Characters in Costume Blogfest: A Few Good Men

Clothes maketh the man…

characters-in-costume-logo

The Characters in Costume Blogfest is being hosted jointly by Christina Wehner and Andrea at Into the Winter Lea, and seemed like a great opportunity to discuss one of my all-time favourite films, A Few Good Men (Dir: Rob Reiner, 1992).

The cynics amongst you are probably thinking this is simply an opportunity to post pics of the deliciously young Tom Cruise in his lovely white uniform. As if I’d ever be so shallow!

afgm-tom-in-white

No, indeed! It has always seemed to me that the use of uniforms in the movie, both overtly as one of the major plot points, and more symbolically throughout, is as important in conveying the meaning of the film as are the spoken lines. Since this is a discussion of the film rather than a review, it will be heavily spoiler-filled, so if you haven’t watched it and want to, I’d suggest you do that before reading. But do come back afterwards!

(NB To get it out of the way straight off, I have no idea whether the uniforms in the film are authentic and accurate or not, and I frankly don’t care. As far as I’m concerned they are part of the storytelling, and if the director has taken some liberties with the truth or simply got things wrong, I’m fine with that.)

* * * * * * *

Khaki, camouflage and whites...
Khaki, camouflage and whites…

Briefly, the film tells the story of Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a member of the US Navy’s JAG Corps, defending two marines who have been charged with murdering one of their colleagues. The plot hinges on whether they had been ordered to give the victim, Private William Santiago, a Code Red – a traditional form of internal disciplinary punishment recently outlawed. This is used as a basis to discuss codes of honour, attitudes to discipline within the armed forces, and the age old question of whether it is ever acceptable for soldiers to disobey orders given by an officer.

The first indication of the importance of uniform within the film is its absence. Every serving character in the film makes their first appearance in uniform – except Kaffee, who first appears in baseball kit. Daniel Kaffee is a young, recently qualified lawyer, intending to serve a few years in the JAG Corps because he feels his late father, himself a celebrated lawyer, would have wanted him to. He has no real loyalty to the Navy nor any desire to do more than plea-bargain his way through the cases he’s allocated. While others are proud of their uniforms, Kaffee gets out of his into civvies at every opportunity.

afgm-_-baseball-with-joanne

One of the major themes is the divide in attitude between the officers in the JAG Corps, who are part of the navy, and the marines, who see themselves as the real fighting men. This divide is almost a matter of mutual contempt. The JAG officers see the marines as outdated relics of a more brutal past (remember, this is towards the end of the Cold War, when peace had been the norm for decades and everyone anticipated that we’d keep heading in that direction). The marines see the navy in general as an inferior branch of the service, and the JAG officers in particular as bleeding heart liberals with no code of honour and no understanding of the realities of facing an armed enemy. (At that time, the Soviets were still in Cuba and the marines at Guantanamo were the US’ first line of defence in the Cold War.)

Lieutenant Kaffee: Have I done something to offend you?
Lieutenant Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland): No, I like all you Navy boys. Every time we go someplace to fight, you fellas always give us a ride.

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When Kaffee and his colleagues JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) go to Cuba to start their investigation, Sam advises Kaffee to wear his white uniform because of the heat. Unlike the two men, who are first and foremost lawyers, JoAnne’s loyalty is to the service – she sees herself as an officer first and a lawyer second. JoAnne wears khaki. On arrival in Cuba, the two men are immediately told to don camouflage…

Corporal Barnes (Noah Wyle): I got some camouflage jackets in the Jeep, sirs. I suggest you both put them on.
Kaffee: Camouflage jackets?
Barnes: Yes, sir! We’ll be riding pretty close to the fence line. If the Cubans see an officer wearing white, they figure it might be someone they want to take a shot at.

afgm-arriving-in-cuba

The white uniforms are shown even more clearly as symbolising everything the marines despise about these non-fighting officers when the commanding officer of the marines, Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson), demands that Kaffee show him the respect he feels is his due…

Colonel Jessup: You see, Danny, I can deal with the bullets and the bombs and the blood. I don’t want money and I don’t want medals. What I do want is for you to stand there in that faggotty white uniform and with your Harvard mouth extend me some fucking courtesy. You gotta ask me nicely.

afgm-jessop-faggotty-white-uniform

Kaffee doesn’t fare much better with his clients. Disgusted that Kaffee wants them to take a deal, Lance Corporal Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison) tells him…

Lance Corporal Dawson: You’re such a coward. I can’t believe they let you wear a uniform.

afgm-dawson-and-caffey

The plot hinges on why Private Santiago didn’t pack on the day he died. He was apparently due to be transferred off base at dawn the following day for his own safety (having gone outwith the chain of command to report on a fellow marine), but Kaffee sees all his uniforms carefully hung up in his wardrobe. The realisation of the oddity of this comes to him when he later sees his own uniforms hung up in the same way. This leads to a courtroom scene where he demands to know from Colonel Jessup what clothes the Colonel packed when he came to Washington to testify. And it’s at this point that the trial begins to turn in Kaffee’s favour. So uniforms play an actual pivotal part in the story as well as being used symbolically.

afgm-santiagos-locker

Perhaps the most powerful use of uniform in the film, though, comes when Jessup’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Markinson (J. T. Walsh), is torn between loyalty and honour.

Lieutenant Colonel Markinson: I want you to know that I am proud neither of what I have done nor what I am doing.

