When Anthony Swofford's Jarhead was first published in 2003, it offered an insider's view of young man's life in the first Gulf War. Swofford's deeply personal memoir detailed his time as a Marine sniper in the Persian Gulf, as he and his fellow jarheads waited with a mix of excitement and dread for the moment they had been trained for—the opportunity to kill (and maybe die) for their country.
After American Beauty director Sam Mendes' new film version of Jarhead staring Jake Gyllenhaal opens this week (see review, page 67), Swofford's work, and life, will be played out on the screen for all to see. A former Portland resident, Swofford returned to town last week to talk about the Jarhead movie and the role his work has played in the cultural landscape.
WW: How involved were you with the production of the film?
Anthony Swofford: I read every draft of the script and gave really minor notes. I had a lot of confidence in everyone involved, and then especially in the actors.
What did you think of the finished film?
I think it's great. It's a really artful, thoughtful adaptation of my book, and then it's also it's own thing.
OK, it was a great film. But it is also an adaptation of your personal memoirs, and it is you being portrayed on the screen. What was it like watching your book and your life on the big screen?
I was watching it on many different levels. At first it was weird to see Jake [Gyllenhaal] on screen being me, getting his head shoved into a chalkboard, and then walking around with the sniper rifle that I used to carry, sitting at the range. It all feels, like, very real. That was me a long time ago—that was 15 years ago that I lived this. As the writer, it's not just the life, it's my work, which in some ways is more important to me.
Right away I was into the movie. I was seeing this character created on screen, the characters around him, his family, and it's a great narrative. I was checking it for authenticity to my book and it was passing all those tests. And at the same time, I was into watching the movie. I thought I was watching a great movie.
In the book you wrote about watching films like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now that were intended to be anti-war films, but to you and other Marines they were pro-war movies that got you motivated to go into combat. How do you think Jarhead will be viewed?
It's not an anti-war film, just like the book is not an anti-war book. It's a book about war and a young man who decides at a young age that he wants to go fight and kill for his country, and that's the view. We've seen Saving Private Ryan, and we've seen The Thin Red Line. We've seen the gore, the lost legs, the sucking chest wounds, we know that, yes, war is brutal and men die heinous deaths. But in Jarhead, they're chasing war, they're after it, and it's something that they want and something
that they're good at it if they can find it, and that's one of the
There are many books and films about past wars and veterans that have defined a particular generation. Is Jarhead that type of defining work?
For our generation I think it is. I get emails from guys who were in the Gulf War and they say, "I gave my mom your book. I told her, 'You're not gonna like the language, but read this book and you'll understand me, because you ask me all these questions and I could never answer them for you and I haven't been able to really explain who I was. This is me in this book.'"
I think this film will do the same thing. It's opening up this really privatized world. You join the Marine Corps and one of the first things they tell you is you're going to be a Marine, you're going to kill and you might die for your country. That makes you different and better than anyone else outside of these gates. And that's really post-Vietnam because the military got slammed by the civilian world during Vietnam and after. So there was sort of this cloistered world, and the film opens it up. Look at these guys. This is who they are.