History in Films: Courage Under Fire

In 1996, Edward Zwick directed, Roger Deakins filmed, and Patrick Shaene Duncan wrote the script for the commercially successful Desert Storm film, Courage Under Fire.

The premise surrounds an alcoholic, guilt-ridden, lt. Colonel (Denzel Washington) who can’t forgive himself for ordering the fire at tanks in Desert Storm and inadvertently killing his own men. A general who is his friend, tries to save his career by assigning him the task of determining the posthumous candidacy of the Medal of Honor–the first woman, Captain Karen Walden, played by Meg Ryan.

The easy assignment becomes complicated when the surviving team gives dubious reports to events. Matt Damon dropped 40 pounds during the film to become medic, Ilario, and shows the effects of guilt and drug use. His performance attracted Steven Spielberg who cast him in 1998 in Saving Private Ryan. However, the best performance of Courage Under Fire was Lou Diamond Phillips who commanded  each scene he was in. He delivered his multi-dimensional character, Monfriez, with conviction and blazing energy.

Meg Ryan did not work for me in this film. She was supposed to be the tough leader in command and her Virginian accent and hoarse barks weren’t convincing at all. I love Meg as an actress, but her upturned top lip and dewy eyes did not match the hoarse voice or convince me she was in pain. Shot in the stomach, she belts out, “I gave birth to a 9 pound baby, I think I can take it, asshole.”  Just awful.

This brings me to the weakest point of the film. The script. I liked Mr. Holland’s Opus and Nick of Time but Patrick Sheane Duncan’s script was flat with campy military talk, clichés, and cheese, cheese, cheese. I’m a fan of Edward Zwick, but this was not one of his better films. Even Roger Deakins cinematography seemed lack-luster. Overall, the film wasn’t that bad–it was better than mediocre. There were highlights such as character actor Scott Glenn. Denzel Washington gave a solid performance. The best part of the film was Lou Diamond Phillips. I wondered why his career didn’t take off after this film.

Mary Edwards Walker 1832 – 1919

Civil War Medal of Honor







There’s only been one Medal of Honor awarded to a woman for combat in U.S. history and that goes to Mary Edwards Walker.

Born in Georgia and died in New York, she obtained her medical degree and volunteered as a civilian in the Union Army. She volunteered to be a spy for the Union. She applied and was refused multiple times as a surgeon and only allowed to be a nurse. Eventually in 1863, the Army of the Cumberland contracted her as a surgeon. In 1864, she was captured and sent as a prisoner of war to Castle Rock, Richmond, Virginia for being a spy. Four months later, she was released in a prisoner exchange. For the rest of her life, she devoted herself to woman suffrage and was an ardent feminist. She frequently wore pants and was arrested several times for impersonating a male. She died at age 86, one year before the passage of the 19th Amendment allowing women the right to vote.

She’s one of 8 civilians awarded the Medal of Honor. What a woman.

Check out more about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker at this site:


18 thoughts on “History in Films: Courage Under Fire

Add yours

  1. I like this film, not love it. And probably for much of what you point out. Denzel still performs at a level most don’t reach. The man has never mailed in a performance, IMO. Fine look at this one, Cindy.


  2. I don’t think I saw this one, but yeah Meg Ryan seems miscast here. I can’t see her in this role, but I might rent this for Denzel and Lou Diamond’s performance.


  3. I actually enjoyed this a lot. the rashomon aspects of the story were done great and it was a nice way to lead us to the real truth of the situation

    Ryan was good here, not great but i think she was still a good choice for the role


    1. Hi Rob, you are in good company. A lot of people liked it. Certainly the desire for truth and justice are wonderful themes and carried out in the film. The ensemble cast was greatly guilt ridden because they left back one of the their own, thereby breaking their oath as soldiers.


    1. Hi Thomas. There’s lots to like, lots to pick at. It’s fun to see Matt Damon at the beginning of his career before he got mega-famous. I’d like to know how you felt about Meg Ryan in this one. I wasn’t convinced.


  4. I actually thought ‘Courage Under Fire’ was very good though not excellent, but I watched it ages ago.
    I loved ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’, that was an excellent movie.
    Nice little info on Mary Edwards Walker. The only woman till date to win Civil War Medal of Honor, wow!!


    1. Thank you for your service, GP. My son did 2 tours in Iraq. I didn’t have to go to battle when I was in the Navy. I was on a communications station in Northern Scotland. All my Navy stories are pleasant ones.


  5. Hi Cindy. I decided to forego a long–winded reply because it’s been many years since I’ve watched Courage Under Fire in its entirety. I did pick up the DVD cheaply from a supermarket recently, and although I’ve only watched the scenes that featured Meg, I thought she was fine.
    But then before the botox and turkeys like The Women I enjoyed her in every role, and every new Meg Ryan movie was an event, even if her films weren’t always the best. My judgement is probably clouded by sentiment, but sometimes a performer’s style in a particular role just won’t click with one person, whereas someone else will find it a perfect fit.


    1. Paul, that’s true fan love there. Who cares if they misfire, you still love them. Think of all the Robert DeNiro fans out there who will always forgive him for making crappy decisions, crappy movies because he’s made so many awesome ones.


  6. For Mary Walker, she was also up against the view of that time of men towards women. The military higher ups were “repulsed” by her decision to wear slacks, a no-no for women of that time. Society be damned. She wore them anyways. 😉


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