Alabama native wrote the book on Vietnam film
by Bob Carlton
THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS, 1987
 
Gustav Hasford
 

    Gustav Hasford has always wanted to prowl.  The longest he could stay tied down in one place was the 18 years it took him to grow up in Russellville, in Franklin County.
    But when his tour of adolescence was up, he couldn't wait for somebody to loosen the rope.  He cut it loose himself, and up and joined the Marines.
    As Hasford would write later, "We were young, and the young loved to travel."
    So Hasford booked.  And, at 39--"and looking downhill at the business end of 40"--he's roamed so long that he doesn't have any real roots any more.  Russellville may be his old hometown, but he'd feel like an alien if he walked into town today.
    Since leaving in 1966, Hasford, a free-lance writer, author and now screenwriter, has lived in Longview, Wash.; Laguna Beach, Calif.; London, England; Perth, Australia, and San Luis Obispo, Calif., where he's dropped his bags for the time being.  He's lived out of a car and he's called motel rooms home.  He was married once, but he was divorced two years later.
    "Since then," he says, "I've been too poor to get married.  Anybody who would marry me would have to support herself and probably me, too."
    And she'd better pack a suitcase, too, because Hasford won't let himself get attached to any one place for too long.  "I lived in Australia for the last year and a half," he says.  "I like Australia, but I've kind of lived there long enough."  It's as if by constantly moving, Hasford can somehow hang onto his youth, and then skip town before he grows old.
    It was that wide-eyed wanderlust that led him to join the military at 18, and eventually took him to Vietnam, where he served 10 months as a war correspondent for the Marines.
    He saw the spilling of blood and the mangling of hearts and minds, but when he wrote them all down, they were just G.I. Joe stories.  He had wanted to write the real thing.
    "We were public relations men for the war and the Marine Corps," Hasford says in a phone call from Los Angeles.  "We appeared to be journalists, but we were really simply promoting the war and promoting the Marine Corps."
    He assimilated all that he'd seen, kept notes and after his two-year enlistment was up, Hasford began organizing it into a book of his own.  It took him seven years to write and another three years to shop around to publishers.  Now, eight years after its initial release, The Short-Timers, Hasford's fictionalized account of his Marine experience, from Parris Island to the Tet Offensive, is the basis of Stanley Kubrick's explosive Vietnam epic, Full Metal Jacket, which opens nationwide today.  Hasford also co-wrote the screenplay, along with Kubrick and Michael Herr, author of Dispatches.
    Kubrick, the meticulous director of 2001:  A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, first read Hasford's novel in 1982, and has said he immediately saw a movie in there somewhere, even though it took until now to get it on the screen.
    "A good story is a miraculous discovery," Kubrick told The New York Times last month.  A New Yorker who has been living in self-imposed seclusion in London since 1968, Kubrick's last movie was 1980's The Shining.  Apparently, until The Short-Timers, he hadn't found any good stories.
    But he read a critique of Hasford's novel in The Virginia Kirkus Review, a trade publication Kubrick scours for film ideas, and was interested enough to read it for himself.
    "I re-read it almost immediately and I thought, 'This is very exciting.  I better think about it for a few days,'" Kubrick told The Times.  "But it was immediately apparent that it was a unique, absolutely wonderful book.
    Kubrick first contacted Hasford almost five years ago, and although they have talked for hours at a time over the telephone, the director and author have met each other only once since.
    "It wasn't necessary to see Stanley," Hasford says.  "He has his house set up to work in, so we worked over the phone.  Stanley likes the phone."
    From Fort Kubrick, the director would phone in his orders to Hasford and Herr, who would mail him their submissions.  Kubrick would read what they had written, edit it and then start the process over again.
    Because Kubrick operated on a "need-to-know basis," his two screenwriting partners didn't know how much each had contributed to the final story, leading to a dispute over the final credits.
