--Cpl. Joker in Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers
GUS HASFORD WAS HOME FROM THE MOVIE WARS, drinking a beer in Santa Monica. The heat had been fierce in the first week in June, but a late afternoon sea breeze had begun to play through the palms outside the windows, and in the distance you could see the hotel with the glass elevator where Lee Marvin threw one of his enemies off the roof in Point Blank.
In about three weeks, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, the movie version of Hasford's novel The Short-Timers, was scheduled to open. According to a poster in the lobby of the Wilshire Theater, Hasford shares full screen-writing credit on the film with Kubrick, the director, and Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches. Nobody aside from friends knew how to reach Hasford just yet--his celebrity was still pending--and that tickled him immensely. He opened another can of Coors.
We were seated at a clean white table. I had in front of me a letter Hasford had written to me on may 20, 1986, from Perth, Australia, where he had repaired after his screen-writing labors and the long conflict over the film's credits. For 18 of the last 24 hours, we had been in constant company, talking most of the time, but I kept giving him sidelong glances, wondering what was different about him. Nothing, I decided--nothing, so far, at all. His beer belly looked well watered. He was still rumpled, still piping full of it, still snapping off bull's-eye invective at his old, familiar targets.
I read aloud from the letter:
"In the cynical world of L.A., where show 'biz' deals are conducted in the back alleys of cocktail parties like self-parodying out-takes from a comedic film noir, you might want to interject this lively note of (transitory) optimism: I won my credit battle with Stanley. I beat Stanley, City Hall, The Powers That Be, and all of the lawyers at Warner Bros., up to and including the Supreme Boss Lawyer. As a little Canuck friend of mine would say: I kicked dey butt."
"So what was going on?" I asked. "Kubrick and Herr wanted you to settle for an 'additional dialogue' credit?"
"Yeah, but things turned out happily in the end."
"You said you weren't going to, but did you ever hire yourself a movie-business lawyer or an agent?"
Hasford had served as a combat correspondent with the 1st Marine Division during the Tet Offensive of 1968. That meant that he had carried a pencil and a notebook and a gun to defend himself and his fellow grunts during battle. The Short-Timers was his apocalyptically imagined and stylized depiction of his experience in Vietnam, viewed through the eyes of "Cpl. Joker" as he accompanies the "Lusthog Squad" into the gore and madness of combat.
Hasford is a big fellow, beefy to paunchy, an innately macho man in his code, but not physically intimidating to other men. He has a resonant yet curiously high-pitched voice with a soft trace of Alabama accent. That counted for something between us right away--the fact that we were both sons of the shirtless South.
Once the ice was broken, we quickly discovered that we had common interests in such arcane subjects as "lost" Depression-era novels and the history of the American West. That first evening, Hasford referred to his enormous and somewhat mysterious collection of books (which he keeps in storage), and then chatted freely about his admittedly grandiose literary plans. He said he was going to write several series of books on various topics, in various genres.
My wife, Rae, and I lived in an apartment with a lanai that looked out on downtown Santa Monica, and on his second or third visit, Hasford christened the place. He called it the "Cafe Cafard," using an obscure French word meaning "beyond anomie or dread" that he associates with the defeated warriors of Dien Bien Phu, the granddaddy of all Vietnam defeats back in 1954.
Cafard fits in a peculiar way. We've decorated the walls with an antique neon cerveza sign and a Ralph Steadman litho for old times' sake, and there was the backdrop of white buildings and swimmy palms. All very tropique, very tristesse.
Hasford became a regular at the Cafe Cafard, sometimes bringing a date, sometimes not. His attire ran to grunt t-shirts and torn sneakers. He was humming and cooking, always. He talked about whatever was on his mind. His imprecations against his publishers--their neglect and abuse of him--were comic sermons that ran to heroic lengths.
We became friends, I think, one night after a party for veterans in Venice. To a civilian observer like myself, it was a tense, cliquish affair. Hasford and I headed out early, both a little dispirited, and he offered me a lift home. During the drive I asked him what he was doing for a living. I mentioned that if he was free-lancing, I might be able to help with contacts. Hasford said he was working as a security guard. He was also living in his car.
Hasford's fortunes improved overnight when a Munich businessman with no visible ties to the movie world optioned the screen rights to The Short-Timers. Money, to Hasford, meant that he could buy books or travel. He soon was off on his first trip to Australia, and by the time he returned to California, he knew that Stanley Kubrick owned the rights to his first novel.
