Pros: Kubrick's powerful visuals and sound; effective evocation of Marine Corps boot camp and Vietnam War
Cons: A lot of viewers find the second half unfocused; insufficiently sympathetic lead character
Sir, yes sir! Sir, it is my duty to report that Pvt. Metalluk is about to review Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Sir! By way of disclosure, dear readers, I should mention that I once served in the U.S. Marine Corps for six years, three on active duty and three in the inactive reserve. Semper Fidelis! Once a Marine, always a Marine! That may shock some of you who have read my leftist tirades against America's involvement in Iraq. My active stint in the Marines was from early 1962 to early 1965. I spent twelve weeks of the spring of 1962 in boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. and another month at Camp Le Jeune, N.C., during the early summer, for what was called Individual Training Regiment, a kind of halfway house between boot camp and regular duty. The Vietnam War was just beginning to heat up around the time that I was discharged, in 1965, into the inactive reserves. I was not recalled and was therefore fortunate enough not to have served in Vietnam. Had I been recalled, it would have posed a major problem for me, since I had made the transition, by the end of 1965, from Marine to hippy and college student and was strongly opposed to America's involvement in Vietnam. I mention these things about my background because they cannot help but color my response to the present film, by Stanley Kubrick.
Historical Background: Stanley Kubrick, the son of a physician, was born in Bronx, New York, in 1928 and died in 1999. He took up photography while still a lad and took a job at age seventeen as a photographer for Look magazine. He quit that job in 1950 to pursue a longtime dream of a career as a filmmaker. His first couple of films, a documentary entitled Day of the Fight (1950) and a feature called Fear and Desire (1953), were made with money borrowed from friends and relatives. In 1954, Kubrick formed a production company in conjunction with James B. Harris and the first film out of their box was The Killing (1954), starring Sterling Hayden. Paths of Glory followed, in 1957, and established Kubrick as a promising young director. Kubrick had his first commercial success with Spartacus (1960) and followed with the controversial Lolita (1962). Kubrick then established himself as a legendary director with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Those three masterpieces proved difficult to follow or to equal, even for Kubrick. After Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980), Kubrick waited a full six years before undertaking his next film, Full Metal Jacket (1987). Tackling a film about the Vietnam War so soon after Oliver Stone's Oscar winning Platoon (1986) was courageous, since comparisons between the two films would be inevitable.
The Story: J.T. Davis (Matthew Modine) is quickly dubbed "Private Joker" by the drill instructor, Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey), during his first day in Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. Joker takes a punch in the stomach for having the insouciance to crack a joke during the drill instructor's spiel. Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio), a rather heavy lad who can't wipe the grin off his face, is quickly dubbed Private Gomer Pyle. Private Cowboy and Snowball are two of the other young recruits. Over the course of twelve weeks in boot camp, the drill instructor hollers insults at the lads and drives them mercilessly through the obstacle courses, fights with pugo sticks, instruction in marching and rifle positions (e.g., "right shoulder arms!"), push-ups and pull-ups, and dismantling and reassembling their weapons, all the while referring to the upstarts as "ladies." The Marines are taught various sexist lyrics ("I don't know, but I've been told, Eskimo pussy is mighty cold") and chants ("This is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for shooting, this is for fun") that link violence to male sexuality. A real man, it is implied, is hard and cruel and kills dispassionately.
The training has its intended effect on most of the young men, but Private Gomer Pyle proves more than typically resistant. He's overweight, soft, and not too bright, even confusing his right and left sides. Hartman assigns Joker the task of tutoring the miscreant in an effort to bring him along. Hartman also employs one of the standard practices of boot camp: punishing the entire platoon for the misdeeds of one problem recruit, so that they will then apply added pressure on the weak member to shape up. This tactic was prohibited, at one time, by Marine Corps regulations, but the drill instructors continued to use it anyway. Pyle is pummeled by the entire platoon, including Joker, during the night, on one occasion.
Pyle (a.k.a. Lawrence) proves adept, however, on the rifle range, where he qualifies as an expert marksman (the highest classification). Pyle begins talking to his rifle as he cleans it in the barracks, perhaps because it has given him his only taste of pride and success. At the end of training, during the final night at Parris Island, Joker, who has fire watch, finds Pyle in the head (bathroom), loading his rifle with live ammunition. The ensuing commotion brings the drill instructor charging into the head and Pyle duly dispatches his nemesis to oblivion. Pyle then sticks the end of the rifle barrel in his own mouth and splatters the contents of his cranium across the wall of the head.
From here, the film makes an abrupt transition to Vietnam, where Joker has been assigned to duty as a Marine Corps journalist for the military magazine, Stars & Stripes. Joker is the only carryover character from the first half of the film to the second, at least initially. We get a sense of the futility of the war effort from the perspective of Joker's best friend and photographer, Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard): "You know what really pisses me off about these people? We're supposed to be helping them and they shit all over us every chance they get. I just can't feature that." We also get a sense of the propaganda component of the military news media when Joker's boss informs the young journalists that they are to substitute the term "sweep and clear" for "search and destroy." Joker yearns for some genuine action in the field and gets his opportunity when he's given an assignment to cover the Tet offensive.
Joker and Rafterman are sent to join a field infantry unit that includes Joker's friend from boot camp, Cowboy. During the helicopter ride, they observe a gunner shooting people almost at random. Joker asks the man, "How can you shoot women and children?" He replies, "Easy. You just don't lead 'em so much." Joker meets up with Cowboy's 1st Platoon, which also includes Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), Eightball (Dorian Harewood), Hand Job (Marcus D'Amico), and some others. Animal Mother is an especially tough-talking, aggressive soldier who operates the platoon's machine gun. One of the cynical veterans sums up the xenophobic attitude of these hardened Marines: "Inside every gook there's an American trying to get out."
