Herr, Michael


Herr, Michael
(1940– )
   The novelist, journalist, and screenwriter Michael Herr was born in Syracuse, New York. He filed several reports for Esquire while serving as a civilian war correspondent in Vietnam; these crystalline first-person accounts, really a series of vivid snapshots of the war, were eventually collected into a book entitled Dispatches (1977), generally considered one of the best studies of the Vietnam conflict ever penned. Herr was commissioned by Francis Ford Coppola to write the narration for Coppola’s Vietnam film, Apocalypse Now (1979), which was voiced on the soundtrack by the film’s hero, Captain Willard. “Willard’s narration is vitally important to the film’s impact,” writes film historian Karl French; “it provides a powerful commentary on the action. ”
   Not surprisingly, STANLEY KUBRICK invited Herr to collaborate with him on the screenplay for FULL METAL JACKET, derived from the novel THE SHORTTIMERS by GUSTAV HASFORD. Kubrick was impressed by Dispatches, which he much admired, as well as Herr’s contribution to Apocalypse Now. In addition, Hasford had acknowledged the influence of Dispatches on his novel.
   (Kubrick later asked Hasford to work on the screenplay of Full Metal Jacket as well. Like Herr, Hasford had been a combat correspondent in Vietnam, but as a member of the U. S. Marine Corps, he contributed reports to the corps’ own magazine, Leatherneck, from 1966 to 1968: in fact, The Short-Timers is really a fictionalized account of his own tour of duty. )
   Herr recalls in his foreword to the published screenplay that when he first met Kubrick in the spring of 1980, the director told him that he wanted to make a film about Vietnam. Herr recalled that Kubrick “didn’t have the story”; and since Dispatches was a collection of nonfiction essays, it could not serve as the groundwork for a fictional film. When Kubrick came across Hasford’s novel in 1983, he realized that he had found his story, “and he knew immediately that he wanted to film it. ” “The Short-Timers,” Kubrick later told journalist Tim Cahill,“is a very short, very beautifully and economically written book, which, like the film, leaves out the mandatory scenes . . . that seem so arbitrarily inserted into every war story and merely bog it down”—for instance,“the scene where the guy talks about his father, his girl friend,. . . . ” In addition, Kubrick biographer JOHN BAXTER points out that Kubrick was favorably inclined toward The Short-Timers because of the book’s stark simplicity,“with its terse sentences, thumbnail characterizations, and reliance on the ritualized dialogue of boot camp and the front line” (called “Gruntspeak” in the service); as such, concludes Baxter, the novel was well on its way to being a film script.
   The book’s title refers to “the short time”—385 days—of an enlisted man’s tour of duty in Vietnam, following his training period in boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. Hasford spent seven years composing his dark novel, which was rejected by several publishers over a three-year period, because it was written by a “first-timer” (an unpublished novelist), and because it was uncompromising in depicting the war in the grimmest and goriest terms imaginable. It was ultimately published by Harper and Row in 1979, after that house had initially rejected it.
   Kubrick decided to change the novel’s title, since he felt the mass audience would not know what it meant. He discovered the movie’s title while thumbing through a gun catalog. Full Metal Jacket refers to the copper casing of the rifle cartridge that is the standard ammunition employed by marines in the field. Kubrick thought the title “tough and kind of poetic,” since it symbolized the hard shell that a soldier develops in order to face combat.
