Fort Benning Centennial Minute: Ft. Benning plays lead role in iconic Hollywood movies
In time a major motion picture filming in Columbus may be routine, thanks to Georgia’s blooming film industry and the new studios and training here to support it.
This was not so, years ago: Shooting a movie with all the actors and technical staff was big news to locals who went to see the stars if they could.
When iconic movie star John Wayne came to Fort Benning in 1965 for the Vietnam war movie “The Green Berets,” Mary Jane Wadkins got a good look.
Now 70, she was in her early 20s when Robert Eakle, who’d been her Columbus High School vocal music teacher, invited her to watch John Wayne shoot a scene at Eakle’s mansion called the Hilton, off Wynnton Road at Hilton Avenue.
The movie setting is a mansion in Vietnam where the Green Berets kidnap an enemy leader at night. Wadkins recalled being there in the evening, when the crew used flash explosions to simulate combat. The work went on into the dark, she said.
Wayne directed the film, and she remembered his shouting orders as the crew got everything set up. When it came time for Wayne to go on camera, the crew set him up, too.
“There were things missing in his mouth that got adjusted before,” she said. “It looked to me from a long way off like they put some teeth in there.”
Then they went to work on his midsection.
“He looked like he was in a loose-fitting shirt, dark green…. He lifted his shirt. They brought out this long thing that looked like, not a waist pincher, but some kind of corset.”
They used it to gird Wayne’s gut. “Hook it from the bottom!” Wayne yelled, as the wardrobe man went to work on the fastenings.
“They got it hooked all the way up and got his shirt down, and got him ready to go to the scene,” she said.
The wardrobe worker walked over and stood by Wadkins, who asked why Wayne kept shouting “hook it from the bottom.”
The man held up his hands, palms in, about 2 feet apart.
“Because if you hook it from the top,” he said, “his butt is this big.”
Stars and bars
“The Green Berets” debuted 50 years ago, in 1968, a pro-war film for a conflict over which many Americans were torn. It drew a crowd in Columbus, where locals’ support for Fort Benning and its mission never wavered.
When locals remember films shot at Benning, the two that stand out are both about Vietnam: “The Green Berets” and 2002’s “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson as Col. Hal Moore, the commander at Ia Drang, the first major American battle.
The movie was filmed on post in 2001, but the actors spent much of their free time in downtown Columbus, at the Olive Branch restaurant and its upstairs bar, The Loft. It became their hangout, a haven from star-struck autograph seekers.
“I would always try to protect them,” said owner Buddy Nelms, who let the actors and director Randall Wallace use a rear dining room with a back door they could slip in and out. Nelms guarded them against any intrusion from the front of the restaurant.
At one point another local restaurateur wanted to go back to see the stars, even if he had to pretend to be a waiter. That’s all he wanted to do, he told Nelms. “That’s exactly why you can’t go back there,” Nelms told him.
The actors soon felt enough at ease to gather in the bar, shooting pool and drinking. “They want to be treated like regular people,” Nelms said. “When you treat them out of place, that’s what makes them uncomfortable.”
Gibson became a regular, along with Sam Elliott, Madeleine Stowe, Keri Russell and Greg Kinnear, Nelms said, adding, “Greg was great. Me and him connected.”
Kinnear played a helicopter pilot, and Nelms’ father served in Army aviation in Vietnam in 1964, maintaining rescue choppers. “We had something to chat about,” Nelms said.
When the younger actors gathered one night to see musician Shawn Mullins, they blended into the crowd, said Nelms, who in treating them like regular people asked one to quiet down during the show.
Still a gaggle of movie stars in your bar was not an everyday experience, in Columbus, and every now and then that would hit him, Nelms said:
“You just kind of looked around and thought, ‘Where the hell are we?’”
James Garner of “Maverick” fame was here, and Barbara Eden from “I Dream of Jeannie,” and Potsie from “Happy Days,” Anson Williams, who directed Eden in the 1989 TV movie “Your Mother Wears Combat Boots,” shooting some scenes in Columbus’ Overlook neighborhood.
Like the 1984 film “Tank,” starring Garner, Fort Benning hosted many lesser-known movies over the years. Going back in time from “We Were Soldiers,” here’s a recap of the most prominent, excluding short documentaries:
“We Were Soldiers.” Besides the actors named above, it featured Barry Pepper, Jon Hamm and Ryan Hurst: Based on the book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam” by journalist Joe Galloway and retired Army Col. Hal Moore, the film follows American ground troops who aided by air support fend off a fierce enemy assault at the Battle of Ia Drang, Nov. 14-18, 1965.
“The Green Berets,” besides Wayne starring David Janssen, Jim Hutton, Jack Soo and George Takei: A jaded reporter with doubts about America’s role in Vietnam accompanies a hardened Army colonel as the commander selects two top Green Beret squads for crucial missions, first to build a base camp they defend from a night attack, and later to kidnap an enemy leader.
“Your Mother Wears Combat Boots,” besides Eden starring David Kaufman and Hector Elizondo: In this made-for-TV movie, a single mother whose husband died in a parachute jump in Vietnam sends her son to college so he won’t join an Army parachute unit, but he sneaks off and enlists. She finds him about to start Airborne training at Benning, and assumes the identity of a female soldier to get onto the post and confront him. When he won’t back down, she bets him she can pass the training with the agreement he has to leave the service if she wins.
“A Time to Triumph,” 1986, starring Patty Duke and Joseph Bologna: This made-for-TV movie is based on a true story. A construction worker loses his job, home and savings after a heart attack, so his wife joins the Army to support the family and successfully trains to be a helicopter pilot.
“Tank,” besides Garner starring Shirley Jones and C. Thomas Howell: An Army command sergeant with a vintage World War II Sherman tank runs afoul of a corrupt Georgia sheriff who frames and jails his son. So the crusty father who’s retiring from the Army comes to the rescue in his tank, freeing his son and heading for the Tennessee state line, where the sheriff springs one last trap.
“Screaming Eagles,” 1956, with Tom Tryon, Robert Blake and Edward G. Robinson Jr.: The title is the nickname for paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division. The film is set during the World War II D-Day invasion of Europe in June 1944, when the paratroopers get diverted from their assigned mission after missing their target landing zone.
“Jumping Jacks,” 1952, starring the comedy team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin: An Army general threatens to eliminate a show paratrooper Martin and other soldiers perform, so Martin brings in his old nightclub sidekick Lewis, disguising the civilian as another soldier so he can aid the production. The general likes the show so much he sends it on tour, forcing the inept Lewis to stay on and join in training and war games.
“Parachute Battalion,” 1941, starring Robert Preston, Edmond O’Brien, Nancy Kelly and Harry Carey: Three men from different backgrounds meet on a train on the way to Fort Benning, where they go through parachute training together as two vie for the affection of a sergeant’s daughter before a mid-air accident risks their lives.