Lone Survivor, Hollywood and the Insufficiency of True Heroism

Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor

“Lone Survivor” was a terrible movie – from at least one perspective, within at least one context. Was it a well-made film? Well acted? Good production values? A respectful homage to the sacrifices of the men who were there? A fantastic recruiting tool? Our minions have debated this ceaselessly. Mad Duo Chris took issue, and has a genuine question for filmmakers at the end.  — Mad Duo


Lone Survivor, Hollywood and the Insufficiency of True Heroism

I read Marcus Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor soon after it was released. And while some of it strained credulity, I was still impressed by it. I was excited to hear it was being made into a movie. My wife and I made plans to see it soon after it was released.

And then I read this: A List of the Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality

This very interesting and well-researched article shows numerous instances where the movie, for whatever reason, differs from the memoir. Some changes from book to film are understandable; internal dialogue, for example, works great in books but not movies. But director Peter Berg, who professes to have undying respect for our military, altered the story drastically.


In the book, the reportedly true story, Army Rangers moved on foot and unopposed to the village where Luttrell was being sheltered. In the movie, Luttrell is rescued by Search and Rescue personnel in Air Force helicopters during a raging firefight. In the movie, Luttrell is almost decapitated by Taliban, in the book no such thing happens. Movie, Luttrell stabs a Taliban fighter to death during the final battle, doesn’t happen in the book. Movie, Luttrell is so badly wounded his heart stops just after his rescue; book, Luttrell isn’t badly wounded and his rescuers even stop for tea with the villagers. In the movie, the SEALs are after Ahmad Shah because he killed twenty Marines the previous week. In the book, and real life, no he didn’t.

And so on.

These changes are ridiculous, unnecessary to say the least, and at worst a blatant insult to combat veterans. Because apparently, the reality of our experience just isn’t good enough for Hollywood.

Of course, Lone Survivor isn’t the first modern film to unnecessarily ruin a story that was compelling enough already. The makers of Black Hawk Down, for reasons unknown, decided to add a ridiculously stupid scene near the end. When they could have just shown the reality of our Special Operations soldiers surrounded by thousands of hostile Somalis overnight in a distant, exotic city, they instead created an imaginary, impossible situation. In a scene near the end, helicopter gunship pilots coming to aid our troops just can’t identify a target (despite about ten thousand Somali gunmen on roofs in the open). So Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann runs into the street to mark targets with an infrared strobe.

No disrespect at all to Staff Sergeant Eversmann – he went through hell on “the Lost Convoy” –  but he wasn’t in the city overnight with the others. And IR strobes are generally used to mark our own positions, not the enemy’s. Does anyone really think our troops, to mark a target for an air strike, have to run up and throw a strobe at it? The incident never happened. But director Ridley Scott added it, because the men of Task Force Ranger just weren’t brave enough for him. The story needed an instance of “true” heroism.

And then there’s We Were Soldiers. The amazing dedication and bravery of a lone American battalion, outnumbered and holding a perimeter for three days against determined attacks by an equally brave and dedicated enemy, just wasn’t interesting enough. So director Randall Wallace added something.

At the end of the movie, Colonel Moore leads his men out of their perimeter to assault the North Vietnamese base camp. The North Vietnamese soldiers ready themselves behind machine guns, prepared to slaughter the attacking Americans. Just as Colonel Moore crests a rise and locks eyes with an enemy machine gunner, as the enemy gunner begins to pull the trigger, mere milliseconds before Colonel Moore is cut to shreds. . . guess what happens? An American helicopter gunship swoops in and rakes the enemy with gunfire, saving Colonel Moore and all the other (major) characters! How dramatic!

Know what makes it even more dramatic? It never happened. Colonel Moore’s battalion “merely” held their perimeter, losing 79 men killed in the process, until the enemy gave up. Shoot, anyone can do that. So Wallace invented a fake heroic charge. Because the best way to recognize heroism is to exaggerate it.

I have a mental image of movie directors, when they hear of an amazing, heroic military story: they clench their fists, shake in excitement, then suddenly burst out yelling, “I just have to make a movie out of this! And I can’t live with myself if I don’t add something totally stupid to it!”

I suppose Peter Berg, Randall Wallace and Ridley Scott only see bravery in outrageous, unbelievable acts of imaginary valor. If it’s not a Recon Ranger SEAL ninja Green Beret stabbing a grizzly to death with a toothpick while HALO jumping from the space shuttle, they’re just not interested. The bravest acts I saw in Afghanistan would have meant nothing.

The captain and staff sergeant who dragged a KIA down a bare, exposed hillside while under fire from numerous Taliban positions? Not enough. The men who walked into an enemy-held valley, knowing they were going to be ambushed? Don’t waste time with such pettiness. Heading into the open within 100 meters of Taliban positions to recover a fallen comrade from a burned-out vehicle? Piddly things like that don’t even register on a director’s radar.

