Published Jan 17, 2018It could be easy to write off 12 Strong as just another war film, but there's one thing that helps it stand out from the pack: horses. Based on the true story of American operatives who rode through Afghanistan on horseback in the weeks following 9/11 in their efforts to aid the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, 12 Strong featured plenty of horse-riding novices, among them Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon, doing their best to ride on horseback on top of remembering their lines and cues.
Speaking with actor Geoff Stults, who plays officer Sean Coffers, he tells Exclaim!, "The horses were awesome. The horses were so well-behaved and well-trained. They knew how to hit their marks. We were the problem. It was operator error, it wasn't them."
Not that the horses were without their problems. "It's like having babies on set, sometimes those fuckers are temperamental," says Stults. "There were bombs going off, there were shots being fired over their heads, things like that."
To help Stults and the rest of the cast get into character, they were joined on set by Mark Nutsch and Bob Pennington, two of the real-life Army Green Berets on whom the film is based. Says Stults, "You read these scripts and wonder, 'Who are these actors trying to play these tough war veterans?' And these dudes walk in wearing cardigans. Obviously it's 17 years later, but they remind you of your friend's really nice dad. They're just lovely guys. Seen it all, done it all, nothing to prove. They were just really lovely human beings."
Though the film was shot in New Mexico, the real-life veterans were shocked at how similar the shooting location was compared to the Afghanistan terrain they traversed on horseback 17 years prior. Due to the conditions, the cast weren't able to head to their trailers during filming. Says Stults, "By no means am I saying we Daniel Day-Lewis-ed it on the side of mountains for three months, but basecamp was so far away that at lunch, all the creature comforts that actors get used to, like 'OK, cut! I'm gonna go back to my trailer,' we didn't do that. We hung out together.
"If we were shooting in a cave, we hung out in that cave, laid in the cave. We were constantly in it, just completely in the elements. You're cold, you're wet, you're miserable, you're laying in the snow, laying in the dirt, crawling around, getting cut up — it really lent itself to a certain degree of authenticity. You didn't have to work for it because you were there."
Nutsch and Pennington weren't the only members of the real-life mission affiliated with the film — General Abdul Rashid Dostum (played in the film by Navid Negahban), now the Vice-President of Afghanistan, gave the cast and crew his blessing, and even tried to convince the producers to film 12 Strong in Afghanistan. Says Stults of Dostum, "Obviously, for budgetary concerns and safety and all that stuff, it was a lot easier to shoot in New Mexico instead of Afghanistan, but he just lends his support. Whatever we needed, he was in full support of this movie being made and this story being told."
Stults joins Dostum in supporting the telling of the story. "There's thousands and thousands of stories of heroics and heroism during war. I think this one is compelling because if you're old enough to remember 9/11, how you felt during 9/11, that feeling of hopelessness and quiet despair. I can remember where I was at. This is a story about what most of us felt like. 'I wish there was something that I can do.' This is about 12 dudes who did something," he says.
Stults also believes the film fights against stereotypical portrayals of Middle Eastern figures, instead showcasing a more nuanced view of the conflict. "It's a story about not just the American heroes but about the people of Afghanistan who, in partnership with these 12 guys, accomplished something that would not have been able to be accomplished without the actual people of Afghanistan.
"So often in TV and cinema, people of Middle Eastern descent are always the bad guys and they're the good guys in this. They've been occupied, they've been oppressed, there is terrorism, they deal with that. They've dealt with it obviously for generations. But these guys, and our partnership with them in the war, are the real heroes."
12 Strong opens January 19 via Warner Bros.