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Posts Tagged ‘Jarhead’

When I was in high school there was a guy who was cut from a different mold and I always wondered what happened to him. I thought of him after seeing The Hurt Locker because to be on a bomb squad one has to come from a different mold.

Daws only weighed 135 pounds and he not only played football, he was a nose guard. (Not the place for little guys.) But he was tough. His helmet actually had the paint scratched off the front of it from hitting other helmets so hard. After one game which we lost we could hear him on the practice field in the dark hitting the blocking sled–which would not have the pads on it. Daws was a warrior and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t end up in the military.

One of the things I like best about The Hurt Locker is it isn’t about the war, but about the warrior. The kind of person that is more comfortable disarming a bomb than grocery shopping or updating his Facebook status.

Movies made in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, Brothers , Redacted ,  A Mighty Heart, The Messenger) have one thing in common–they don’t find much of an audience. Unfortunately, The Hurt Locker joins the club.

Unfortunately, because it’s a great film. Time magazine called it “A near-perfect movie” and recently it tied Avatar with nine Academy Award nominations. Perhaps it will find a life on DVD.

While audiences have supported many films about war (including the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, & Viet Nam) Iraq appears to be a different monster. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I can speculate. Time would seem to be the first factor. I seem to recall an interview where screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart said that one of the troubles with getting An Officer and a Gentleman made was the lingering effect of the Viet Nam War.

Keep in mind that An Officer and a Gentleman was not a movie about Viet Nam, just military centered. The movie got made and was a box office hit, but it came out in 1982–eight years after US involvement ended. Granted The Green Berets was released in 1968 (during the war in Viet Nam) but that was because it was a film John Wayne wanted to make. But generally, the war in Viet Nam was avoided by Hollywood at first.

Certainly, The Deer Hunter (1978) dealt with the lingering effects of returning home from Viet Nam, but that is still four years removed from the conflict.  Apocalypse Now is almost its own genre that transcended Viet Nam, but still didn’t come out until 1979.

I think Platoon was the first movie that was a hard look at Viet Nam that found an audience, but that was 1986– a full 12 years after the war.  Then Viet Nam was in vogue in Hollywood, Good Morning Viet Nam (1987), Full Metal Jacket. (1987) , The Hanoi Hilton (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and Born on the Fourth of July(1989).

So I think time is needed for audiences to be comfortable reflecting on Iraq. When I last checked, we were still in Iraq. We’re still in Afghanistan.  And I think we now realize we will always be in a war with terrorism.

The second reason I think audiences aren’t fond of movies about Iraq is the shear politics of the matter. It’s hard for the word propaganda not to come up. People generally don’t like to heavy-handed arguments from either side. (Though I should point out that that Michael Moore’s documnetary Fahrenheit 9/11 made $119 million domestic/$222 million worldwide (on a $6 million budget.)

And thirdly, movies are largely about entertainment. Definitions usually include the words amusement, diversion, and pleasure. That doesn’t mean we don’t make difficult films–just pointing out that it is hard for those films to find an audience no matter how well they are made. We’ll see how Buried does this spring (about a an American contractor in Iraq) –sounds like an interesting twist and was well-received at Sundance.

The Gulf War was short lives and out of that came Three Kings and Jarhead that did find audiences but the expenses were so high that the domestic box office was below their budgets. Courage Under Fire (1996) had a solid cast Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and a newcomer named Matt Damon and the budget was estimated to be below $50. million and made $60 million domestic and topped $100 million worldwide.

But with all those statistics there are said to be over  100 Iraq/Afghanistan-centered war movies in development.

How has Dear John been able to have a big box office run? I haven’t seen the film, but words that reviewers are fond of using are “syrupy,” “sentimental” and “schmaltzy.” Not the kind of film my high school friend Daws would be interested in seeing, but enough people were for it to double its money in just two weeks.

Related post: Screenwriting from Hell

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“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.
Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
Speech circa 1880

 “All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is young men die. And rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.”
                                                                    M*A*S*H, TV Program/Season One
                                                                   (Sometimes You Hear the Bullet)

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour on this day in 1941 five brothers in Waterloo, Iowa walked into a Navy recruiting station and demanded that they all serve on the same ship.  Two months later all five bothers (George, Frank, Red, Matt & Al) were photographed on the USS Juneau and became a famous band of brothers.

Nine months later they were all killed in the South Pacific in the Battle of the Guadalcanal. You can imagine the scene when the news was delivered to their parents home on Adams St. where they raised their boys.

“War is hell” is the often paraphrased Sherman quote. And that hell is full of drama so it is not surprising that there have been so many war movies.

