Courage Under Fire

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Courage Under Fire
Courage under fire ver2.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byEdward Zwick
Written byPatrick Sheane Duncan
Produced by
CinematographyRoger Deakins
Edited bySteven Rosenblum
Music byJames Horner
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • July 12, 1996 (1996-07-12)
Running time
116 minutes
Budget$46 million[1]
Box office$100.9 million

Courage Under Fire is a 1996 American war film directed by Edward Zwick, and starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan. It is the second collaboration between Washington and director Zwick. The film was released in the United States on July 12, 1996, to positive reviews and grossed $100 million worldwide.


While serving in the Gulf War, Lieutenant Colonel Serling accidentally destroys one of his own tanks during a confusing nighttime battle, killing his friend, Captain Boylar. The United States Army covers up the details and transfers Serling to a desk job.

Later, Serling is assigned to determine if Captain Karen Emma Walden should be the first woman to receive (posthumously) the Medal of Honor. She was the commander of a Medevac Huey helicopter sent to rescue the crew of a shot-down Black Hawk helicopter. When Walden encountered a T-54 enemy tank, her crew destroyed it by dropping a fuel bladder onto the tank and igniting it with a flare gun. However, her own helicopter was shot down soon after. The two crews were unable to join forces, and when the survivors were rescued the next day, Walden was reported dead.

Serling notices inconsistencies among the testimonies of Walden's crew. Specialist Andrew Ilario, the medic, praises Walden strongly. However, Staff Sergeant John Monfriez claims that Walden was a coward and that he led the crew in combat and improvised the fuel bladder weapon. Sergeant Altameyer, who is dying in a hospital, complains about a fire. Warrant Officer One Rady, the co-pilot, was injured early on and unconscious throughout. Furthermore, the crew of the Black Hawk claim that they heard firing from an M16, but Ilario and Monfriez claim it was out of ammo.

Serling is under pressure from the White House and his commander, Brigadier General Hershberg, to wrap things up quickly. To prevent another cover-up, Serling leaks the story to newspaper reporter Tony Gartner. When Serling grills Monfriez during a car ride, Monfriez forces him to get out of the vehicle at gunpoint, then commits suicide by driving into an oncoming train.

Serling tracks Ilario down, and Ilario finally tells him the truth. Monfriez wanted to flee, which would mean abandoning Rady. When Walden refused, he pulled a gun on her. Walden then shot an enemy who suddenly appeared behind Monfriez, but Monfriez thought Walden was firing at him and shot her in the stomach, before backing off. The next morning, the enemy attacked again as a rescue party approached. Walden covered her men's retreat, firing an M16. However, Monfriez told the rescuers that Walden was dead, so they left without her. Napalm was then dropped on the entire area. Altameyer tried to expose Monfriez's lie at the time, but was too injured to speak, and Ilario remained silent, scared of the court-martial Walden had threatened them with.

Serling presents his final report to Hershberg. Walden's young daughter receives the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony. Later, Serling tells the truth to the Boylars about the manner of their son's death and says he cannot ask for forgiveness. The Boylars forgive him and tell him he must release his burden at some point.

In the last moments, Serling has a flashback of when he was standing by Boylar's destroyed tank and a medevac Huey was lifting off with his friend's body. Serling suddenly realizes Walden was the pilot.



A Centurion tank modified to look like an M1A1 Abrams used in the film, located at the Russell Military Museum

The U.S. Department of Defense withdrew its cooperation for the film so the tanks Serling commanded early in the film were British Centurions shipped from Australia with sheet metal added to make them resemble M1A1 Abrams. These visually modified tanks were subsequently used to simulate the Abrams in several other motion pictures.

ROTC cadets from the Texas A&M University Corps of Cadets were used as extras in the background in some of the training camp scenes.

The film draws reference to Walden and her crew assisting the crew of a downed Black Hawk helicopter. However, the scene shows the wrecked fuselage of a Huey. This is due to the Department of Defense withdrawing its cooperation. There were no privately owned Black Hawk fuselages available to acquire for the film. The parts of the script making reference to the Black Hawk had already been shot, so rather than change the whole film to adapt it to a Huey, the producers left it as Black Hawk and used a wrecked fuselage of a Huey for the desert shots in the hope not many viewers would notice the discrepancy.

