There are arguably few more iconic actors working today than Michael Caine. After all, he’s starred in many classic movies throughout the decades, picking up several awards along the way. However, during Caine’s younger years he had a near-death experience, which ultimately shaped his attitude toward life.
Born Maurice Micklewhite in London, England, in March 1933, the future star grew up in the Southwark area of the capital. A few years later, though, he left his mother as a result of the Blitz. Micklewhite was subsequently relocated to Norfolk for the rest of World War II, before reuniting with his loved ones.
After that, Micklewhite had a two-year spell with the British military as a teenager, which eventually came to an end in 1954. Then, later that year he went on to adopt the name Michael Caine. And as it turned out, he harbored a real ambition of becoming an actor during that period.
From there, Caine would later carve out an incredible career in the industry, establishing himself as one of the most recognizable actors in Hollywood. But despite all that success, a terrifying experience from his past has continued to stick with him. So with that in mind, the movie star opened up about it in some revealing interviews.
But before we discover what happened to Caine, let’s learn a little more about the man himself. He and his family struggled financially over the course of his childhood; their house didn’t have indoor plumbing, for example, and decent work opportunities were rare. Indeed, even before World War II started in 1939, life was already quite tough at home.
Following Caine’s birth in 1933, he grew up alongside his younger sibling in Southwark, which is located in the southern part of London. Their mom plied her trade as both a cleaner and a cook, while their dad worked at a local fish market.
However, everything changed when WWII began, as Caine’s father was ordered to report to the British army. From there, the future Hollywood star took it upon himself to look after his mom, despite his young age at the time. Unfortunately for them, their family was then broken apart again after Nazi Germany began a brutal bombing campaign over Britain known as the Blitz.
After spending some time away from London, Caine eventually came back once the war was won. But as a result of the previous attacks, his family had been relocated to a new home in Elephant and Castle, London. And compared to their old apartment, it was seen as a significant step up.
Off the back of that difficult period, Caine focused on his studies at school, before taking a keen interest in one particular subject. But beyond that, he was involved in a youth club that ran drama classes; and once the youngster realized that several girls were involved, he wanted to give it a try.
Looking back on that time with U.K. newspaper The Telegraph in 2016, Caine reflected on his mindset ahead of joining the club. He said, “I was about 14. And I thought, ‘I’d like to kiss a beautiful girl, and I’ve had no luck personally. So if I join up I’ll be in a play and we’ll have a love scene and I’ll get to kiss her.’”
Caine’s love of acting only grew from there, as he gained some valuable experience in those drama classes. Alongside that, the future star had also taken his first steps in the world of work, trying his hand as a file clerk for London movie companies. Then, in 1950 his career took a very exciting turn.
That year, Caine made his on-screen debut in a film titled Morning Departure. And while it was only a small role, there would be many more opportunities to come in the future. Unfortunately for him, though, that progression came to a shuddering halt in 1952 when he was conscripted into the army.
Over the next two years Caine served in two different countries, with a spell in Germany kicking things off. Following that, the aspiring actor found himself in the Korean War. His time with the military eventually came to an end in 1954, at which point he looked to get his life back on track.
After Caine changed his moniker that year, his next appearances on the big screen came in 1956. He first took on an uncredited role in the comedy Sailor Beware, before featuring in A Hill in Korea. At that stage, the actor’s career looked to be heading in the right direction, but his breakout performance was some way off yet.
Caine continued to feature in a number of different projects at the back-end of the 1950s, yet he struggled to find a career-making part. Thankfully for him, that opportunity finally arrived the following decade, when he was cast in one of the lead roles of Zulu. In the movie, he took on the character of Gonville Bromhead.
Zulu hit the big screen back in 1964 and proved to be a real success at the box-office, making $8 million in the U.S. box office. As for Caine, he went on to earn two of his most popular roles off the back of that movie. The first came in 1965, when he was cast as the lead in The Ipcress File.
From there, Caine bagged the starring role in Alfie, which was released in 1966. And his charismatic performance in that film earned him plenty of plaudits, as well as nominations for Best Actor at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
On that note, Caine’s career really started to take off during that period, as he earned a few more iconic roles. From The Italian Job to Get Carter, these performances helped define him as a big-screen actor in the early part of the 1970s. However, his rise in Hollywood didn’t conclude there.
Over the next several years, Caine was nominated for two more Oscars ahead of a big moment in 1987, when he won his first Academy Award for his role in Hannah and Her Sisters. Then, he followed that up with another victory in 2000, earning the gong for The Cider House Rules.
In more recent times, Caine has enjoyed plenty of other success and has formed a strong partnership with director Christopher Nolan. He has featured in seven of the latter’s movies, including the acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy. But despite all of that, something has lingered in the Oscar winner’s mind for many decades.
