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February 16, 2006

How fair is Jarhead to US marines? Richard D. North compares the film with his own experiences of reporting the first Gulf War: Jarhead - Sam Mendes

Posted by Richard D. North

Jarhead
Directed by Sam Mendes
certificate 15, 2005

Sam Mendes is an important film-maker, no doubt, but one should tap his films carefully, as one might check one's shoes for scorpions in a hot country. His American Beauty (1999), for instance, was funny, lovely and sharp, but it was a tiresome little dig at American corporations, besides being a tad soft on the delights of under-aged sex. Doesn't our down-trodden hero only eschew sex with his target when he finds she's a virgin, not because he realises he is abusing her youth?

So I crept into Jarhead with my antennae bristling. It is a fabulously-told story, and the fact that it's about anti-climax merely makes it the more remarkably gripping. It had me in the palm of its hand: roaring at its jokes, longing to bop to its sound-track, thrilled by its suspense. And it got my blood up: I'd have liked to surf pheromones with these guys.

There is much comment that this is a film with no point of view. I beg to differ. There is a good case for the view that Mendes is showing us the depravity, not so much of war, but at least of the military.

Our nice recruit Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal, who has just been wooing us - see my earlier review - in Brokeback Mountain, 2005) feels he has no choice but to go into the Marines. Maybe Anthony Swofford, in the memoir on which the piece is based, makes a more sophisticated case. But in the movie Swoff comes from a dysfunctional military family which nonetheless traps him in military expectations. How come, we might ask? He's bright, speaks a bit of Arabic and knows his way around Ivy League universities. If he doesn't like sweat and swearing, it sounds as though the State Department (or the CIA) would've been just the ticket.

Never mind. He's in, he's good and he's liked. He even goes along with the swagger and dim-witted cheer-leading of his fellow-Marines but we see in almost every frame that he's being posited as being too good for them. In one of the last shots in the film, a decrepit veteran of Vietnam climbs on to the bus taking our platoon to its homecoming. It's surely meant to say, not merely that the home team don't honour their heroes, but that the military life fucks you up.

This is, I think, the Mendes trick. He's not overt in saying that he's laying a number on mainstream, narrow-minded non-coastal America, but it is almost sure that he is. It is very hard to see this movie as other than holding its nose, and of course that suits our Brit prejudices.

We have to face the fact that US military is a bit more gung-ho than ours. There may even be US Marine colonels who - as we have it in one of the movie's splendid scenes of kick ass excess - roar approval at their men in the terms of:

That's better. Now you've given me a hard-on!
I think we can take it from the likes of the BBC's Gavin Hewitt in his A Soul On Ice, an account of the 2003 Gulf War, that the American soldier is indeed a curious blend of ignorance, loquacity and charm. Hewitt's companions, like Mendes' Marines, mostly want to go home, if they can't be out of the military altogether.

The difficulty is that my experience of the US military was that at every level there was quietly-expressed disquiet about most aspects of the conduct of the 1991 Gulf War. There really was a joke - more popular with the Brits in Iraq than the Americans - which ran:

That can't be an Iraqi plane I see? No, it's worse: it's an American plane.
"Blue-on-Blue" friendly fire did kill people. That much was perhaps inevitable. In Jarhead we see just such an incident, and it is suitably shaking. (In fact, I was made aware of a much more serious own-goal by US forces which was covered-up.

We also see (a tad anachronistically) our platoon stumbling across the thousands of civilian vehicles which were bombed on the road to Basra in the dying hours of the war. This was a disgraceful incident, never properly acknowledged by the US Air Force, in which thousands of Iraqi soldiers were wiped out as they ignominiously fled Kuwait with their pathetic loot. They were targeted by what had been trumpeted as the best equipped, most informed planes in the world, in daylight and in perfect weather. It is very hard to see how this was other than a vindictive or over-exuberant turkey-shoot by pilots whose judgement had been blurred, not sharpened, by seeing their targets on TV screens. This is another incident which deeply upset many US service people at the time.

Quite why Mendes' Marines have to be drenched in the oil from the well-head fires set off by Saddam Hussein at the end of the war, I don't know. (The fires in the film were much less ragingly beautiful than those I saw during my visit three weeks after the firing had stopped.) But it seemed entirely plausible that young Marines would be both fascinated and repelled by their first acquaintance with enemy dead. I know I was.

Jarhead has been accused of being about inaction. But that is, of course, its strength. The Marines are posited as having been (largely) irrelevant to Gulf War 1, which was (largely) fought by planes and tanks. So here were young men, inducted into the Marines' great history; turned into professionals of death, locked into a Manichaean faith that killing the enemy was good, but left in the desert to roast. They were all fired up, with no one to shoot.

But this is a somewhat dated picture. Since 2003, the US Marines have seen plenty of action in Iraq, and the moot point is whether the US should have put far more boots on the ground. And then we come back to another Brit prejudice. We have the feeling that the American soldier and his (and her) public back home is too used to winning battles (if not wars). What's more we suspect them of being too prepared to kill and not quite prepared enough to die. I can say that in 1991 there were US military who did see that the morality and dignity of war required some sort of equivalence of means. But then - to the credit of Jarhead's Marines - they were men who did want to be in the thick of things and were angry that they were not on the line.

The Big Idea in Jarhead is surely that the Marine has been turned into a killing machine whose blood lust is amoral. Someone says something to the effect:

Can't I just kill someone?
I for one rather sympathised with him, and I neither know nor care whether Mendes intended that I should.

This movie has been compared with Platoon (1986), The Deer Hunter (1978) and plenty of others. It is more obviously the flipside of The Three Kings (1999), that hugely enjoyable post-Desert Storm romp. Oddly, though, it was images of the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H which came most to my mind. I suppose that was because both were accounts of the domestic life of the military, and what happens to ordinary people (let alone liberals) when they are caught up in soldiering. M*A*S*H dripped intellectual superiority, and Jarhead's is much better even deviously - disguised. But the point remains with both that the strength of the writing, the sheer quality of the performances, the deftness of the directing and the inherent fascination of the worlds they portrayed make them both great pieces.

And, like Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead is an unexpected chick-flick. Their themes are: what are blokes like? On the evidence of Jarhead - let alone the queer Western - you'd better reckon on their being strongly homo-erotic.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.


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I should have mentioned The Way Ahead, the v interesting 1944 British war film, quite often shown on TV. Like Jarhead, it is much more about hanging about waiting for war than about war. It's different of course: it's about whingers becoming soldiers, and moaners becoming patriots. But it is about civilians becoming killers. (David Niven excells, as do half the British repertory of movie names of the day.)

Posted by: Richard D North at February 17, 2006 01:37 PM
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And then we come back to another Brit prejudice. We have the feeling that the American soldier and his (and her) public back home is too used to winning battles (if not wars). What's more we suspect them of being too prepared to kill and not quite prepared enough to die.
The American soldier and his public back home have watched the movie Patton too many times. Our society had been indoctrinated into the idea that soldiers do not win wars by dying for their country. They win wars by making the enemy die for their country.

Another example would be the conflict between William Holden and Jack Hawkins in The Bridge on the River Kwai, the conflict about doing one's duty even if it means death.

Posted by: Samuel Copper at March 19, 2006 05:18 PM
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