    "The early conflict was over the definition of the credit.  Originally, I was supposed to get an 'additional dialogue' credit, and I wanted full credit," Hasford says.  "We had a disagreement about this for about a year and a half, but it was finally resolved.  It's not unusual.  It's inevitable.  When you make a film, there's going to be some conflict over the credits."
    The first 40 minutes of Full Metal Jacket is almost an exact reading of the first chapter of Hasford's book, and then, when the action shifts from Parris Island to Vietnam, it's a merger of The Short-Timers and Herr's Dispatches, with Hasford's novel getting the bulk of Kubrick's attention.
    "The only person who really knew what was going on was Stanley," Hasford says.  "Michael and I wrote things and handed them in, but we didn't have any idea what stuff Stanley used.  He just twisted it all together.
    "We were like guys on an assembly line in the car factory.  I was putting on one widget and Michael was putting on another widget and Stanley was the only one who knew that this was going to end up being a car."
    Prior to their telephone conversations, Hasford was only distantly familiar with Kubrick's work.  "I recognized his name as the director of 2001," Hasford says.  "My favorite film is Dr. Strangelove, but I didn't know that it had been made by Stanley Kubrick."  He vaguely recalls The Shining.
    What he knew, though, he respected.  But Hasford says his first obligation was not to the filmmaker, but to his fellow Vietnam vets.  He'd seen what "civilian" directors had done to Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, and he didn't want that to happen to anything with his name on it.
    "The Deer Hunter is a dishonest film and I pretty much loathed it," Hasford says.  "Apocalypse Now was a good attempt, and it was an honest attempt, but it was made by a civilian (Francis Coppola) and it's not convincing."
    So although encouraged by Kubrick's interest, Hasford was at the same time, skeptical.
    "I trust Stanley, but I always kept both of my eyes open," Hasford says.  "I didn't want to make another film that veterans are just going to go see and go, 'Oh, wow, we've been ripped off again.'"
    The fact Full Metal Jacket comes out on the heels of Platoon, Oliver Stone's grunt-level eye-opener, is just coincidence, Hasford says.
    Stone has said he shopped his screenplay around for 10 years before anybody wanted it, and Hasford had similar problems with The Short-Timers.  Nobody would published it because Vietnam was a bad dream that we wanted to tuck away forever.
    "It was like writing about cancer," Hasford says.  "Nobody wanted to read it, nobody wanted to publish it."  Finally, a friend convinced Bantam Books to print it.
    The Short-Timers sold about 200,000 paperback copies over a five-year period, Hasford says, and had been out-of-print until it was reissued this month to coincide with the release of Full Metal Jacket.
    Now that Platoon has come along to "mangle frail human sensibilities," in Hasford's words, and now that the public can stomach a little shrapnel with its popcorn, Vietnam is this year's answer to Cabbage Patch Dolls.  And mavericks like Hasford are actually encouraged to indulge in such behavior.
    In addition to Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, Lionel Chetwynd's Hanoi Hilton and Coppola's Gardens of Stone were released this spring, although both faired poorly at the box office.  Jim Carabatsos, whose credits include Heartbreak Ridge and Raw Deal, is next in line with Hamburger Hill, tentatively set for a late August release.
    "Once the money people perceive something, then it's like gas going out to little engines," Hasford says.  "Now that you have two successful vietnam films in a row (Hasford is already putting Full Metal Jacket in Platoon's company), all these other little projects that have been just sort of sitting around gathering dust will suddenly get the money."
    Besides leaving a stain on our conscience like the Semper Fidelis tattoo on a Marine's arm, Platoon has forever changed the way we'll look at Vietnam movies, Hasford acknowledges.
    And Full Metal Jacket hasn't been immune to the Platoon comparison, most of which have so far been favorable.
    "I don't see them as in competition," Hasford says.  "They're both good films and they're doing different things, and there's plenty of room for that.
        "Maybe people who went to see Platoon will go to see Full Metal Jacket," Hasford adds.  "Before, no one wanted to go see any vietnam movies.  Maybe Platoon did us a big favor."
    Hasford had his first article published when he was still a 14-year-old kid back in Russellville.  It was a coin-collecting story he wrote for Boys' Life.