Hollywood recognizes true heroism. They recognize it by twisting it, hyperinflating it, butchering it, turning it into a cartoon version of reality. All in the name of “honoring veterans”. If onviolence.com’s article is correct, the movie Lone Survivor is as much a “true story” as Jessica Rabbit is a representation of the average woman.

Yes, I’ve heard many of the counter arguments. It’s a movie, everyone knows it’s not “really” true. Hollywood has to make money. Every movie follows a formula, and for war movies there has to be a larger-than-life hero.

Maybe so. I’m just a soldier, not a filmmaker. What do I know about making movies? Nothing, except for this:

Marcus Luttrell is in fact a hero. So were the SEALs with him that day. So were the eight SEALs and eight Army Special Operation aviators who died trying to reach Luttrell’s team. What all those men did that day was amazingly dramatic. The true story, without embellishment, would have made a good movie.

Luttrell and his comrades faced more danger and showed more bravery than most people will ever dream of. Many of our troops have marched bravely into combat, even though the odds were against them, even though they were scared. They chose to serve their country as warriors during a war. They fought, struggled, sacrificed, sometimes bled, sometimes died. They experienced profound hardships, willingly risked their lives for cause and country, suffered crushing losses, and felt the adrenaline-spiked glory of victory. Why do their stories have to be “improved”?

Peter Berg, Randall Wallace or Ridley Scott, please answer the following question. It’s not rhetorical. I’d like an honest explanation.

Wasn’t our actual wartime experience enough for you?


Chris Hernandez (Mad Duo Chris, seen below on patrol in Afghanistan) is part of the writing-editorial team at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of nearly two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the  Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. You can read more of his work on Breach-Bang-Clear, the The Statesman, on his blog and on Iron Mike Magazine.

Mad Duo, Breach-Bang-CLEAR!

  • Matt

    I too was disappointed by the major changes from book to screen. I especially took issue with Danny Dietz, a hero from my state, being depicted as delerious and hardly fighting toward the latter half of the firefight. Danny took multiple rounds, and continued to engage the enemy long after being mortally wounded. He never quit. But in the film he dies alone on a ridge, still breathing while within feet of the enemy. Hollywood.

  • Excellent article!

  • purpleheartpark

    Good Grief…We get it…Earol Flynn did not die like Custer in “They Died with their Boots On”, John Wayne did not die like Davey Crockett in “The Alamo”, Rico’s Roughnecks did not really Kill Big Bugs in “Starship Trooper”, I was not really a VC in “The Green Berets” I didn’t even have a rifle I had a Broom Stick (look real close). To sell tickets you need a Motivated topic , Excellent camera work, and a story that keeps the audience engaged…If you just want to do a Documentary call the History Channel…

    • Larry

      Actually, the author is correct. Make them like it happened. Their heroism does not need embellishment and other crap. Oh, and its Errol Flynn…

      • purpleheartpark

        Don’t disagree, But then its a Documentary not an Entertainment…Sorry Errol…

  • Glockster 20

    Good Article! COL Hal Moore and his soldiers had to move to another PZ several clicks away. Where they were hit by the enemy multiple times. That movement to the PZ I think would had been a good end to the movie.

    • chrishernandezauthor

      That was actually a different battalion, which relieved COL Moore’s and then walked to LZ Albany. They had a meeting engagement with a large NVA unit en route, and lost over 150 KIA in one day. And that battle wasn’t even mentioned in the movie.

  • george

    I’m 59 and a Marine. I learned a long time ago that if I read a good book. Why would I watch the movie and screw it up. Things have not changed in since I have been going to the movies. I myself also get up set with how they change the story line. Great example Tom Clancy books. It’s alright though. I figure they they just don’t know how to read! !

  • Andre

    “Life imitates Art” but not in war. The fact that Americans add so much value to movies amazes me.

  • denny004

    So now we know if you give Hollywood the right to make a movie about you. get the final say on the movie.

  • chuck

    You want to find a hero, just find any boots on the ground grunt, or helo crew, or pilot flying into enemy fire. Then you got a hero! Take fire+return fire=hero.

    By the way, I never watch war movies. Had my fill in Vietnam.

    • LCPL Ramos

      Except “Go Tell the Spartans”, that’s a must watch.

    • WORM

      Well said Chuck. My wife and I have both flown into combat zones. We don’t consider ourselves heros but we do scoff at the way Hollywood embellishes everything to make it more profitable.

  • Irene Park

    Well, they drag military out in the streets sometimes, then burn them. They have cannibal movies sometimes too. Nobody enjoys watching them, but they say it’s true. As for Shah, if he’s the general guard on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan,he doesn’t side with the villagers much. They said a priest was attacked and he said they were wrong.