   There is a passage in Dispatches that sums up the sort of war film Kubrick envisioned. Writing of the marine recruits, Herr observes, “For those who had been brought up on the powerful images of John Wayne’s mythic heroism, there was much that had to be unlearned if one was to understand what the war was about and thus stay alive. ” Kubrick’s film would be far removed from Wayne’s jingoistic, chauvinistic Green Berets (1968) as it was possible to be. Since Hasford’s book served as the source of the script of Full Metal Jacket, it is important to examine the novel itself before analyzing the screenplay. Hasford’s novel is divided into three parts. Part one,“The Spirit of the Bayonet,” is set at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island. Private James T. Davis, better known as Private Joker, the book’s narrator, portrays how the fierce, inflexible drill instructor (D. I. ), Master Gunnery Sergeant Gerheim (changed to Hartman in the film), a ranting, sadistic monomaniac, molds the raw recruits, Joker among them, into efficient fighting machines—“ministers of death. ”
   Private Leonard Pratt, christened “Gomer Pyle” by D. I. Gerheim, is relentlessly persecuted by the drill instructor because the oafish, overweight Pyle finds it hard to meet the physical demands of the training ground. Pyle becomes increasingly withdrawn and finally degenerates into madness. On the last night before he and his comrades are to be shipped overseas, Pyle confronts Gerheim in the latrine with a loaded rifle and shoots him dead, and then commits suicide with the same weapon. Ironically, Pyle has become the minister of death that Gerheim trained him to be.
   Part two,“Body Counts,” shifts the action abruptly to Vietnam, where Joker, now a war correspondent, is sent to the front to report the war. Kubrick commentator Thomas Nelson notes that Joker and his buddies have been transplanted from the harrowing marine corps indoctrination program to “the brutal devastation of America’s most absurd war. ” Joker is now a “pogue. ” He explains in his role of narrator that this derisive term is applied by grunts—soldiers on active duty at the front—to the desk-bound soldiers who chose to remain “in the rear with the ear. ” Specifically, Joker works for the Information Services Office as a reporter for Stars and Stripes, the armed services’ official newspaper. He is, in Nelson’s words, merely a pogue who perpetuates such marine propaganda as “winning the war also requires winning the hearts and minds of the very people whose country they are helping to destroy. ”
   As mentioned, Hasford’s Short-Timers was influenced by, and sometimes echoes, Herr’s Dispatches. Herr states in Dispatches that combat correspondents like himself were not in Vietnam to “kill gooks” (the North Vietnamese), as the grunts were: “I was there to watch. ” Similarly, Joker opines in the novel that, as long as he remains a journalist for Stars and Stripes, he is simply an observer: “I don’t kill. I write. Grunts kill. I only watch. ” But Joker’s role as observer is doomed to be short-lived.
   Part three of The Short-Timers, “Grunts,” shows Joker transforming from pogue to grunt during the Tet offensive in the early winter of 1968, when the North Vietnamese soldiers carried out several surprise raids on the U. S. Army—during what was supposed to be a holiday cease-fire. The campaign was climaxed by more than a week of harrowing fighting in the ancient city of Hue.
   While Joker, in the company of Rafterman, a photojournalist, is covering the Tet offensive for Stars and Stripes, he meets Cowboy, a fellow recruit from boot camp, who is in charge of a platoon. Joker stays with Cowboy’s squad when they go into action. A sniper kills a couple of the men; Joker and Rafterman spy out the sniper, a Vietnamese girl, and Rafterman shoots her,wounding her fatally. The platoon is about to move on, but Joker lingers,wondering if he should accede to the girl’s entreaty to kill her and spare her further suffering. He at last finishes her off with another bullet. Does Joker’s act amount to a mercy killing, or to an act of vengeance against the enemy sniper who has shot some of his comrades? He cannot say, but one thing is certain: Joker, no longer the war correspondent “observer,” has made his first confirmed kill.
   Hasford’s cynical, savage novel concludes with a battle that escalates into an appalling bloodbath, during which Joker dispenses death a second time, this time to one of his buddies. Cowboy is struck down by another sniper and lies gravely wounded in the open. The sniper is using Cowboy as bait, daring the squad to move forward in a futile effort to save their felled comrade, so that he can shoot them from his hidden vantage point, just as he shot Cowboy. In order to keep the platoon from facing almost certain death in their proposed attempt to save Cowboy, and also to put Cowboy out of his misery, Joker aims his gun squarely at Cowboy’s face. While his doomed friend urges him to kill him, Joker blows Cowboy’s brains out.