Kubrick, Hasford said, had begun to make serious sounds on the telephone about turning the book into a picture called Full Metal Jacket. A major film, it went without saying, since Kubrick didn't make the other kind. The mind reeled. Hasford stood to make enormous royalties from his worldwide literary rights alone. And the movie star who would someday play Joker would ultimately be playing Hasford.
"Stanley" thus became a phantom presence around the Cafe Cafard. Before long, Hasford was making plans to tour Europe and to drop in on Kubrick in London to find out what was going on. He hadn't been invited onto the team as such, no, but Kubrick hadn't discouraged his visit, either. Hasford counted on the fact that Kubrick liked to talk to him on the telephone. True, Hasford had no contact, no agent or other representation--just a lot of lengthy phone conversations punched through the long-distance either.
I saw Hasford off to England with misgivings near the end of 1984. I was skeptical about his prospects for getting close to the reclusive Kubrick, but at the same time I wanted to egg him on to press whatever advantage he had. I wanted him to get in the middle of things over there and help "Stanley" make a good movie.
Little more than a month passed before Hasford's first letter arrived from his new digs on Cleveland Terrace, London W2. Hasford posted us regular letters and made periodic calls and sent along generous packages of arcane books. But his struggles for recognition for his contributions to the Full Metal Jacket screenplay seemed very distant.
YOU AND STANLEY got acquainted sort of transoceanically?
Yeah, yeah. After a while we were talking three or four times a week, usually for hours and hours at a time. About the movie. Sometimes about all manner of subjects.
What's the longest you ever talked to Kubrick on the phone?
Six or seven hours. At least six hours, ranging over just about any subject you could think of. During the initial period, Stanley was just considering making the film, mulling it over. I don't know at what point I actually became convinced he was in fact going to make a film. The steps were so gradual.
In London, you gradually got involved with working on the screenplay.
I was there for a while and I was just doing all the tourist things, and Michael Herr and I went out to Stanley's house and met him. I mean, we'd talked on the phone before, and when I got to England, we were still talking on the phone. Now pretty much every day we were talking on the phone about the film and it was getting more and more detailed all the time.
So you didn't see him often?
No. I've only met Stanley one time.
When the picture started shooting you were still uncertain about what your credit share might be.
For a year and a half we were in disagreement. From my point of view, I deserved a full credit. I heard all the arguments against my attitude from Stanley and Warner Bros. and Michael Herr, and I was never convinced their arguments were valid.
So you persisted.
I persisted until I'd won. Yeah.
Did you observe any of the filming?
I went out to the set where Stanley was supposed to be filming in a little place called Beckton, near Essex. It's on the Thames, an abandoned gasworks. I wanted to see in fact whether the picture was being made. I was contemplating legal action at the time, and it would've been pointless if there were no movie.
I took a couple of friends along with me. We dressed up in tiger-stripe clothes. Our idea was that they'd be shooting and we'd simply blend in as though we were extras. We went in, and this little go-fer took us over to the commissary tent while somebody checked out who I was. We were having doughnuts and the go-fer asked: "Who are you? Why'd you come here?" I said: "Well, I'm the guy who wrote the book that this film is based upon." His eyes lit up and he said: "You're kidding! You're the guy? That's you?" I said: "Yeah, yeah, I wrote the book." He said: "Well, I want to shake your hand, because Dispatches is the best book I ever read." "Hey, I think so too," I said.
Did you run around with Michael Herr much, or was it strictly a professional relationship?
Michael and I got to be pretty good friends until we had the credit dispute. As far as I know, he's still not speaking to me. I'm speaking to him, but he's not saying anything back. As much of my work was in the screenplay as he had in, but he still seems to interpret the fact that I got a full credit as an intrusion upon his turf. Like, who is this interloper?
But in fact, I worked on the screenplay for four years. I had actually written things, you know, scenes and comments. I would send my work to Stanley, and undoubtedly Stanley was having Michael write the same scene. Then Stanley would work it around the way he wanted it. For some reason, Stanley had given Michael a lot of my work to look at, but I never read any of the things Michael wrote for the film. We really didn't talk about it much. I mean, we'd talk about it in general terms like, "When is this sucker going to be finished?"
What's your feeling about Kubrick now?
I like Stanley. Stanley is funny and human and not as eccentric as he would perhaps prefer to appear. My favorite movie is Dr. Strangelove, and Paths of Glory is one of the great classic war films. I'd stand Stanley a glass anytime. Two, maybe.
