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Film / Jarhead

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"A story: A man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war. And afterward he turns the rifle in at the armory, and he believes he's finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands, love a woman, build a house, change his son's diaper; his hands remember the rifle."

A 2005 war drama film directed by Sam Mendes and adapted from the eponymous 2003 autobiography of Marine scout sniper Anthony Swofford, starring Jake Gyllenhaal (as Swofford), Jamie Foxx, and Peter Sarsgaard.

Set before, during, and after the Gulf War, Swofford's account of his time in the military stands in contrast to more traditional works: being largely an air campaign, Swofford's unit (like many other ground troops) saw little engagement with enemy forces; averting boredom and mental fatigue are more of the day-to-day activities than actual firefights.

Along with documenting the minutiae of military life during basic training and the campaign, Swofford gives background on the types of people that are his fellow Marines.

This work contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: Released in 2005, set in 1989-1991. Intentional, as the United States was going through a virtually identical war at the time.
  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Swofford finds out first-hand how much this can suck.
    • Enough marriages and relationships fell apart that the battalion built a collage/leaderboard of photos and Dear John letters.
  • Actionized Sequel: It got three Direct to Video versions - Jarhead 2: Fields of Fire, Jarhead 3: The Siege, and Jarhead: Law of Return.
  • Beastly Bloodsports: The Marines are shown passing the time by getting two scorpions to fight each other to the death. The smaller one's death saddens its keeper quite a bit.
  • Berserk Button: Don't call Fowler "squishy-face." And don't try and steal Troy's kill shot.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Swofford gets to go home after The Gulf War ends and all of his platoon mates make it back with him with most of them receiving promotions. However the marine's life is forever changed as not only does he discover that his girlfriend has left him for someone else, he has also become hollowed by his experience on his tour. We get a quick montage of the other marines and while a few of them are shown to be living happy lives, like Cortez with his family, some are now working in dead end retail jobs and Troy dies in a car accident. Finally, the epilogue reveals that Sgt. Sykes would return to Iraq once again later in his career.
  • Blood Knight: Brutally deconstructed. The Marines are in it for fun and glory, actively seeking combat and kills... only for the modern warfare to make them obsolete spectators of airstrikes and mobile artillery barrages, with most time spend on guard duty in a camp and passively waiting, bored out of their minds. The story also inspects what kind of effect boredom as such has on soldiers.
  • Call-Forward: Towards the end, when the Marines are rejoicing at getting to go home, one of them screams "We never have to come back to this shit-hole again!" In the epilogue, we learn that Sykes wound up serving in the second Iraq War.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Swofford suffers one after a call to his girlfriend gets disconnected earlier that day and makes him obsess over what she might be doing while he is gone.
  • Cavalry Betrayal: Almost occurs when the Marines call in A-10 ground attack aircraft to provide support during a battle, only for the A-10's to mistake them for the enemy and nearly kill them all with the bombing run.
  • Chekhov's Skill: In a deleted scene, Swofford and Troy use their sniper rifles to spy on their regimental commander during a meeting and write down everything on the map board so they know what the war situation looks like.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: This is just Standard Operating Procedure for a bunch of rowdy young marines bored out of their minds.
  • Cold Sniper: Averted by the personality types of the platoon, but played straight in the mentality the scout snipers are taught to embody when working in the field. The marines actively desire "getting a kill."
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Invoked in-universe while the marines watch Apocalypse Now.
  • Double Entendre: A stewardess gives as good as she gets when passing out packets of nuts, and a Marine asks if she can warm up his own. She responds, "I don't think I like the little ones."
  • The Dreaded Toilet Duty: In one scene, Swofford is assigned latrine duty at the base. It is showcased to be heavy and disgusting work, in the desert's incessant heat, with Swofford barely able to hold back a desire to puke from the smell even with the gas mask he's wearing. The latrine's container for the feces also has "Abandon all Hope" written on the side.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Drill Instructor Fitch reacts to a smart-ass response by smashing Swofford's head into a chalkboard. In the novel, Fitch was cruel even by Marine standardsnote  — he was eventually busted by a passing Officer seeing him go too far. Swofford regrets participating in helping Fitch get busted, as he felt, however vicious and sadistic he was, it was unfair.
  • Facial Dialogue: When Kruger, a notable dissenter in almost every conversation, is told he cannot comment against the war on camera, his responses to a reporter are given by this.
