Military brats in films

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Military brats in films

by: Morten G. Ender | .
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published: April 30, 2015

Ten years ago I published a little known study titled “Military Brats: Film Representations of Children from Military Families” in the scholarly journal Armed Forces & Society. At the time I wondered, as I still do, what are civilian perceptions and thoughts about military brats?  Is their view positive or negative?  Are there stereotypes? Are the characterizations accurate?  Are brats even represented in films and if so, how?

Asking Americans what they think of military brats is difficult.  I thought a study of films might help answer my questions and ease my curiosity.  Using a number of sources including friends, professionals, and websites, I found 46 films that featured children, adolescents, or adults living or raised in military families in some capacity.  The films were produced between 1935 and 2002 starting with the Little Colonel starring Shirley Temple to We Were Soldiers starring Mel Gibson. Over the course of a year, I studied 5,300 minutes of film like an anthropologist studies a culture.   Outside of my research findings which can be gleaned from the original article, two films jumped out as my favorites: The Great Santini (1979) and Remember the Titans (2000).

The two films are my favorites for reasons different than most would think.  Military folks should be familiar with The Great Santini starring Robert Duvall (nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1980).  Based on the book of the same name by Pat Conroy, the movie is about a pre-Vietnam era marine pilot and the dynamics of his work and family life while being stationed in the rural American south during the Cold War.  There are obvious reasons for liking this film.  First, it is the film of the military family.  Second, it resonates as the stereotype of the typical American military family with Duvall’s character portraying Bull Meecham as a hypermasculine, male service member with a traditional stay-at-home wife and who commands his family like a drill sergeant.

I like The Great Santini for a different reason. In particular, my favorite character in the film is Mary Anne Meecham, played by actress Lisa Jane Persky.

In her breakout role as a young actress, Persky plays the eldest teenage daughter of Meecham’s four children.  The major focus of the film is the strained relationship between Bull Meecham and his eldest son Ben, played by Michael O’Keefe (of which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1980).  But a sub-subplot is Meecham’s relationship, or lack thereof, with his daughter Mary Ann.

While Ben is conflicted with his masculine identity relative to his father, Mary Ann actually seeks conflict, or any form of attention, from her father.  In a memorable scene she acts out on the family’s front porch, by dramatizing her empty relationship with her father until he walks away exasperated.  She struggles for her father’s emotional attention by appealing to all of his prejudices.  It is my favorite scene in the film.  The character is smart, precocious, quick, and determined.  She reminds me of the adolescent girls I knew living on military bases, young women I’ve met in my studies of military families around the world, and the daughters of my military colleagues, some here at West Point.

Remember the Titans is a hidden gem of a movie.  The two military brats in lesser roles go unnoticed as social bridge builders.  Denzel Washington stars in this true story of a mandated and newly racially integrated all-white T.C. Williams high school and football team in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971.  Washington plays Coach Boone who must overcome racism, discrimination, and threats to his family to unite the team and win football games.

Remember the Titans is premised on the dramatic tensions between Coach Boone and his white assistant coach (and former head coach of the team) Bill Yoast, played by Will Patton, the Black and White football players, and the surrounding high school classmates, families, and community.  There are many criticisms of the film, for example, it is fairly formulaic, sappy, and maybe an overly simplistic American story.  But what makes the movie compelling for me are two racial champions.  The two military brats recently moved to the community.  One is Louie Lastik, played by Ethan Suplee, the larger than life, U.S. Navy, probably-enlisted, kid who makes a dramatic appearance in the film at an all-Black team meeting.

The second is the handsome, hippy-jock son of a U.S Army Colonel.  His name is Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass played by Kip Pardue.  Sunshine makes his appearance later in the film during a team practice. Sunshine’s father, in full-dress khaki uniform, drives himself and his son up to practice in a shiny Corvette to meet Coach Boone.  COL Bass insists he does not want his son playing at the other school because “The coach doesn’t want blacks and white playing together.” The Colonel insists, “The way I see it, if they can fight together in Vietnam, they can certainly play football together.”

Louis and Sunshine are more than racially tolerant, they are colorblind and the racial bridge for the team.  They don’t see race.  They are tolerant, flexible, and progressive.  Louie actually loves soul music and sings during a scene.  Sunshine naively takes his African-American teammates into a racist eating establishment insisting he “didn’t know” when they are not served.  So progressive is Sunshine that he even champions the acceptance of homosexuality among his football teammates. 
Louis and Sunshine portray progressive positive role models and they are military brats.  They are neither racist nor homophophic.  Indeed, they represent new American military racial tolerance and gay acceptance.

There are of course more recent films showing military brats since my study almost 15 years ago.  Atop the list is Donna Musil’s acclaimed and award winning documentary Brats: Our Journey Home, capturing the experience of generations of Americans who grew up military during The Cold War.

Grace is Gone (2007) stars John Cusack as the civilian husband of a military wife killed while deployed and his relationship with their two daughters following the death of their mom.

Another is In the Valley of Elah (2007) a crime thriller film starring Tommy Lee Jones (nominated for Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role) about a retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major (Jones) investigating the murder of his military son outside an Army base after returning from Iraq.

Films featuring military brats less notably include Terminator Salvation (2009) featuring Ron Howard’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate Connor who replaced actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Claire Daines from earlier versions of the film; Brothers (2009) featuring actors Tobey McGuire, Jake Gyllenhal, and Natalie Portman in an epic and tried drama about a love triangle between two brothers—one a criminal and one a veteran and a women with two military daughters at the periphery; and the recent American Sniper (2015).  Under Clint Eastwood’s direction, it stars Bradley Cooper as U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the allegedly the deadliest sniper in Iraq. Unfortunately there is controversy that the babies are plastic in the films.  Essentially, the first portrayal of fake military brats!

Morten G. Ender is Professor of Sociology at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York where he teaches “Marriage and Family” and “Military Films” among other courses.  He is the author of Military Brats and Other Global Nomads: Growing Up in Organization Families (Praeger) and American Soldiers in Iraq: McSoldiers or Innovative Professionals? (Routledge).  The views in this article are his own and do not reflect the views of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. Contact him at morten.ender@usma.edu.

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