Filming San Diego: Military Movies

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Filming San Diego: Hollywood’s Backlot

More than 100 military movies have been filmed in San Diego, which has served as a training ground for raw recruits, a World War II battleground (just add the palm trees), a harbor for aircraft carriers and courageous submarine crews, and a home base for hotshot pilots learning about the extremes of their aircraft.

As early as 1915, the film industry recognized the value of San Diego’s facilities, locations, and equipment for telling the stories of the nation’s military. Hollywood’s biggest stars came to town to train, fight, and fly or sail, celluloid style, while using real San Diego-based equipment and expertise.

From the aviation pioneers at North Island to modern-day exploits of pilots at Miramar, the story of pilots both in the air and on the ground have been captured in Top Gun as well as Dive Bomber, Devil Dogs of the Air, Test Pilot, and Hell Divers. Aimed at filling theaters and increasing recruitment, San Diego’s aviation films have both entertained viewers and provided fodder for debating the use of aviation in our armed forces.

Utilizing the Marine Corps Training Depot and other military bases in such movies as Tell It to the Marines and To the Shores of Tripoli, San Diego was instrumental in shaping the way Hollywood portrayed the training of soldiers. The area also doubled as a battleground when those soldiers went to war. Many early World War II battles, including Iwo Jima, Tawara, and Guadalcanal, were shot at Camp Pendleton and other locations in the county. When John Wayne stormed The Sands of Iwo Jima as the classic American soldier, he was actually racing up a hill at Camp Pendleton.

During the Korean War one military official noted that instead of “filming in Korean water,” the movie Men of the Fighting Lady “can just as well be shot…in waters outside San Diego.” And so it happened. The presence of the ocean, aircraft carriers, ships, submarines, and equipment have made San Diego a perfect base of operation for Hollywood to film movies about the Navy.