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Jarhead - directed by Sam Mendes

Wednesday 22 February 2006

“Thou shalt not kill… Well, hear this! Fuck that shit!”

Based on Anthony Swofford’s best-selling book about his experiences fighting in the first Gulf war, Jarhead gives us a very real vision about what it was to be in the US Marines at that time. After years of training “to kill”, Swofford was sent in to the dry desert areas of Saudi Arabia, a few kilometres from the Iraqi frontier. They spent over 175 days parked there, waiting for orders to go in and transform their cardboard targets into living “rag heads”… And in the end, Swofford and his Jarhead buddies did go to war. It lasted 4 days, 4 hours and 1 minute.

The film is a narrative about the boredom experienced day in, day out, by the US army as it waited. War is a horrible thing. But waiting for it to happen is much worst… And Swofford puts it very clearly to himself: “This is our labour. We wait…” Some wait in hope that the training they had as "killing-machines" will come of use, others wait in fear... Some go crazy waiting.

The director, Sam Mendes, put an enormous amount of emphasis on how the boredom leads the men to want combat, to want death. But as they step into an area which has been “cleared” by the US air force, some attitudes change. They are finally exposed to the death as they come across the charred remains of Iraqi citizens who were trying to flee the war zones. From then on, some begin to act in ways which will eventually get them kicked out of the army – using dead bodies as playthings – and others realize the fruitlessness of this war. This is the case for Swofford.

Sam Mendes is very imaginative as a director. He was when he directed American Beauty and he is now, even though the subject he analyses is less "poetic". He particularly insists on fantasy that comes in war-time. He will, for example, find a use for music used in previous war-films including Apocalypse Now which makes the new marines angry: "That was fucking Vietnam, man! When are we going to get our music"... We know now that they never would but this human desire to shine, to be famously heroic... In a way the fantasy is linked to the vasts amounts of testosterone leaking out in the desert.

Gyllenhaal is stunning. One of the most endearing moments comes when he recites the day’s timetable:

"Suggested techniques for the marine to use in the avoidance of boredom and loneliness. Masturbation. Re-reading of letters from unfaithful wives and girlfriends. Cleaning your rifle. Further masturbation. Re-wiring Walkman. Arguing about religion and meaning of life. Discussing in detail, every woman the marine has ever fucked. Debating differences, such as Cuban VS Mexican, Harlys VS Hondas, left VS right-handed masturbation. Further cleaning of rifle. Studying the mail-order bride catalogue. Further masturbation. Planning a marine’s first meal on return home. Imagining what a marine’s girlfriend and her man Jody are doing in the alley or in a hotel bed."


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