DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Jarhead  (and Fires of Kuwait)


Title:  Jarhead

Release Date:  2005

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 123 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company: Universal, Red Wagon

Director; Writer: Sam Mendes, based on book by Anthony Swofford

Producer: William D. Broyles, Jr.

Cast:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx , Brian Casey, Jacob Vargas, Laz Alonso

Technical: Full wide screen

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: military, security, Persian Gulf War, DADT


This autobiographical account of the Persian Gulf War starts out in Basic Training all right, and gets to one issue right away. Tony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) is taunted by his drill sergeant (Scott McDonald) about whether he “likes” him and is asked directly if he is gay. “No, drill sergeant, I am not gay.” (This is 1989, when the official policy was still to “ask” about sexual orientation at the time of enlistment; that would officially change in 1993 with President Clinton.) He is asked about girl friends. He is pushed around (and that’s illegal). Soon he joins his unit, and at once he is tied down, and the other guys threaten his bod – but in this case, his legs, which they threaten to disfigure and brand with an iron “USMC.” They don’t. It’s a sham, and his tie stays on. But then, throughout his deployment to Saudi Arabia for Desert Shield (after Saddam Hussein attacks Kuwait in 1990), and then Desert Storm in 1991, leading to the ground war, the Highway of Death, and the oil field fires – there is plenty of homosocial behavior, with recreation and dance parties that seem like variations of what would happen at the Velvet Nation. All this while straight soldiers worry about girl friends and find a potential mate the most important asset to live for.


All of this plays into the unit cohesion problem, as military life for a grunt is very intimate. Even more so for a Jarhead. (I once said in Army Basic on a bivouac: “The Marines is tougher than the Army.”  It is.)  And in this film, the social issues map out into history. In the big scheme of things, we will learn later that American occupation of Muslim holy lands is one motive for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As macho as the jarhead culture is in this film, the debate about letting gays serve openly in the military would occur in just two years.


Much of the film, however, is taken with them waiting out the war in the desert, taking their training—at one time forced to place football in their chemical weapons masks in 110 degree desert heat.  The film has a realism that earlier films like “Lawrence of Arabia” didn’t yield. At one point, Swoff has to play diplomat with some Arab tribesmen who have lost a camel. But when war comes—and they get only the tail end—the results are grotesque. There are plenty of charred corpses and alien landscapes.


Swoff seems a bit of his gentle self most of the time, but there are exceptions. We see Jake Gyllenhaal capable of providing a hard edge (as when he taunts a buddy who has caused a lot of problems with a rifle). He looks more rugged here; he finally is old enough to have a hairy chest (and by the way, that picture of him on a recent issue of Premiere is simply awful). One of his buddies Troy is played by Peter Sarsgaard and seems a bit mincing and out of his element. The other men are more typical jarhead material, especially the staff sergeant (Jamie Foxx) who keeps discipline, using the task of cleaning the privy when necessary. The language is salty, sexist, but only superficially homophobic. Though not shown, one has the impression that the men could become very intimate, even sexual, and never actually be “gay” as we understand it. Such is military bonding.


An important subplot concerns Swoff’s training to become a sniper. Based on his father’s example from Vietnam, he looks forward to a kill, but not as much as one of his buddies. When the time comes for one (at the end of the 100-Hour War) the Air Force takes over at the last moment.


The film shows a few clips of other films, especially Apocalypse Now (in a surprisingly colorless print).


Fires of Kuwait (1992, IMAX/Black Sun, 36 min) was a spectacular account of the “scorched earth” fires that Saddam set on the Kuwait oil fields as he retreated in 1991, and of the effort it took oil wildcats to put them out.





Related reviews:  A Few Good Men Courage Under Fire Three Kings Apocalypse Now: Redux  Lawrence of Arabia   The Ten Commandments  Zodiac


Return to movies (reviews)

Return to home page


Email me at