My last trip to a used bookstore contained a surprise. While going through the general fiction section, I came across a copy of Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, first paperback edition. I belong to a men’s adventure paperback group on social media and this book has been mentioned as not a an easy one to find.
The Short-Timers is the novel that was the basis for the movie Full Metal Jacket. If you are a guy, you can probably recite dialogue from the movie, especially R. Lee Ermey’s performance as D.I. Gny. Sgt. Hartman. Of course, you all know the phrase “Me love you long time.”
Reading novels that became classic movies can be a dicey thing. You do have those instances of the movie better than the book. I have been told that Jaws is an example. The Godfather is another adaptation said to be improved by judicious pruning. More often is the case like First Blood which is an incredible novel with a weak film adaptation.
The Short-Timers was a hardback in 1979. The Bantam paperback in 1980. The novel is only 180 pages long and is a quick read. In the book, Sgt. Hartman is Sgt. Gerheim. Gerheim is described as having a beer gut and bald. Some of the dialogue from the movie is in the book like “Private Joker. I like you. You can come over to my house and fuck my sister.” My guess is the late R. Lee Ermey added some of the colorful dialogue present in the movie.
Private Pyle/Leonard Pratt is a skinny yokel instead of the hulking Vincent D’Onofrio. Sgt. Gerheim routinely beats the crap out of Pratt in addition to beatings of other recruits. When Private Pyle/Pratt blows him away, you don’t feel bad.
The infamous Da Nang Hooker scene is not present in the book. The book is also shortened up. Joker and Rafterman take out a Viet Cong guerrilla in Hue while Cowboy is only hurt. Later, Rafternman is run over by a Marine tank on the way out of Hue. Joker gets into trouble with a Colonel for his peace symbol pin and busted to a grunt.
The last section of the novel takes place at Khe Sanh. Sgt. Joker is with Cowboy’ squad on patrol in the jungle. The sniper scene from the movie in Hue takes place here in the novel. I found it interesting that Hasford refers to the sniper using an SKS rifle. The SKS is a rugged semi-automatic rifle than can be deadly witness a shoot out 20 years ago in the Wisconsin woods between some hunters and a transplanted Hmong tribesman. To nitpick, I would consider a rifleman using an SKS in the jungle as a sharp-shooter, not a sniper. Not like the shooter was using a Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle with a scope.
The novel ends with Joker shooting the wounded Cowboy and Alice (Eightball in the movie) in the head and leaving them than risk more men. I kept thinking of vaunted Marine marksmanship and flanking maneuvers to deal with the SKS wielding sharpshooter. Chris Kyle said in his book American Gun the Marines emphasized marksmanship as they assumed they would always be outnumbered as landing parties. The U.S. Army took a doctrine of mass firepower.
There is a second novel about Joker, The Phantom Blooper that only had a hardback edition in 1990 when it came out. Hasford had planned a third novel but died at age 45 due to diabetes.
I can’t say this is the best war novel I have ever read. Off the top of my head, I still really like Richard Matheson’s The Beardless Warriors. I don’t regret reading The Short-Timers either.
I find myself more interested in reading men’s adventure than fantasy as I get older. Lou Cameron, Len Levinson, Marv Albert are some of the writers I am currently exploring that deliver more testosterone than the contents in The Book of Swords.