Mark Nutsch never imagined that a movie star best known for embodying the hammer-wielding superhero Thor would portray him in a Hollywood film.
The former major, who led the first Special Forces team deployed to Afghanistan after 9/11, is the subject of a new war film titled “12 Strong,” which explores the real-life story of how a dozen American soldiers successfully worked with an Afghan warlord to take down the Taliban.
The film is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, a proud conservative who’s passionate about the military, as well as the mastermind behind iconic movies including “Armageddon,” “Top Gun” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” among others.
Australian actor Chris Hemsworth stars as Capt. Mitch Nelson, who is based on real-life hero Nutsch.
“My children got a kick out of it, that Chris Hemsworth is portraying me, Dad,” Nutsch told Fox News. “It’s great. I think Chris did an incredible job trying to portray what a Special Forces commander does.”
“12 Strong” is inspired by author Doug Stanton’s 2009 book, “Horse Soldiers,” which investigates the little-known story of how a small band of Special Forces secretly entered war-torn Afghanistan, convinced Afghan allies to work with them, pursued the Taliban on horseback and liberated Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city. All that, in just three weeks.
Nutsch said horseback riding was the secret behind navigating the mountainous terrain of northern Afghanistan. He willingly accepted the challenge.
“My grandfathers, they both ranched,” he explained. “My family still ranches. I grew up showing horses and rodeoing, competing in high school rodeo teams and at the collegiate level… Who knew just general ranch work and being around horses was going to play such an integral role?”
While Nutsch was an expert rider, his teammate Bob Pennington wasn’t ready for such a bumpy ride.
“Oh my God, it was horrible. Absolutely horrible,” chuckled the retired Chief Warrant Officer. “And these are very small horses, to say the least. But very wild, like stallions… Back then, I was very muscular and in very good shape. … Probably weighed about 230 pounds.
"And I would carry about 80 pounds of equipment on me… I crushed those horses. Literally … I got on this horse and he just buckled. As we began to move, the more and more … he would get so aggravated at me, he would try to reach back and bite me.”
Pennington added: “As we traveled the mountainside, those goat trails that we traveled on were probably about 18 inches wide. So the horse naturally leaned a little bit. That aggravated him even more. But it scared the death out of me because now I’m looking down and I’m looking at a [5,000 to 6,000-foot] tumble.”
Pennington, who is portrayed in “12 Strong” by Academy Award-nominated actor Michael Shannon as character Hal Spencer, said it was big-screen hero John Wayne who inspired him as a child to ultimately become a Green Beret.
“When 1968’s ‘The Green Beret’ came out, of course me and my two brothers went to see it,” he explained. “I was just in such awe of what these guys were doing. And of course back then, John Wayne was a mountain of a figure. He was Americana.
"But the idea of what these guys were doing — jumping out of planes and liberating the oppressed … working with the indigenous forces and trying to help them succeed in the country. Someone would look at me and say, ‘You got all of that out of being 7-8 years old?’ Yes I did!”
However, not everyone was instantly eager to share their story. Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, who led the team into Afghanistan and is depicted by actor William Fictner, was wary of how a Hollywood film would showcase the work of real-life Green Berets. However, he seemed content with the final product.
“Other films on Special Forces focuses on what we call direct action,” said Mulholland. “You know, helicopters swooping in. Men coming down from ropes, blowing things up. Shooting bad guys and rescuing hostages. And killing the bad guys. Which is all good stuff… [But] I don’t think too many people understand who we are as Special Forces. They see a lot of seals and all the sexy stuff in the movies, but this is something much deeper.”
While Nutsch and Pennington were only on set for nearly three days during filming, they happily enjoyed drinks with the actors at a local bar and shared how determined they were to defend America after a horrific tragedy.
“We try to be the quiet professionals that we aspire to be,” said Mulholland on being a Green Beret. “We train as guerilla fighters, [but] our mission is to go behind enemy lines and link up with friendly indigenous folks in that country to help them either overthrow an occupying power, or in the case of the Taliban, a regime that was trying to oppress its people… That’s what makes us unique. We’re the only force in the Department of Defense that’s trained to do that mission.”
Nutsch is hoping “12 Strong” will do more than just entertain audiences with its non-stop action.
“We hope this film inspires Americans to learn about the incredible things that the Green Berets and our Special Operation community has done in the last 16 years of war,” he said. “These guys continue to be at the forefront... in probably over 80 countries on the ground, trying to help our allies resolve very tough and complex problems, like Islamic extremists. We hope this film inspires young American men and women to serve their nation and volunteer to try out for the Special Forces community.”
Nutsch added, “We want to see more Green Berets. We want to see the next generation of Green Berets. We need them.”
"12 Strong" premiered today in theaters.