabby, eh, pop?
Ethan Hunt of ‘Mission: Impossible’
This action movie hero enlisted in the Army after graduating high school, eventually working his way up to Ranger. He served in the 3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment and was on the ground in Operation Desert Storm. All this before heading off to college and later signing on with the CIA. No wonder he's so good at what he does.
John Wick of ‘John Wick’
This one is a hotly contested topic. While there’s nothing in the John Wick films that blatantly states he’s a former Marine, his back tattoo – which reads “Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat” or “Fortune Favors the Bold” – is evidence enough for some fans. Other clues include the fact that he wears a tactical style watch on his non-dominant hand, facing inward, which is common among war veterans. One of his closest friends, Marcus, is also a sniper. We’ll have to wait and see if the next installment of the franchise sheds more light on this subject.
Sam Quint of ‘Jaws’
As scary as the titular shark is in this thriller, what’s even more terrifying is Sam Quint’s speech about his time in the Navy during World War II. He served aboard the USS Indianapolis, the same American ship that transported the atomic bomb (that was later dropped on Hiroshima) to the South Pacific island of Tinian. A Japanese submarine shunk that ship, however, sending the 1,200-man crew into the sea, many of whom perished due to sharks. Quint was among the 300 that survived seven days adrift until they were rescued, and afterwards decided to dedicate his life to shark hunting.
Bryan Mills of ‘Taken’
Before becoming a CIA agent, Bryan Mills cut his teeth in the Army, and was assigned to the Special Forces in his early 20s. That’s where he acquired “a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you,” as he warns the kidnappers of his daughter.
Jack Ryan of the Jack Ryan Film Franchise
What branch of the military Jack Ryan served in is up for debate. In the book series by Tom Clancy, the CIA operative was a U.S. Marine who injured his back and ended up teaching history before joining the intelligence community. In the films, Jack Ryan is presented as a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. In the more recent television series, the character’s backstory returns to its literary roots and he is identified as a U.S. Marine veteran. No matter which version of Jack Ryan you're partial to, the fact remains: he's a veteran.
Harry Callahan of ‘Dirty Harry’
While San Francisco police detective Harry Callahan isn’t the bragging type, viewers get a hint from his friend Charlie McCoy about the buddies’ military pasts in the film
Magnum Force. “We should have done our 20 in the Marines,” he says. In The Dead Pool, there’s also a shot of a United States Marine Corps coffee mug on Harry's desk at the police station.
George Taylor of ‘Planet of the Apes’
Before this astronaut ended up on a misguided space mission and found himself on a planet ruled by apes, he attended West Point and was a fighter pilot in the Army, serving in both World War II and the Korean War. How that prepared him to deal with a bunch of domineering primates is open to speculation, but it certainly couldn't have hurt.