This list of Hollywood tough guys and their military service has been put together at random; no significance should be read into the order in which they appear in this article. While conducting the research for this article it was interesting to discover the truth behind the legend of many of these Hollywood heroes.
Tough guy #1 – John Wayne. The Duke, he’s the epitome of the American tough guy. It’s been said of him that he never really acted, he simply played himself in one role after another. On the big screen it seems as though he led to Americans to victory in almost every war that America had been engaged in up until his death. Known as a super patriot in his later years, it’s a dichotomy that he avoided military service during World War II.
It’s been said that he was exempted from military service due to his age, the size of his family, and that he was needed in propaganda roles by acting in films portraying American fighting men. His draft status, 3A, 1A briefly (Republic Pictures requested a deferment), and 2A at wars end, legitimizes those claims. But they ring hollow when you consider the movie stars who were granted exemptions for one reason or another so that they could enlist. John Wayne even told others that he planned to enlist, but he never followed through with it.
The story about his avoiding military service that seems the most plausible is that he was enjoying being a movie star. After ten years of being cast in low budget westerns, John Wayne finally had his breakout role in 1939’s Stagecoach, he was a star at last. His ex-wife Pilar said that his super patriotism was a result of guilt at having stayed home and avoiding military service during World War II. Whatever the real reasons were, John Wayne was a movie hero and not a real life war hero.
Tough guy #2 – Errol Flynn. Mr. Swashbuckler himself was born on the island of Tasmania, making him an Australian at birth. In the mid 30’s he moved to Hollywood and became an instant star by playing the leading role in movies such as The Charge of the Light Brigade, and The Adventures of Robin Hood. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen on August 15, 1942.
During World War II Errol Flynn was roundly criticized for playing the hero in movie roles but not enlisting. The truth is that he tried to enlist in every branch of the service and was rejected by all of them on medical grounds. He was classified 4F for medical reasons. The movie studios hid this from the public for fear of how that knowledge would affect the career of the athletic, swashbuckling, Errol Flynn.
His medical problems included heart problems; a heart murmur, an enlarged heart, and he’d had at least one heart attack. He suffered from recurrent bouts of malaria which he contracted earlier in life while living and working in New Guinea. He had chronic tuberculosis, and he’d contracted venereal disease several times. He also suffered from chronic back pain which he self-medicated with morphine, and later with heroin.
Tough guy #3 David Niven. While David Niven isn’t the stereotype of a Hollywood tough guy, his actions in real life earned him a spot on this list. Besides, anyone who played a leading part in The Guns of Navarone surely deserves a mention as a Hollywood tough guy, stereotyped or not.
David Niven attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, England’s equivalent to West Point. Upon completion he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and was later promoted to First Lieutenant. In 1933 he was placed under arrest for insubordination after getting mouthy with a Major General. With the aid of the officer guarding him, he escaped and set sail for America. While in route to America he resigned his commission by telegram. By the mid 30’s he was established as a Hollywood actor and was a movie star in his own right.
Upon the breakout of World War II David Niven returned to England and rejoined the army, being recommissioned as a Lieutenant. Initially assigned to a rifle brigade, he later transferred to the Commandos. He also spent some time
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Tough guy #4 – Sylvester Stallone. Rambo has been the hardest to research for this article due to the seeming thousands of leads that come up in a google search. Judging by his date of birth and having a high draft number, Sylvester Stallone should have been drafted but he never was. It’s been suggested that he was classified 4F because of nerve damage received during delivery. It’s also been suggested that he went overseas in order to avoid the draft. The bottom line is he never served in the military despite having a high draft number, nor was he ever charged as a draft dodger.
In 1991 Stallone sued the writer Peter Theodoracopulos and the British magazine The Spectator for suggesting that he was a coward and that he dodged the Vietnam War. Stallone won the case. Regardless, questions remain concerning his eligibility for the draft, and his actions taken during the Vietnam War. Sylvester Stallone remains quiet on the subject.
Tough guy #5 – Steve McQueen. This rugged individualist had a checkered career as a Marine. He joined the Marines in 1947 and was rapidly promoted to PFC, only to be busted to Private seven times. He once spent 41 days in the brig for going UA (Unauthorized Absence). After his time in the brig he seemed to come to terms with Marine Corps discipline.
He was assigned to an armored unit and during exercises in the Arctic he pulled five Marines from a tank before it broke through the ice and sank into the sea. He also served with an Honor Guard that was responsible for guarding the Presidents yacht. He received an Honorable Discharge in 1950.
Tough guy #6 – Audie Murphy. The saying, “It’s not the size of the man in the fight, but the size of the fight in the Man,” could have been coined for 5’ 5 1/2” Audie Murphy. The most decorated American soldier of World War II, he’s a true tough guy, not just a Hollywood tough guy. He was the recipient of the U.S. Medal of Honor, and 32 other American and foreign medals and awards.
Before he was ever a movie star he was a poor kid from Texas who had to lie about his age in order to enlist and serve in the military. Even then he was rejected by the Marines, the Navy, and the Army paratroopers because of his size. The regular Army did accept him however. During boot camp his Company Commander wanted to have him transferred to a cook’s school and Murphy had to prove himself during boot camp so that he could go on and become a combat soldier.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to write about all of Audie Murphy’s exploits as a soldier. If you’re interested watch the movie To Hell and Back, starring Audie Murphy as himself, or even better, read his autobiography To Hell and Back.
After becoming a movie star in the days when westerns were the rage, someone reputedly challenged Audie Murphy to a quick draw contest which was popular with many of the western actors at the time. Murphy who wasn’t considered a fast draw replied, “with real ammo…anytime.”
After his death in a plane crash on May 18, 1971, Audie Murphy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. To this day his grave is the second most visited grave in Arlington, second only to that of President John F. Kennedy.