For you see, Caine’s experience of the Korean War had a huge impact on his life. The conflict itself came off the back of World War II, when Japan’s rule over the country was ended. Following that, Korea was split into two different nations in 1948, with the North adopting the communist mindset of the Soviet Union.
Some two years after that, North Korea made a move to invade its neighbors in the South, kicking off the war in 1950. Both countries were backed by different nations, with the former receiving help from the Soviet Union and China. As for South Korea, the U.S. and the United Nations offered their support.
The Korean War went on to last for just over three years, and resulted in the deaths of around three million people. It’s believed that the United States lost over 36,000 of its soldiers during the conflict, while more than 100,000 suffered injuries in combat. However, the distressing figures don’t end there.
In addition to those numbers, over 7,600 American soldiers still haven’t been recovered from the Asian countries. Furthermore, while an armistice was reached between the North and the South back in 1953, the two nations didn’t sign a peace treaty; so technically, they’ve remained in conflict ever since.
Caine was one of the British soldiers to join the fray during his time in the army. And in the decades since his experience in Korea, he’s been harboring memories of a terrifying ordeal. Given what happened back then, the Hollywood star eventually opened up about it in a couple of compelling interviews.
Speaking to the Academy of Achievement website in November 2018, Caine shared his thoughts about conflict as a whole. He explained, “To me, I was always disgusted by war. It’s always started by men who are too old to go. That’s the start. And then they send the young men, who are too stupid to know what they’re getting into, like me.”
Caine’s strong words didn’t end there, though. He added, “And then you wind up in Korea with the American Marines, which is not a very good idea. And no, I mean it’s the most terrifying ordeal that you can think of, and you have to do things that you would never think of doing.”
As for the moment that’s stuck with Caine after all this time, he revealed a little more during an interview with The Talks website in 2011. The actor said, “I got into a situation [in Korea] where I knew I was going to die – like the people [who] know they are going to die of cancer. Except then we got out of it.”
“But it lasted with me,” Caine admitted. “I was 19. That formed my character for the rest of my life. The rest of my life I have lived every bloody moment from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep.” The London native then delved into the subject further with the Academy of Achievement in a 2018 interview.
In keeping with the previous admission, Caine also shared another important lesson that he learned from his near-death experience. He said, “We got into a situation, on a patrol, where we were surrounded by [the] Chinese, and we knew we were going to die. But what [do] you worry about when you get into that situation?”
“Are you going to be a coward?” Caine continued. “Are you going to… run? And there were only four of us, a little tiny patrol. And we all said, ‘Well, we’re going to make this as expensive as we possibly can, our deaths.’ And we were going to do that.”
At that point, Caine touched upon the strategy that his patrol looked to take. For you see, the officer there suggested that they should head in the direction of the Chinese troops, instead of taking their normal route. And in the end, it was a move which saved the lives of everyone concerned.
Caine explained, “They were waiting for us to go back to our lines, and then we went back to the Chinese line and went right the way around them and back. So we survived it. We didn’t have to do that. But I came out of it knowing that I wasn’t a coward, and I’ve known that for the rest of my life.”
However, while Caine survived his ordeal in Korea, he brought something back with him at the end of his service. Unfortunately for the Londoner, he caught cerebral malaria during his time at war, leaving him in a vulnerable position. And in a cruel twist, that didn’t signal the end of the challenges.
“Me and my platoon guys all had [cerebral malaria after the war],” Caine told The Telegraph newspaper in 2016. “When we got home, a man called Colonel Solomons from the American army came from New York. And he was so pleased because he could use us as an experiment.”
Caine then had to face down an additionally concerning period in his life. He revealed, “They strapped us to a bed for 11 days, with calming injections so we wouldn’t go nuts. I nearly died there.” Given what happened to him at that time, the Oscar winner then went on to make some important lifestyle choices a few years later.
Unlike some other famous celebrities from Caine’s era, he avoided excessive drinking, as well as drugs. In his mind, he didn’t want to tempt fate following the events that transpired during and after the Korean War. Alongside that, the veteran movie star also made one final point on the subject.
“I wasn’t about to start drinking myself to death, because I had survived,” Caine told The Telegraph. “Do you understand what I’m saying? It was the same with dope – I never did any drugs. I was never self-destructive, because other people had tried to destroy me. I thank God. He took care of me and I survived.”
As for Caine’s career, he’s kept himself busy in the last few years, appearing in three movies in 2017. He then featured in another two films 12 months later, which included the crime caper King of Thieves. But despite his advancing age, he still has some exciting projects on the horizon.
For instance, Caine will feature in a historical action film titled Medieval in 2019. And from there, he’s due to appear in two more releases in 2020. Tenet is arguably the most exciting project of the pair, as that movie will mark the eighth collaboration between the actor and Christopher Nolan.