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Camus on the loo
A film review of JARHEAD by Camus (not Albert)
"I'd love for you to quote me on this, because we definitely
should not be there. But that is not what this movie is about."
Sam Mendes, director, answering the inevitable
'where do you stand on Iraq?' question quoted
in Hotdog magazine, January '06


He's absolutely right on all counts. But Jarhead is deliberately 'here it is' not 'here it is and this is how I feel about it and how you should feel about it'. Mendes just tells Anthony Swoffham's celebrated 'Desert Storm' memoir loosely but assuredly and has made a film unique for the fact that very little actually happens and yet, it's still engrossing.

This movie is about the late 90s' Gulf War as much as Gone With The Wind is a movie that examines the political intricacies of the American civil war. Jarhead is about the eroding effects of time on highly trained, inexperienced psyches with wide ranging intelligences (brow-wise mostly from the middle down to low). In their world, it's the march of the interminable minutes not enemy action that brutalizes them, chews them up and disgorges them out the other side, changed and forever skewed. Anthony Swofford went out to the Middle East, a 20 year old, third generation US soldier, ("I got lost on the way to college…") with curiosity and wit. He managed to jettison the idiosyncratic aspects of his character (and that's a good thing?) and become a marine sniper with the ambition to experience 'the red mist', the spray of fine particles of blood that blow out from a fatal bullet wound shot from hundreds of yards away. As you do.

This pretty twisted ambition comes from a young man who reads Camus (that's Albert Camus, the real McCoy) on the loo. Let's be clear. Camus was an extraordinary writer, a French existentialist who died way too young in a car crash in the year of my birth. His most famous work (the slim novel L'Etranger or as it's sometimes translated The Outsider - which is why I adopted the name for this site) is the existential work against which all others are judged. It's a safe bet that very few jarheads would (a) know what existentialism was and (b) if they found the novel in the loo, they'd be glad of the extra toilet paper. The irony here is that the life of a combat soldier (or even Swoff's team of snipers), ruled by a distinct hierarchy, is so far from the existential conceit that you could get. Essentially, existentialism is living as if we are in charge of our own destinies - how Albert would hate me for that savagely simply breakdown of an elegant and complex philosophy).

OK. So Swoff reads Camus on the loo. So if this is the case (he reads something we assume he understands), why is he such a testosterone filled moron at a screening of Apocalypse Now? Once again a modern film references a classic (to the extent of showing great swathes of the referenced work) and falling prey to what was being shown outshining the movie framing the clip. In Jarhead's case it's the extraordinary helicopter attack. Mendes couldn't have chosen a more powerful clip reminding us just how great that film is. And again with the irony. Coppola's breathtaking scene - suffused with enough of the stuff to start a foundry ("Fucking savages," says Col. Kilgore as his helicopters strafe the villagers, oh how we laughed) - is used as a backdrop for national pride. It's Vietnam for Christ's sake! The cinema full of marines cheers each missile strike, each 'gook' brought down by the might of Uncle Sam, each Wagnerian blast from the choppers. It's almost like you want to claw your way to the front of their screening and proclaim "You're all idiots! This is irony. It's meant to show how badly the American forces behaved in Vietnam!" I may have clawed my way to the front but I'd be lucky to drag myself out of the exit once the jingo jarheads had had their way with me. Even Swoff (Camus-aware Swoff) is whooping and hollering. I suspect this a nod to Kubrick's advertising campaign for Full Metal Jacket - a helmet of war with a peace badge on it. Swoff goes from intellectual to blood crazed ape in a matter of screen minutes. I think this is Mendes way of saying 'If you think a man can change in minutes think what he can turn into over the best part of a year…with nothing to do.'

