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Transcript

Friday, November 04, 2005

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. As the Iraq war goes on, the military strains to find recruits and once it does, combat soldiers have to be trained for war and prepped to kill. In the book Jarhead, one Marine's memoir of the first Gulf War, Anthony Swofford gave us a peek at one way to ready soldiers for battle: show them war movies. In the early '90s, soldiers watched films about Vietnam, anti-war films, but it seems that when the guns are blazing, the message is lost in the sound and the smoke. The movie based on Swofford's memoir, also called Jarhead, opens this weekend. We're joined now by Lawrence Weschler, director of NYU's Institute for the Humanities. He wrote about this "trouble with war movies" for the November issue of Harper's. Welcome to the show.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in Jarhead you've got Lance Corporal Anthony Swofford's account of his own experience during Operation Desert Storm, which was the first Gulf War.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Yeah, that was a clean, easy, triumphalist one, as we now remember it, at least from the America point of view.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And nearly unique in that hardly any shots were fired by troops on the ground.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: On the ground. And what was interesting, just in the lead-up to the current war, Swofford issued this memoir that he had written 10 years after the fact, and it turned out to be a much more troubled war for the people who fought it than you might have thought. And I think for a lot of people one of the most shocking things in it was the fact that in the buildup to the war, the way the Marines goosed themselves into getting ready to kill was by screening Vietnam films, many [LAUGHS], many of these really anti-war films.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It is strange. And in the movie of the book, director Sam Mendes makes use of a scene that occurred at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base in California where Swofford was stationed before shipping out to the Middle East. At that point, Swofford and his fellow Marines were watching a movie, and it wasn't just any movie.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Well, they're getting ready to go to war and they are watching "Apocalypse Now," which I think you and I remember as kind of a horrifying anti-war film, at the end of the day, but which they are experiencing, and particularly that amazing scene of the Valkyrie helicopter raid, you know, with the Wagner music and Robert Duvall. [FILM CLIP]

ROBBERT DUVALL: We'll come in low out of the rising sun and about a mile out, we'll put on the music.

MAN: Music?

ROBBERT DUVALL: Yeah, I use Wagner. It scares the hell out of the Slopes. My boys love it. [FILM CLIP UP AND UNDER]

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: This gung-ho cavalry, air cavalry colonel taking the Marines in with this incredible music and wreaking mayhem. And this horrifying scene is transmuted, in this new way of looking at it, into basically military pornography. I mean, it's basically a way of getting your rocks off, getting excited, getting ready for your first real screw. [WAGNER UP AND UNDER] It's interesting, by the way. When Wagner is premiering "The Valkyrie" in 1876, he has the orchestra not at the front of the stage but he moves them to the sides so you'll have this kind of Sensurround experience. He is basically straining toward the effect you're going to get in movies. And what he's doing is creating this thing that overwhelms you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you say that films like "Apocalypse Now" are essentially victims of the emotional power of film, that whatever the intent of the director, any depiction of horror in past wars could be used to energize soldiers on their way to a current war?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Or to energize everybody in the audience. If you think about it, I mean, there's something about the character of film itself. There's a great line of Sam Fuller's, the great director, who said that the only way you could ever really give a sense of what war is like in film is if bullets were raining out from the screen and taking out people in the audience at random in massive carnage. Now, short of that, the experience of war in film is going to be the joy, the adrenaline pump of it, and you're not going to have the complete chaos. So, oddly enough, it's not that surprising, perhaps, that these scenes can be used to rev people up, since it really doesn't present them with the full drama and the full import and the full implication of what's going on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Broyles, Jr., who is the screenwriter for Jarhead -

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Yes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: - told you that just as soldiers of today were primed on movies about Vietnam, soldiers from the '40s were primed on World War One films like "All Quiet on the Western Front" -

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Uh-huh. [AFFIRMATIVE]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: - which was pretty unflinching for its time.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Well, the soldiers, once the war gets going, they remember the scenes of the marches to war, the excitement. That's what they remember. By the way, Broyles was himself a Vietnam veteran, and so he had an interesting situation where he, who had been in Vietnam, was doing a screenplay of a film by a guy who had been in the first Gulf War, aimed at people who are in the second Gulf War, including, parenthetically, Broyles' own son, who is currently in Iraq. But he was talking about the way that men return from war and try to make cautionary tales for young men, and all the young men hear is the excitement of it. And I think that was one of the things they were playing with in Jarhead, whether they could transcend that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, a film released just before "Apocalypse Now" was "The Deer Hunter."

