The Pen Behind Kubrick's Vision
Writer Gustav Hasford's Vietnam is different from that of recent films
by Hal Lipper
ST. PETERSBURG TIMES, July 12, 1987
 

    Three men are credited with writing Full Metal Jacket, a coldly observed chronicle of one Marine's training and tour of duty in Vietnam:  Stanley Kubrick, the film's director; Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches; and Gustav Hasford, a Vietnam veteran who met Kubrick just once and spent a single day on the movie's set.
    While Hasford's connection to Full Metal Jacket seems tenuous, the film's story is his own.
    He began writing it in Southeast Asia and finished it seven years later in California.  He peddled it to every major publishing house before landing a contract in 1977.
    Hasford was living in a car and working as a security guard about the time Harper & Row and Bantam Books bought the novel and Kubrick, through a Munich, West Germany, businessman, optioned its screen rights. (The Short-Timers, Hasford's novel, was published in 1979.  Recently it was re-released as a Bantam paperback.)
    With the money earned from publishing and movie deals, Hasford made the first of several trips to Australia.  It was in Perth, about five years ago, that Kubrick contacted Hasford and began a transoceanic phone relationship.  Those conversations shaped Kubrick's astonishingly brutal, yet disaffected, war saga, largely filmed in England at an abandoned gasworks on the Thames instead of Asia or the Pacific.
    "We spent hundreds of hours talking about my book. We began with two-and three-hour phone conversations. We talked about every subject under the sun," Hasford says during a phone conversation from Los Angeles.
    "Stanley wanted to know me and feel me out.  He wanted to make sure I was telling the truth; while, at the same time, convince me he was making a serious film.  As a Vietnam veteran, I would not condone, endorse or participate in anything unfair to veterans.  And, I consider most films about Vietnam insulting."
    Hasford's novel and Kubrick's film begin at the Marine Corps' Parris Island, S.C. boot camp, where they depict recruits being stripped of their individuality and molded into unthinking, unfeeling warriors.  The second half reveals a Vietnam completely alien to the country portrayed in Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Rambo.
    Instead of lush jungles and rice paddies, both Full Metal Jacket and The Short-Timers focus on the Tet Offensive and the battle for Hue, miles of brick rubble and burned-out monuments.
    Hasford was a combat correspondent--4312 Basic Military Journalist--assigned to the 1st Marine Division during the 1968 offensive.  He stresses his book is fiction and its events are not necessarily drawn from personal experience.

    We stand over the sniper.  The sniper is drawing her breath with great effort. Guts that look like colorful plastic have squirted out through bullet holes . . .
    She whimpers.  I try to decide what I would want if I were down, half dead, hurting bad, surrounded by my enemies.  I look into her eyes, trying to find the answer.  She sees me.  She recognizes me--I am the one who will end her life.   --from The Short-Timers

    "Some people read my book and think I'm a wonderful diarist.  I'm flattered they find it so realistic," Hasford says.  "But don't get hung up on particulars because I used the material.  I did not allow the material to use me.  I used the experience when it fit my purposes.  And I abandoned it without qualm when it wasn't suited for my purposes."
    Kubrick wanted to preserve the essence of truth as he restructured Hasford's novel into a workable     screenplay--first working alone, then with author-Vietnam vet Herr, who also lives in Britain.
    Hasford, meanwhile, was shipping his own drafts to Kubrick and conversing with him by phone: "We discussed all manner of deviation: various endings and approaches that, for the most part, were abandoned."
    During the final 18 months of production, the degree of Hasford's involvement became a matter of contention. Kubrick and Herr thought Hasford should get a dialogue credit.  Hasford wanted a screenwriting credit.  And he got it.
    "It's a question of whether you're a member of the team or just a hired hand," says the 39-year-old Alabama native, who moved to London during filming but was not invited to make contributions on the set.
    "The first couple of years I was associated with the film, I was just an adviser.  Stanley would send material and ask if a Marine would ever do this.  We'd talk about things in great detail.  I give advice for free.  But I have to be paid if I'm writing."
    Hasford contends much of the movie is his.  There's no doubt The Short-Timers served as inspiration for Full Metal Jacket's pivotal scenes.
    The movie is in two parts, the book in three.  A second sniping incident and mercy killing have been cut by condensing The Short-Timers and transposing concluding segments to Hue.
    Hasford attributes the changes to the limitations of film--"the alternate literature of our times"--and says the movie largely depicts Vietnam as he remembers it.