  • Firing in the Air a Lot: Happens at the end of the movie when Swofford's squad finds out that the war is over.
  • Foreshadowing: There's a scene where a married Marine is ostensibly sent a VHS movie by his wife. Thinking it's a regular movie, he watches it with his fellow Marines, but as the movie plays it suddenly cuts to a spliced-in home video of a woman and a man engaging in coitus. The Marine quickly realizes it's his wife cheating on him with their neighbor and freaks out. Before the movie began, he rubbed the wedding ring on his finger profusely.
  • Gay Bravado: Jarhead has an entire mock-orgy, just out of view of a TV camera.
  • Genre Deconstruction: Can be considered a Deconstruction of war movies, showing how the traditional war movie scenario would play out in the modern age. In the age of computerized warfare, eager young men join the military wanting to serve their country and prove themselves, but often never actually make it to the front lines and, in the end, are left with crippling feelings of inadequacy when they end up spending more time battling alienation and loneliness than battling the enemy. By the end of the movie, the only time Swofford has shot a weapon is into the air when it turns out the invasion's complete.
    Troy: You can shoot how far? A thousand yards? To go that far in Vietnam, it'd take a week. In World War I, a year. Here? It'll take about ten fucking seconds! By the time we have our rifles dialed, the war's gonna be a mile down the road! Wake up!
  • Her Boyfriend's Jacket: The girlfriend of one of the marines keeps sending him sexy photos of her wearing his uniform jackets (and nothing else). One of the other marines eventually asks if she has any clothing of her own.
  • Hiroshima as a Unit of Measure: Noted as a legitimate military tactic to quickly gauge distances: use things you know, such as the length of a football field.
    SSgt. Sykes: You take what you know, and then you multiply. Please don't use your dicks. They're too small, and I can't count that high. I don't wanna hear, "400,000 inches."
  • Inexperienced Killer: The cast do very little killing despite being snipers during the Gulf War due to the prominence of aircraft and artillery. One of them is about to shoot a high-ranking officer when he suddenly gets orders to stand down. By the end, the only time they actually use their guns is Firing in the Air a Lot once the war's over.
  • Insistent Terminology: Via use of military lingo.
    Swofford (Narrating): "A bed was a rack. A wall was a bulkhead. A shirt was a blouse. A tie was still a tie, and a belt a belt. But many other things would never be the same."
  • Married to the Job: Sgt Sykes. really likes serving in the Corps.
    SSgt. Sykes: I could be working with my brother right now. He's got a dry-wall business in Compton. Does the inside of office buildings; you know, the metal studs. I could be his partner, said he'd give me that brand new Dodge Ram Charger. You know, the 318 Magnum? The beast? All indoor work, too, lots of AC. I could sleep with my wife every night, fuck her, maybe; take my kids to school every morning. And I'd run his crews, too, probably increase productivity 40 to 50%. Make $100K a year. Do you know why I don't? Because I love this job. I thank God for every fucking day he gives me in the corps, oorah.
  • Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: A frequently recommended strategy to relieve boredom is to masturbate. But all it does is just increasing sexual frustration and mounts the tension in the camp.
  • Military Moonshiner: One, Corporal Harrigan, supplies the illegal booze for the party in Iraq.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Gyllenhall, who even appears during a Christmas party wearing only two Santa hats. Guess where they're placed.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Discussed at length in this Cracked article, which cites Jarhead as a major offender. The trailer tries to make a slow-paced character drama about the boredom and alienation of military life look like a slam-bang war thriller by stringing together footage of the few scenes where there's actually any fighting shown. They even include the scene where Fergus lights the flares on fire, which (taken out of context) makes it look like the marines are under attack. This may be intentional...
  • Nothing but Hits: Early '90s songs such as "Everybody Dance Now," "O.P.P." and Nirvana's "Something in the Way" all make appearances. At one point "Break On Through" by The Doors plays and Swofford complains that it's not period-appropriate.
    Swofford: That's Vietnam music. Can't we even get our own music?
  • Oh, Crap!: Fergus accidentally sets fire to a supply truck whilst covering Swofford's watch on Christmas Eve. When he realises that the fire is about to spread into a crate of flares, he responds appropriately.
    Fergus: Oh SHIT!
  • Pac Man Fever: When Swofford and his squad are being shipped out to Saudi Arabia, there are a few lines of dialogue referring to levels in Metroid, and that if you reach the tenth level, nothing happens, you start at the beginning again. Erm, no. The Metroid series doesn't have "levels" in the traditional gaming sense as any area can be visited at any point in the game on the condition that you have appropriate upgrades to access it. Not to mention that even the first Metroid game for the NES had a legitimate, if short, ending.
  • Pink Mist: Invoked by name, in an almost erotic way...
