Jarhead (2005)

Dir. Sam Mendes

Written by: William Broyles Jr. (from the book by Anthony Swofford)

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Skarsgaard, Jamie Foxx


For this week’s post, I thought that it would be fun to dig up some of my old work and share it here. Jarhead is a movie that I chose to write about for a term paper during my capstone course in Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. My guess is that I wrote this paper sometime in the Fall of 2006. One of my areas of special interest during my time at Pitt was delving into filmic depictions of masculinity, and examining the way that action cinema has dictated and defined ideal masculinity throughout the ages. As such, I chose to write one of my papers about the problematic and reductive depictions of masculinity in the film Jarhead, and I wanted to reproduce that writing here for posterity. The original files of most of my undergraduate and graduate writings have been lost, victims of various hard drive crashes and my own failure to adequately care for and back up my data, but I still have hard copies of much of my work, so I retyped this paper from over a decade ago. The structure of this post will be significantly different from most of my other writing on this blog, but I hope that some people enjoy it. I enjoyed the opportunity to engage with my own writing and reassess some of my more youthful opinions, but I resisted the urge to editorialize, aside from removing page citations in the body of the text for ease of reading.

I don’t know if I feel like I’m a better or a worse writer than I was when I was producing more academically-styled work, but at the very least I think that I’ve settled into a tone and voice over the course of the first couple of years of this project. This was certainly an interesting exercise that allowed me to see how different my writing style is now from what it was when I was 21, and how some of my opinions on the subjects that are skirted around in this essay and which dominate the discourse around the state of masculinity and gender relations in America today, have changed and evolved from that time. Though it may have been in use at the time, I had certainly never heard the term “toxic masculinity” in 2006, but I think that that is absolutely what is on display in the movie Jarhead and what is at the root cause of the limbo space that the film’s characters find themselves in with regards to what Susan Jefford’s refers to as “externalized” and “internalized” screen masculinities. This status of uncertainty with regards to appropriate or normalized masculine expression leads the characters to exhibit anti-social, destructive, and violent behavior throughout the film, classic symptoms of toxic masculinity. Their lack of an outlet for the externalized forms of masculine expression in the film, and their inability to comprehend a more nuanced and internalized form of masculinity, leads the Marines to only being able to assert their manliness through effacement and degradation of some Other, typically a woman. I don’t think I possessed the vocabulary or insight back then to express these ideas with regards to societal impact, and my essay is largely limited to the purview of academic film theory, but reading it again I realize it could have easily been titled “Jarhead, or a Primer on Problematic Male Behavior.” Anyway, here is something I wrote a long time ago.

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Masculinity Effectively Terminated in Jarhead

In her essay “Can Masculinity Be Terminated?” Susan Jeffords documents the shift in the depiction of screen masculinity in Hollywood films from one that was highly action oriented and spectacular in the 1980s, with “the male body itself becoming often the most fulfilling form of spectacle” to a more internalized screen masculinity in the early 1990s. Jeffords sees the earlier, externalized masculinity as associated with display – of the male body, of physical action – and spectacular, often violent, special effects that become associated with the male body, and serve to confirm its masculine status. According to Jeffords, this propensity to highlight the male body is a result of cultural fears and uncertainties about the status of American masculinity during a period of transition from an industrial to a service economy, and the replacement of “hot” with “cold” warfare. It is the symptom of a sort of cinematic overcompensation. One of the major features of these 1980s action films is their serialization, which Jeffords claims can be seen as attempting to answer the question of “whether and how masculinity can be reproduced successfully in a post-Vietnam, post-Civil Rights, and post-women’s movement era.” These serializations, as well as a later reconfiguration of cinematic masculinity to one that would be more in line with the values of that era serve to answer the question with an affirmative “yes, masculinity can in fact be reproduced.”

