Q&A: Professor Brian Glyn Williams on bringing a real world story to Hollywood

Professor Brian Glyn Williams (History) talks about the book he wrote, the events that inspired it, and bringing authenticity to the movie '12 Strong'.

Professor Brian Glyn Williams on movie set

After spending so much time in Afghanistan, was '12 Strong' able to portray the people and the region accurately?

I found that the director, Nicoali Fuglsig, breathed life into both the rugged terrain of the majestic Hindu Kush Mountains that have always moved and inspired me and into the “human terrain” of the fascinating local peoples. I appreciated the way he brought to life the colorful and welcoming Uzbek Mongol tribes of the northern plains and mountains that I know so well. The plot was accurate and hewed to the adventure narrative I explore in my book. I was pleased that the military hardware I saw on the movie set in New Mexico consisted of real Soviet tanks and multiple rocket launchers of the sort I have seen on battlefields across Afghanistan (they were lent to the movie set by the US Army). Most hearteningly, Warner Brothers studios also had Afghans on the movie set as extras. I was thrilled to meet Afghans from the valleys I have lived in, including one skilled actor named Fahim Fasil who served as interpreter for the very Marines I trained as cultural advisor. All told, this was by far the most accurate portrayal of a tough land where hundreds of thousands of Americans have fought an implacable Pashtun Taliban enemy that adheres to an ancient warrior culture and utilizes a rugged terrain to make Afghanistan the “Graveyard of Empires.”

How were you able to use your scholarly mindset to inform the movie making process?

My book The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime was used to recreate the Afghan half of the movie. The book, which is based on my years of fieldwork in Afghanistan as a researcher and working for the military and CIA, is the most in depth account of the campaign the 12 Green Beret fought alongside a local anti-Taliban warlord Dostum and his horse warriors. My history of this larger-than-life warrior and his friendship with the American Special Forces (whom I also interviewed) gave the director an essential deep dive into the history of this covert campaign.

To support the director and his team, I flew out to the remote set for the filming of 12 Strong in the Afghan-esque mountains of southern New Mexico. There, I worked with my friend General Dostum, the Uzbek warrior in the movie portrayed by the skilled Navid Negahban (from the popular series Homeland), to have his actual chapan-riding coat, boots, whip, turban etc. flown from his palace in Kabul, Afghanistan (he is now vice president) via Istanbul to the set. This allowed the designers to duplicate these clothes and make authentic Uzbek Mongol riding costumes. I also advised Chris Hemsworth (who plays my friend the Green Beret Captain Mark Nutsch who led the campaign alongside Dostum as well as Thor in the Avengers movies) on Afghan culture.

In addition, I also gave hours of combat footage of Dostum and the Green Berets fighting in the Hindu Kush Mountains that had been given to me by General Dostum. I also provided my own footage filmed from living in the mountains and plains with Dostum and his warriors to help create the battle scenes and terrain. Finally, I worked with the legendary producer, Jerry Bruckheimer (of Pirates of the Caribbean, Black Hawk Down, and Top Gun etc. fame), to have my former boss at the CIA, “JR,” who lived in a remote canyon in New Mexico, meet the director Nicolai Fuglsig. He helped Nicolai accurately bring to life the Agency’s Special Activities Division actor who appears in the movie  (JR is the real CIA field operator who deployed ahead of the Green Berets to liaise with Dostum and is a legend in the CIA going back to the 1980s Soviet invasion). 

During your life, you have consistently been in the field investigating and conducting research. What advice do you have for students who want to travel and explore?

I insist that my students get passports, as a passport is the gateway to the world and to the very places I teach my students about in my courses on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Islamic Eurasia. I believe students should empower themselves by breaking out of the country they know and boldly explore new lands and peoples, instead of being afraid of the travel the world. I have sent students to learn Arabic in Egypt and Lebanon, arranged to have students live in Israel, Istanbul, Turkey, Kazakhstan, etc. and when they return to home they are changed forever. Their minds have been expanded. They are on fire to travel more and they are confident in their abilities to journey across the world. Foreign lands are no longer mere abstracts or images on TVs or the internet, they are places they have absorbed with their own eyes. No amount of looking at other lands on-line can beat the thrill of being a young student and getting out of your safety zone and exploring the world and making it your own. If you don’t have a passport, get to your nearest post office asap, ask for an application…and break out of the confines of your world by applying for a passport/ticket to the world!

For an account of Dr. Brian Glyn Williams’ experiences on the movie set for '12 Strong' and his travel adventures in the Afghan war zone with General Dostum, read more here.


Departments History Dept, News and Public Information