English Title: Jarhead

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: Universal Pictures

Director: Sam Mendes

Producer(s): Lucy Fisher, Douglas Wick

Screenplay: William Broyles Jr

Cinematographer: Roger Deakins

Art Director: Stefan Dechant, Marco Niro, Christina Ann Wilson

Editor: Walter Murch

Runtime: 125 minutes

Genre: War

Starring/Cast: Chris Cooper, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard

Year: 2005

Volume: American - Hollywood


It is 1989 and young Swoff is feeling a tad apprehensive about starting basic training at US Marine Corps Camp Pendleton. Attempting to get out of boot camp, he fakes illness but instead gets picked to join an elite unit of eight scout/snipers under the command of Staff Sergeant Sykes. By age 20, Swoff is a trained killing machine with a state-of-the-art rifle and best friend Troy as his spotter. When Iraq invades Kuwait, Swoff’s unit flies to the Saudi Arabian desert to protect the Saudi oil fields. Swoff waits anxiously for the war to begin, struggling to keep from losing his mind out of sheer boredom and carnal fear. After an interminable wait, war finally breaks out. The eight Marine scout/snipers and Sykes join Operation Desert Storm at the Kuwaiti border, where they come face to face with ‘friendly fire’, civilian casualties, and the reality that this war will not be won by the soldiers on the ground.


Although Hollywood has not been forthcoming with films depicting the first Gulf War; it has given us Jarhead, the exceptional third feature by Sam Mendes (American Beauty [1999[). As in Anthony Swofford’s 2003 best-seller on which the film is based, the Vietnam War is a recurring theme throughout. Before deploying, Swoff and his fellow Marines watch the film Apocalypse Now (1979) to get fired up for battle. This scene expresses how Swoff’s generation of Marines, whose fathers fought in Vietnam, hunger for a war they can call their own. Yet Mendes forgoes the heavy action sequences and spectacular heroics typical of war films and in contemporaries, Black Hawk Down (2001) and Enemy at the Gates (2001). ‘Every war is different, every war is the same’, Swoff reflects. One could say the same thing about every war film. Jarhead is as much a film about what it is like to be a young Marine going to fight in a modern technological war as it is a film about the difficulties in surviving a long tour in the desert. 

The Marines are rigged out to handle anything the enemy might throw at them, even Saddam’s chemical weapons, but nothing could prepare the men for the long period of waiting that lies ahead. Director of Photography Roger Deakins, known for his work with the Coen brothers, uses time-lapse photography superbly to capture the exasperating boredom of killing time in the desert. Images of sand evoke the passing of time, like grains of sand flowing through an hourglass. When the sands of time run out, what materializes is, in fact, not a month of Sundays spent tarrying in the desert but a brief moment in human history, and one that will never leave Swoff as long as he lives. The third act is a fluid blend of cinematography with visual effects. Deakins’s remarkably-steady handheld camera keeps all attention on the characters, and not on special effects. The infinite beige landscape becomes stained with black as oil engulfs the frame. Oil well fires shoot up vertically against the horizon. Clouds of vaporized oil cast a black shadow over the sky, recalling Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992). References are made to Giant (1956) and ‘big oil’, but Jarhead deftly avoids any political point of view.  When a debate sparks up amongst the scout/snipers, Troy promptly extinguishes it, saying, ‘Fuck politics, all right. We’re here. All the rest is bullshit.’ With his well-wrought adaptation of Swofford’s memoir, screenwriter, William Broyles Jr articulates both the universality as well as the surrealism of what it is like to go to war. 

In the new cycle of Hollywood Iraq-Afghanistan-war-themed films, Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker (2009), like Jarhead, manages to avoid taking a political position, whereas Green Zone (2010) states its message about power and politics most conspicuously. Green Zone is the antithesis of Jarhead in its willingness to take a political stance, following the formula of a conspiracy thriller to suit its Bourne trilogy audience. Others such as In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Stop Loss (2008) are stories that follow soldier’s post-combat lives – as Jarhead did in covering how Swoff and Fergus cope with Troy’s post-war tragedy. It will be interesting to witness Jarhead’s impact on the next generation of war films. Will tomorrow’s war films be about characters that grew up watching Jarhead, as Jarhead is a film about soldiers who grew up watching Platoon (1986)? In Platoon, Stone brings the Vietnam War into question, but the film is often appropriated as a glorifier of war rather than one that raises issues for further discussion. Jarhead is a definite question-raiser, and the broader question being: Will there continue to be a place for this discussion in Hollywood?

Author of this review: Carrie Giunta