The soldiers who appeared in U.S. Army TV commercials in the early 1980s were generally paid $1.00 for their efforts. Their participation was considered part of the Army’s recruiting mission and, therefore, an element of their regular military duties. The $1.00 was to make the releases they signed legal.
Most of the young soldiers, needless to say, loved being in the commercials. They were making movies! They just had to do what they do: drive tanks, march in formation, fly helicopters, do PT … whatever. That was the situation when we set out to shoot the very first “Be All You Can Be” commercial. It would be the commercial that introduced and established the theme and the tone of the whole campaign. In keeping with the style of the times, it was a :60 spot with a lot of different vignettes of Army life and big anthem of a song:
There’s a hungry kind of feeling
And every day it grows
You know there’s so much more to you
Than anybody knows.
Be all that you can be
Keep on reachin’, keep on growin’
Be all that you can be
‘Cause we need you in the Army.
(Wait a minute. Big song, lots of vignettes … isn’t that what Apple is doing now? But I digress.)
Anyway … we were shooting the commercial at Ft. Lewis outside Tacoma, Washington. For many of the scenes, we were using the Ranger regiment stationed there. We used the Rangers because they were bright, highly skilled, very motivated, and, critical for our needs, they looked fabulous. The Rangers were eager to do whatever we needed. More specifically, their NCOs and officers were eager to have them do whatever we needed.
One of the scenes we wanted was of four Rangers rappelling down from a hovering helicopter. It’s a great action shot that makes being a soldier look very exciting and very cool. The helicopter would hover about 75 feet off the ground and the four Rangers — two on each side — would perch themselves on the exterior struts, and on the director’s signal would jump backwards off the struts and slide down the ropes. The rope was fed through a ring on a harness. Wearing heavy-duty gloves, each Ranger would hold the upper end of the rope in front of him with one hand and hold the lower end of the rope behind him with the other. This was the “belay” hand with which they could control their rate of descent by keeping tension on the rope. We were assured that this was something these Rangers did all the time and were expert at.
What they were not expert at was performing on camera. They were also between 18 and 22 years old and they were making movies. A chance to be a star. Our director was Neil Tardio, a highly regarded talent and commercial veteran. The cinematographer was Andrzej Bartkowiak, a Polish émigré, known, among other things, for his feature film work with Sidney Lumet. So there we are, the production team, the agency, the Army client and the NCO, officer and standby Rangers on the ground and the helicopter hovering above with the four guys outside ready to go.
“And … action!” cried Neil Tardio. All four Rangers jump together. Three slide down together in perfect synch. But one is hot-dogging for the camera and loses control of his belay. He’s coming down fast. His gloves are smoking. And he hits with a thud. His fellow Rangers all rush over to help him. He has broken his ankle. His sergeant is mad, not at us, but at him. They get him out of there and call in another volunteer. And we do another take. And a couple of more, all without incident.
Later that evening, some of us went to visit the injured Ranger in the hospital. He had to get a pin in his ankle. His Ranger career was almost certainly over. And his performance, of course, will not even be in the commercial. Thank you for your service.
As far as I could tell, there was no bitterness or resentment from anybody, least of all the injured Ranger. It was business as usual in a very dangerous occupation. I shot many Army commercials and met many soldiers and officers, and almost without exception, they made me proud to be an American.