The Books Interview: Karl Marlantes

Why do you think your novel, Matterhorn, which is set during the Vietnam war, had such an extraordinary reception in the United States?
I think it was because the parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam are uncanny. Just go down the list: they can run across the border and we can't; the government, which is on our side, is corrupt; we stick out like sore thumbs, and they don't; we don't know how to speak the language. What are we doing? We went over there to get Osama Bin Laden, who wasn't there. Well, now what?

And I think the other reason it's resonating so much is that the baby boomers are now mature and they're starting to wonder: "What the hell happened?" I think that, whichever side they were on of that horrible chasm which split our country, people are now trying to reconcile.

Were those arguments about the war in your mind when you fought in Vietnam?
By the time I was there it was 1969. So, yes, they were. I was from a little town in Oregon and I still had high hopes that the president wouldn't lie to us. But you get over there and you don't know what you're doing except killing people, and that doesn't sit right. The novel isn't really a political book - it's about kids growing up - but the politics were part of the zeitgeist.

So you took the fraught politics of the US in the late Sixties into the jungle with you?
Absolutely. Our brothers and sisters were back home on the streets rioting. My own brother, for example, figured out how to dodge the draft. He managed to do it because he was an extraordinarily good football player, an all-state quarterback.

How tense were the racial politics out there?
Vietnam was the first time that Americans of different races had to depend on each other. In the Second World War, they were segregated; it was in Vietnam that American integration happened in the military - and it wasn't easy. There were over 200 "fraggings" [murders of superiors] and almost all of them were racially motivated.

There was an enormous amount of tension. Think about what America was experiencing then. Watts was going up in smoke; Detroit was burning down; in Newark they had snipers shooting; you didn't know if the Black Panthers were gonna take over the country. And there you are in Vietnam. If you think you had racial tension in America, take 19-year-olds [to the jungle], give them all automatic weapons and say, "Here, live together," when they'd never lived together before. Holy shit!

What are the differences between the experiences you and your characters had in Vietnam and those of US troops today in Iraq and Afghanistan?
There's a huge difference. Where the marines were - I was where the novel is set, in the mountains north of Khe Sanh - we were just facing the North Vietnamese army. If there was something moving in the bush and you knew it wasn't your guy, you'd just shoot it. Today, you're asking teenage kids to make decisions that are beyond belief. Somebody shows up and they don't know if they're the enemy or not. Adults shouldn't put kids in situations where they don't know who the enemy is.

Were you never in that situation yourself?
I was very fortunate, in that I never had that psychological problem of wondering if I'd killed someone who was not my enemy. It's bad enough when I think back about people I killed. I think it over and realise that they were just children. It's circumstance. I could have been born Vietnamese, and I could be dead by now.

Do you think often about the people you killed?
I think about the war experience daily and I think about dying all the time - two or three times a day. Before the war, I didn't have that. I'll be having a wonderful time with my kids, and then all of a sudden I'll be aware that this is temporary and I'm going to die. If I think about the war, I don't think about the people I killed. But every now and then it comes up, and I start thinking about it and saying to myself, “I did a lot of damage." I don't believe it's guilt - I believe it's sadness. Because they were trying to kill me. But for what? Vietnam's going capitalist and now they're fighting with China.

Karl Marlantes's "Matterhorn" is published by Corvus (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Face off

Show Hide image

Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.