Sam Mendes’s 2005 film, Jarhead, allows the viewer to return to the same basic question that Jeffords poses in her essay and to reexamine her findings. By setting his film during the first Desert Storm conflict, and choosing for his characters the very men who must come to terms with changing societal norms of masculinity, Mendes calls into question where masculinity can, in fact, be reproduced, even in an internalized form. In this essay, I will examine the ways that Mendes’s characters show that masculinity can neither be articulated in the externalized forms that Jeffords refers to, nor can the transition to an internalized form of masculinity be fully accomplished. This will be shown through a comparison of the Marines in Jarhead with the male action heroes, both externalized and internalized, that Jeffords references in her essay.

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From the beginning of the film, Mendes begins to deconstruct his characters’ roles as male action heroes. After a brief voice over sequence, the film’s first image is of the face of new Marine, Anthony Swafford (Gyllenhaal). Through this immediate focus on his character, the audience can assume that Swafford will be the film’s protagonist, and through affiliation with the military, the audience can also assume his role as a traditional male action hero. However, the soundtrack juxtaposed with this image problematizes it, along with its assumed connotations. While the image of Swafford’s face is the first thing seen, the accompanying voice is that of his drill instructor as he says, “You are no longer black, or brown, or yellow, or red. You are now green…”. This denial of Swafford’s, and the other Marines’, individuality is the first step towards robbing them of the status of externalized male heroes. Their individual identity is to be replaced by identification within the group, and their only importance is to benefit and enhance the collective group.

Later in the scene, Swafford is again picked out of the group. The drill instructor approaches him and asks him if he is “the maggot whose father served in Vietnam.” Again, Swafford is given some level of individuality, once again indicating him as the film’s protagonist, but this individuality does not necessarily equate to a role as a male hero. The drill instructor’s attention to Swafford serves to further emasculate him as he questions Swafford’s sexuality. Later in the scene, Swafford is assigned the role of scribe for his unit, but this job also affords him no level of masculine prowess. In fact, Swafford is viewed as a form of property, with the drill instructor repeatedly referring to him as “my scribe.”

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In the next scene, the Marines’ bodies are compartmentalized and recontextualized, denying them the potential for the spectacular properties that Jeffords assigns to the externalized male heroes of the 1980s. Hands become “dickskinners”; mouths are now “receptacles.” The film’s title comes from the Marine slang for the high and tight regulation haircut which resembles a jar. As Swafford puts it in his voiceover, “the Marine’s head, by implication, therefore also a jar, an empty vessel.” With this recontextualization of the individual male body into imagistic slang terms often used by the drill instructors and fellow Marines, the individual soldier loses even the right to claim his own physical presence. The body is to be used in service to the Marine Corps, and the mind is an empty vessel to be filled by superior officers and drill instructors. In contrast to externalized male heroes such as John Rambo, who became a one-man army, fully in control of his own physical body, the Marines in Jarhead give up the rights to their bodies in order to conform to the larger group.

During his time in boot camp, Swafford is trained to become a Marine scout sniper, a high specialized position in the Marine Corps. This role as a sniper not only gives Swafford status within the group, it also gives him access to a high-powered sniper rifle, the kid of weapon that Jeffords claims offers “companion evidence of both the sufficiency and volatility” of the externalized male hero. According to Jeffords, these types of weapons become extensions of the male body, which articulate and complement the already spectacular display of that body. In Jarhead, they gain a different significance. As Swafford and the other snipers repeated the “Creed of A United States Marine,” the become equated with the machinery they now possess. They say, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Without my rifle, I am nothing. Without me, my rifle is nothing.” While John Rambo’s weapons simply stood as proof of, or a complement to, his already defined externalized masculinity, these rifles become the very definition of the Marines’ masculinity. They have no claim to an already well-defined masculine presence, since their bodies have been appropriated for use by the Marine Corps, so the rifle becomes their masculinity. This further compromises their individuality as they become equated with machines.

