Dale Dye Is Hollywood’s Drill Sergeant
Marine captain changed how we make war movies—and now he’s planning one of his own
Dale Dye knows war. He spent two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in Southeast Asia and the Middle East starting in 1964. Today, he puts that experience to use helping filmmakers and actors realistically depict war.
“Throughout my active-duty career, I was something of a movie buff,” the 69-year-old veteran told War is Boring.
He was particularly drawn to war films—from all over the world, in any language. The more he watched, the more he realized they all had something in common. “They all pissed me off,” Dye said.
Even the best of them were pretty unrealistic. A movie might get some of the technical details right, like uniforms and weapons, but still wouldn’t feel real.
Most war flicks were cliche. The actors didn’t carry themselves as soldiers would. They didn’t talk like soldiers. The combat was too stilted, lacking the suddenness and violence of real fighting.
Dye decided to fix that. After getting out of the corps in the eighties, he began offering his services to filmmakers. At first, the Hollywood establishment wasn’t terribly receptive to his input.
Twenty years later, he’s a powerful force in showbiz. He runs Warriors, Inc., the entertainment industry’s top military consultancy company. To him, it’s all about war feeling real. “I like to show it warts and all,” Dye explained. “It’s not about waving the flag, about pretending everyone in uniform was a hero. I know from experience that there were warts.”
Dye has lent his expertise to the films Platoon and Saving Private Ryan plus HBO’s miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific, as well as to the video game series Medal of Honor and a bunch of music videos with military themes.
And he’s an actor, too. Dye played himself on Entourage, the 101st Airborne Division’s Col. Robert Sink in both Band of Brothers and in Gearbox Software’s Brothers in Arms game series and he’s recently had a recurring role on TNT’s science fiction action series Falling Skies as Col. Jim Porter.
Now Dye’s getting ready to helm projects of his own, starting with No Better Place to Die, a World War II film that he wrote and plans to direct.
He’s come a long way. But he said he never forgets that his road to the red carpet began in Vietnam, dodging bullets as a U.S. Marine.
Dye enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1964 and was among the first Marines to deploy to Vietnam. His superiors recognized Dye’s keen sense of observation, as well as his literary bent.
They encouraged him to reclassify as a combat correspondent. “I suppose I’ve always been something of a storyteller,” Dye told War is Boring. It would be his job to document the lives of his fellow Marines.
He hitched rides from battlefield to battlefield. “We were supposed to run toward the sound of gunfire,” Dye explained. “Wherever there was fighting, that’s where we were supposed to be.”
Dye sent back stories and photos to run in military publications and the hometown newspapers of fellow Marines. “I was part of a very small group, there were very few Marine combat correspondents,” Dye recalled.
Fellow Marine correspondent Gus Hasford, author of Short Timers, nicknamed Dye “Daddy D.A.,” as he was one of the oldest of the Marine writers. A character by the name of Daddy D.A. even makes an appearance in Full Metal Jacket, loosely based on Short Timers.
He was also friendly with many of the civilian journalists in Vietnam, including legendary war correspondent Michael Herr. In Dispatches, Herr wrote about watching then-sergeant Dye, grinning with a yellow flower sticking out of his helmet, covering the Tet Offensive in Hue.
“It was the same smile I saw a week later when a sniper’s bullet tore up a wall two inches above his head, odd cause for amusement in anyone but a grunt,” Herr wrote.
Dye earned three purple hearts and a bronze star for valor in Vietnam. “It colored my views on combat immensely,” he said. As a correspondent, he eschewed strategy for the personal stories of individual grunts.
After Vietnam, the Marines promoted him to warrant officer and then to lieutenant. In 1982, as a captain, he deployed to Beirut. The Marines were there as peacekeepers, but Dye recalled little peace in Lebanon. He did recall a deep sense of dread among the Vietnam vets in the force—a feeling that they were vulnerable to attack.
After Dale returned home, an Islamic militant suicide bomber blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. Dye was furious. The deaths were preventable, he believed.
He left the Marine Corps in 1984 and set off for Central America as a correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine. His next destination would be even more exotic.
Dye decided to apply his two decades of military experience to film. He’d seen what the studios had produced. He believed he could do better. He headed to Hollywood.
First, he needed to figure out what war movies were missing. He watched films’ credits and saw that many of them hired technical advisers, usually veterans, and still failed to authentically depict combat and combatants.
“I began to feel it was hubris,” Dye explained. Directors had a preconceived notion of how they thought soldiers should act. And they weren’t really interested in what the advisers had to say. “There was this perception that people who wore a uniform couldn’t be creative,” Dye said.
Dye realized that actors and directors couldn’t appreciate the real experience of war because they’d never been. He offered to put actors through a sort of boot camp, training them to think and act like grunts. He developed a program that he said would “make them walk a mile in a soldier’s boots.”
He pitched his boot camp to several filmmakers. Frustrated by swift rejection, Dye was ready to give up. Then he read an article about a Vietnam War project under development by a then relatively unknown filmmaker who was himself a Vietnam veteran. His name was Oliver Stone. The film was Platoon.
Stone agreed to Dye’s proposal. When they arrived on location in the Philippines, Dye took some of the main cast—which included Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker—into the jungle for 30 days of military-style training. Dye limited their food and water. At night, the old Marine fired blanks to keep the performers awake.
Trudging back to Stone’s sets, the actors were exhausted and edgy—exactly what Stone wanted. Shooting began immediately.
Dye stayed on for the whole production, supervising actors and all the while making small suggestions, like having actors put cigarette packs on their helmets and stuff their dog tags into their boots. Stone even gave Dye a small role as a company commander.
Brutal and authentic, Platoon became a sensation. Suddenly, the same people who had rejected Dye were coming to him. “Nothing succeeds in Hollywood like success,” Dye mused.
Taking the helm
Dye has now spent as almost as much time in the entertainment industry as he has in the military. Besides advising movies, TV and games, he’s also written novels and, recently, a comic book about the Navy SEAL raid to kill Osama Bin Laden.
Dye has worked as a unit director on several projects, including Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Now he’s getting ready to helm a project of his own, the World War II flick No Better Place to Die.
The script follows a band of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers defending the critical La Fiere Bridge on the Merderet River during the first three days of the Battle of Normandy in 1944. Dye said he wants to capture the intensity of the airborne landing, and do for it what Saving Private Ryan did for the beach assault. “You’re going to be under canopy with these paratroopers.”
He said he hopes to start shooting this year. He’s just waiting for all the funding to come together. And even if it doesn’t, there’s no shortage of other productions in need of his assistance—so that they can accurately depict the ugliness and humanity of close combat. “I’ll probably keep fighting that fight until I’m six feet under,” Dye said.