Steve McQueen's military service helped him foresee the rise of the anti-hero

He predicted audiences' shifting tastes.

The classic Westerns of the '50s were successful because of how straightforward they were. There were clear heroes and obvious villains. American audiences post-World War II were hungry for well-defined protagonists and antagonists. The Axis threat was scary, but the Allied heroes conquered them. That narrative then played out over and over in genre entertainment for the next decade or so. 

By the time the 1960s were rocking and rolling, though, tastes began to shift. Viewers weren't going to be satisfied by the same old song and dance. The world was changing, and we needed our stories to change, too. The clean-cut war hero just wasn't going to work forever.

From 1947 to 1950, Steve McQueen was part of the United States Marine Corps. After completing boot camp at Parris Island, McQueen was promoted to private first class and assigned to an armored unit. However, after an unauthorized absence, McQueen tried to evade military arrest and was ultimately sentenced to 41 days in the brig. Upon release, he recommitted himself to the cause and accepted the much-needed discipline of the Marine Corps. McQueen heroically rescued five other servicemen from an Arctic exercise when a tank broke through the ice and began sinking into the sea. He was then assigned to the unit responsible for guarding the presidential yacht of the Commander in Chief, Harry S. Truman.

McQueen was honorably discharged in 1950. In Marshall Terrill's book, Steve McQueen: In His Own Words, the actor is quoted reflecting on that period in his life. "The Marines made a man out of me. I learned how to get along with others, and I had a platform to jump off of."

When he returned to civilian life, McQueen found success as an actor, first on TV with Wanted: Dead or Alive, and then in movies as well. In '61, McQueen starred in Hell is for Heroes, a grittier, more realistic take on the classic war picture. 

McQueen, for his part, brought more than just his good looks and acting ability to the role. He also ensured his character accurately reflected the horrors of war. Too many movies, McQueen said, portrayed war heroes as "fair-haired boys from Butte, Montana with braces in their teeth." In an interview with the Redding, California Record Searchlight, McQueen spoke about how it was time for something new.

"Audiences are a lot hepper now," the actor remarked, "and the stuff with the good guys in the white hats and the bad guys in the black hats doesn't hold them anymore.

"In my own way I'm going to try to create a hero without a lot of white-wash," said McQueen. "This guy is going to be as truthful as I know how to make him."

This pronouncement was a continuation of the same energy he brought to his role in Wanted: Dead or Alive, in which he attempted to bring a new kind of authenticity to his role as Josh Randall.

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Marc1943 4 months ago
Bullitt: Steve McQueen at his best!!!!!
BrittReid Marc1943 4 months ago
Yes he was.....
Runeshaper 4 months ago
Very interesting insight into the history for Mr. McQueen. Thanks for sharing, MeTV!
cperrynaples 4 months ago
Clearly, that attitude is reflected in such movies as The Great Escape & The Sand Pebbles! At least he's NEVER confused with the black director who won an Oscar...LOL!
Marc1943 cperrynaples 4 months ago
Steve Rodney McQueen is NOWHERE near as well known as Steve McQueen!!!!!
cperrynaples Marc1943 4 months ago
Yep, the other McQueen won for 12 Years A Slave, but the "King Of Cool" was ignored!
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