“Jarhead” from 2005 is not a war movie in the accepted sense, even though it follows the adventures of its lead character from Camp Pendleton to the Saudi desert and into Iraq as part of Desert Storm in 1991. Instead, director Sam Mendes has created perhaps the first post-Vietnam film of war without heroes.
The movie is the story of one man’s descent into hell. That man is U. S. Marine Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal), who realizes his mistake when he is assigned to a company of screw-ups. His fellow marines, namely, welcome him “to the suck,” jargon for their otherwise beloved Corps, by pretending to burn a crude USMC brand into his leg.
“Jarhead” steals its most rousing war scenes from Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” which it quotes in a film-within-a-film scene, with the marines being shown that Vietnam war classic at their base movie theater. As Robert Duvall’s helicopters prepare to unleash rockets on a village, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is just about to reach its crescendo with the marines in the audience humming loudly along, suddenly the lights come up and the projection halts. A voice comes over the loudspeaker advising the soldiers they are shipping out forthwith. It’s a classic case of coitus interruptus, and the only consolation is the tinny voice urging them all to “Get some!”
But these jarheads won’t be seeing real action any time soon. Instead, they stage in the desert, train, and fight only boredom. Meanwhile Swoff is fast-tracking into insanity. Despite Sykes’s reminders that Swoff, now a marine sniper, is part of a team, no esprit de corps is evident. Camaraderie was killed at Camp Pendleton, when a marine was accidentally shot during training, a chilling foreshadowing of more senseless dying to come. Repeatedly, Swofford is filmed apart from his fellow grunts, separated by a tent flap, or venturing alone to parlay with some Arab men in the desert. Swofford speaks some Arabic, but his developed intellect also further isolates him from his fellow marines, many of whom are portrayed here as stupid.
If the viewer has any doubts that hell is the destination, they are swept away when “The Mother of all Battles” finally begins and Swofford’s unit heads into the Iraqi desert to get some. The cinematography of war in the oil fields of Iraq is hauntingly original, with burning oil wells, soot-covered sand, and even an oil-soaked Arabian steed.
In one scene, Swoff wanders off and finds the burnt body of an Iraqi, with whom he sits, assuring the charred corpse that they both have had a rough day. Swofford accepts his situation with the existentialism of the hero of “The Stranger,” Meursault, who kills one more Arab in Camus’ book than Swoff does during Desert Storm.
When Swofford and his sniper teammate return from a mission and discover their unit celebrating insanely in the desert night, we are given an homage to Coppola's inspiration for “Apocalypse Now,” namely, Joseph Conrad's novella "Heart of Darkness," and shown a visceral vision of the breakdown of civilization. These half-naked marines dancing wildly in the firelight could, for all their apparent savagery, be the very cannibals of the Congo described in Conrad's book.
After the war, Swofford returns to civilian life and loses the high and tight Marine haircut, the style that spawned the term jarhead. But Swoff can’t lose the suck, that stays with him.