As we hear his voice reading the last letter he wrote, to Santiago’s mother, we watch as he puts on his full dress uniform – the braided jacket, the belt, the shoes shiny as mirrors, the white gloves, the ceremonial sword, and finally his officer’s hat – then takes his service pistol and shoots himself in the mouth. It’s an incredibly powerful scene, showing how even at this extremity the uniform and all it symbolises is of ultimate importance to him.

afgm-markinson

Finally, in the course of the case, Kaffee too has learned the meaning of duty and honour, and learned to admire these men who live by a code that he has come to understand a little better. And in return, he has changed the contempt of the marines he defended into respect. The young man we first met in his baseball gear is last seen in full dress uniform, receiving the salute of his client, and returning it with none of his earlier cynicism for the traditions of the marines.

* * * * * * *

A great film, in which I think the three major actors, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson, each give one of their best performances. And, you know, it has to be said… Tom does look awfully handsome in uniform…

afgm-final-salute

* * * * * * *

To read the other posts in the blogfest, pop on over to Christina’s blog for links. Thanks for hosting, Christina and Andrea!

51 thoughts on “Characters in Costume Blogfest: A Few Good Men

  1. Couldn’t agree more about those uniforms, FictionFan. And I do like the interplays among the actors very much in this film. What I really like is that neither side is 100% right or 100% wrong. There are enough issues that it keeps the attention, if that makes sense.

    • Yes, I like that aspect too. And it’s funny, when it came out the Jessup character was truly monstrous, but after all the horrors and the wars of the last few years, when he says “You want me on that wall. You NEED me on that wall!” in truth, I kinda do…

  2. I have to admit…he does look very handsome. I just realized, reading your post, that I have seen virtually none of Tom Cruise’s earlier films!

    This sounds like a truly fascinating film. I love films where people with different perspectives come to a fuller understanding and appreciation of each other. And it interesting how central the uniform is to identity and who they are…like the two things cannot be separated. And even contribute to the impression a person makes.

    So very glad you could participate!

    • I’m the other way round – I’ve hardly seen any of his recent ones! He was truly gorgeous when he was young – still is, in fact. But he’s also a great actor in a good role.

      I’ve always loved this one and have probably watched it more often than any other film. The script and story are good and interesting, but it’s really the performances that make it. I don’t think anyone is a weak link – even the minor characters are good, which I suppose suggests the credit should go to the director. I’ve always thought the uniforms were important, but when I watched it closely this time with that in mind, there are actually all kinds of other little things to do with uniforms that I hadn’t noticed before. But I felt the post was already long enough!

      Glad to – and enjoying reading the other posts! 🙂

  3. This is one of my favourite films but I’ve never really thought about who’s in which uniform at what that means. Really interesting analysis, especially about Caffee’s lack of uniform in his first scene.

    • Thank you! I’ve watched this film so often, more than any other I think, mainly because I think the three leads are great in it. But I think it’s the Markinson scene that made me think the director was using uniforms to add layers to the story. It was also a good excuse to watch the film again… 😉

  4. This is fascinating! It made me think of many of the episodes of JAG, the television show–lots of right and wrong and somewhere in the middle. And who is in what uniform was always a big deal, since some of the lawyers were Navy and some were Marines.

    Thanks for contributing to our blog fest! It’s been great reading all the varied posts and thoughts. (And, despite that I never liked Tom Cruise all that much, he does look good in uniform.) 🙂

    • I haven’t seen JAG but I wonder if it was partially inspired by this film. As a Brit I wasn’t aware of the difference between the navy and marines till I saw this film – it’s not a divide we really have in our armed forces over here, as far as I know. But I do love the way Reiner used uniforms in this film – it’s not blatant, but it works kinda subliminally…

      I liked Tom better when he was young and fresh – before he turned into action man really. But he’s awfully handsome… 😉

      Thanks – and thanks for hosting the blogfest! I’ve enjoyed the posts so far and am looking forward to the rest… 🙂

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, indeed – he’s the prosecuting lawyer and also excellent – and very handsome in his khaki uniform! But he didn’t say or do anything memorable in terms of uniforms so I couldn’t find a way to work him into the post… 😉

  5. I haven’t watched this film but I do like Tom Cruise in his nice white uniform – Love your critique of the film, it sounds like a good one and I did enjoy the explanation about the different uniforms and their underlying pointers to the audience.

    • He’s awfully sweet in his whites! *swoons* Thanks, Cleo! 🙂 It really is a great film – I love a good courtroom drama and both Tom and Jack Nicholson give great performances. Actually all the cast do. And I do like men in uniforms… 😉

  6. I love this film. I do love a film when a character cracks in the witness box and Jack Nicholson does a spectacular job of it in this one. Another great crack-up was Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny.

    • I love courtroom dramas too, and Jack is fantastic in this one. D’you know, I don’t think I’ve seen The Caine Mutiny – what an omission! I must put that right promptly! (Yay! It’s available on Amazon Instant.) My other favourite courtroom one is Twelve Angry Men though it doesn’t actually take place in the courtroom – but I love the bit in it when the old racist gives his spiel and they all get up one by one and turn their backs on him. Beautifully dramatic!

    • Definitely a sickroom one! It’s my film version of comfort reading – mind you, that’s partly because I’ve seen it so often I know the script off by heart. Don’t tell anyone, but I usually join in with Jack Nicholson’s big speech…

  7. I’ve seen bits and pieces of this one, FF, but perhaps I should watch it beginning to end — after all, I imagine most men look more dashing in a uniform, don’t you think?! And what a cast!!

    • All the men in this look incredibly handsome – even Jack! If you like a courtroom drama, then I’d think you’d really enjoy this. The cast is stellar, and a lot of them were kind of at the beginning of their careers, so it’s interesting to see which ones went on to be stars in their own right…

    • He does, doesn’t he? Mind you, they all do – even Jack! When I rule the world all men will have to wear uniform all the time…

      When I was looking stuff up on the internet I came across people being incredibly picky about the medals they were wearing and suchlike, so I thought I’d just nip it in the bud, so to speak… 😉

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