A jarhead is a marine, so called for the ferociously short, back and sides that gives the adorned cranium a good stab at winning best storage jar impression at the next local fete. A jarhead could also be a generic term for an alarming cross section of men with wildly varying morals, stamina, intelligence and bravery. These men are wound up to the last gnat's hair of snapping and then shipped out to foreign climes to crack in the relative safety of another country. We all know what happens to wound up servicemen left to their own devices back home. If recent news stories are to be believed, they kill their wives, their kids and then themselves. At least they did in the US. That's a level of stress no one should ever have to deal with. So Swoff's story had enough resonance to appeal to Sam Mendes, the theatrical director and Spielberg protégé, whose first movie scooped Oscars (American Beauty) and whose second (The Road To Perdition) dared to go where no Hollywood movie had gone before - down a very dark alleyway but then catastrophically nuzzled up to the audience cooing as it approached in the third act. Reviews tell us Spielberg may have gone the same way with Munich but I will wait to see how Spielberg the concerned, artistic, Jewish historian, tackles one of the biggest, endlessly picked political scabs in human history. With Sharon (That's Israeli PM Ariel Sharon) still in hospital after his induced coma, Spielberg seems to have timed his new film uncannily well, that and getting it under the wire for potential Oscar and Bafta glory.

What is it about the drill sergeant scene that is so beloved by film-makers? I don't know (but I've been told). Some of these scenes seem mighty old. The symmetry of frame is maintained and one guy (Swoff, naturally) gets picked on. Unlike Kubrick's private Joker, Swoff makes the smartass comment and does not get promoted for it. We get the same ritualized, fetishistic, fascistic gun-loving scene ("There are many like it but this one is mine…") and it sort of seems on Marine-ville auto-pilot. There's nothing here we've not seen before (except of course it's Brokeback Mountain boy du jour Jake Gyllenhaal, very convincing as the principal jarhead, and his sidekick Peter Sarsgaard, again a solid performance but not quite as stand out as his work in Kinsey but then that's what happens when you play different characters in different movies. How dare he?)

So, they're off to kick Saddam out of Kuwait with Staff Sergeant Sykes (played with some depth by Jamie Foxx) and what do they find when they get there? Sand. Hundreds of miles of desert, hot as hell and as exciting as a punctured football. But no war. The war is happening somewhere else - and mostly conducted by the air force - and what happens to trained fighting men left alone to ponder the meaning of life itching to deal out some of its opposite? Well, they masturbate a lot and officially are advised to. They sleep, compete and they go nuts with boredom, sometimes really nuts. I had the fortune of working on a documentary about the US Marines and got to digitally leaf through hundreds of personal photos given to the crew by the guys out in Iraq. Yes, several were posed and official looking but hundreds were not which is why Abu Ghraib didn't surprise me in the slightest. Here were men (and women in this case), strong, in the prime of their physical lives, all behaving like members of the very worst frat house on campus. But it had a real decadent feel to it, like their parents weren't there to keep them in line. It felt out of control and that sits very badly on any Marine. In fact it felt like Rome and given we have a new Empire with a president that sort of fits.

Back to Jarhead. There are stand out images in Mendes' meditation ('war is really boring if you are not fighting') and all the more powerful by occurring in a movie about boredom (that's brave, whichever way you slice it, making a film with the first Gulf War as a backdrop with no combat). The nearest our 'heroes' get is almost taking a pot shot at an Iraqi officer. Sarsgaard loses it in this scene desperately wanting 'a kill' to give his screwed up life outside the military some meaning. The images that will stay with me are the oil fields ablaze (this is where CG really comes into its own, ILM take a bow for making Mexico equal the Middle East) and the appearance of an oil soaked horse, perhaps an image that is the most emotive of the film to horse lovers and those indifferent to the beasts alike. It was ineffably sad.

In all, Jarhead is a compelling study of men almost at war. What stays with you are those extraordinary images out there on the horizon, the burning oil fields and you can almost taste the fetid heat, so vividly it has been brought to the screen. I'm not sure the movie will find much favour with Uncle Oscar but who minds when a pair of gay cowboys and a Taiwanese director are about to ride off into the sunset, panniers stuffed with statuettes a-plenty? Coming soon to this site, a review of Brokeback Mountain


USA 2006
123 mins
Sam Mendes
Lucy Fisher
Douglas Wick
William D. Broyles Jr.
Matt Holloway
from the book by
Anthony Swofford
Roger Deakins
Walter Murch
Thomas Newman
production design
Dennis Gassner
Jake Gyllenhaal
Jamie Foxx
Peter Sarsgaard
Chris Cooper
review posted
7 May 2008