   Nelson notes that the novel depicts “a group of post-adolescent American males,” epitomized by Joker, “undergoing a rite of passage” that takes them from the dehumanizing training program at Parris Island to the diabolical landscape of Vietnam and their brutalizing war experiences. Joker reflects stoically, as the squad moves toward the next skirmish, “We try very hard not to think about anything important, . . . and there’s a long walk home. ” Like Private Pyle before him, Joker has ultimately been transformed into the minister of death that D. I. Gerheim had expected him to be. This evocation at novel’s end of the drill instructor from the opening section of the book implicitly knits the sections of the novel together.
   Hasford’s principal contribution to the film was authoring the book from which the script was derived, since the bulk of the novel is in the film.
   Kubrick compared notes with Hasford during several extended phone conferences over a period of months. But Hasford met only briefly with Kubrick twice during a visit to England; nothing much came of either meeting. It is true that Kubrick asked Hasford to try his hand at sketching out some isolated scenes from the script, but only one of them—the killing of Cowboy, comprising four lines of dialogue-was incorporated into the shooting script. Kubrick and Hasford continued their marathon phone conversations about the screenplay after Hasford visited England, but Herr remembers that their relationship “became increasingly strained,” as Herr stated in a letter to John Baxter, dated February 29, 1996. Herr respected Hasford as “a born writer,” but he was painfully aware that Hasford was emotionally unstable, “a sort of scary guy, . . . deeply paranoid. ” Consequently, adds ALEXANDER WALKER, Kubrick found Hasford difficult to relate to or work with, given Hasford’s “unpredictable and even threatening” behavior. As a result, Kubrick worked closely with Herr on the script, while Hasford was relegated to the sidelines.
   Herr’s contributions to the screenplay were substantial. To begin with, he and Kubrick had endless phone conversations about Kubrick’s proposed Vietnam film while Kubrick was still looking for a story. Late in 1982,Kubrick rang Herr to say he had finally discovered a book that impressed him; and, as Herr told Baxter, “we agreed to work on the film together. ” They began to collaborate on the film adaptation of Hasford’s book in 1983. Herr was living in London at the time, so they met every day for a month, breaking down the narrative into brief scenes which were recorded on file cards. Herr recalls in Kubrick, his memoir of the director, that, when he would arrive at Kubrick’s home outside London, they would often meet in the “War Room” (a reference to the Pentagon’s conference room in Dr. Strangelove ), which was “crammed with desks and computers and filing cabinets, long trestle tables littered with sketches, plans, contracts, hundreds of photographs” of scenes associated with the Vietnam War.
   When they finished mapping out the scenario, Herr wrote an extended prose treatment based on the file cards, “sending pages out to Stanley via his driver. We’d talk that night on the phone about what I’d done that day. ” Herr remembers some of the feedback that he got from Kubrick on these occasions. For example, “one scene, where a bunch of marines sit around in the evening talking,” while the platoon rests between battles,“wasn’t only too long, but too talky,” according to Kubrick, who was never one to mince words while working. Herr produced a detailed treatment in nine weeks.
   Then Kubrick proceeded to turn Herr’s treatment into a full-scale screenplay; and Herr, in turn, revised Kubrick’s script. “I think of it now as one phone call lasting three years, with interruptions,” Herr says, referring to the time that they first started discussing the project until they finished the shooting script in the summer of 1985, when principal photography commenced. This essay will refer to the screenplay as the work of Kubrick and Herr, since both have testified in print that Hasford was not actually involved in the composition of the shooting script that Kubrick and Herr hammered out—though Hasford’s book, of course, remained the abiding inspiration of their work.
   Indeed, in composing the script, Herr and Kubrick agreed that, in order to remain as close as possible to the spirit of Hasford’s novel, they should retain Joker’s first-person narration from the book intermittently throughout the film. They were aware that the novel’s two principal assets were the hardboiled, acidic dialogue and Hasford’s use of firstperson narration. The screenplay presents Joker’s detached, sardonic narration as voice-over on the soundtrack, whenever it is appropriate, thereby employing in the script as much as possible Hasford’s colorful language verbatim. In this manner the screenplay places Joker in the foreground, not only as the principal character, but as a presence, someone whose comments, color the viewer’s perception of events.
