Jarhead: Sam Mendes’ Underestimated Movie–Interview

In the summer of 1990, Anthony Swofford, a 20-year-old, third-generation enlistee, was sent to the deserts of Saudi Arabia to fight in the first Gulf War.

In 2003, Swofford’s memoirs of that time in that space became the best-selling book Jarhead. Swofford’s book was on the New York Times best-seller list for nine weeks, and was hailed as a kind of classic, a bracing memoir of the 1991 Persian Gulf War that will go down with the best books ever written about military life. Critics praised the memoir as one of a kind, a wild passage familiar to millions of young men but rarely so well revealed.

On the Book

When I first read the book, what I responded to was the fact that the was was viewed through the prism of a very specific kind of person, Anthony Swofford (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) one who was trying to deal with and discover who he was.

Mixing Tones

I was enthralled by the mixture of machismo, comedy, surrealism and, wry observation. It was a war book like no other; abut a war like no other that might possibly be a war movie like no other.

Individual Vs. Group

Every Marine has a different experience. Every platoon has a different experienceeven of the same war. I was interested in making a movie about this particular fascinating individual and how his experiences in this war shaped him.

The Gulf War

What we remember about the Gulf War were these clean little images of these tiny little bombs perfectly hitting these toy town, bereft of any sense of human life at all. A soldier on the ground has absolutely no idea of what’s going on.

Approach to the War and Movie

To me, the interesting thing now is to enter it through a person on the ground, because that’s where we weren’t allowed to go in this particular war. Tony’s experience in the desert took what we consider normal about war and turned it on its headas if Salinger were dealing with the Gulf War.

Time Frame

I think you need time, you need hindsight, to begin to understand what you have lived through, particularly if youre going through something as seismic as a war. As often happens with huge historical events, you need a bit of distance to fully understand them. The Gulf War is certainly a different event now from what it appeared to be then.

Remembering the Gulf War

It’s fascinating to me that it took 10 or 12 years before a lot of the guys wrote memoirs about this first Gulf War. Youve got to ask yourself, Why were there so few in the intermediate aftermath of the war Why did it take this much time And I think the answer is that what seemed to them almost a non-war now, in retrospective, seems much more interesting. I think we realize now what it was part of, historically speaking. The intensity of that experience has a huge amount to tell us about what’s going on now.

Facts Vs. Impressions

Immediately after a war is finished, you get the factual accounts, the details. What weve tried to do is take the feelings, the impressions, the subjective version of the events to create a different account of this war.

Training the Actors

My intention was that all the actors experience as much of Marine life as possible. With the reality of time constraints and filming schedule, however, I knew that the best I could hope for was a somehow superficial transmutation. I wanted the actors to have some idea of what it felt like, but it was nothing compared to what the Marines go through.

Reel Vs. Real

I am one of those people who get bored of hearing actors say, We went to boot camp, and we know what it feels like to be Marines. Actors have no idea what it feels like to be Marines, and neither do I. What I wanted them to have was a physical knowledge of certain things so they could accurately portray Marines.

Pushing Physically

I pushed them physically beyond the point that I normally would with an actor, because theyre acting physically. Theyre experiencing the pain, the exhaustion, the heat. I wasn’t going to push them to the point where I had collapsed actors on my hands, but I wanted them to go a little further than they would go normally.

Intensity of Experience

The combination of the subject matter, the setting, the testosterone, and commitment made for an intense experience for everyone involved. I feel like there’s something that went on between all the actors in this production that they’ll carry with them back into their private lives. I think that they were affected deeply by the depersonalizing influence of being in the military. I think there’s a certain type of human being that seeks that’to be part of a team, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to lose themselves in something with a grand objective.

Individuality Vs. Uniform

There’s a reason why everyone looks the same, because fundamentally, they are the same. You have to be well trained to spot any insignia anywhere on a Marine uniform: no names, nothing. Everyone looks the same. It’s deep in the psychology of the Marine Corps. It’s beyond my comprehension on some level. But it’s also something I hugely admire and respect, because it’s very, very selfless.

Subjecting to the Group

I think it’s very difficult for most human beings to sublimate where they stand in the world, put it on hold and just be a body, because at the end of the day, that’s all you are when youre in a war situation.

Journey of Personal Discovery

Each actor and performance struggles for individuality within the context of the group. I wanted to take the actors by surpriseI wanted it to be a journey of discovery. Coming from the theater, the process, the journey is its own end result. And I think here, this journey has been a fascinating experience for all of us.