What’s the connection between Michael Bay’s The Rock and shooting game Operation Thunderbolt? A mysterious old photo…
Around a long table somewhere in the Pentagon, a group of incredibly serious military-type people discuss the track record of one General Francis Xavier Hummel. As they mutter and leaf through files, an old photograph flashes up on a television, showing a soldier clutching a MAC-10 submachine gun.
“That’s General Hummel in Vietnam,” says one of the military types. “I think he was a major at the time.”
Another photo flashes up. It’s the same soldier, clad in different combat fatigues, clutching an even bigger machine gun. “Three tours in Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Desert Storm,” continues the military person. “Three Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, and the Congressional Medal of… Jesus! This man is a hero!”
This is 1996’s The Rock, and the Hummel under discussion – played by a steely-eyed Ed Harris – has just taken over Alcatraz Island. With his squad of rogue soldiers in tow, Hummel is demanding $100 million from the US Government – and if they don’t pay up, then Hummel has rockets filled with deadly VX nerve gas he’s willing to unleash on the San Francisco Bay Area.
It’s tense stuff – or it would have been if you weren’t a fan of late 1980s videogames back when the film came out.
Because if you happened to own a ZX Spectrum or other British home computer of that era, you may have been pulled out of the immersion by an overwhelming sense of the familiar. That second photo, supposedly of a young Ed Harris skulking through a battlefield – wasn’t that the cover of Operation Thunderbolt?
For the uninitiated, Operation Thunderbolt was a military shooter that involved shooting terrorists. The sequel to Taito’s 1987 arcade hit, Operation Wolf, it followed that game’s formula, in that the original coin-op cabinet had a gigantic machine gun roosting where a joystick ordinarily sat. Operation Thunderbolt upped the stakes by strapping two huge guns to its cabinet, allowing a pair of would-be soldiers to team up and shoot terrorists at the same time. It was a bit like Call of Duty, except you couldn’t freely move around the battlefield – only shoot whoever or whatever was foolish enough to stray into your line of fire.
Like its predecessor, Operation Thunderbolt was converted to home computers of the day, and prolific artist Bob Wakelin handled the cover art for both this game and Operation Wolf. Here’s Wakelin’s characteristically stylish artwork…
As you can see, the soldier in the foreground is almost identical to the one in the photo above, right down to the way the hands grip the Colt XM177. Only the facial details have really changed.
So what happened?
Like most artists, Wakelin used a photographic reference for his work, and he clearly stumbled on the same photograph the makers of The Rock used a few years later.
This presents an even bigger conundrum: how did Bob Wakelin, when painting his cover for Operation Thunderbolt, manage to see a photo that wouldn’t be taken for another six years? The simple answer, of course, is that the websites have their dates wrong.
Thanks to the stock photography website Alamy, we know that the picture was actually taken in April 1985 (click through to see the original too).
We also know the name of the real soldier in the picture: it’s Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Mark Blasen, a Navy SEAL participating in a training exercise. Wikimedia, meanwhile, also tells us who took the picture: Chief Photographer’s Mate Peter D. Sundberg.
In both the Operation Thunderbolt cover art and The Rock, Blasen’s features were altered to suit each project, meaning nobody got to see the real soldier or his handsome moustache.
As for the other photo that flashes up in The Rock – the one purportedly of General Hummel in Vietnam – the story there is more straightforward. imfdb.org reveals that it was simply borrowed s shot from the 1980 action thriller, Borderline, in which a much younger Ed Harris appeared alongside Charles Bronson.
So there we have it: with the help of an old stock photo, a still from a Charles Bronson movie, and a deft bit of retouching, General Hummel’s fake military history was complete.
Sadly, Film Stories’ attempts to track down Blasen and Sundberg – and ask them whether they know about their videogame and Hollywood fame – have so far come to naught.
What we have discovered in the course of our research, though, is that Sundberg took dozens of photos during his time in service – you can find many of them (including the one of Blasen) preserved at the US National Archives. They provide a glimpse of Sundberg’s experience on land and at sea in various parts of the world; he was stationed in Grenada during the controversial US invasion, codenamed Operation Urgent Fury. He was aboard a recovery ship as it searched for debris following the tragic Challenger disaster in 1986.
Unlike General Hummel’s career, Sundberg’s was entirely genuine – and there are photographs to prove it…
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