Orientation: Cast Members Learn the Ropes

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Harry Humphries is, by all accounts except his own modest self-regard, one of the most remarkable figures in the world of film and television. A former Navy S.E.A.L. who was highly decorated for action in the Vietnam War, Humphries has more recently applied himself to matters of security and tactical training through his own company, GSGI (Global Studies Group, Inc.)-and, usually for Jerry Bruckheimer-serving as a key military or technical adviser on such films as The Rock, Con Air, Armageddon, Enemy of the State and Pearl Harbor. Once again, Bruckheimer called upon Humphries and his expertise, not only as an on-set adviser but also to prepare the huge cast for their respective roles as United States Rangers, Delta Force operators and helicopter pilots.

Bruckheimer, Scott and executive producers Mike Stenson, Chad Oman and Branko Lustig began laying the groundwork for what would become a remarkable association with the United States Department of Defense, which would provide extraordinary cooperation with the filmmakers while, at the same time, allowing them to tell the story of Black Hawk Down authentically. Certainly, Bruckheimer had already established a strong relationship with the U.S. military and D.O.D. from Top Gun to Pearl Harbor and many other projects in between, but Black Hawk Down is based on a mission which is still highly sensitive, even controversial.

However, as Bruckheimer notes, "Mark Bowden's book is on their reading list... it was something the military embraced, wanting their officers and men to read it. The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Sheldon, is an admirer of the book, so when we went to Washington to meet with [former] Secretary of Defense William Cohen, they were very enthusiastic about the project."

The first, and very tangible sign of such cooperation, was in the D.O.D.'s invitation to allow the actors of Black Hawk Down to participate in orientation and training at the actual military bases of the branches they were portraying: Fort Benning, Georgia for the Rangers; Fort Bragg, North Carolina for Special Forces (including the Delta Force, so secretive that the Army still doesn't officially acknowledge their existence); and Fort Campbell, Kentucky for the 160th SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) pilots.

"We felt that it was really important for the actors to actually become part of the military, even for a short time, if they were going to portray soldiers," Jerry Bruckheimer asserts. "And so, as we did with Pearl Harbor, we sent them for training... not a Hollywood boot camp, but practical orientation. There's nothing like reality. You can't fake it. We wanted the actors to have respect for the military and understand the physical challenges that they go through. If you talk to any soldier who has been through a battle or a war, they'll tell you that the only thing that saved their lives was either the man next to them, or their training."

"Sending actors to 'boot camp' is almost a conventional thing to do now," says Ridley Scott, "but when you think about it, it makes all the sense in the world, because if any actor has any notions of being better than the next guy, that goes right out the window. And if they weren't fit already, they're a hell of a lot fitter than they will ever be in their lives. And if they were fit already, then they're even fitter than they could possibly be!"

Adds Harry Humphries, "I'm a big believer in making sure that before we start filming a movie such as this one, for which Jerry and Ridley were going for utter authenticity, that actors are taught the necessary weaponry and physical skills up front so that we don't have to coach them so intensely on the set during production. It serves no purpose, to my mind, to simply put them through a harassing 'boot camp' session up front so that they can simply say, 'Man, I've been through hell.' My response would be, 'Well, that's very impressive, but what skills have you learned?' So my concept is not to harass, but to train the actors in actual skills.

"In this particular situation," Humphries continues, "because of the intense support we received from the Department of Defense, I had three separate training commands. Twenty-one of our actors portraying Rangers went through a modified Ranger indoctrination program, or a RIPIT as they call it, with the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning. The Regiment put up the best instructors they had in house, and it was without question one of the finest training sessions I've ever seen any group of actors go through. At Fort Bragg, three actors portraying the commandos went through another training program with the 7th Special Forces. Our two Black Hawk pilots went to Fort Campbell and worked with the 160th SOAR helicopter training program. This was unparalleled to any D.O.D. training program that has ever been put forth-a wonderful, cooperative effort."