  • LCPL Xavier Ramos

    Did anyone see the Jake Tapper CNN interview with Marky-Mark and Marcus, I thought those two were gonna beat him up and sodomize him right then and there.

    So my issue is, when Berg got all Hollywood-y as directors tend to do–I’m sure he floated the idea of using alien space ships to rescue Luttrell, with all sorts of lasers shooting the Taliban and other creative ideas…

    My issue is why didn’t Marcus say anything, “Hey, Mr. Berg, with all due respect to your creative juices, but it just didn’t happen this way, can we stick to my book, after all this is why I’m on set, right?… I thought we were gonna stick to the truth?”.

    And Marky-Mark, the way he lambasted Tom Cruise for comparing acting to real life combat, could have backed-up Luttrell, and said something like “I swear, I’m gonna stick to comedies from here on out, if you don’t stick to the story in Luttrell’s memoir, Peter”.

    Where was all that b-assery both showed in the Jake Tapper interview?

    • PD375

      Hahahahahahahahahaahahahah… LOL! Oh s… that’s funny!

  • Brad

    The movie producers, writers, directors, financial backers make movies to MAKE MONEY AND ENTERTAIN. They wouldn’t make any money telling how war really is. People don’t want to know the boring details, unless they are seeing a documentary, but then not many people would pay to see that. I have all the respect in the world for my comrades in arms, past and present, those like I, who’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt and also those who make sure we have what we need. I, myself, won’t watch modern combat, war, special teams, etc, type movies. I ruin it for myself by pointing out all the wrongs in them.

    • chrishernandezauthor

      I disagree, although I get your point. I just think your supposition, “truth=boring”, isn’t true. The true and detailed books Blackhawk Down and We Were Soldier Once… And Young were tremendously successful bestsellers; people were obviously interested in the actual true stories, because those stories were interesting as hell. And I’d bet Lone Survivor wouldn’t be such a hit if Berg had advertised all the fabrications in this “based on reality” movie.

  • bulldurham48

    The whole thing, book, movie, and all are un-necessary. You do not applaud failure, especially that which were caused by ignorance and lack of sense of duty. Alot of good men died to recover a man who should never gotten into the problem in the first place except by the groups own decision not to follow their training and orders. Just think if they would have followed orders there would be no need for a hardly believable book and a totally fictitious movie. What really bothers me is the fact that someone who was suspose to be such a “hero” would turn into a big money-man for something he had been a failure in. A Nation that celebrates failure is doomed to death, and to honor those who fail dishonors the dead. My personal opinion. I love the military , tradition, way of life , always remembering the words Duty, Honor , Country, something that seems to have been forgotten in all this hoopla. Really sad its come to this

    • Ben

      I’m not entirely sure what, “orders,” you think they happened to disregard. There were civilians, they were on a recon mission. Do you really believe that soldiers just execute civilians? That’s a bull s@#$ assumption on your part. Aside from that fallacious assumption, the book was to memorialize fallen comrades, a laudable goal. It was not a celebration of defeat, rather a celebration of the professionalism of good soldiers. I’m a fairly pessimistic guy, but you have absolutely gotten me beat. Seriously, does the sun shine where you live?

  • Chris

    @bulldurham48, were you there? Were you trained to the same level as those guys were? Or are you just another arm chair commando with your tactical squeeze cheese in your super awesome tacticool as shit airsoft chest rig? You talk about duty, honor, & country, but you obviously don’t have a clue in Hell what any of those mean. These 4 men were sent into an area to recon an area, find the target, if they had a clean shot, take it, then exfil. They were in the process of doing just that when all of the best laid plans went right to shit. I take it you don’t know anything about that because you spend your days in your moms basement eating hot pockets. If you want to attack those men I’d like to see you do it in front of the families of the fallen, and most of all to Luttrell’s face. We all know that won’t happen though, way to talk a big game, douchebag.

    • Austin

      Chris, you rock. Excellent article and I couldn’t agree more.

  • Jarod

    Good read. Thanks for posting it. I’m also digging the Texas flag in the pic.

  • B6 Actual

    Or perhaps in books the truth is withheld due to the fact that SOF does not tell. When it goes to film we just say “fuck it, I don’t care if the truth comes out.” I stopped taking advice from readers who watch movies a looooooong time ago. #Getalife ya I know the # doesn’t work here but it’s funny

    • chrishernandezauthor

      That’s almost laughable. The memoir was written with the Navy’s blessing. As far as we know, the memoir is the true story. The movie is maybe 50% true to the book, and there are major incidents in the movie that nobody ever claimed happened (like Luttrell dying on the operating table). Fake, made-up events in a supposedly “true” story don’t have anything to do with SOF OPSEC.