YOU GREW UP in rural Alabama.
That's right. I worked when I was 14. I worked for the Franklin County Times and the Northwest Alabamian, a regional newspaper. I covered football games, car wrecks, stuff like that. The first thing I ever published was an article about coin collecting in Boys' Life when I was 14.
When did you get out of school?
In '66. I didn't graduate from high school. I refused to graduate from high school. I didn't want to validate what they were doing. Around that time, someone did a survey of the state educational systems, and Alabama was No. 50, and I just didn't...
I'd started a magazine for writers called Freelance, a glossy 56-page quarterly. It had advertising and 1,300 paid subscribers all over the country, $5 a head. I just did it. My grandfather signed a note for me to borrow the money. I ran articles exposing songwriter ads and other con jobs like that.
Did you yourself research and write these stories?
No. All this stuff was written by professional writers. I was just a kid. I couldn't write the stuff. I was 16. But the experience and the contacts helped me get my writing job in the Marines.
When did you join?
September of '67. I was 18. I got assigned to be a 4312 Basic Military Journalist with orders to go on the staff of Leatherneck magazine. But first I had to go for training to an Army school. I hung around with all these beery Army guys....So I lost my discipline from Parris Island and became a hippie.
For punishment, I was sent to a place in North Carolina. Me and this other Pfc. were putting out the base newspaper there, publishing all these articles about Vietnam, and it was like Custer said: "The only thing you have to know to be a soldier is to be able to ride toward the sound of the guns." When you're reading all this stuff about big events happening somewhere, you get really curious to the point of it being painful wanting to know the real score.
I applied to go to Vietnam. It's called "requesting mast," which is a legal maneuver that you can do in the military if you feel you're being oppressed. So I went to Vietnam even though I only had 10 months left to serve, because in a sense I specifically demanded to be sent to Vietnam, and so they couldn't think of any reason not to do it and in fact they were perfectly willing. They had plenty of spots to send me.
How soon did you begin to regret that? Or did you?
I never regretted that. I never found the war to be a particular hardship. You know there were some hard parts. After the Tet Offensive, I was with the people on Operation Pegasus when it broke through to Khe Sanh by land, and that was the last major operation I was involved in. But I mean, if you're gonna go out there and stick your face in it, you're gonna expect to get some lumps, right? I couldn't complain. If it hadn't been for my specific demand to go, I would never have been in Vietnam.
When were you discharged?
August, '68. Let me tell you about that.
When I came back and got off the plane, my parents picked me up and took me home to Russellville, Alabama. I'm, of course, in total culture shock. Then they announce they're moving the very next day to Washington state. I've still got the dirt of Vietnam on (me), and I'm looking around the house and everything's gone. All of it, all of my stuff, was already packed up and shipped off, and they wanted to know whether I wanted to stay behind or take off with them. I said, you know, I think I'll go with you guys.
Well...I don't think that was the best way for me to come home from the war. Instead of coming back to a familiar place, I was there for one day and then the next day we went to a totally aline environment for someone from the South, which is the Pacific Northwest. Just like moving to Germany or something.
You settled in Kelso, Washington. What happened to you up there?
I got married, was married for two years. Lived above a hardware store in a really, really cheap apartment. My wife worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I was a desk clerk in a hotel that catered to loggers. The reason I got the job was because they needed a big guy like to on the graveyard shift because that's when all the loggers would come in from the bars wanting to fight. They'd already been in fights and they'd be dragging these scrubby, extremely ugly prostitutes with them. The job gave me a lot of opportunity to read--like Nathaniel West, you know. After about 3 o'clock when all the loggers had passed out...
Did you join any veterans' groups after you left the Corps?
No. I joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War while I was still in Vietnam. About February, '68. Also, I had a poem in Winning Hearts and Minds, published by the First Casualty Press, which was the first anthology of writing about the war by the veterans themselves.
I assume you've seen Platoon.
I've seen Platoon twice. I'm glad it was made and glad it was a success, but the second time around it has no nuance.
Have you, by the way, been to the Black Wall in the capital?
Actually, no. Personally, I don't consider visiting the Black Wall to be of any significance to me. I don't need to look on that piece of stone to remember the people I knew who got killed in Vietnam.
WHEN YOU LEFT Kelso, you came to California.
