Courage Under Fire (1996)



Director:    Edward Zwick.

Starring:     Denzel Washington (Nat Serling),  Meg Ryan (Capt. Walden),  Lou Diamond Phillips (Monfriez),  Michael Moriarty (Gen. Hershberg),  Matt Damon (Ilario), Bronson Pinchot (Bruno), Seth Gilliam (Altameyer),  Regina Taylor (Meredith Serling),  Zeljko Ivanek (Banacek),  Scott Glen (Gartner).

Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) has a great deal of disillusionment and guilt over the 1991 Gulf War.  Then he gets an assignment to review the background of a woman soldier nominated for a medal of honor Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan).  He uncovers what looks like a possible murder of Captain Walden by her own troops.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Saddam Hussein of Iraq takes over the country of Kuwait.  Lt. Col.Nat Serling gives a little talk to his tank crews.  He gets in his tank and then gives the order to move out.  When they come in contact with the Iraqi tanks, they start tearing up the tanks and the troops.  All the Iraqi troops start surrendering.  In the confusion of battle Serling's tank knocks out one of their own tanks. 

Serling does not get into any trouble because the army wants to put the incident behind them, but he now is given a desk job.  He is to investigate the cased for a medal of honor for a woman helicopter pilot.  Serling is briefed on the incident.  It was 25 February, 1991.  These men before the Lt. Col. were part of a refueling convoy.  Their blackhawk was shot down by an SA-7 west of Al Kufan.  Iraqi ground troops up on a ridge kept the soldiers completely pinned down.  An Iraqi tank comes forward and fires at the helicopter wreckage.  The round kills the medic, Relleno, Gersbak and Egan lost his leg.  Then a Huey came along and it killed many of the Iraqi soldiers and blew the tank up.  Then the Huey got knocked down.   They thought the Huey was a goner, but fire kept coming from the Huey all night until the guys were rescued. 

The group is dismissed.  Serling looks through the file on Capt. Walden and realizes for the first time that the captain was a female.  She is the first woman in history to be nominated for a Medal of Honor for combat. 

Serling is at home, but in his mind he is on the battlefield thinking of that tank their crew blew up.  He ges a call from a Washington Post reporter named Gartner about the friendly fire case.  Serling goes over to the phone and slams it down on the reporter.  He goes into his room and starts packing.  His wife comes in and asks him where he's going.  He's going to Fort Hood, Texas to investigate a Medal of Honor recipient.  His wife feels left out of the loop, but her husband assures her that he is handling it. 

On the plane Serling goes over Capt. Walden's folder.  She got an excellent review from her senior rater. 

On the ground Serling speaks with a Mr. Rady, who was Captain Walden's copilot.  His wife makes a nasty comment about the captain being too gung-ho to be a hero, but Rady tells her that's not fair.  And he knows that she saved the lives of those guys on the Blackhawk.  He adds:  "She gave her life for those men.  She was a soldier." 

Capt. Walden flies over the Iraqis on the ridge and the helicopter takes some hits from the ground.  She comes around again but this time they drop a container of fuel onto the tank and then the soldier Monfriez lights it up with a flare gun.  That knocks out the tank.  But as they continue around the helicopter gets hit hard.  Copilot Rady is badly wounded on the left side of his face.  The helicopter goes down into a narrow gorge.  Rady says he woke up three days later on a hospital ship. 

Col. Serling is at a bar when the guy next to him strikes up a conversation.  He is going to buy a drink for Serling, that is, until the fellow says his name is Gartner.  Serling gets mad and walks out of the bar.  He has a hard time sleeping because he had a recurring nightmare of the tank driver being swallowed up by fire in his tank. 

The next day Serling locates Ilario and has a talk with him.  Serling asks him to tell him what happened at Al Kufan.  Ilario doesn't seem to know where to start.  He says he had never been in combat before that day.  The helicopter crash-landed.  Ilario starts treating Rady giving him plasma.  Monfriez returns fire on the Iraqis.  The black soldier Altameyer also starts firing on the Iraqis.   Capt. Walden put them on two hour watches.  The Iraqis attacked them at night.  The captain was wounded in the mid-section. 

When the helicopters came the next day, Captain Walden stayed behind to hold the enemy off.  She fought on until she was killed by an explosion.  Ilario went to check on her, but she was dead. 

Serling asks Ilario when did the M-16 run out of ammo?  Ilario gives different answers and then says he doesn't know.  Serling tells Ilario that the Blackhawk crew said they heard a M-16 firing away during the rescue that morning.  Ilario says the Blackhawk crew must have been wrong about that. 

Serling goes to speak with the folks of Captain Walden.  Ilario had told Serling that he mailed a letter to her folks from the captain.  Serling says he sure would like to see that letter, but the father indicates that they never got a letter from Karen to them via Ilario. 

Serling sits in his car outside the house watching his kids play.  His wife comes out and asks him how long has he been sitting out there like this?  In all, it was about 35 minutes. She says this is going to make the kids wonder why daddy is just sitting out here in the car and not playing with them.  His wife Mer asks him to please leave if he is not going to come into the house.  Serling leaves. 

