Vietnam Veterans of America
Arriving at Dale Dye’s suburban L.A. bungalow, I was concerned he might make me complete a brisk forced march or dig a foxhole before our interview. As the preeminent military technical advisor to Hollywood, this highly decorated former U.S. Marine believes that a true understanding of the military mentality requires a hands-on taste of the actual experience. Over the past thirty years, Dye, who served three tours in Vietnam, has revolutionized how warriors are portrayed on screen, in part by putting actors through a pre-production boot camp to make them feel, think, and behave like real-life combatants.
Initially making his name with Oliver Stone’s groundbreaking 1986 Vietnam War movie Platoon, Dye and his company, Warriors Inc., have worked on more than fifty film and television projects, including Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, and The Pacific. By encouraging more realistic and empathetic on-screen portrayals of rank-and-file troops, he has had a profound effect on the public image of veterans, while providing both a voice and considerable catharsis to thousands of former servicemen and women—himself included.
“My agenda has always been the same,” declared the white-haired Dye in an authoritative officer’s timbre. “I want to use what influence I have in popular media to shine some long-overdue and richly deserved light on the men and women who wear the military uniform.”
Dye chatted with me in his sunny, tidy corner office festooned with on-location photos of uniform-clad actors he has worked with over the years. He’s a very confident, sometimes funny man: garrulous, but with few words wasted.
“My earliest memory is when my father took me to see a World War II movie,” he recalled from behind his desk. “I just came away wide-eyed and fascinated.”
Further inspired by war stories from World War II and Korean War veterans he met, Dye attended military academies in Chicago and in his native Missouri. His ambition was to enter the United States Naval Academy, but he twice failed the exam: “I played a lot more football and baseball in school than studying.”
So, at age nineteen, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Always a wordsmith and keen storyteller, Dye soon became a Marine combat correspondent and in this capacity served in Vietnam in 1965 and 1967-70.
“I thought if I was ever really going to get a look at the great, seminal human experience of war, that was it,” he remembered. “And I was right.”
Dye survived thirty-one combat operations in Vietnam, emerging with three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with “V” device, among many other decorations.
“The idea [of being a combat correspondent] was to run to the sound of the guns,” he said. “You had to be where the fighting was or your mission couldn’t be accomplished.”
Dye wrote human interest stories that appeared in hometown newspapers about his fellow Marines’ acts of bravery and unusual circumstances. Shining a light on the men who were doing the war’s dirtiest jobs was a role that foreshadowed his later work in Hollywood.
After his Vietnam War service, Dye stayed in the Marines and in 1970 was stationed in Washington, D.C.—a hotbed of political protest against the Vietnam War.
“I came home to kind of a divided country—a country that was terribly tired of hearing about Vietnam,” Dye said.
Dye had risen to the rank of master sergeant before being chosen to attend Officer Candidate School. Appointed a warrant officer in 1976, he became a captain by the time he arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, with the Multinational Peacekeeping Force in 1982. He retired from the Marines in 1984, having also earned a degree in English from the University of Maryland.
Subsequently working for Soldier of Fortune magazine, Dye both reported on and trained troops in Central America. In 1985 he headed to Hollywood armed with little more than a yearning for a career and a bright idea. He sensed that there was room for an entirely new type of military technical advisor in motion pictures: Someone who didn’t just advise on period-correct uniforms and equipment, but also ensured that troops’ mentality and emotions were realistically portrayed.
“I had seen all the war movies there were, and it just occurred to me that a lot of them got it so wrong,” said Dye, who received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award.
A Hard Sell
Dye found his concept was a hard sell. Hollywood’s clique-ish movie makers were making plenty of money from war films without someone like him shaking up their sets. He sensed a certain hubris among them, a feeling that nobody who was in the military could possibly be creative.
A year-long odyssey followed as Dye tried to convince filmmakers that by incorporating his methodology of thoroughly preparing actors to faithfully portray warriors they could make much more authentic and engaging war films. He developed a unique actor training program that distilled the major elements of real-life basic training into an intense couple of weeks.
“It takes a certain insight into how soldiers think, how we feel, how we relate to each other,” he said. “And if you can get there, then an actor can’t make a mistake. An actor is going to reflect accurately who we are, what we are, and how we act.”
But this radical new approach gained little traction in Tinseltown, until he landed a meeting—which he subsequently described as “probably the most pivotal twenty minutes of my life”—with the relatively unknown writer-director Oliver Stone, who was making a movie based on his own experiences as a infantryman in Vietnam.
“If anybody is going to understand my pitch, it’ll be somebody who’s been there and done that,” Dye recalled.
Despite a budget of just $6 million for Platoon, Stone took a chance on Dye, letting him take thirty-three actors (including Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, Forrest Whitaker, and Johnny Depp) into the Philippine jungle for a thirty-day mock boot camp. This immersive methodology became Dye’s signature contribution to the art of movie making.
“It was brutal—intentionally so,” Dye said. “I had them reduced to the lowest common denominator, just like what happens to you when you go into basic military training. They understood what exhaustion was; they understood what fear was.”
Released in 1986, Platoon won four Academy Awards and grossed $138 million in North America alone, with Stone vocal in acknowledging Dye’s contribution to its success. Dye had resoundingly made his point, but the impact of his work went well beyond his own career—or even Hollywood.
“When Platoon hit theaters the nation underwent sort of a sea change. Vietnam veterans who prior to this time really didn’t talk about their experience suddenly were bringing people to see this film and to say, ‘This is the way it was.’ ”
Yet Dye remains modest about the overall influence of his work on the improved image and understanding of veterans since Platoon.
“Some of the movies that I’ve done have influenced the dialogue among Vietnam veterans and those who didn’t go,” he said. “They’ve allowed people to discuss their experiences; they’ve allowed people to share their experiences in a more objective manner.”
Dye also has written several military-themed novels, the first of which he began while still on active duty. He is in the midst of releasing “author’s preferred” editions of some of his earlier works.
“There’s a certain amount of exorcism; there’s a certain amount of confronting demons that comes with being able to talk about those things,” he said. “I had the talent to be able to do things like writing and making movies, but what about the guys who didn’t?”
Dye is constantly juggling multiple creative projects including, at the time of our meeting, a prospective World War II movie that he described as “Saving Private Ryan under parachute.” He’s also an in-demand public speaker.
“I try to be as accessible to people as I can, especially to veterans,” he explained.
A Marine through and through, Dye’s home is adorned with military memorabilia from all over the world, including ornaments crafted from military gear. In his early seventies, he has the bearing of a much younger man, thanks in part to regular running and weightlifting.
Almost inadvertently, Dye has also become what he jokingly termed “the most typecast guy in Hollywood,” making acting cameos in such projects as Casualties of War, Mission: Impossible, and Band of Brothers.
“They told me if I took an acting lesson they’d never hire me again,” he laughed. That’s because Dale Dye—a VVA life member—has forged a glittering post-military career out of adamantly being himself.
“We’ve got plenty of money to live in a huge house, but I don’t believe in that,” he said. “I drive a pickup truck, and we live in this San Fernando Valley cottage, because I don’t want those things to interfere with who I am and what I do.”
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