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The Real Story Behind ‘A Few Good Men’

A group of ex-Navy lawyers each claim they served as the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s Lt. Kaffee.
A Few Good Men Courtroom
Columbia Pictures
By  · Published on April 16th, 2022

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind the classic 1992 film, A Few Good Men, starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore. 

In the years since the release of A Few Good Men in 1992, “Sorkian” has become an adjective of its own in the cinema lexicon. The trademark fast, intelligent talk from characters who often get in over their heads but are able to overcome obstacles by being quick on their feet are hallmarks of an Aaron Sorkin script. And A Few Good Men is so classically Sorkian, that moviegoers watching it for the first time may immediately discern its writer.

The film, directed by Rob Reiner, takes its inspiration from a play by Sorkin, who also wrote the screenplay. The courtroom drama stars Tom Cruise as Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, a Navy lawyer charged with defending two court-martialed marines accused of murder. Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), the first to see that the accused are innocent of murder, and Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), assist Kaffee in the case.

As they investigate the crime, the trio finds the truth. In short, the marines were ordered to haze the deceased by their superior, First Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Kendrick, in turn, initiated the hazing, an unofficial disciplinary method known as a “code red,” on the orders of Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson.

As we prepare to mark the film’s anniversary, here’s a look at the true stories behind the film and its characters.

Shots Over the Border

Today’s reader may know the United States military’s Guantanamo Bay Naval Base best as the site of a highly controversial — and some say illegal — prison. But the base did not come to house a prison there until 2002, after the beginning of the country’s so-called “War on Terror.” The real events that influenced Sorkin mostly took place during the 1980s.

According to The Baltimore Sun, one of the “tougher assignments” given to marines during that period was manning the perimeter of the base. Sun journalist Bill Glauber writes:

It’s a lonely, pressure-filled job at the base they nickname Gitmo. Hour after hour the Marines on the guard line stand watch, sometimes less than 600 yards from Cuban soldiers. It is a frozen standoff in searing heat, a last vestige of the Cold War.

One of the men assigned to this job was David Cox, described as a “gung-ho Marine all the way.” Cox was a member of Rifle Security Company, Windward Side, 2nd Platoon, a group of 30 men who, Glauber notes, “lived by a fierce code of honor.”

In July of 1986, these men began to worry that one of the men had broken that code of honor. This “maligner,” they feared, squealed and told higher-ups, like in the film, of the shots by marines fired over the perimeter line into Cuba. The man in question was Pfc. William Alvarado and his fellow marines decided it was time for payback.

The Code Red

Reiner’s film begins with two marines, Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) and Private First Class Louden Downey (James Marshall), violently attacking, bounding, and gagging Private First Class William Santiago (Michael DeLorenzo), as part of what we don’t yet know is the “code red.” Alvarado was the victim of similarly horrific treatment.

One night, Glauber reports, a group of marines was watching Animal House and decided to initiate a “code red.” They wanted to teach Alvarado, who served as the inspiration for Santiago, a lesson. A group of ten marines pounced on Alvarado. They blindfolded and gagged him. They beat him and then began to shave his head.

Cox, The Sun reports, was the one holding the shears. He soon began to notice something was not right. Alvarado’s face had turned blue. His lungs filled with fluid, he began to spit up blood and then passed out. Alvarado was luckier than Santiago. He was flown to Miami for emergency care. Thankfully, he eventually recovered.

Most of the men involved in the assault were given an “other than honorable” discharge. One of these men was represented by Lt. Debbie Sorkin, Aaron’s sister, who told her brother about the court-martial that would later inform his play and film. But three men, including Cox, refused the plea bargain. They opted instead to proceed with a full court-martial.

“Mr. Cox,” Glauber writes, “was prepared to fight the Corps he believed in.”

Who Is the Real Lieutenant Kaffee?

Cox was represented by Navy attorney Don Marcari. The New York Times reported in 2011 that Marcari is one of four lawyers who claim to have served as the inspiration for Cruise’s Kaffee. Marcari, who represented three men during the court-martial, noted many similarities between himself and Kaffee. Most notably, they shared a passion for softball. According to the Times, Marcari wrote on his law office’s website that “his exploits as a young defense attorney with the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps” served as the basis for the film. Others disagree.

At least three other men also lay claim to being the real Kaffee, according to the Times: Connecticut lawyer Walter C. Bansley III, California attorney Chris Johnson, and David Iglesias, who later served as the United States Attorney for the District of New Mexico during the George W. Bush Administration.

Johnson says he used to wear mismatched socks, something the film hints Kaffee does too. Bansley, who represented a marine accused of ordering the hazing, says a Hollywood producer told him he was the inspiration for Kaffee. News reports have taken turns sighting each of the men as an inspiration. Iglesias told the Times he believes the Kaffee character is a composite of Marcari, Johnson, and himself.

When asked about the inspiration, Sorkin, through a spokesperson, told the Times:

The character of Dan Kaffee in ‘A Few Good Men’ is entirely fictional and was not inspired by any particular individual.

The Court Martial

By opting for the court-martial, the Sun reports, Cox faced a 20-year sentence at Leavenworth, a U.S. penitentiary in Kansas. According to his attorney, Marcari:

“David told me, ‘I have nothing else. All I want to be is a Marine.’ I said, ‘David, you could take this deal and go home.’ And he again said, ‘No, I want to be a Marine.’ “

It’s a sentiment echoed by the Marines in Sorkin’s script.

The court-martial lasted four days. Cox was found guilty of simple assault and not guilty of aggravated battery, which would have carried a heftier punishment. The misdemeanor charge came with a 30-day jail sentence. But because Cox had served 38 days in the brig, he was free to go. He continued to serve in the Marines and was discharged as a corporal in 1989.

The Dispute

Cox figures at the center of this tale because, after the release of Sorkin’s film in 1992, he considered suing the filmmakers. According to Glauber, Cox responded with outrage when he watched the Reiner-Sorkin film. In real life, the victim survived. The men were not dishonorably discharged like in the film. His brother, Steven, told Glauber the court martial’s outcome was what upset him most. Steven said:

 “He felt they [the filmmakers] were going to make millions with this movie, a movie that was based on some of his experiences. David and some of the other guys said, ‘Jeez, this is an invasion of privacy. And then, they portray us as killers.’ “

Cox was so angry, that he reached out to Marcari with a desire to sue. And the two began working on a book that would, in their minds, correct the record. But then, tragedy struck.

Cox’s Murder

On January 5, 1993, Cox, then living in Natick, Massachusetts, went missing. For months, the family heard nothing. In the interim, some of his fellow Marines filed a lawsuit against Castle Rock Entertainment over the film’s depiction of events.

Then, in the spring of that year, Cox’s body was found in along a riverbank in Medford, Massachusetts. They found 9 mm shell casings at the scene and four bullet wounds in Cox.

Law enforcement officials said no connections were found between the suspected murder and Cox’s military service or lawsuit against the film. All these years later, the case remains unsolved.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.