    On the outskirts of Hue we see the first sign of battle -- a cathedral, centuries old, now a bullet-peppered box of ruined stone, roof caved in, walls punctured by shells . . .
    The weather is dreary but the city is beautiful.  Hue has been beautiful for so long that not even war and bad weather can make it ugly . . .
    Empty streets.  Every building in Hue has been hit with some kind of ordnance.  The ground is still wet from last night's rain.  The air is cool.  The whole city is enveloped in a white mist.  And the sun is going down.   --from The Short-Timers

    Kubrick's decision to film Full Metal Jacket innumerable attitudes and latitudes away from Southeast Asia didn't faze Hasford: "Stanley is very knowledgeable about war.  He's a serious student of Napoleon.  He has made great works in Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove.  I trusted his vision."
    As it turned out, the gray skies only heightened the realism of the battle scenes that were filmed at a Beckton gasworks, near Essex, a complex that was bombed during World War II.  Hasford said the setting, complete with imported palm trees, was eerily reminiscent of Vietnam's third-largest city.
    Full Metal Jacket will most likely be compared to Platoon, although its dark-spirited humor and stylized presentation make it closer to Apocalypse Now.  It is brutal and terrifying, and somewhat removed, like a television newsreel.
    Hasford reiterates most veterans' contention that Hollywood fails to portray Vietnam or the vet with honesty.  He condemns The Greet Berets, The Deer Hunter and Rambo ("the Triumph of the Will for American Nazis") for their disregard of fact and mood.  Mood, Hasford says, is as much a part of war as guns and bullets.

    We hump, werewolves in the jungle, sweating 3.2 beer, ready, willing and able to grab Uncle Ho . . . and never let go.  But our real enemy is the jungle.  God made this jungle for Marines . . . we kill everything we see.  No slack. He plays his games; we play ours.  To show our appreciation for so much omnipotent attention we keep Heaven packed with fresh souls.   --from The Short Timers

    Gus Hasford quit high school in 1966 and joined the Marines a year later.  He volunteered for Vietnam midway through his tour of duty.
    "I didn't have a compelling urge to fight the war, at least, not in any political sense.  I just wanted to go because it was what was going on at the time," he says.  "I had no desire to kill anybody, aside from the fact I was in the Marine Corps and they do expect you to do that."
    As a combat correspondent, Hasford fought in and wrote about battles for military publications.  He also escorted American journalists, some of whom had the habit of picking up enemy mines.
    "We didn't particularly care if they got killed.  But we didn't want them killed while they were with the Marine Corps," he says.
    Hasford was discharged in August 1968.  He moved to Washington state, got married and worked as a hotel desk clerk.  When the marriage crumbled a couple years later he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a bookstore cashier, a rent-a-cop and an editor at a firm that specialized in fetish magazines.  All the while, he was refining passages in his book.
    "I wrote little sketches, bits and character studies--elaborate notes--until it evolved into a coherent narrative. When I'd submit it, editors would write to say they liked the manuscript.  But they'd always end their letters saying, 'Of course, we could never, never possibly ever publish this.'"
    Hasford never lost confidence his book would be made into a movie, particularly since Kubrick had optioned The Short-Timers two years before Harper & Row published the book.
    He says the $17-million film is being released at an optimum time, when interest in the Vietnam War has been piqued by Oliver Stone's Platoon.
    "I'm not so much concerned with revisionist history," Hasford says, "as I am with ringing an alarm bell about people who want to repeat the entire ludicrous fiasco in Central America."
    With that, he excuses himself to prepare for his next interview and, purportedly, to catch the latest news report about the Iran-Contra affair.
 

Copyright Times Publishing Co. July 12, 1987

 

 
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