That's right. My wife and I broke up and I came to L.A. with my friend Art Cover, who's a science-fiction writer. We came down and we hung out and we sponged off of and roomed with our friend Harlan Ellison, another s-f writer, who was gracious enough to put up with two 22-year-old twits who had nowhere to go. Harlan took us in until we could afford a place of our own. I worked at being an editor, again using the credentials of having been a correspondent and having published a magazine. I found an editorial job with an outfit called American Art Enterprises, which was then California's largest publisher of--how can we term this?
How about racy material?
Magazines with titles such as...?
We had one called Playpen. Which featured guys dressed up like babies. Truck-driver types dressed up like babies and being attended to, not in any sexual way, by matronly looking middle-aged women. We're not talking mainstream here. And we put out 36 separate magazines a month, each one featuring some kind of kinky slant. Someone was making some major bucks out of that place, millions of dollars. I worked there for six months, and I even saved up some money myself and moved to Laguna Beach and started doing the starving hippie writer trip.
When did you actually begin work on The Short-Timers?
I wrote versions of it, drafts of it, in Vietnam because I was a correspondent and we would all be sitting around at the typewriter all the time, you know, writing stories. That's why some of the characters in the books are named after friends of mine from Vietnam.
How did you finally finish the book?
I lived like a dog in L.A. Worked in used bookstores, did anything to keep myself going. The book took seven years to write and three years to sell. It eventually was published in '79 by Harper & Row and Bantam Books. But Harper had rejected the manuscript previously, and Bantam had rejected it, too, along with many others. It was considered poison, box-office poison.
Because it was about Vietnam?
Particularly a novel about Vietnam. And particularly by someone unknown.
YOU'VE HAD LOTS of ups and downs with editors and publishers. In a letter you sent me last year, you said: "Publishers are greedy S.O.B.s....I'm not a precious little pale academic who writes poetry and never raises his voice; I'm an ex-Marine and that makes me a hard and more or less fearless individual, and if these hardball boys from the Harvard School of Business want to play hardball, I'm in the mood to play hardball. The next arrogant S.O.B. at Bantam that even coughs in my direction is going to wake up with a piece of the world nailed to the side of his head."
God, what an arrogant, although funny, guy.
The thing that strikes me is that you developed as a writer despite the fact that you were more or less self-educated.
Well, I'm not more or less self-educated. I am self-educated.
Tell me about your book collection. How big is it now?
I have 10,000 books in archive boxes that are numbered, and I have a card catalogue that cross-indexes them according to the different subjects. It's a research library. I'm interested in hard-boiled detective stories, the American Civil War, Napolean, the Alamo, Custer, the Minoan civilization on Crete, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, ancient Greek coins--all kinds of things.
I intend to write a biography of Ambrose Bierce, focusing only on his years as an officer in the Civil War. I'm planning a trip to the battlefields to walk out his route at each battle and get the layout in my mind so I can know what I'm dealing with.
What other books are you working on?
I have two finished.
The Phantom Blooper is a sequel to The Short-Timers in which Joker is captured by the Viet Cong and makes the decision to join them, fight alongside them. The books shows the Viet Cong side of the war, which hasn't really been dealt with before. Some editors have already rejected it on the grounds that's it's...politically offensive.
The other book will be the first in a six-part series, the "Dowdy Lewis" series. It's called A Gypsy Good Time, and it's in the tradition of tough-guy detective stories. This Dowdy Lewis is a modern-day bounty hunter who also runs an L.A. bookstore featuring only books about the Old West. Nonfiction books about the Old West--no novels.
Would you consider writing another screenplay?
Well...I don't want to be a screenwriter. I've thought about suggesting to Stanley that he do They Don't Dance Much, that great '30s novel--you know the one--as his next picture project. But I'm afraid he might get interested and we'd be on the phone again for four years.
Theoretically you stand to make a great deal of money if Full Metal Jacket is a worldwide hit.
Well, theoretically, yeah. With a capital T. I have points in the film, yeah. But that's movie money. It's like fairy gold, the leprechauns' gold. I don't think I ought to make too much money. I'd just sit around all the time reading my Civil War books.
WHEN I TURNED OFF the tape recorder, Hasford popped his hands together. "Am I famous yet?"
He started leafing through the pages of his victory letter from Australia. "Hmm...hmm....Maybe you better put in that Stanley Kubrick is a diamond cutter of men. I don't know for sure what it means, but it sounds good."
He began to gather up his gear to go. "And put in that I'm not anything like Cpl. Joker. I am not personally a Lusthog beast.
"And, let's see, put in that I am zany and amorous. Tell the women of the world that I am probably in love with them."