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Before "Devotion" was the first studio movie about the Korean War in more than six decades, it was a bestselling book by the historian and journalist Adam Makos. The 2014 book about Navy aviators Jesse Brown and Thomas Hudner had a long journey to the screen, and now the film hits theaters just a few months after the biggest Navy movie of all time, "Top Gun: Maverick."
"Devotion" and "Top Gun: Maverick" both star the actor Glen Powell, and it was Powell's love of Makos' book "Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice" that kick-started the drive to turn the story into a movie.
Makos has always been eager to share the story of his friendship with Hudner, and he's been deeply involved in the movie and its promotion over the last few weeks. Just before the film was released to theaters, Makos spoke to Military.com about the book and the movie.
Makos has enjoyed success with bestselling military history books like "Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II," but "Devotion" is the book that established his career. That started when he met Medal of Honor recipient Hudner. "I met Tom Hudner at a conference in D.C., where he was speaking to school kids, and I was a young journalist looking for a story," said Makos. "Before he left, I saw him in the lobby, and I approached him.
"It was kind of like seeing a movie star. You kind of second guess, 'Should I do this?' And I just had to meet this guy, because this is my hero. And so I said, 'Capt. Hudner, I'd love to interview you someday. And would you give me the chance?'
"He took that business card out of his pocket, handed it to me, and asked, 'Why?' That was just who he was, he always said that. Tom saw the Medal of Honor as a responsibility, and he wore the medal for everyone who served. I came to know him and appreciate him. Once I knew who he really was, I said to myself, 'Why has the world not heard this story? And what can I do to change that?'"
When Makos set out to write "Devotion," there was nothing that suggested his book would become a huge success story. The Korean War has long been known as the Forgotten War, sandwiched between two of the most heavily chronicled conflicts in U.S. history. Makos has some theories about that.
"I think part of the problem with the Korean War was the scenery," Makos said. "It's the same thing you see in World War II. Europe is always preferred over the Pacific because Europe has images of troops liberating French villages. I don't want to use the word 'romance,' because it's the wrong concept. But people are drawn to the Eighth Air Force bombing Germany and flying out of England, or the paratroopers on D-Day."
"The Korean War had snow and it had mud, and it was in a place where most people have never been," he continued. "Hollywood also did not necessarily lead the way. By my count, the last big Korean War movie is 'Pork Chop Hill,' starring Gregory Peck [in] 1959. Before that, you had 'The Bridges at Toko-Ri,' with William Holden and Grace Kelly.
"Hollywood sometimes leads the way to cultural understanding. Where would we be without 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'The Longest Day'? A lot of people wouldn't know what Omaha Beach was," he added. "So I think Hollywood really has not covered the Korean War. It was not a glamorous war. For that reason, it's gone and forgotten. They're going to need a new name for the Korean War after this, because it's no longer going to be forgotten starting Nov. 23."
Makos was deeply impressed with Hudner's determination to honor Jesse Brown. "He signed the book to me when I got the first copy and wrote, 'To Adam Makos. Thank you for telling the story of a remarkable young man. Tom Hudner, your friend.' He wasn't talking about himself. The remarkable young man was Jesse Brown."
"Tom always saw the book 'Devotion' as being about Jesse Brown. He couldn't even see that he is co-lead character of his own book," Makos continued. "That's because, to him, Jesse had given so much more. Jesse's life stopped at age 24.
"One of the big questions that 'Devotion' was meant to answer (and I think we see it in the film) is, what was Tom's motivation to crash a perfectly good Corsair behind enemy lines to try to save a friend? [What] made that friend so special? What was so special about Jesse Brown that you would possibly give up your own life to try to help him in his time of need? That was the question I wanted to answer," Makos added. "I learned that Jesse was a professional. That's what bonded him and Tom; they were both professionals. They both were patriotic, and they both had the same mission to defend the United States of America. For Jesse, that was super remarkable, because this is a guy who wants to defend the country that doesn't necessarily love him back."
Makos credits Powell's interest and determination for getting this movie made. "Glen came to me at the time, 2017. He was doing Netflix films," said Makos.
Let's not write those movies off, though. Powell's Netflix career included the excellent Iraq War drama "Sand Castle," the post-WWII homefront drama "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," and the romantic comedy "Set It Up." It was a good run for Glen.
Back to Makos, who continues his story about Glen. "He wasn't the actor he is now, but he had the talent," he said. "Glen came to me saying, 'My family has read this book, my uncle's read it, my dad read it. And I've read it. We were all on the same fishing trip. And we started talking about this. And I want to play Capt. Tom Hudner. I want to bring this story to the world. And I'll do whatever it takes.'
"Having worked with Hollywood before, and knowing actors from 'The Pacific' and 'Band of Brothers,' I wanted to see if Glen had that same level of commitment to the real men. So I asked, 'Glen, would you like to meet the real Captain Tom Hudner? He's 92 years old. He's living outside of Boston in the town of Concord. And he's not doing too well.'
"Tom would actually die later that year [in 2017]," Makos explained. "Glen replied, 'When and where?' The next weekend was Memorial Day. I asked, 'Can you get out of your movie?' He said, 'I'll be there.'
"The next thing you know, we're sitting down at Tom's kitchen table, eating waffles together, and I'm getting to watch Glen interact with this hero of mine. At one point, when it's time to go out the door and to take a photo, I went ahead to open the door and I looked back, and there was Glen and Tom, arm in arm walking through the hallway. Glen was studying him. And so I said, 'Alright, we've found the right guy.'"
Powell and Jonathan Majors in fact did turn out to be the right guys to play Hudner and Brown. Their chemistry is a huge part of what makes the movie a success. "Devotion" is now in theaters.
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