  • MXJ
  • Dragos

    Don’t bother, they will never reply to your question. What they do is propaganda for ”join the army” posters, and kids/young boys are not able to comprehend what it’s really happening there , due to lack of experience , nor the drama and the true heroism ,unless it’s troughly exagerated. Call of Duty style mentality wont allow them to understand the drama, the fear or the determination in a true combat footage of a man willingly running down of a hill to save his wounded comrade, even if he doesn”t really know him well. All they will see is a guy running down a hill, getting hit and still trying to move toward the other wounded guy, even if screaming in pain, and probably think ”what a stupid guy, why doesn’t he call for an air strike instead?”’. Go to the base of the reasons and see why they really making this films. You will probably understand that war films are not made as a tribute to heroes, as soldiers like to think, but only as propaganda for kids, to ensure the next generations of warriors. My english is quite poor but i hope youll understand what i mean.

  • Trident2Tru

    Hollywood IS sensationalism. It is what it is. We look to Hollywood for entertainment, not education: or shouldn’t, anyway. The problem I see is books being written almost immediately after incident. A lot of operational intel is revealed and that’s not a good thing. Our enemies are also reading those books and watching those movies. My late husband was a plankowner with SEAL Team 2. They were founded on and effectively operated on anonymity and obscurity. He often railed against operators publishing ‘their’ stories because it wasn’t just about the author; they were part of a team and exposed them all. Once some unfortunate soul told my husband he didn’t look like a Navy SEAL. The Chief leveled a Rottweiler stare on ‘he who dared to challenge’ and asked him what a Navy SEAL ‘looks’ like. Getting a deer in the headlights look, the Chief said, “Exactly. Remember that and you’ll live longer.” And….it was time for me to step in and re-direct his attention to a less potentially violent venue. Bless his heart, when people would ask me what his name was I’d almost tell them it was Stop It! : ). Lord, how I miss him! Thank God for all the wonderful memories I have to relive until I get to join him.

  • Del

    I remember reading that the movie “The Big Red One” didn’t do very well, despite it being perhaps the most realistic depiction of WW2 made at the time. It was, in fact, almost the exact story of what Lee Marvin experienced when he fought with that unit in WW2.

    The American public didn’t like it because no one man was the “hero,” and because it showed Americans experiencing real emotions like fear, refusal to kill, etc. I think directors add this stuff because the American public has watched too many over the top action movies, and the violence is what they are going to see.

    • C Stuart

      My understanding is that Lee Marvin was a Marine and fought in the Pacific and not in the Army in the 1st Infantry Division.

  • ron glasgow

    As a combat veteran I agree with what we are saying about Hollywood depictions of heroism and the like. A point that I would like to make is that if for no one else they make me remember what our relationships were really like despite the inability of film makers to portray something so personal. They came the closest by showing the training footage and they tried to show how we are always fucking around with each other and kidding each other about those things in which the rest of the world finds taboo or politically incorrect and do it in a way that endears ourselves together. I can meet another paratrooper ( minus five jump chumps ) and within seconds talk to them like I’ve known them my whole life. I was tore up from the floor up the second they showed real men suffering at the beginning and pictures of our brothers and their families at the end, their loss was my loss, forget that God and country crap. So if nothing else, Hollywood has a way of jump starting the secrets of our hearts and rekindling the memories with the greatest men we ever knew and served with. All the way and then some, airborne! Ronnie G.

  • wayne


    I’m a filmmaker and also have taught filmmaking for about 15 years. I’m also a conservative and an Army Vet. I understand the argument of the films deviations from the source material. It can be frustrating and as some have posted above, infuriating. However it is not the job of the filmmaker to report, recorde or even be restricted to historical events. That is the job or profession of the Historians.

    Our job as filmmakers is to make a story WELL TOLD. Our job is to try to communicate to the audience the utterly complexity of the characters emotions. Our job is to give the audience the Shock of Truth not mere facts. Not to catalog data. Our job is to inspire, excite, and show the audience there is more to life!

    As an artist it is my duty to be Charmingly Incorrect instead of Irritatingly Correct. So as an artist my job is to strip away anything that detracts from the story. Anything that has a negative effect on the audiences experience of the emotions the characters are feeling on the screen.

    I know this may be frustrating to some of you. I know you may even be insulted by how I think. But everything is subject to change if it detracts from the emotion and story the artist is telling. Art is about simplification and subordination of details.

    Art is not a cataloging of data. It is not about getting the facts right. It is about expressing emotions. About inspiration. About ideas and concepts. About the BIG Truths not the small truths. Art is not an exacting science that can be measured on a chart.



  • Little Schlomo

    War is an industry. I costs while it’s on and, when done right, results in a lot of urban renewal. It’s the ‘reset button’ for society. The important thing is that nobody really loses. The honored dead get monuments. And the living ‘heroes’ maintain the fictions. And it’s not restricted to the ‘good guys’.