For someone who has seen action in the Persian Gulf, not to mention survived Marine boot camp, Anthony Swofford is a surprisingly soft-spoken guy. When I spoke to him on October 25, 2005 about JARHEAD, the film version of his memoir of the same name about his time in the Marines, including taking part in Gulf War I as a scout/sniper, the conversation ranged from his father’s attitude towards him joining the military as a third-generation soldier, the psychological process of turning a civilian into a Marine, and the ways in which Homer’s “Illiad” resonated with him both before and after he saw active service.
The history of the military film has had several notable eras, from the melancholy of THE BIG PARADE (featuring the divine John Gilbert in arguably his best role) from the post WWI, silent era, to the jingoistic excesses during and just after WWII with such offerings as an iconic John Wayne THE FLYING LEATHERNECKS, followed by the cynicism and black humor of CATCH-22 and M.A.S.H, and the nihilism of THE DEER HUNTER and FULL METAL JACKET. With JARHEAD, based on Anthony Swofford’s arresting memoir of the same name about his time in Saudi Arabia during the of the first Gulf war, new trails are blazed. This is a procedural of how a gung-ho 20-year-old goes from innocent, at least from the standpoint of military culture, to a trained killer desensitized to his civilian aversion to violence. That may have been covered before, but in this case, it hasn’t turned him into a monster or a hulking shell of his former self. He’s still the same guy, but one that’s gone down a road emotionally, from which there is no return.
It is an intrinsically interesting process, and one well served with Jake Gyllenhaal as Swofford.
The film, like the book, is determinedly non-political about the war itself, beyond, that is, a glimpse of someone reading “Catch-22” in the background, a Texas boy explaining the world according to the oilmen, and a sign on the tarmac where the troops land, the only sign, it is worth noting, that has one word on it. Oil. In English and Arabic. The war, in fact, is beside the point. This is about male bonding and boredom. The former forged in the military culture insulated from civilian life and the latter expressed in ways fitting the macho, testosterone driven culture of which they are a part. Endless rounds of cleaning their rifles and pondering what their women are doing back home and with whom are interspersed with being trotted out for the press to put on a good show and group dry humpings, one of which brings whoops of enthusiasm from the willing participants, the other somewhat less enthusiastic displays. That the pent-up rage waiting to be directed at the enemy turns suicedally homicidal, or homicidally suicidal, becomes if not understandable, at least a reasonable response to the given stimulus of six months in the desert with nothing to do.