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: SSgt. Sykes. See A Real Man Is a Killer for the quote.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: On IMDb, somebody complained that the Marines in the film weren't wearing any nametapes on their BDU uniforms. This is actually accurate as nametapes in the USMC didn't become mandatory on the BDU until October 1992, and the movie takes place in 1990 and 1991.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Or rather, a Real Marine Is a Killer...
    SSgt. Sykes: The Bible says, "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Now hear this... FUCK. THAT. SHIT.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Staff Sergeant Sykes. He's tough and demanding but has his platoon's best interests in mind. He does his best to keep his Marines occupied with training so they don't become complacent or bored.
  • Sanity Slippage: When Swofford calmly defines his choice of firing position that could result in a friendly fire situation (from several inches away, no less), you know things are not going well. To say nothing of pointing his loaded rifle at his squadmate Fergus and threatening to kill him as both revenge for an earlier accident that got him demoted and to relieve his boredom. Troy finds out about it and is more than pissed off, ready to beat Swofford senseless, and confronts him while their squad is on patrol to force him to apologize to Fergus. Swofford finally drops his anger and snaps back to reality where he breaks down on the spot and cries.
    Swofford (Narrating): "For most problems the Marine is issued a solution. If ill, go to sickbay. If wounded, call a Corpsman. If dead, report to graves registration. If losing his mind, however, no standard solution exists."
  • Scenery Gorn: Burning oil wells over the desert, raining crude oil from the smoke-covered sky.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying: Well, it was Christmas...
  • Sergeant Rock: Staff Sergeant Sykes knows his job and knows it well. And he loves it. Oorah.
  • Sexy Shirt Switch: The girlfriend of one of the marines keeps sending him sexy photos of her wearing his uniform jackets (and nothing else). One of the other marines eventually asks if she has any clothing of her own.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran:
    • While riding a bus during a welcome-home parade, the Marines find themselves face-to-face with a ragged Vietnam War veteran who jumps onto the bus to congratulate them for winning the war, and making it "clean". The Veteran visibly breaks down and sits down, asking if he can ride with them for a while. The squad is visibly uncomfortable when faced with what they could possibly become.
    • More from the realization that they're getting a parade and a rousing welcome home for not actually doing anything, while the Vietnam vet, who really fought and lost buddies, was remembering how he was cold-shouldered on his own return.
  • Sophisticated as Hell:
    • A lot of the Marines have Hidden Depths; Troy quotes Hemingway, Swofford is obviously well-read and the platoon's Military Moonshiner, Harrigan, studied Classics at Dartmouth.
    • Justified in Swofford's case, since the movie is based on the real Anthony Swofford's memoir. After serving in the Marines, Swofford went on to get an English degree and become a successful writer.
  • Southern-Fried Private: Kruger, played brilliantly by Lucas Black. Subverts it somewhat by being the group skeptic and rather tuned-in to the harsh realities of his situation.
  • Spell My Name With An S: Staff Sergeant Sykes often has his name misspelled by other media, the most common of which being 'Sieks'.
  • Tempting Fate: "Them paintball bullets, they hurt?"
  • Understatement: "It was shortly after meeting Drill Instructor Fitch that I realized that joining the Marine Corps might have been a bad decision."
  • The Unfought: Swofford is a sniper who never gets an order to fire a single shot. At the movie's climax he is finally ordered to target an enemy officer, and has him in his sights... when Command decides to just bomb the place instead. Swofford even takes note of the fact that this is the first time he has actually seen the enemy since the war began.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Swofford’s account has been heavily questioned by numerous Marines and Gulf War veterans. Here is one example. For instance, the story about his Japanese girlfriend sneaking into the barracks and spending the night with him on Okinawa is decidedly unlikely considering that barracks was composed entirely of open squad bays with zero privacy, and many feel that his admission of stealing from other Marines indicates a lack of credibility.
  • Vanilla Edition: The blu-ray version of the film, while featuring a high-definition transfer, has none of the DVD release's special menus, extended/deleted scenes or behind-the-scenes featurettes.
  • War Is Hell: It is... just not for the usual reasons. In the Gulf War, soldiers often spent more time battling alienation and loneliness than the enemy. Due to the brevity of the war, they often had to deal with pent-up energy when they never actually saw a battle.

"A story: A man fires a rifle for many years. and he goes to war. And afterwards he comes home, and he sees that whatever else he may do with his life - build a house, love a woman, change his son's diaper - he will always remain a jarhead. And all the jarheads killing and dying, they will always be me. We are still in the desert."