The Iraqi battle scenes were filmed at the Indian Cliffs Ranch just outside El Paso, Texas. Many of the props were left there and became a tourist attraction. The White House Rose Garden set was destroyed twice: once by a tornado, and once by a sandstorm.

In order to lose 40 pounds (18 kilograms) for the later scenes, Matt Damon went on a strict regimen of food deprivation and physical training. On Inside the Actors Studio, Damon said that the regimen consisted of six and a half miles of running in the morning and again at night, a diet of chicken breast, egg whites, and one plain baked potato per day, and a large amount of coffee and cigarettes. His health was affected to the extent that he had to have medical supervision for several months afterwards. His efforts, however, did not go unnoticed; director Francis Ford Coppola was so impressed by Damon's dedication to method acting that he offered him the leading role in The Rainmaker (1997). Steven Spielberg was also impressed by his performance, but thought he was too skinny and discounted him from casting considerations for Saving Private Ryan until he met Damon during the filming of Good Will Hunting, by which time he was back at his normal weight.[2]


Box office[edit]

  • U.S. domestic gross: US$ 59,031,057 [3]
  • International: $41,829,761[3]
  • Worldwide gross: $100,860,818[3]

The film opened #3 at the box office behind Independence Day and Phenomenon.[4]

Critical response[edit]

The film received mostly positive reviews. As of June 15, 2022, the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 86% of critics gave the film a positive review based upon a sample of 56 reviews with an average rating of 7.3/10. The critical consensus states that the film is "an emotional and intriguing tale of a military officer who must review the merits of a fallen officer while confronting his own war demons. Effectively depicts the terrors of war as well as its heartbreaking aftermath."[5] At the website Metacritic, which uses a weighted average rating system, the film earned a generally favorable rating of 77/100 based on 19 mainstream critic reviews.[6]

The movie was commended by several critics. James Berardinelli of the website ReelViews wrote that the film was, "As profound and intelligent as it is moving, and that makes this memorable motion picture one of 1996's best."[7] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times spoke positively of the film saying that while the ending "lays on the emotion a little heavily" the movie had been up until that point "a fascinating emotional and logistical puzzle—almost a courtroom movie, with the desert as the courtroom."[8]

Denzel Washington's acting was specifically lauded, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, "In Washington's haunted eyes, in the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins (Fargo) that plunges into the mad flare of combat, in the plot that deftly turns a whodunit into a meditation on character and in Zwick's persistent questioning of authority, Courage Under Fire honors its subject and its audience."[9] Additionally Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that "Denzel Washington is riveting."[10]


Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor at the 1996 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards, but lost to Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade.

Historical context[edit]

The Medal of Honor was awarded to Mary Edwards Walker, an American Civil War physician, but not for valor in combat.[11] Walker's award was revoked in 1917, then restored in 1977.


  1. ^ Box office / business for Courage Under Fire (1996);
  2. ^ Nathan, Ian (October 1998). "Classic Feature: The Making of Saving Private Ryan". Empire. No. 112. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  3. ^ a b c Courage Under Fire – Box Office Data, DVD Sales, Movie News, Cast Information. The Numbers. Retrieved on 2013-05-11.
  4. ^ "July 12–14, 1996". Retrieved October 31, 2011.
  5. ^ "Courage Under Fire Movie Reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. IGN Entertainment. Archived from the original on March 27, 2009. Retrieved 2009-08-13.
  6. ^ "Courage Under Fire Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 2009-08-13.
  7. ^ Berardinelli, James (July 1996). "Courage under Fire". ReelViews. Retrieved 2008-08-13.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (July 12, 1996). "Courage Under Fire". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-08-13.
  9. ^ Travers, Peter (July 12, 1996). "Courage under Fire". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on December 28, 2009. Retrieved 2008-08-13.
  10. ^ Stack, Peter (July 12, 1996). "Fired-Up Over 'Courage'". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-08-13.
  11. ^ "Highest Medal Restored to War Heroine". The New York Times. 1977-06-11. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-04-03.

External links[edit]