Mel Broks
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Lights, Cameras, Lethal Action: Actors with SALT

July 1, 2023
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Many actors on stage and screen either began or ended their acting careers as members of the armed forces, and as is the unfortunate nature of armed conflict have body counts associated with their service. While no sane man relishes having death on their record, some aren’t burdened with guilt over the necessity of defending the lives of their fellows and their nations. We as the faithful audience enjoy the entertainment provided by these masters, we must also remember their sacrifices. In honor of that pursuit, these are but a few examples of true warriors from the silver screen.

Mel Brooks

To begin, if you are unfamiliar with the works of Mel Brooks, stop reading this and go watch Blazing Saddles, History of the World Part I, and Robin Hood Men in Tights. How you made it this far is astounding. 

Okay, so we’re back and on the same page. Let us then talk about how Brooks served in World War Two. Tested for intelligence in his senior year of 1944, he scored high enough that he was sent to the Virginia Military Institute to study electrical engineering, horse riding, and saber fighting. Drafted in 1944, he officially joined the US Army later that year, and served with the 78th Infantry Division first in France, then in Belgium. 

In 1945, Brooks was transferred to the 1104th Combat Engineer Battalion, just in time to serve in the Battle of the Bulge. Brooks said of the experience “Along the roadside, you'd see bodies wrapped up in mattress covers and stacked in a ditch, and those would be Americans, that could be me. I sang all the time ... I never wanted to think about it ... Death is the enemy of everyone, and even though you hate Nazis, death is more of an enemy than a German soldier."

Later in Germany, Brooks’ unit was tasked with locating and disabling German mines. Whenever German propaganda was played on the front, he responded by singing Jewish comedy songs back at the Germans. He would then specialize in building bridges until the end of the war in Europe, at which time he transferred to the Special Services as a touring Army comic.

A small note to Corporal Brooks’ file; at some point in 1945 he spent time in the stockade. Apparently, Brooks objected to someone heckling Jewish personnel, so in response he removed the man’s helmet and beat him with his mess kit. Worth it. 

Michael Caine

Sir Michael Caine, a veteran actor from the original Italian Job, Inception, Interstellar, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman, tells what must be one of my favorite enlistment stories. When standing in line to be sorted, the induction officer heard his decidedly blue-collar English and assigned him for enlisted, as Sir Roger Moore (who later famously played James Bond) was assigned as an officer due to his posh vocabulary. This was during the draft days during the beginning of the Korean War. Generally speaking, as a writer, I do my best to weave an interesting set of facts into a series of sentences which grab the reader’s attention. In this rare occasion, the subject’s own words speak far better of the situation in which they found themselves; the following is the description of his Korean War service from Caine’s own mouth.

“Whenever I killed someone there was no guilt, no remorse - it didn't feel real. It was during the Korean War, and I was just trying to stay alive. It was self-defense. It was always done at night, and we never had any idea who we had killed. I didn't even think about it - we had machine guns and we just did it. I never did anything close up or hand-to-hand. It didn't give me nightmares because the Army brutalizes you. It was like the World War I trenches - half a mile apart - and we were just firing backwards and forwards, so we never knew who any of our victims were as individuals. You never saw the whites of a man's eyes when you killed him.

I was nearly killed. There were four of us on patrol in a valley in the middle of the rice paddies. The Chinese were closing in on us and the officer said, 'Let's run towards their line - they won't expect it because they'll be expecting us to run away towards our lines.' So we did that and we ended up going right around them. They couldn't find us because they were looking in the wrong place and we got away. But we'd faced that moment that we thought was the end.

That night we went back to our bunkers and celebrated with a beer. We were just happy to be alive . . . I faced a moment when I knew I was going to die and I didn't run, I wasn't a coward, and it affected me deeply. I was at peace with myself and that guided my life, not just in terms of whether someone's going to kill me, but in everything.”

Christopher Lee

Often cited as one of the inspirations for the fictional character of James Bond, Christopher Lee led a life that was almost more fantastical and wilder than the roles he is known for, such as Saruman the White in Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku in Star Wars. Born in London to a Lieutenant Colonel and a Countess, his family also included his great grandmother, a renowned opera singer, and his great grandfather, the Marquis of Sarzano of Italy. After his parents divorced, his mother remarried, making Lee and Ian Flemming, the author of the James Bond novels, his step cousins. It was around this time he was introduced to the two assassins of Rasputin, whom he later played on film.

Due to family issues of debt and separation, Lee moved around during his early teens, including Paris, where he was present for France’s last public execution by guillotine.

In the early stages of the Second World War, Lee volunteered for the Finnish Army to fight against Russia, but was never placed on front line duty, and served two weeks before being shipped home with his peers. A short time later, his father fell ill and died, forcing Lee to conclude that he didn’t wish to follow his father’s footsteps with the British Army, instead opting for the Royal Air Force. At the time, this effort was met with some failure, as he experienced the death of a fellow trainee as well as a dashing of his hopes of being a pilot after being diagnosed with a disease of the optic nerve which disqualified him. These setbacks were turned around when he applied for RAF Intelligence to “earn his keep”.

Commissioned in 1943 after “killing time” at RAF bases in Africa, is squadron was heavily involved in fighting the Axis in that continent as well as Sicily and Italy. After a series of successful missions, Lee was almost killed in an Axis bombing raid, then contracted Malaria for the sixth time. Upon returning to his squadron, a lack of information about the situation in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as well as a lack of alcohol, almost caused a mutiny. Lee was the pivotal voice in returning his squadron to action.

The remainder of his service included the Battle of Monte Cassino with the 8th Gurkhas, climbing Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted, and taking a position with RAF HQ. Now, if that wasn’t insane enough for you… The information generally available puts Lee in a special forces role for a good deal of this time, which he acknowledged but refused to comment on. Following the war, his final assignment was to hunt down Nazi war criminals and interrogate them. With discretion as to how that was accomplished. The rest, as they say, is history, which I encourage you to look up, because there is far more than I can cover here.

Playing Count Dooku, he performed much of the sword fighting himself, as he was already adept. During his time playing Saruman the White on Lord of the Rings, Lee had the distinction of having met J.R.R. Tolkien, and when given stage direction by Director Peter Jackson as to the sound of a man being stabbed, Lee stated “Have you any idea what kind of noise happens when somebody’s stabbed in the back? Because I do.” If you don’t think that’s the coldest line ever, get a therapist.

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