   The Kubrick-Herr screenplay focuses on D. I. Sergeant Hartman (D. I. Sergeant Gerheim in the novel) in the 44-minute opening section of the film. Thomas Doherty styles Hartman as the “poet laureate of verbal vulgarity. ” Hartman, played by LEE ERMEY—himself a former drill instructor—spews out a never-ending stream of abuse at the raw recruits (“You are all equally worthless”). Hartman, says Doherty, is a “virtuoso of vile invective. ”Kubrick and Herr lifted the most memorable phrases verbatim from Hasford’s book, bestowing on Hartman the film’s best lines, as when Hartman barks, “It’s a hard heart that kills—a rifle is only a tool. ”They accordingly enable Ermey to give the film’s most riveting performance.
   Following Hasford’s lead in the novel, Kubrick and Herr make a clear demarcation in the screenplay between the Parris Island segment and the Vietnam section. The opening portion of the film, at boot camp, is a self-contained episode in which Hartman bullies his recruits mercilessly. This segment concludes with the gash and gore of strongly brewed melodrama, as Pyle (VINCENT D’ONOFRIO) exterminates Hartman and then takes his own life. This final scene in part one therefore serves as a prelude to the main part of the story, which depicts the war itself with some white-knuckle action sequences.
   After the fade to black, following the scene of carnage which concludes the Parris Island portion of the story, the 72-minute-long Vietnam section begins with shots of a Vietnamese hooker plying her trade in the streets of Da Nang. She propositions Joker (MATTHEW MODINE), as he sits at a table in a sidewalk café.
   This second segment of the film seems like a different story altogether. Kubrick and Herr have fashioned a screenplay that is more of a study of men at war than a plot-driven movie. Indeed, with the exception of Joker and Cowboy (Arliss Howard), the same set of characters do not persevere from part one to part two of the movie. Overall, the film, particularly in the Vietnam portion, seems to be a notebook of compelling episodes, rather than a film with a strong narrative line. It is an ensemble piece, a dense weave of episodes grounded, not in character, but in a charged, topical theme—“war seen from all sides of the battlefield,” as one critic put it.
   Actually, the shift from Parris Island to Vietnam in the film is as startling as the abrupt transition from the “Dawn of Man” segment of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to the “Jupiter Mission” section of the same film. As Nelson notes, “the clean-cut, well-starched, obedient” recruits of part one evolve into the “scruffy, slouchy” survivors in part two. The one link between part one and part two, as noted above, is the violence which climaxes the basic-training segment of the film with the grisly deaths of Hartman and Pyle, and which foreshadows the violent battle sequences in the film’s second portion. To that extent, violence in boot camp serves as a bridge to violence at the front.
   As in the book, Joker, who is covering the fighting for Stars and Stripes with Rafterman, the photographer, attaches himself to Cowboy’s squad as they engage in skirmishes with the enemy amid the devastation of the enemy city of Hue. The adherence of Kubrick and Herr’s script to their literary source is evident in the scene in which Joker tracks down the female sniper who has been killing members of his unit. When the mortally wounded girl begs Joker to kill her, Animal Mother (ADAM BALDWIN), an unrefined, egotistical loudmouth, and a natural-born killer, insists that they leave her to die a slow death among the rats and rubble. There is a close-up of Joker’s face which lasts on film for more than a minute, as he ponders whether or not to pull the trigger of his rifle. Joker can be seen to be wearing on his helmet the sign,“Born to Kill,” while he displays a peace button on his uniform. Here the script implies in purely visual terms the ambivalence of human nature, suggesting the contrary inclinations toward compassion and aggression which Joker experiences at this juncture. After he decides to defy Animal Mother and finally fires his rifle, Joker continues to gaze down at the girl in silence, and then stares blankly into space.
