The Big Picture
- Jarhead challenges the disconnect between war films’ anti-war texts and their visually grand and exciting portrayals of war.
- The film highlights the hollowing out of soldiers and their desire for violent catharsis that is never fulfilled in actual combat.
- Jarhead critiques war films for visually glorifying war while claiming to be anti-war, exposing the ideological split between the script and the camera.
In November 2005, Sam Mendes‘ Jarhead was unleashed on the world to the tune of disappointing box office numbers and a good number of middling reviews, praising the performances and bemoaning its lack of cathartic resolution. The film is based on a memoir of the same name written by Anthony Swofford, a US Marine who served in the Gulf War as a sniper. The memoir itself is a crude, filthy peak into the military factory that churns out soldiers, and the film is shockingly faithful to this unflattering depiction of the US Army and modern warfare. Jarhead almost immediately proved the point it was trying to make with these on-the-fence reviews: people watch war movies for the war. This sounds obvious, but considering the desperate lunges made by filmmakers to be critical of the subject of war in their films, it strikes me as a bit contradictory. After all, it is much more common for war films to express the trauma of war now than the heroism of it, so why would cinematic violence still be the main draw of war films?
The history of war films and their relation to propaganda is long and arduous. While many directors are trying to divorce the genre from recruitment advertising, the attempts to be critical of war are failing. “War is bad, actually,” is not a contentious position for a film to stake out, in fact, it’s one of the most room-temperature opinions a person or piece of art can have, but there is a severe disconnect between the text of films about war and the visuals. Thematically, they preach against war but are all too happy to indulge in the bombast as well, the camera swooning over explosions while the script struggles to convince us that, despite how cool this looks, it’s bad. It is only anti-war in theory, not in practice. Jarhead pins this disconnect between text and framing to the vivisection table for a brutal examination, wondering aloud why we crave onscreen blood in what’s supposed to be an exercise in pro-peace.
Why ‘Jarhead’ Refuses To Give in to Violence
The film version of Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, with all the expected grace) is broken down alongside his peers at the hands of the US Army. One recruit, in particular, doesn’t even survive training due to the live round used to simulate combat. However, the intensity of the training is seldom matched with being on the field. When asked why he joined the Marines, Swofford replies that he “got lost on the way to college.” Joining the army gave him, and all his peers, a distinct purpose: fight in a war.
In the first few minutes of Jarhead, Drill Instructor Fitch (Scott MacDonald) declares the fresh recruits “green,” as in army green, an identity and purpose that overrides all else. From then on out, the characters have the single goal of participating in war. Swofford and his fellow recruits are hollowed out at the hands of their instructors, hence the name Jarhead, an “empty vessel.” Jarhead encourages the audience to feel the same jittery bloodlust and anticipation as the soldiers, positioning war as the reward for making it through training like a carrot dangled in front of a horse before unceremoniously snatching it away. The purpose that these recruits were given by the military is never fulfilled. All their unexercised anger, restlessness, and need for violent catharsis goes unexercised; the characters never see actual combat. Swofford’s friend and spotter Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) practically begs an officer to make a kill shot, and openly sobs when denied. Troy’s need for a successful kill was not a born trait, but a developed one just the same as his fellow Marines. The training sequences and overall excitement for battle create a visceral need for the typical bloody thrills of the genre and then leave us empty to wonder why we’d been so excited for violence in an anti-war film in the first place.
Jarhead is not particularly subtle about its critique of war films and how, despite anti-war sentiments, they are not viewed as anti-war. Rather, they are often seen as a celebration of war. One of the more unnerving sequences of Jarhead has the Marines watching the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ scene from Apocalypse Now to hype themselves up for an incoming assignment. They sing along to the music, cheering as a swarm of helicopters closes in on civilians. Our protagonist is not immune to the thrill, basking in the violence with as much enthusiasm as his peers, shouting at the screen gleefully as bombs are dropped on women and children. Apocalypse Now is used as a joyous, violent fantasy of war in Jarhead, despite it often being cited as an anti-war film. Evidently, that is not how it has been received, a thought which even director Francis Ford Coppola has conceded to: “[Anti-war films] shouldn’t have sequences of violence that inspire a lust for violence,” he told The Guardian. “That’s not anti-war.”
How Does ‘Jarhead’ Get Its Critique of War Across?
As an audiovisual medium, the bottom line of any film will not be decided by the script, but by the framing. The camera ultimately decides what is being said with any particular shot, edit, or sequence. So what is it saying when a war film speaks out against war, but visually insists that war is grand and important? Of course, people remember the violence. Text is always subjugated by framing, and beyond that, framing will always have a lasting impact on audiences. If a film is presenting the horrors of war, it also is inevitably going to present a cinematic, exciting version of war. The adrenaline, the feeling of nobility –that is what people generally watch war films for. Even the grittiest, dirtiest, and most disturbing war films are still visually glorifying acts of war, inviting audiences to experience it as entertainment. On paper, a film may be incredibly dedicated to an anti-war stance! It might have a lot to say about the issue and can be textually read as critical, but none of that matters when, on screen, war is an exercise of spectacle.
War is bad, the film says, but we do love to see big explosions and those selfless soldiers on the big screen, don’t we? Isn’t war terrible? But isn’t it also kind of cool and badass? There is an ideological split between the script and the camera, where one bemoans the horrors, and the other is sure to capture those horrors in high definition. If a movie spends its time ogling militant strength, that is what people will remember about it. This was the expectation going into Jarhead, which was promptly smacked down as it asserts that there is nothing noble or good to be found in war. The primary fight of the film isn’t against enemy combatants but against sheer boredom and lack of purpose. War in Jarhead is a distant, unfulfilled promise made to young men who have been mentally destroyed and physically exhausted for the sake of absolutely nothing. Its text works with the framing instead of against it, coming to the bleak conclusion that not only is war traumatic, but war is also ignoble. There is no excitement in war, just a slow oscillation between fear and impatience. The most action-packed moment in Jarhead isn’t even from Jarhead, it’s from Apocalypse Now, a manufactured attempt to mimic war at its most epic.
It gives no heroism to the Marines, just a vague sense of sorrow, and the looming knowledge that not all of them will be able to reintegrate. Troy’s inability to adapt to everyday life is most clearly highlighted: he quite literally could not survive the process of going home without having done what he trained for, and he takes his own life. The lack of release is carried with them back into normal society, with Swofford, in ghoulish irony, only having fired his weapon twice: once directly before the war, and once after, but never during. War is disgusting and listless, says Jarhead, it is not adventurous or important. Its refusal to give in to violent impulses, despite being what people watch the genre for, is a sharp, unspoken glare sent in the direction of action-heavy war films that claim to be anti-war, and beyond that left many audiences unsettled by their desire to witness violence. The critique of war is matched by the visuals, not outpaced by them.