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Jarhead (Nov., 2005)

I blew it. And I must apologize to all the Marines who read my Jarhead column in the newspapers in early November.

I confused "Hoo-Ah" (the Army shout of choice) with "Oo-Rah," the Marine cry.

I got numerous emails on the mistake, the great majority of them friendly. So, I hereby grovel to all you Marines, and offer you my amended column. "Oo-Rah!"

Jarhead: The Few, The Proud, The Profane
By Cathy Schultz, 11/2/05

The Few. The Proud.

The really, really foul-mouthed.

Okay, that last line isn't part of the Marine slogan. But it did cross my mind while watching Jarhead, the searing, often savagely funny look at Marines during Operation Desert Storm.

Based on Anthony Swofford's fierce memoir, Jarhead is not so much a study of Desert Storm as it is a study of Marine culture and the men who embrace it-sometimes reveling in it, sometimes despising it.

And always, always cursing their way through it.

Q. Oh, come on. Do Marines really curse any more than those serving in the Army, Navy, or Air Force?
A. I watched this film, read Swofford's memoir, and spoke with a number of Marine veterans.

The consensus among Marines?

Yes, they are the crudest and most foul-mouthed of the bunch. And they're *bleeping* proud of it. Oo-rah.

Q. 'Oo-rah' is heard a lot in the film. What does it mean?
A. It's similar to the Army's cry of "Hu-Ahh!" which apparently derived from the acronym HUA, which was used over the radio to mean, 'Heard, Understood, Acknowledged.' Oo-rah has evolved into the all-purpose Marine response, denoting a 'yes,' a cheer, a greeting, a grunt. It can apparently signify just about everything except 'no.'

Q. Why 'Jarhead?'
A. It's the self-derogatory nickname Marines have for themselves. The high and tight haircuts they sport make their heads look like jars, especially when observed from behind. 'Grunt' is another common nickname.

Q. Discussion of sex is constant among these characters. Isn't this a bit over the top?
A. Well, never having been in the military, I can't say. But it certainly was the reality for Swofford, and the men with whom he served. An early scene in the film shows a seventeen-year-old Swofford being regaled by a Marine recruiter with stories of all the foreign prostitutes he could score as a Marine.

And apparently, that was just the beginning.

The film suggests that the thoughts and conversations of Marines--at least those in Swofford's platoon--revolve around all sex, all the time. They obsess over various things they'd like to do to women, and obsess even more on the various things their wives and girlfriends might be doing with other men.

Q. Were Vietnam War movies really their favorite films to watch?
A. Apparently so, and I found this detail fascinating, if unnerving. The film shows Marines stationed in Saudi Arabia, gleefully cheering scenes while watching supposedly anti-war films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. Scenes which directors Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola intended to cause revulsion in their viewers are instead met with raucous, rowdy cheers by Marine audiences.

In the film, Marines cheer the loudest during one of Apocalypse Now's most chilling scenes-the helicopters dropping napalm on villagers while booming out Wagner's 'Ride Of The Valkyries' on speakers.

Defying the films' anti-war message, the Marines instead celebrate the macabre exhilaration of fighting and killing. One has to wonder if a generation from now, Marines on their way to war will cheer wildly while watching Jarhead.

Q. At one point, Swofford puts a gun to the head of another Marine, and then to his own head. Was that just the filmmaker's dramatic license?
A. Swofford pulls no punches in his memoir, especially not in his description of the young man he was then. Both these chilling events happened. He neither justifies them, nor adequately explains them.

Q. How accurately is the Persian Gulf War depicted?
A. This is an unusual war movie, in that there are no real battles, and in fact little actual combat depicted.

But then again, the Persian Gulf War was an unusual war, which is perhaps more apparent now, two years into a far more difficult military conflict in Iraq.

The Persian Gulf War was fast-the ground war lasted only four days and four hours from start to finish. It was an air war, dominated by overwhelming American firepower. A war in which the traditional American foot soldiers literally couldn't keep pace with the rapidly moving front line.

This film is not so much a study of the war, but more a study of a handful of the Marines who slogged through it. Men who came under both friendly and unfriendly fire. Who worried lest the war pass them by too quickly. Who encountered charred Iraqi corpses, and the burning oil wells of Kuwait.

But who never found a living, breathing enemy whom they could shoot.

Q. What's a good book for more information?
A. Read Swofford's own best-selling book of the same name. It's not the definitive war memoir, but it's a compelling one.

In the same way, the film, Jarhead, isn't the definitive film about Desert Storm, much less the definitive war film. And it certainly won't entice anyone to join the Marines.

But it will create in viewers a grudging respect for Marines, and for all the men and women we send off to fight for us. Which is, I think, exactly the kind of reaction author Swofford and director Sam Mendes would have hoped for.


By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.

Jarhead - Plot Summary from comingsoon.net:
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard. "Jarhead" (the self-imposed moniker of the Marines) follows "Swoff" (Gyllenhaal), a third-generation enlistee, from a sobering stint in boot camp to active duty, sporting a sniper's rifle and a hundred-pound ruck on his back through Middle East deserts with no cover from intolerable heat or from Iraqi soldiers, always potentially just over the next horizon. Swoff and his fellow Marines sustain themselves with sardonic humanity and wicked comedy on blazing desert fields in a country they don't understand against an enemy they can't see for a cause they don't fully fathom.

Foxx portrays Sergeant Sykes, a Marine lifer who heads up Swofford's scout/sniper platoon, while Sarsgaard is Swoff's friend and mentor, Troy, a die-hard member of STA-their elite Marine Unit.

An irreverent and true account of a war that was antiseptically packaged a decade ago, "Jarhead" is laced with dark wit, honest inquisition and episodes that are at once surreal and poignant, tragic and absurd.

"Jarhead" is based on Marine Anthony Swofford's bracing memoir that took readers into his disorienting firsthand experience in the Gulf War.


A Persian Gulf Christmas...

I suppose their shaved heads look like jars from the back. Sort of...

© 2004 History in the Movies