   This wordless passage is a fine example of the care and solid craftsmanship with which Kubrick and Herr invested their film adaptation of Hasford’s book; they do not try to soften the malevolent, tragic material. Kubrick, who always declined to explain what precisely was in Joker’s mind when he wasted the sniper, is cited by Nelson as commenting that perhaps Joker’s decision to kill the girl reflected “humanity rearing its ugly head,” rather than a payback for the buddies of Joker that she had eradicated.
   The screenplay adroitly portrays at film’s end Joker’s conviction that he has proved himself by shooting the enemy sniper. “The act of killing her,” states critic Luis Mainar,“is the climactic moment in Joker’s process of becoming a soldier. ” In a voiceover, Joker “confides to us that he has learned to survive in the war and that that is the only thing that matters. ”As Joker puts it,“We have nailed our names in the pages of history enough for one day. I am happy that I am alive and in one piece,” he concludes,“ and I am not afraid. ”As he and his comrades move beyond the Tet offensive, Joker is aware that he has confronted his fear of death, and he therefore modestly hopes that he can cope with whatever fate has in store for him. Speeches like the one just quoted, with its muted optimism, are not to be found in Hasford’s novel.
   The book, we recall, has two sniper incidents. “The first, like the conclusion of the movie,” NORMAN KAGAN writes,“has Joker finish off the wounded girl sniper. ” In the second instance, which is only in the novel, Cowboy is shot by a second enemy sniper, and Joker is himself forced to obliterate the stranded Cowboy, his last friend, rather than let his squad lose their lives attempting to save him. Says Kagan,“Certainly by ending his film with the first sniper incident,” and having the girl sniper, not Joker, kill Cowboy—who dies in Joker’s arms in the film-Kubrick spares himself—and viewers—the full savage thrust of the wholesale slaughter which permeates the final pages of the novel. By comparison with the books’s ending, Kagan concludes, “Kubrick’s ending is almost upbeat. ” Indeed, the last scene in the screenplay is more affirmative than Hasford’s bitter, nihilistic ending. At the fade-out, the platoon is marching on, silhouetted against the flames of the burning buildings in the background; as they continue their long day’s journey into night, they are singing, not the “Marine Hymn,” but the “Mickey Mouse Club” song from the television show they watched as kids: “Boys and girls from far and near you’re welcome as can be . . . to join our family. Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y- M-O-U-S-E. ” Alexander Walker comments, “Marching to the cadence of a chant extolling Mickey Mouse, Kubrick’s exhausted warriors revert to the tranquilizing certainties of childhood. ”
   Perhaps this little ditty was suggested to Kubrick by a line in Dispatches, which Hasford chose as the epigraph of his novel: “I think that Vietnam is what we had instead of happy childhoods. ” Like the song that the war-weary French troops hum at the end of Kubrick’s other ferocious antiwar film, PATHS OF GLORY, the good-natured song that Joker and his squad sing at the end of Full Metal Jacket implies that they have not lost their humanity, despite the inhuman conditions in which they live and die. Although Hasford found much that he liked in the Herr-Kubrick script, he was not pleased with the film’s ending, which he deemed too positive. As a matter of fact, Hasford alludes to Mickey Mouse in the novel, but he does not indicate that the marines sing the Mickey Mouse song in order to cheer themselves up. Significantly, it appears that the concluding episode of Full Metal Jacket was originally more in keeping with the gruesome ending of Hasford’s novel than it is in the release prints of the film. Ali Sujo, a correspondent for Reuters International News Service, reported at the time of the film’s premiere that Kubrick excised from the final cut of the film an incident that was in both the book and the Herr-Kubrick script. Sujo cites Los Angeles Times journalist Robert Koehler, “who has seen copies of the shooting script,” as describing the deleted footage. “Koehler reports that in a climactic display of one-upsmanship between Joker and Animal Mother,” the latter “decapitates the young woman who has kept his platoon on the