Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an entertaining and poignant comic book film. It illustrates how Steve Rogers is integrating into modern society after being frozen since World War II, and how Cap’s greatest generation values don’t seem in line with Nick Fury’s cold modern tactics. But perhaps the best part of The Winter Soldier is its various connections to real historical events. Marvel has long been lauded for their relatable characters, this is due in part to the fact that these characters live in a world that closely mirrors our own. The New York in Marvel looks like the New York in our world. The political hearing in Marvel look a bit like CSPAN in our reality, albeit with more wit. The Winter Soldier takes these similarities even further, by including events that mirror our real-world history. Below are four real world events/concepts that have influenced Captain America: The Winter Soldier. [SPOILERS AHEAD]
Jake McNiece and the Filthy Thirteen (The real life Howling Commandos)
In Captain America: The First Avenger, we meet a group of men that back Cap up on missions against the infamous Red Skull and his Hydra agents. These men are referred to as The Howling Commandos. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was a WWII comic released in 1963. Led by the cigar chomping Sgt. Nick Fury, the comic featured a rag-tag group of soldiers as they fought their way through the European theater of World War II. This seems to be a common recipe for war-story entertainment in the 1960s. DC comics had their own rag-tag military stories with Sgt. Rock and The Losers, and the silver screen saw Kelly’s Heroes, The Devil’s Brigade, and of course, The Dirty Dozen. However, while these stories seem like entertaining fiction, there was in fact a military unit in WWII that could have been mistaken for The Howling Commandos, and that unit was known as “The Filthy Thirteen”. This demolition section of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was led by Oklahoma ass-kicker Jake McNiece. This group of men were known to be some of the toughest and most highly trained men in the United States Army. These soldiers were responsible for parachuting behind enemy lines and blowing up bridges, supply lines or anything else that may aid the enemy. Unfortunately, the kind of work for which these paratroopers were trained had a very low chance of survival and the paratroopers, particularly the demolition division, were often seen as crazy. By most accounts, McNiece was considered a trouble maker, and in an interview on The Dirty Dozen DVD, McNeice puts his military philosophy thusly: “I went in just to make a contribution, if I could, to the war effort. And I didn’t go for all that close order drill and stand and retreat and all that. Our attitude was that we were there to just conduct warfare and not to use a bunch of military discipline and so forth. All the training that they had that was absolutely beneficial to me pursuing war, I engaged in at a hundred percent.” The unit earned the name the “Filthy Thirteen” because rather than wait for their single cold shower once a week at the barracks, McNiece would take his men into London to shower at the Red Cross. The Red Cross staff would see this group of dirty paratroopers going into the showers and wouldn’t recognize the same men coming out. A rumor got started that these men had taken an oath to not shower or clean up until the Nazis were defeated. The most famous image associated with the group is a picture that appeared in Stars and Stripes of McNiece and his unit sporting mohawks and warpaint before readying to jump into Normandy. I imagine they gave those Nazi’s quite a show.
The creation of OSS and the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
Captain America: The Winter Soldier does an excellent job of filling us in on the secret history of S.H.I.E.L.D. We learn that the organization was founded by Agent Peggy Carter of British Intelligence, U.S. inventor Howard Stark and Colonel Chester Phillips, the cantankerous Army officer who reluctantly trained Steve Rogers. These people were brought together for a special project under the office of Strategic Scientific Reserve during the Second World War, before creating the super intelligence agency in the aftermath. The creation of S.H.I.E.L.D. mirrors the development of the CIA, but also has a strong resemblance to WWII British intelligence. The OSS (Office of Strategic Services) was established by President Roosevelt in 1942. This organization would eventually become our modern C.I.A. and was to specialize in the clandestine operations needed by the allies across the many branches of the U.S. Military. England, however, already had a spy agency, but also developed another organization after the annexation of Poland, titled the “Special Operations Executive” or S.O.E. This organization was meant to establish a base of intelligence personnel within the U.K. should the country ever become invaded by the Nazis. Told by Churchill to “Set Europe ablaze”, which is the British way of saying “I WANT MY SCALPS!”, the S.O.E. worked heavily with resistance groups around Europe to make sure that Hitler’s goons didn’t set up shop in Norwegian water plants or other places the Nazi’s might use to make weapons. The S.O.E. made it’s base of operations at 64 Baker Street and were often referred to as “The Baker Street Irregulars”, “Churchill’s Secret Army” and my favorite, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”. It is also worth noting that famed British actor, Christopher Lee, was an operative for the S.O.E. On the director’s commentary for Return of the King, Peter Jackson described filming the scene in which Saruman gets stabbed in the back by Wormtongue, “When I was shooting the stabbing shot with Christopher, as a director would, I was explaining to him what he should do… And he says, ‘Peter, have you ever heard the sound a man makes when he’s stabbed in the back?’ And I said, ‘Um, no.’ And he says ‘Well, I have, and I know what to do.’” If that story doesn’t make you bow before “The Greatest Generation”, I don’t know what will.
