Political Film Society - Newsletter #239 -November 20, 2005

November 20, 2005


JarheadDirected by Sam Mendes, Jarhead is about Anthony Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who joins the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in 1989, goes to Saudi Arabia in 1990, sees combat in 1991 in Iraq, and returns home thereafter. Early, during one of the voiceovers in the movie, the title is explained to have two meanings. A "jarhead" is initially produced visually by headshaving of Marine recruits, but subsequently the head is first emptied of any individuality and then refilled during training. For example, when reporters come to the Marines in Iraq, the commanding officer tells them what to say to the cameras; one Marine remarks "Censorship!" and another objects that America is a free country; but when cameras roll, the comments are mostly hellos to friends and family back home. Whereas such films as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) demonstrate the dehumanizing aspects of combat in Vietnam, with the latter explicitly used as a training film in Jarhead, the focus here is on the training and the waiting before the combat. The plot focuses on several Marines in addition to Swoff, who evidently joined to impress a father who got a medal in Vietnam. Troy (played by Peter Sarsgaard) admits that he joined to escape imprisonment, and his criminal instincts sometimes come to the fore. Many of the rest may have joined because they wanted to enjoy the camaraderie of other young men, though their gay tendencies are closeted not only from one another but also from themselves. When Swoff first joins as a new recruit, he is subjected to on-screen bondage, leaving filmviewers to imagine that what follows is gang rape. Soon, Swoff admits in a voiceover that his mouth has become a "cum receptacle." On two occasions, several Marines are nude (in the showers, at a victory celebration). Swoff celebrates Christmas eve with a thong; the front is covered with a Santa cap that is pointing, not hanging. For visiting journalists, the Marines simulate gang rape, whereupon the press officer whisks the reporters away. Sadistic, pointless orders are given at several intervals, and punishments are sometimes meted out just for the sadomasochistic pleasure of officers as well as noncoms. Swoff's immediate superior, Staff Sergeant Sykes (played by Jamie Foxx), admits that he enjoys his job, which involves giving orders and playing daddy. The tagline is "Welcome to the suck." The combat in Iraq consists of holding a position for "four days, four hours, one minute," after which the war is over without so much as a firing of a rifle. What is the point of the film, which strangely lacks a "based on a true story" title, though the movie is based on a real Anthony Swofford, who wrote A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (2003), wherein he frankly admits that one of ways of passing the time is to masturbate? One reading of Jarhead is that the plot is an exposé about how Marines were trained in 1989, and the death of one during a simple exercise is a clue about the Darwinism that pervades the Marine Corps despite the fact that the training is irrelevant to modern warfare wherein precision firepower wins battles, not hand-to-hand combat. A second purpose, similar to Steven Zeeland's Masculine Marine: Homoeroticism in the U.S. Marine Corps (1996), is to document how the Marine experience is a lot of fun for latent homosexuals. A third insight is that the Marines appeal to those in small towns with no other employable options who are prepared to go to war without knowing why; as Swoff says to the camera, "I'm 20 years old, and I was dumb enough to sign a contract." If a purely political statement is found in Jarhead, similar to how Three Kings (1999) portrayed the same war, the message is that the Marines are ill equipped and obsolete. An eloquent scene is the Marine unit's tour of corpses, human and nonhuman, of a military unit that was bombed to smithereens, presumably by friendly fire, on the third day of the war. The final voiceover perhaps provides the best clue, saying that former Marines will never forget the experience and will remain jarheads, with a rifle always a part of their bodies; in other words, military training is a trauma that is unnecessarily dehumanizing and thereafter afflicts the families of former Marines. Accordingly, the Political Film Society nominates Jarhead as best film demonstrating the inferiority of violent forms of conflict resolution and by inference the superiority of peaceful methods
. MH

Amazon.com Music

A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles
by Anthony Swofford

Anthony Swofford weaves his experiences in war with vivid accounts of boot camp, reflections on the mythos of the marines, and remembrances of battles with lovers and family.

Amazon.com Music

Masculine Marine: Homoeroticism in the U.S. Marine Corps
by Steven Zeeland

Dissects the complexities of military hypergender. Steven Zeeland elicits astonishingly candid responses from a diverse sampling of Marines to questions about aspects of this rarely documented subculture.

Before the FallBefore the Fall, directed by Dennis Gansel, is a German film entitled Napola, which translates "National Police Institutes of Learning," with the subtitle Elite für den Führer. Titles at the end indicate that there were forty Napolas, where teenagers were trained to become SS officers. The movie focuses on the fate of Friedrich Weimer (played by Max Riemelt), who in 1942 goes to a gym to learn how to box after spending a day at work shoveling coal. On the particular day when the film begins, some Napola cadets are challenging the boys at his gym. Heinrich Vogler (played by David Striesow) is a talent scout, looking for the best boys so that he can enroll them in his Napola at Allenstein Castle, which he hopes to beat last year's winner in the boxing competition, the Potsdam Napola. Friedrich makes such a good showing in the ring against a cadet that Heinrich makes him an offer that he finds difficult to refuse--an opportunity to finish high school, become a top boxer, and membership in the elite SS. However, His anti-Nazi father (played by Alexander Held) is so strongly opposed that Friedrich leaves in the middle of the night for Allenstein. When Friedrich arrives, he is exposed to Nazi discipline, including strict physical training, a required neat dorm locker, making his bed in the prescribed manner, Nazi indoctrination, and rigorous military education. Friedrich makes an impression on the other boys because of his boxing prowess, but his chief admirer is Albericht Stein (played by Tom Schilling), who edits the school paper. Soon, Albericht invites Friedrich to the birthday party of Albericht's father, Heinrich (played by Justus von Dohnányi), governor of the military zone in which Allenstein is located. After the celebration, the men go to a boxing ring in the basement, where the father insists that Albericht fight Friedrich, a most unequal match. Clearly, Albericht is at Allenstein because of his father's influence, not due to any aptitude for military training. Indeed, Albericht criticizes Friedrich's willingness to knock out a boxing adversary, goes AWOL when the boys are ordered to track down escaped Russian POWs who are misrepresented as armed, and ultimately commits suicide. Albericht is in love with Friedrich but does not show his feelings; likewise, Friedrich is attracted to Albericht without fully understanding his homoerotic tendencies. After Albericht's suicide, Friedrich is despondent, and he is expelled from Allenstein. A title at the end indicates that there were 15,000 at the various Napolas; when the Nazis were in the last throes of the war, the cadets were sent to the front, ill trained and ill equipped, and suffered a casualty rate of 50 percent. As a film that brings to light facts about the Napolas, especially the brutal training and their fate, the Political Film Society has nominated Before the Fall as best film exposé of 2005 as well as best film raising consciousness about the inferiority of violent to peaceful methods for resolving conflict. MH