    He also worked as a part-time stringer for The Franklin County Times in Russellville and the Northwest Alabamian in Haleyville, covering car wrecks and high school football games.
    His father, Hassell, was a foreman at the Reynolds Aluminum plant in Florence, and his mother, Hazel, was a housewife.  His only brother, Terry, is now a lifer in the Army.
    Gustav (pronounced "GU-stav"), is actually his middle name, passed down to Hasford from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.  He dumped his first name, Jerry, because it rhymed with his younger brother's name.  When your parents are Hassell and Hazel Hasford, one pair of jingle bells is enough for the entire family.
    "I pronounce my last name 'HAS-ford,'" he says, "but my grandpa pronounced his name 'HAUS-ford.'  So, 'GU-stav HAUS-ford,' I grew up assuming I was German.  I started looking around into my genealogy...and I found out that I'm English."
    Hasford attended Russellville High School, but says he never graduated because he refused to take his senior finals, in protest of the poor national ranking of the Alabama education system.
    "I didn't want to validate what they were doing," he says.  "I told them I didn't want to graduate, and they said, 'Well, you can't do that.'  So when they gave me my final exams, I just handed them in blank."
    He signed up for the Marine Corps when he found out he was going to be drafted anyway.  "I was suddenly overcome by a wave of patriotism," he says.
    He also wanted to get moving, and a Marine uniform was his two-year ticket to see the world.
    "You're reading all of this in the papers about all these things going on in the world, and it just seems so exciting, and you just want to go somewhere," Hasford recalls.  "Where do you go if you're an Alabama kid with no money and you don't know anybody outside of Alabama?"
    You join the Marines, and in 1967, you go to Vietnam, the "jewel of Southeast Asia," as Matthew Modine's Private Joker says, mockingly, in Full Metal Jacket.
    "It was exciting," Hasford continues.  "It was a foreign country, even if you didn't exactly know where it was.  I didn't have the slightest clue of where Vietnam was.  People say, 'Weren't you afraid you'd get killed?'  Nah.  When you're 18, you don't have any fear that you're going to get killed.  You think you're immortal."
    Although he tagged along, Hasford says he was never a grunt himself.  And his military press credentials gave him some command over his own fate.
    "To be a grunt, your chances of getting shot were about 50-50," he says.  "We (correspondents) had discretion.  We didn't have to obey some 18-year-old squad leader who was going to tell us to jump over the wall and get killed."
    The Private Joker played by Modine (he's Corporal Joker in the book), is only loosely autobiographical, Hasford says.  Like Joker, Hasford did wear a peace symbol on his flak jacket, but "the guy in the film is a much nicer guy than I am," he says, laughing.
    When Hasford got back home to Russellville, his parents informed him they were moving to Longview, Wash.  His father was being transferred, the furniture had already been shipped and the were leaving the next day.  Hasford hadn't even had a chance to get the Vietnam soil out from under his fingernails.
    "They said, 'Yeah, well, we're moving,'" Hasford recalls.  "I didn't know what to do.  I said, 'Well, I guess I'll go with you guys.'"
    So he moved on, and he's kept moving ever since.
    Hasford has finished another novel, Phantom Blooper, which is currently in the hands of an agent.  In it, Joker changes uniforms and fights with the Viet Cong.  "The whole book is from the point of view of the Viet Cong," he says.  "I'm trying to put faces on the Viet Cong and make them people, as opposed to little shadowy figures."
    He says he's not really interested in writing another screenplay, on his own or in collaboration with other writers.  But he'll remain open to any offers.
    "I've always considered everyone in the movie business to be a little insane, and the whole thing (to be) sort of a chase for fairy gold," he says.  "The only way I would be tempted is if someone asked me to write a screenplay from some book I really admired.
    "But no, I'm just going to write books.  I have a lot of books in the works and plenty of ideas for books.  I won't be sidetracked by this movie-business thing again unless someone really makes me an offer I can't refuse."
 

All content © 1987 The Birmingham News.
 

 

 
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