A few really cute boys take their shirts off, but that’s about it
On paper, it must have sounded, well, interesting. Take the flamboyant, left-wing lyricism of Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes,1 mix it with the testosterone-soaked, semi-fascist ravings of Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War I saga Jarhead 2 and you’d get, well, something. Something different, surely, than the usual Hollywood pap. I mean, it would be like putting two tarantulas in a cage. Something bad is going down.
Yes, but these are Hollywood tarantulas. They’ve got fangs and venom, all right, but they’ve also got to worry about financing, market penetration, cable rights, DVD sales, etc., etc., etc. In other words, they’ve got to deal. And what Jarhead is is not a movie. It’s a deal.
I can only assume that Sam Mendes, unless he’s a complete pussy, was dying to get his hands on a marketable property that would let him go ape shit on the head of one George W. Bush. And Jarhead, with its over-the-top ravings on such topics as “pink mist” (what a sniper sees through his scope when he blows someone’s head off), must have looked like the perfect vehicle for examining that malignant tumor known as the American mind.
Unfortunately, Jarhead, which was a sensation during the tumultuous, “get Osama” hysteria following the destruction of the World Trade Center, had more spin than Sam could handle. He couldn’t get financing to make a film about American troops in the Middle East unless he filmed Jarhead. But if he filmed Jarhead, he couldn’t make the movie he wanted to make. He’d have to make Swofford’s movie rather than his own. Swofford’s “people” would see to that.3
As a result, the offspring of two Hollywood tarantulas turns out to be a pussycat, and a fat, dumb one at that, with no claws, no punch, and all the intellectual content of a music video. Mendes stumbles from one cliché to the next — the new trainee, the sadistic drill sergeant, the “Dear John” letter,4 the TV interview, the phony media type (a chick, of course) who knows nothing about war and exploits the poor grunts who have to fight it, the encounter with “death” — you know, the whole existential angst thing.
Along the way, the guys strip off their shirts and pretend to engage in an orgy of butt-fucking to gross out the media chick, and later we see Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) all slicked up as a Christmas chorus boy with Santa’s cap covering his cock.5 A Marine dressed as Radar O’Reilly, complete with glasses, wool cap, and scarf (in the Arabian desert?) accidentally sets fire to a case of flares and, well, you had to see it. I mean, it was existential as hell. Yeah, definitely. In fact, it was even absurd.
If you know anything about Swofford’s book, you know that he spent three whole days in combat and never fired a round. No pink mist! Damn! But even he had a better war than Sam did. Maybe that Sherman dude was right about the “all Hell” thing.6
- Mendes won, of course, for American Beauty, which I, rather predictably, found to be total crap. [↩]
- Swofford writes like the creative writing teacher he used to be, at St. Mary’s College in sunny Cal. If you want to know what a thirty-something college professor’s testicles smell like, read this book [↩]
- Yeah, I’m guessing here. But if I were an ex-Marine, I would know exactly what kind of movie old Sam would want to make about me. And I wouldn’t let him. [↩]
- In this case, the “Dear John” video — a woman sends her Marine what he thinks is his favorite movie. Instead, it’s her screwing some guy. Swofford’s book has, unsurprisingly, occasioned quite a bit of comment on the Internet. According to what I’ve read, in his book he passes off a large collection of Marine “urban legends” as happening to “a guy in my unit.” Since, in his introduction, he carefully excuses himself from the burden of accuracy (“Thus what follows is neither true nor false but what I know“), I find this easy to believe [↩]
- To get the party started, Swofford goes to a company clerk to buy a couple of gallons of hooch. The dude is writing a love letter (really a fuck letter) for a captain. “Is this why I studied classics at Dartmouth?” he asks. Generally, I’m opposed to premeditated murder, but I’d gladly put a bullet in the guy who wrote that line. And no jury in the world would convict me [↩]
- General Lee, or “Marse Robert” as we used to call him back home in the Old Dominion, had a pretty good line about war too: “It is well that war is so horrible. Otherwise, we should grow fond of it.” Because it is fun pushing other people around, as long as they can’t push back. [↩]