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Mmm.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Taken together, they were received by critics and the audience as anti-war statements, anti-Vietnam statements, anyway. But do you think that they were representative of something larger?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Well, what was interesting at the time is that both Cimino, who did "The Deer Hunter," and Coppola were making huge claims for these films. In fact, Coppola at the time was quoted as saying, "If the audience can just go and see what we did there, we'll somehow be able to get it behind us." I, at the time, I was really troubled by the aspiration of a film that would get it behind us. I mean, what kind of crazy thing was that to think?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It would cure us.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: It would cure us. And by the way, who are we to be cured? It was the Vietnamese, if anybody, who needed to be healed from it. But one of the things that was really strange is that in both those films, the central fulcrum of the films were really weird and, frankly, racist. In the case of "Apocalypse Now," you might remember, it was this notion that the Montagnard tribesmen fell under the thrall of this godlike white guy, the Brando character, who goes over the top and has to be rescued by another weird white guy. That never happened. Nothing like that is on record as having happened. Secondly, with Cimino, there [OVERTALK] -

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was derived from a Conrad novel.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: It happened in Conrad.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: It happened in something else, but it didn't happen in Vietnam [OVERTALK] -

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: -in fairness. Secondly, in Cimino's book, the key thing was the Viet Cong making American prisoners play Russian Roulette. [FILM CLIP - GUNFIRE, SHOUTING] That never happened either, and it's worth saying that. And when you've said that to people, they'd say, we're not dealing with just Vietnam, we're dealing with Conrad. We're dealing with Nietzsche. We're dealing with Hemingway. We're dealing with the big issues--masculinity, evil, horror, you know, so forth and so on. And at that point I remember just thinking, wait a second, there is nothing bigger than Vietnam. Trying to get Vietnam right is what mattered.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coppola told you that he never really thought of "Apocalypse Now" as anti-war, in any case. He thought that a true anti-war film would have to be set far away from the battlefield.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Yeah. Oddly enough, Sam Mendes and Walter Murch, and Swofford and Broyles, the screenwriter, have come up with something interesting in this case, in Jarhead. It's the character of that particular war, because indeed, for the ground forces, in the case of Swofford, who was a Marine sharpshooter, who had been trained within an inch of his life for a very particular kind of military duty, he literally doesn't fire a shot. This was an entirely one-sided war, the one side in question being the air. America had air supremacy. It had been such incredible slaughter of what, at the end of the day, were just draftees in Saddam's army. So, on the one hand you have no scenes of kind of dynamic, exciting battle. On the other hand, you see book-involved kinds of situations, like "talk about the horror," which was a great line in "Apocalypse Now."

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: But you want to talk about the horror of the horror, it's what these guys saw. Remember the "highway of death?" And this is all portrayed in the movie. So oddly enough, I don't think that five years from now, videotapes of Jarhead are going to be used at Twentynine Palms to get people ready for the invasion of Syria, or, I guess Syria's five weeks from now. I don't know, with [LAUGHS] the way things are going. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because not enough bang-bang?

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: The wrong kind of bang-bang. What the movie asks is who gets to screw who, and who gets screwed?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much.

LAWRENCE WESCHLER: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lawrence Weschler is the director of New York University's Institute for the Humanities. His article, titled "Valkyries over Iraq," appears in the November issue of Harper's Magazine. [FILM CLIP]

JAKE GYLLENHAAL AS SWOF: See that kid? The one dreaming of serving his country? [REVEILLE] That jarhead is me. [END FILM CLIP]

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