He goes to see Gen. Hershberg who just keeps telling Seling that he wants this report done fast and the White House off his back.  Serling wonders if the general wants a cover up?  He asks the general if he agrees that the report should be as detailed as necessary.  And he also wants to know if the general would like to know the truth about progress of the investigators of the friendly fire tank incident.  He wants to get that Washington Post guy off his back and wants to be able to tell the parents of the dead American what actually happened.  So the general sends his aide out of the room and has the Lt. Col. sit down.  He tells Serling that he's insulted by what Serling was accusing him of.   Serling says he's sorry and the general appreciates that.  He also tells Serling that it's his ass on the line just as much as it's Serling's. The general finishes by telling Serling to get into a program and stop all that excessive drinking.  Serling leaves. 

Serling now speaks with Monfriez, who is now a drill instructor.  He hits Monfriez with the M-16 question about when did the ammo run out?  He says he thought it was some time in the morning.  Altameyer was manning the M-16.  Monfriez starts saying that Capt. Walden was afraid, sir, she was a coward.  She didn't want to go around again in the helicopter, but he (Monfriez) forced her to go ariybd.  And in his story, he is the one who had the idea about throwing a fuel cell down on the tank.  And when the Iraqis charged, it was he who killed the Iraqi closest to the group.  Monfriez says that it was he who was trying to save the captain, but she actually fired her weapon at him.  Talk about your different stories not jiving together! 

Serling calls his wife and wants her to talk him out of drinking some scotch he purchased. 

Gartner is still sticking to Serling.  But this time Serling is already drunk and is more willing to talk.

The next day Serling speaks with the general.  The general wants that report in now.  Serling tells him that he is going to continue working on this report even if it's on his own time.  Serling now calls up Gartner.  He asks for the reporter to find Altameyer.  He is in a hospital dying of abdominal cancer.  He starts talking about the fire.  Serling wants to know more and more, but Altameyer just keeps increasing his medicine dosage. 

Serling goes to speak to Monfriez again.  Monfriez takes Serling out on a ride.  He stops on the railway tracks and pulls a gun on Serling.  He tells Serling to get out of the vehicle.  Serling complies and then Monfriez pulls onto the railway tracks with his car and rushes as fast as he can into the oncoming locomotive. 

Serling comes to speak with Ilario again.  He tells him that Monfriez killed himself and that Altameyer is dying of cancer. 

So Ilario tells the true story.  He was very scared.  But what was more important was what happened at night.  Monfriez and Altameyer suggested that they make a run for it.  The captain says this is not a democracy and she is in charge.  She then demands that Monfriez give her his automatic weapon and then he can get out of here.  Monfriez says she ain't taking his weapon and he calls her a "cunt".  So she points her pistol at his head and tells him to give her the weapon.  All of a sudden an Iraqi soldiers stands up and the captain shoots him.  Whether deliberately or accidentally Monfriez fires his weapon hitting the captain in the mid-section.  He then starts shooting at the Iraqis on the ridge.  When he realizes that the captain is badly wounded he regrets what happened but tells her that he thought she was firing at him. 

Illario wants to check on her wound, but the captain doesn't trust him, saying that he's with them.  In the morning the Iraqis attack again and Monfriez gets his weapon back.  The guys want to leave Rady behind, but the captain won't let them.  So Altameyer picks Rady up.  The captain tells Ilario to give her the M-16 and she will stand them off.  The helicopter pilot asks where's Walton and Monfriez tells him that she's dead.  The helicopter leaves and the airplanes drop napalm over the two helicopter crash sights.  The captain goes up with the fire. Ilario cries.  He gives Serling the letter from Karen to her parents and asks if Serling will please get the letter to her parents? 

Gartner plays a tape for the general and Serling of the radio communications for that evening in the friendly fire incident.  It seems that Serling saved a lot of men's lives by having the Americans turn on their tank lights.  He then proceeded to shoot at those tanks that did not have their lights on.  The general agrees that Serling is a hero who saved many lives that day. 

Serling then leaves his report to the general on the Captain Walden case.

Captain Walden receives the medal of honor posthumously.  Serling goes to see the parents of the dead tank driver.  That night there were enemy tanks in their lines.  He thought Tom's tank was an enemy tank and he gave the order to fire.  "God help me, but I killed him."   He apologizes for the army for the lies that were told to the parents.  

Captain Walden's little girl receives her mother's medal of honor at the ceremony. 

Lt. Col. Serling now goes to Arlington Cemetery to see the grave of Karen Emma Walden.  He takes the silver star off his chest and places it on top of Karen's gravestone. 

Now the Lt. Col. returns to his home with a new and better perspective on life.  He and his wife hug each other.  He goes to get his suit cases from outside, looks into the sky and sees in his mind's eye Captain Walden lifting off headed out for her last mission.


 Terrific war mystery.  It's fascinating to listen to the different accounts as to what actually happened to Captain Karen Walden, a candidate for the medal of honor, on the day she was killed.  We finally get the truth in the end.   Lt. Col. Serling refused to let anyone stand in his way of getting that truth.  Hw thereby did great honor to Captain Walden, her family, himself and the U.S. Army.  Moving story. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.     


Historical Background:

Gulf War

August 2   --  Iraq invades Kuwait.

August 5  --  President Bush declares invasion "will not stand."

August 6  --  King Fahd meets with Richard Cheney to request U.S. military assistance.

November 29   --  UN Security Council authorizes use of "all means necessary" to eject Iraq from Kuwait.

January 12 --  Congress authorizes use of force.

January 17 --  Allies attack Iraqi positions.

January 18 --  first Scuds hit Israel.

February 23  --  deadline for Iraqi withdrawal.

February 24 -- ground attack begins and Iraqis start fleeing two days later.

June 8 --  victory parade in Washington.

(Source PBS:


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