300px-fighting_sullivans

A movie on the five brothers, The Fighting Sullivans written by  Edward Doherty and  Jules Schermer was released in 1944 and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story. (The Academy would later call the Best Story the Best Original Screenplay).

A similar story of eight brothers dying in the Civil War was the inspiration for Robert Rodat’s script Saving Private Ryan that would be nominated for 11 Academy Award and for which Steven Spielberg would win best director honors. (Private Ryan is from the fictious town of  Peyton, Iowa and I do not know if this is a minor tribute to the Sullivan Brothers who would of come up in Rodat’s research as he looked for a World War II angle.)

Just a few weeks ago The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum opened in Waterloo, Iowa. The 32,000-square-foot state-of-the art facility  is named after the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo and honors the men and women who have served in the United States Military.

Since today is Pearl Harbor Day in the US  it seemed a fitting time to look at screenwriting and war. I guess I could have called this Screenwriting from Vietnam, Screenwriting from Germany or Screenwriting from Iraq.

There have been many great movies made dealing with war because it has everything I’ve covered over the year; Strong, meaningful conflict where larger than life characters deal with life and death decisions that have consequences greater than there own lives. Actions that could in fact change the world.

The upcoming Tom Cruise film Valkyrie  appears to be in this tradition. The Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander script centers around an assassination plot against Hitler. It would be hard to film a character in history that has been at the core of  more films, TV programs, and books than Hitler. Understanding evil seems to be one of our chief preoccupations. (When we’re not Googling Britney Spears.)

One of the first films I ever remember seeing in the theater was The Green Beret starring John Wayne and David Janseen.  (And for what it’s worth Wayne was born in Iowa and Janseen in Nebraska.)  By doing the math I was seven years old when that movie came out. I didn’t see the movie again for almost 30 years but there were scenes that I have always carried with me.

The first two were booby traps where soldiers are killed (one into  a wall of spikes, maybe I was too young to see this movie) and the other was the ending where a little boy goes looking for  Sgt. Petersen who befriended the boy. But Petersen has been killed and it’s heartbreaker (at least it was for a seven-year-old viewing it) as he runs from helicopter to helicopter yelling “Peter-san,  Peter-san!”

My boyhood friends and I had no real understanding of Vietnam but we loved the concept of shooting guns, rolling off a hill of sand pretending to be shot, talking on walkie talkies, and dressing up like G.I. Joe.  I think every boy at that stage of his life is a dramatist. Making up dramatic scenarios and living them out daily. One day they’re playing with stick that’s an old west gun, the next day it’s a Medieval sword, and the next day it’s a futuristic laser.

Fast forward to when I was in high school and  Apocalypse Now was released. That made me want to be a filmmaker and make sure I avoided going into war. Because of Vietnam  the majority of young people at that time didn’t get excited about joining the military until the movie Top Gun game out in 1986 where people signed up in record numbers once again proving the influence of Hollywood. (Ironically, Platoon came out that same year.)

Here is a partial list of some of the greatest war films:

Patton
All Quiet on the Western Front
From Here to Eternity
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Schindler’s List
The Sand Pebbles
Glory
The Dirty Dozen
Battleship Potemkin
Das Boot
The Caine Mutiny
Black Hawk Down
Henry V
Letters From Iwo Jima
Gone With the Wind
Battleship Potemkin
Ran
Zulu
The Last of the Mohicans
Braveheart

Some films have dealt with war from a perspective of humor or irony:
Stalag 17
M*A*S*H
Dr. Strangelove
Catch-22
Good Morning, Vietnam
Stripes
Private Benjamin
The General
The Great Dictator

And yet other films deal with the lingering effects of returning home from war:
The Deer Hunter
Courage Under Fire
The Best Years of Our Lives
First Blood
Coming Home

“Out in the Pacific they say he was the best,
now he’s in his civvies heading home like all the rest.” 

Jimmy Buffett
Sending the Old Man Home 

Just as there were stories that emerged after World War II I believe there will be a new crop of stories emerging from Iraq. Jarhead writer Anthony Swofford not only recounted his experiences from The Gulf War but earned an MFA from the University of Iowa.  The script for that movie was written by William Broyles Jr. who himself was a Marines in Vietnam.

So there will be more stories to tell from places far away from Hollywood. Stories than help give us meaning or at least a glimmer of humanity in a world that has been at war for thousands of years.

“The next wave of Hollywood filmmakers will undoubtedly include veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their values and empathy could alter the landscape of the filmmaking industry, even the world we share.”
Liz Alani
Script  magazine/ Real Men Write 

It’s my hope that this posts finds its way to Iraq and Afghanistan where a solider or two can read it and be inspired. Thanks to all the soldiers who have fought for this country over the years and have made it such a great place to call home.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith


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