The Colossus Computer (Arnim Zola’s “new body”)
In what is perhaps one of the best scenes of the entire film, fugitives Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff, discover a homing beacon that leads the duo to the very military base where Cap was trained. The also discover a secret bunker that appears to be an early S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters and below that, a room filled with a old computer system. At first, Black Widow wonders what the room is used for, since the computers are so far below S.H.I.E.L.D.’s current technology, she even goes so far as to make a reference to the 1983 film War Games. However, when the flash drive is inserted into the system, the enormous computer springs to life, revealing the giant computer to be the current carapace for the consciousness of Hydra scientist Arnim Zola. While there hasn’t been any real world cases of early computers housing the minds of Nazi scientists*, the first electric programmable computer was unveiled in 1943 to deal with a new German code called “Lawrence”. Named “The Colossus”, this computer was invented to help the British military to decode German messages. Designed by engineer Tommy Flowers, The Colossus utilized vacuum tubes for decryption and was able to decode faster than any of the machines in use previously. By the end of the war, ten Colossus machines were in use and it was said that due to the work of Flowers and his team at Bletchley Park in developing the codebreaker, that the war had been shortened by two years. Unfortunately, after World War II was over, the machine was broken up and the plans were destroyed to preserve the secrecy of the project. Many computers have been developed since then, but it was the work of Flowers and his team that paved the way for electric programmable computers in future. You can watch a short documentary about the project HERE. You should probably be thanking these folks for your mobile device right about now.
Project Paperclip The recruitment of Nazi scientists:
After discovering the gigantic supercomputer in the bunker of Cap’s old training ground and realizing that this super computer was the sentient consciousness of Hydra toady, Arnim Zola, it is revealed that the allies recruited Nazi scientists to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. after World War II. It was called “Project Paperclip”. What many in the audience probably didn’t realize was that “Project Paperclip” or “Operation Paperclip”, was an actual initiative that brought Nazi scientists to our shores after World War II. In the aftermath of WWII, a cold war between the U.S. and Soviet union was in it’s early stages and the United States wanted to deny as much German expertise to the Eastern power as possible, while at the same time benefitting from it ourselves. German scientists were recruited in 1945, and although President Truman was explicit in request to not recruit any scientist with strong ties to the Nazi party, this would have made most German scientists ineligible.
To retain the German scientists regardless of political affiliation, the U.S. designated many of these men with covered back stories that enabled them to work in the U.S. despite having been part of the Nazi war machine just years earlier. One of the most famous of these scientists was Wernher von Braun. Von Braun, who was a member of the National Socialist Party and responsible for designing the rockets that bombed the hell out of England in WWII, was also one of the lead scientists who helped the United States compete in the “Space Race” and eventually got us to the moon. While the creation of NASA was a boon to not just the U.S. and the world, it is undeniable that von Braun and many of his fellow scientists were involved deeply in the Nazi party and worked on projects meant to destroy the allies during the war. Musician, satirist and mathematician Tom Lehrer even wrote a scathing little tune about the famous German rocket scientist. This historical event seems to reinforce one of the central themes of The Winter Soldier, is it right to make horrible decisions to save people in the long term?
Well these were just four of the real world connections I enjoyed while watching the film. What were some of your favorites, comic book related or otherwise? Let us know it the comments.
*That we know of.