business end of a Russian rifle,” just as he does in the novel. Koehler spoke with Adam Baldwin, who played Animal Mother, after the film’s first screening, and noted that the actor “was visibly disappointed to see his crowning moment sliced out of the finished film. “But, after all,” Baldwin added, “it’s a director’s medium, isn’t it?” Sujo hazarded that the decision to cut the scene was obviously motivated by Kubrick’s concern that the incident would have made “one of the bleakest mainstream U. S. films in years. ” Michael Herr comments on Hasford’s intransigence in LoBrutto’s biography of Kubrick, saying that he was agreeable to giving Hasford another screen credit for additional dialogue, since a substantial amount of Hasford’s dialogue had been transferred from the book to the script, including passages of narration spoken as voice-over on the sound track by Joker. But Herr had serious reservations about Hasford receiving an official credit as co-author of the script with Kubrick and himself. “I suppose I felt that I’d been involved in this for such a long time. But I didn’t make a terrible issue of this. ” In the end, Gustav Hasford’s relentless efforts to gain official acknowledgment as cowriter of the film eventually wore Kubrick down (not an easy thing to do). Herr adds that Kubrick wished to avoid having “a pissed-off Vietnam vet” complaining to the press about a film he had been associated with. In any case, the self-destructive Hasford became increasingly disoriented and manic as time went on. He subsequently squandered his earnings from the film and was reduced to living in squalor in a small town north of Los Angeles. “I received a few long, mad letters from him,” Herr wrote to John Baxter;“then he died, as much of loneliness as of diabetes. ” Kubrick continued to be friends with Herr; indeed, Kubrick had arranged with Herr to do an interview about EYES WIDE SHUT before the film opened in July 1999, but he died in March, before giving Herr the interview. Herr then wrote a memoir of Kubrick which was published after Kubrick’s death. In it he explodes the misconception that Kubrick was a recluse: “He was in fact a complete failure as a recluse. ” On the contrary, Herr maintains that Kubrick was a gregarious man with a sense of humor. In this context Herr recalls one afternoon in which Kubrick decided to give him a break from working on the screenplay of Full Metal Jacket; he took Herr to a local gun club to shoot on the range. Kubrick was surprised that Herr, who had spent much time at the front as a war correspondent, was such a poor shot. “Gee, Michael,” said Kubrick, imitating D. I. Hartman, “I’m beginning to wonder if you have got what it takes to carry a rifle in my beloved corps. ” Herr concludes,“Amazing, the number of people who loved him, and the size of the hole he made in our lives by dying. ”
   References
   ■ Baxter, John, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997), pp. 326–353;
   ■ Cahill, Tim, “Interview: Stanley Kubrick,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 189–202;
   ■ Doherty,Thomas, “Full Metal Genre: Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam Combat Movie,” in Perspectives on Stanley Kubrick, ed. Mario Falsetto (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996), pp. 307–316;
   ■ French, Karl, Apocalypse Now (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp. 103–104;
   ■ Hasford, Gustav, The Short-Timers (New York: Bantam Books, 1979);
   ■ Herr, Michael, Dispatches (New York: Knopf, 1977);
   ■ ———, Kubrick (New York: Grove Press, 2000);
   ■ Kagan, Norman, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, rev. ed. (New York: Continuum, 1989), pp. 217–230;
   ■ Kubrick, Stanley, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford, Full Metal Jacket: A Screenplay (New York: Knopf, 1987);
   ■ LoBrutto, Vincent, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1999);
   ■ Mainar, Luis, Narrative and Stylistic Patterns in the Films of Stanley Kubrick (Rochester, N. Y. : Camden House, 2000), pp. 197–237;
   ■ Sujo, Aly,“Was ‘Full Metal Jacket’ Even Bleaker Before Trims?” Chicago Sun-Times Weekend, September 11, 1987, p. 28;
   ■ Walker, Alexander, Stanley Kubrick, Director, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1999), pp. 314–343.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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