Producing lightweight polymeric actuators able to generate high stresses typical of hard metals and/or ceramics remains challenging. The photo-mechanical responses of ultra-drawn ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) actuators containing azobenzene photo-switches with symmetrically attached polyethylene (PE) side chains are reported. Long PE side chains promote dispersion within the apolar UHMWPE matrix, and the ultra-drawn films are highly aligned. The ultra-drawn azobenzene-doped UHMWPE films have high Young's moduli (∼100 GPa) and are viscoelastic at room temperature at strains below 1%. The photo-mechanical response of the films is fast (<1 s), showing a high specific actuation stress response (>6 × 104 Pa (kg m−3)−1) to UV or visible light at a low strain (∼0.06%). The actuator responds to rotating linearly polarized light, causing a photo-induced stress wave response. Such rapid, high-stress, low-strain, photo-mechanical responses are unique in soft polymer systems with physical values approaching hard metals/ceramics.