At Fort Benning, Ranger instructors felt a strong personal stake in Black Hawk Down. Many of them had fought there, many knew men who had died there. Ranger Training Detachment commandant First Sgt. James Hardy's goal was to ensure that the 21 actors had a good understanding of the Ranger mentality and way of life, and how events played out in Mogadishu over those two days.

Ranger instructors taught classes from general military knowledge (how to wear the uniform properly, customs and courtesies) to advanced marksmanship skills. The actors learned the Ranger Creed and Ranger history, hand-to-hand combat techniques, how to tie knots and use radios. Hugh Dancy, who would portray Ranger medic Kurt "Doc" Schmid, worked with Ranger medics in combat scenarios. On the fourth day of training, the actors fired M16-A2 rifles and squad automatic weapons. While at Fort Benning, the actors got their "high-and-tight" Ranger haircuts, wore desert-camouflaged uniforms and nametags with their Ranger characters' names on them.

Remarked Ranger instructor Sgt. First Class Martin Barreras, "I want them to remember the sense of teamwork that is inherent to a Ranger organization and the amount of attention to detail that's required from every individual that is part of that team."

Josh Hartnett, who had already been through a training program for Pearl Harbor, faced a different set of goals for his portrayal of Sgt. Matt Eversmann, who had faced down the enemy in Mogadishu just eight years before. "We were taught how to move and think like a Ranger," notes the young actor. "They teach you slogans like 'Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,' which means that if you're bouncing around, you can't really see what's happening around you."

"The Ranger Orientation Program was great," says Ewan McGregor. "It was quite heavily laden with how we had to portray the Rangers. We did a lot of marching around, and lots of classroom stuff. In the end, we had to work our way down the street of a mock village and avoid being shot.

"I got shot, of course," laughs McGregor. "But the psychological aspect of the orientation program was fascinating. We met a few of the soldiers who are actual characters in the film, and it was extraordinary to see how they thought and what they remembered. Our weapons training was invaluable. Being able to shoot live rounds is not something you do every day, and to these soldiers a gun is so second nature they're hardly aware they're even there, whereas for an actor it's like 'Oooh, it's a gun!' I don't particularly like guns, but I have to admit that I quite enjoyed firing them, and of course, it was necessary for the work ahead."

Adds Tom Sizemore, "What really got me at training camp was the Ranger Creed. I don't think most of us can understand that kind of mutual devotion. It's like having 200 best friends, and every single one of them would die for you. I'd be lying if I said that I knew what it means, because I really don't. I can get close to it; I can go to Fort Benning and watch them together, but I don't really know if I would have it in me to die for somebody else, or risk my life to retrieve the bodies of soldiers who have already died. That's a different type of person... that's a Ranger."

"We thought that it was an unwritten rule among the Rangers that you don't ever leave a man behind," says Jason Isaacs, "but when we got to Fort Benning for training, we learned that it's a written rule! The Ranger creed is recited every morning, en masse, wherever they are. And they mean every word of it, because in a conversation with the Rangers who were in Mogadishu, every single one of them said that their first instinct, after learning about the crashed Black Hawks, was to get out there to the site and bring back every single one of their brothers. It's a bit of a culture shock for us actors to understand their philosophy. The Rangers were fighting for the guy on their left, and the guy on their right."

Brian Van Holt confirms this assessment. "From the amount of time I spent with the Rangers, they're the tightest fraternity I've ever experienced. And it's something that I really can't articulate or explain, because you have to be a Ranger to really understand. But from the vantage point of an outsider looking in, what I got from them was that they were just a solid group of guys trained to finish the mission, but just as importantly, take care of their fellow Ranger. They take care of their own, and they're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. It's incredible, and it made me want to work even harder to portray these guys correctly and as accurately as possible."

For Michael Roof, an urban comedian of definite non-military bent known to his friends and fans as "Chicken," Ranger orientation was culture shock to the nth degree. "Oh God, weapons training, running five miles, jumping on monkey bars, fall 20 feet, blow up doors... I threw up, like, three times. Look at my hair! My hair was down to here, and they chopped it all off! "But more seriously," Roof adds, "every one of the actors came away with a lot of respect for the Rangers, and we just hope we can portray them with integrity and respect."

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