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A scene later in the film confirms the assumption that Mendes is questioning how Hollywood films shape the general public’s perception and ideals of masculinity. Shortly after watching Dan Rather announce that Iraqi troops have invaded Kuwait, a theater full of Marines is shown watching the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The marines shout and sing along with the film, acting along with the soldiers on the screen. They tap boxes of candy to their heads along with the Marines in the film who pack their ammunition cartridges by tapping them against their helmets. Their excitement builds to a frenzy as the helicopters approach the beach and the Vietnamese village, exploding as Swafford cries, “Shoot that motherfucker!” and the first Vietnamese people on the beach are shown being gunned down. As the excitement is reaching a fever pitch, the film is shut off, the lights in the theater raised, and a voice comes over the loudspeaker saying, “Now hear this: All personnel from 2-7 are to report, immediately, to your company area. Get some, Marines! Get Some!”

The Marines are now on their way to Iraq, but their experience of war will be highly different from that depicted in either Coppola’s film or any of the other action films that may have played a role in forming their perceptions of war and wartime masculinity. What the Marines expect is an opportunity to prove themselves as men and soldiers, and “kick some Iraqi ass,” anticipating a stay of no more than a few weeks. What actually follows, however, is a long, drawn out defensive campaign in which the Marines are only entrusted with guarding oil fields. Swafford describes the Marines’ activities: “Six times a day we gather in formation, and we hydrate. We patrol the empty desert, and we dehydrate. We throw hand grenades…into nowhere. We navigate imaginary mine fields. We fire…at…nothing, and we hydrate some more.” These activities are far from living up to the Marines’ expectations of war, expectations set by Hollywood films.

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When actual combat does break out in the film, even this does not satisfactorily allow the Marines to prove themselves as equals to their cinematic role models. Even though their Staff Sergeant (Foxx) describes his Marines as the “righteous hammer of God,” and promises that the hammer is coming down, the facts are that in modern warfare, infantry troops do not supply the brunt of the attack. After waiting to see combat for 175 days, the Marines learn that Operation: Desert Storm will be primarily fought through the air. As one Marine puts it, “this war is gonna move too fast for us. All right, we can shoot a thousand yards. To go that far in Vietnam, that would take a week, in World War I, a year. Here it’s gonna take about ten seconds.”

That prediction proves to be accurate as the Marines travel across the desert, walking through the wreckage left in the wake of earlier bombing runs. Upon finally reaching their destination and meeting up with the rest of the troops, however, Swafford and another Marine are given the task of sniping a high-ranking Iraqi officer. They finally have the opportunity to engage in real combat and prove their masculinity. They find a sniping post and Swafford gets the officer in his rifle sights. Clearance is given for him to take the shot. He readies himself to take the shot as his partner (Skarsgaard) whispers, “fire, fire, fire.” After the last “fire,” a loud crack is heard on the soundtrack, which is initially assumed to be the sound of Swafford’s rifle. This expectation is frustrated, however, as a high-ranking Marine walks in the room, causing the noise. He informs Swafford and his partner that he is going to call in an air strike and blow the entire building up, rather than letting them take out their target quietly. Swafford’s partner begs the officer to let him take the shot before the air strike arrives, but he is repeatedly denied. After this, Swafford’s partner breaks down crying, and screaming that the officer “doesn’t know what [they] go through.” Their once chance to live up to expectations of wartime masculinity is denied as two fighter planes are shown, in the reflection in the glass in front of Swafford’s face, dropping bombs on their target.

The last scene of the Marines in Iraq shows them having a bonfire to burn their desert camouflage, drinking, and playing loud music. Amidst all of this celebration, Swafford and his partner return to their unit, and admit to the rest of the Marines that they did not get their kill. Swafford says to his partner, “I never shot my rifle,” to which his partner replies, “Then do it now.” Swafford points his rifle to the sky and fires off one round, starting a ripple effect in which all of his fellow Marines begin firing thousands of rounds into the sky. The result is a frustrated, meaningless spectacle of masculine bravado. These Marines might be able to emulate the externalized male heroes that they wish so badly to be, but this world simply has no place for them anymore.

