The true unbelievable story about the writer behind Stanley Kubrick’s Epic War Film – Full Metal Jacket.
The American Millennium Online
Gustav “Gus” Hasford from archival photos at GustavHasford.com
“The praise I seek from my readers is that they finish my books. After being alternately damned and praised for equally invalid reasons, I am content to trade fame for accuracy of interpretation. Fame, for a writer, is like being a dancing bear with a little hat on your head.” –Gustav Hasford, author of The Short-Timers
On Feb. 1, 2016 Netflix re-released for it’s subscribers director Stanley Kubrick’s epic war film Full Metal Jacket starring R. Lee Ermey and Matthew Modine. I watched it again late last month. Curious about the movie’s origin, (there is always a good book behind the best movies) I did some research, and found a story that blew my mind.
I don’t think I’ll ever discover many details about the life of obscure English major Matthew Samuel Ross, but the facts I do know are these. Ross received his undergraduate degree in 2006 from the University of Los Angeles. In 2010 he was attending his master’s degree program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and chose to write for his master’s thesis about the life and art of Gustav “Gus” Hasford, the author of The Short-timers and the Phantom Blooper. The Short-timers is the now out of print manuscript that is the basis of Kubrick’s Film Full Metal Jacket.
Whoever Ross is, we owe him a debt of gratitude that readers of war fiction can never repay because he has given us what I believe is the only written account of biography concerning the obscure and amazingly talented writer Gus Hasford. Ross’s thesis entitled, An Examination of the Life and Work of Gustav Hasford is elegant and detailed and worth the time of reading. In his 107-page manuscript he gave me an appreciation and fondness for this obscure writer and fellow veteran, who lived a sad, lonely life and died alone and forlorn in a shabby Grecian hotel room. You can read Ross’s full thesis here.
Full Metal Jacket came out in theaters in August of 1987. Overshadowed a little by the release of another war film, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, it was still met with a great deal of economic and box office success and continued to propel Stanley Kubrick’s career in filmmaking. Sadly, the principle screenwriter and author of the novel that was the movie’s basis was barely a footnote. According to Ross, Vietnam veteran and former Marine Hasford was thrilled that Kubrick had chosen his novel for his next film project and forever after regretted having to work with Kubrick at all, even considering legal action against the filmmaker to even get a mention as a scriptwriter. The relationship between Kubrick and Hasford was very tense. They spoke on the phone many times and in fact only met in person on one occasion, Ross recounts. It’s not clear who was at fault for this very tense working relationship but at the end of the day, Kubrick profited greatly from the success of Full Metal Jacket while the scriptwriter Hasford, barely nominated for best script and losing out, faded from the limelight soon after.
Hasford was born in Russelville, Alabama in a very rural setting. He loved reading and loved books and wrote for his high school paper. When the Vietnam War rolled around he volunteered for the Marines, embracing the reality that he would likely be drafted anyway. His experience in journalism garnered him a slot at the Defense Information School, then located at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana where he was trained as a military journalist. (Ross mistakenly calls it an Army school. In point of fact it is a joint Department of Defense School open to all branches and their associated civilians, and always has been. I attended DINFOS myself in 2008 long after the school moved to its present location at Fort Meade, Maryland.)
Following his training at Parris Island and Fort Benjamin Harrison, Hasford worked as a public affairs specialist, writing for various military publications such as the Marine magazine Leatherneck and Pacific Stars and Stripes among others. In his last 10 months of service after a personal battle with superiors he was shipped to Vietnam as a volunteer. His first novel is said to be semi-autobiographical in nature as the main character, Private James T. Davis, aka Private Joker, has many of the same characteristics as the author. Both were military journalists in Vietnam and both were involved in the battle of Hue, (pronounced Way. I know, Vietnamese to English translation makes no damn sense at all. )
Did you know that the first draft of Hasford’s novel had werewolves in it? It did, in fact. Happily that manuscript is dead and buried, while it is not clear which was true, did the Marines turn into werewolves in order to kill North Vietnamese soldiers or was it the other way around. The final draft that turned into the film did have werewolf references in it though. Interesting.
Regardless, the novel based loosely on Hasford’s experience, while not a financial success on it’s own, soon garnered the attention of Kubrick. He was looking for material for a Vietnam War flick and depended heavily on the writing of his friend Michael Herr and on the talents of Hasford for the script. Hasford wrote a much-acclaimed Vietnam book entitled Dispatches based from his experiences as a war correspondent for Esquire Magazine. Herr, who contributed little to the overall adaptation of the script never the less benefitted from his relationship with Kubrick, while Hasford was mostly on the outs. The three men never met in person to discuss the script, but instead were required to send their pages remotely to be edited by Kubrick for the final project.
At one point Ross recalls Hasford was so upset with director Kubrick that he feared the film was never going to see fruition at all. He and some friends donned tiger-stripped green camouflage uniforms and infiltrated the film location to indeed validate that the movie was actually in progress of being made. Ross recounts Hasford bragging to the staff at a commissary tent that the movie being shot was based on the book that he wrote. The staff, not knowing who Hasford was, mistook him for Herr, and praised him for his work on Dispatches. Hasford soon left the film location in disgust.
A little before the film’s release, Hasford finished his second book, the Phantom Blooper, which was a sequel to his first novel. Phantom Blooper continues where the first novel leaves off. Following the battle of Hue City, Joker, a sergeant, leaves his base to locate and kill another former Marine now fighting with the enemy. The Marine, known as the Phantom Blooper, is apparently to blame for killing some of Joker’s friends with an M79 grenade launcher, called a blooper gun. Joker fails to find the Blooper and instead is captured by the enemy. Phantom Blooper as seen through the eyes of it’s main character, seems to humanize the enemy for the reader where the fist novel, The Short-timers, seems to destroy the image of Hollywood war films and the role of the federal US Government in sending young men to war. You can see in both novels Hasford disdain for John Wayne style Hollywood war films and what he feels like are false representation of what war is really like.
Hasford’s life falls in disarray shortly after the release of Full Metal Jacket. His dust up with his publisher Bantam over the publication of his second book leads this writer to the belief that it was Hasford’s attitude that was largely to blame for his lack of success and not just Kubrick’s greed, although that might have been a contributing factor. Hasford refuses to endorse other works of fiction outside his own. This leads to a bitter dispute with Bantam, who retaliates by failing to properly promote the book, which leads to the ultimate failure of the novel commercially.
Hasford’s trouble with filmmakers and book publishers are the least of his problems. Hasford is accused by library officials in California for allegedly stealing thousands of books and storing them in a private storage locker located on a university campus. Hasford refutes the charges but eventually pleads guilty as part of a plea agreement for the theft. The judge in the case makes an example of Hasford and charges a huge fine and shockingly, a six-month prison term for the book thief.
The jail term is the last straw for Hasford and slowly his mind starts to deteriorate. He abandons longstanding friendships and moves to Greece after completing his last book, A Gypsy Good Time, a parody on cheap crime and detective novels. He dies alone of untreated diabetes probably brought on by his poor diet and alcoholic lifestyle. The eccentric writer is said to mix beer, milk and wine, which he imbibed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Yuk!
While it is somewhat of an oversimplification to say that Hasford’s two first novels is a window into the world of the Vietnam veteran, all veterans’ experiences are not the same, it can be said that his novels are a window into Hasford’s experience. When taken with other fiction and non-fiction on the Vietnam war, one can get a picture into the shared consciousness of all veterans post Vietnam era.
Hasford’s last novel, having little literary value, probably is more valued in that it gives us a sense of the deteriorating mind and spirit of this writer, former Marine and Vietnam veteran.
Hasford’s work and art deserves our appreciation and respect. While this veteran didn’t agree with everything Hasford has to say about the war, he respects his work and his opinion. (Hasford is a little too easy on the communists for this writer’s tastes. While hammering the US for their mistakes, Hasford gives the communists a virtual pass on their atrocities during the war.) Hasford is a victim of his era. His rejection by his audience is emblematic of the rejection many Vietnam era veterans faced when returning from that war and attempting to re-acclimate to civilian life. Indeed, the effects of that war and the disrespect of many veterans by the nation and the VA hospitals charged with treating them is evident today in the national headlines.
Hasford’s life is a cautionary tale for writers. In order not to be cheated by greedy filmmakers who want to profit from your story while leaving you out in the cold, get an agent who will represent your interests. When working with a publisher, be nice. Don’t be an ass. And, if you have a debilitating disease, listen to your doctor and follow his advice.
For more on the life and work of Gus Hasford, we recommend you read the thesis by Michael Samuel Ross, or go to the webpage GustavHasford.blogspot.com.
If you are trying to find copies of either the Phantom Blooper or The Short-timers, good luck starfighter. They are hard to find. Independent sellers on Amazon will attempt to sell you a hard cover for $140, while beatup paperbacks will fetch $90 plus. The Saint Paul Public library’s online inventory says there are a number of copies in their inventory on shelf; some are even printed in English! I’ve not yet made the pilgrimage from Rochester to see if that is the case. Regardless, you can go online at several websites and download a pirate version if you are interested. I’ve included links below. I wouldn’t even bother with A Gypsy Good Time. If you find a copy in a University or public library, honor Gus’s memory –and steal it!
The Phantom Blooper:
Respectfully submitted by
a DINFOS trained killer
DINFOS Trained Killer