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The answer that Jeffords proposes to this dilemma is the shift from the externalized male hero to “a ‘new’ more internalized man, who thinks with his heart,” but as Mendes shows, this shift is tenuous at best. For Jeffords, the most obvious change in this shift is the change from an externalized masculinity validated by destruction to an internalized masculinity validated by production, or reproduction. Jeffords maps out this shift in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character from the first film, Terminator, to its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In the first film, the Terminator was a robot sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor, the woman who would give birth to the leader of a future human revolution against machines bent on destroying all humans. In the second film, the Terminator is again sent back in time, but this time he is sent by Sarah’s son John, with the mission to protect a 12-year-old version of John Connor from a newer, stronger Terminator. Over the course of the film, the Terminator makes the shift from a killing machine to a proctor, and eventually even takes the place of Sarah Connor as John’s “parent.”

If, as Jeffords claims, fathering is “the vehicle for that transformation” from externalized to internalized masculinity, then the Marines of Jarhead are unable to make the transformation. In the homosocial world of these soldiers, women exist only as pictures of girlfriends and wives back home, and, as is established early in the film, these girlfriends and wives are automatically to be suspected of cuckolding their men. This uncertainty of male mastery of a female partner serves to further emasculate the Marines as one scene clearly points out. On a rest and relaxation trip away from the desert, the Marines whose girlfriends have not already been hung up on the “Wall of Shame” receive packages and letter from their significant others. One wife sends her husband a copy of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. The Marines gather around to watch the film, but before the credit sequences is over, the image cuts to a couple having sex on a couch. At first, the Marines think that the wife has simply dubbed the tape over with pornography, but eventually her husband realizes that he is actually watching his wife have sex with his neighbor. He starts to break down, and cries, eventually being led out of the room by two Marines. This reversal of roles, from the soldier who is typically envisioned as sleeping with women while he is away at war while his wife waits at home, to the wife actively cuckolding her husband and then sending him a videotape and making him a passive spectator of his own betrayal is highly emasculating.

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So, the Marines’ attempts to become the sort of externalized masculine heroes that they idolize have been frustrated, and through their betrayal by wives and girlfriends, they have no families to which they can return. Without the ability to reenter society through entry into the domestic sphere of fatherhood, these characters can also not be the internalized masculine heroes. As the coda to the film shows, they simply become stuck in a sort of limbo. The Marines are given a welcoming parade upon their return to America. A Vietnam veteran jumps onto their bus and shouts “Semper Fi, Marines!” to which the Marines all cheer. But as the Vietnam veteran continues his speech, telling the Marines what a good job they have done, it becomes clear that he is lost without the Corps. Just like these Marines, his identity has become wrapped up in that of the group, and he can no longer embody either of the types of masculinity that Jeffords proposes. The unsettled looks on the faces of Swafford and the other Marines indicate that they have come to the realization that they, too, will one day become this man.

The film’s final sequence shows the key members of Swafford’s unity, presumably in the present day. Swafford returns to his girlfriend’s home only to find that another man opens the door. Others are shown working dead end jobs or becoming alcoholics. One simply stays in the Marine Corps and is shown in Iraq again. Only two seem to have successfully assimilated into society: one man is shown with a family, and the other is shown giving a presentation to a group of business men in a fancy office. At the end of the sequence Swafford is told of the death of his partner from the war, and the group is brought together one more time for the funeral. Swafford starts to cry, but slams his fist on the coffin instead, still clinging to an attempt at stoicism.

Finally, Swafford is shown at his home, alone still. He provides a voiceover, describing that once a man has been to war and held a rifle, no matter he does with his hands in his life, he will always remember the feeling of that rifle. He will always “be a Jarhead,” he says. “And all the Jarheads, killing and dying, they will always be me. We are still in the desert.” While the final line in the film is clearly meant as a political statement about the current conflict in Iraq, it also summarizes the ways that these characters remain stuck in limbo. They will always be Jarheads, unable to live up to normative masculine standards of either the externalized or internalized variety. And they will always be stuck in that metaphorical desert.