First platoon heads out on patrol and takes a wrong turn that brings them into contact with an enemy sniper. The sniper picks off first one member of the platoon and then another, shooting them in non-lethal body locations so that their moans of agony will draw their comrades out in desperate rescue efforts. The Americans lose three of their number but finally penetrate the building where the sniper is holed up. The sniper turns out to be a female Vietcong. When she is mortally wounded, Animal Mother and most of the others want to leave her to die slowly, even after she begs them to finish her off. When Joker complains, the others declare that he can kill her if he likes. Joker has never killed anyone before and is faced with a difficult choice, but finally performs the mercy killing.
Themes: Heavy Metal Jacket is a complex film that touches on several of the themes that have consistently run through Kubrick's oeuvre. One could start with the issue of dehumanization, which also interested Kubrick in such films as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). Marine Corps boot camp is designed to break down individual identity, self-direction, and critical thinking in order to train young men to function as cogs in the war machine. Such training is more readily accomplished with young men than older ones; it is interesting, in that respect, that the average age of servicemen declined from 26 in World War II to just 19 in Vietnam. The training, depicted very realistically in the first half of Full Metal Jacket, is both physically and emotionally demanding and exhausting. Every recruit is subjected to relentless verbal abuse. Any unusual physical characteristic (heavy or thin, tall or short, large or small eyes or nose, unusually light or dark hair) or any aspect of ethnic identity will be demeaned. In my platoon at Parris Island, one large, albino fellow was called "The White Whale" and the two black recruits in the group were routinely called spear-chuckers by the drill instructor. One way or another, every recruit was treated with equal contempt, so, to that extent, there was no bigotry. The idea, I think, was to desensitize the young men to name-calling and verbal insults so that they would more readily overlook such language later on and avoid confrontations within their units. There was also a strong element of sexism in the training. The Marine Corps recruiting slogan was "The Marine Corps builds men." Through most of boot camp, recruits were always referred to as "girls" or "ladies" or by vulgar terms for female genitalia. Not until the final day were you referred to as a "man." The idea, I think, was to convey the idea that emotions like kindness, sympathy, or tenderness were female emotions and that you became a man by "toughening up" and rejecting such feelings. Those kinds of sentiments could get in the way of efficient killing.
I chose the Marine Corps, when I was 18, rather than another branch of the military because I reasoned that if I were to go into combat, I'd want to be well trained and surrounded by well-trained companions. In saying that, I don't mean to disparage any of the other branches of the military. If you believe that war is something that a nation sometimes has to do, you should also want your fighting men and women to be as well trained as possible, both for the sake of the mission and the sake of their own lives. Though my personal view is that most wars are immoral, misguided, and pointless, for the ones that must be fought, I believe that we owe it to our military personnel to provide them with the best equipment, best support, and best training. Realistically, that training has to include "toughening up" of the emotions so that the person can function effectively under the stresses inherent in combat. The problem lies not in the training but in the necessity of war.
My wife and I have brought our children up to be compassionate, sensitive, good-hearted young people, but if I thought that I was preparing children instead for a post-apocalyptic dog-eat-dog world such as that depicted in Road Warrior, I would have brought them up much differently. I would have taught them to be tough, hard, suspicious, and ruthless. It would be criminal to send a bunch of sensitive, tender guys or gals into a murderous jungle. The price a nation pays for "toughening up" a fair share of its young men (and a smaller fraction of its young women) is that a few will take to the training and/or combat experience excessively well and become the Lee Harvey Oswalds or Charles Whitmans of the world. Some others will experience mental breakdown under the stress of the training. I saw a recruit totally lose it in basic training. The only unrealistic part of the first half of Full Metal Jacket is that recruits never have access to live rounds (except on the firing range where distribution of rounds is tightly controlled). Furthermore, a recruit such as Leonard Lawrence (a.k.a. Gomer Pyle) might have failed part way through boot camp and been given an "unsuitable" discharge, but if he made it to the end, he would have been proud of his accomplishment, rather than vengeful at that point. The stress of boot camp gradually decreases, a bit, as you approach the end; the failures come much earlier in the training.
War is always tough on the human psyche, even under the best of circumstances. "The best of circumstances," in the context of war, means a war that has little moral ambiguity. War requires that combatants kill without feeling and obey orders without thinking. Those kinds of necessities can be dehumanizing, but more so if the person and/or nation has doubts, at some level, about the moral validity of the cause. When one has to go to war for a cause that is morally ambiguous (or, worse, just plain wrong), then distinctions like right vs. wrong, normal vs. abnormal, and meaningful vs. absurd quickly disintegrate. If a nation must provide some of its citizens with the capacity to be toughened killers, we at least owe it to them and ourselves to make sure that we ask them to apply that capacity only to the clearest of necessities. Kubrick illustrates, through Full Metal Jacket, the terrible consequences of sending young people to fight in wars of dubious moral validity or pragmatic consequence. Joker exemplified the moral uncertainty of the Vietnam War by wearing a peace button on his lapel but the words "Born to Kill" on his helmet.
A third theme of the film is another of Kubrick's favorites: human systems tend to run amok. Viewers saw this idea in 2001: A Space Odyssey with Hal, the computer. We say it again in Dr. Strangelove in relation to the idea of deterrence by mutual assured destruction. We saw it in Clockwork Orange in the context of the justice system. Here we see it in relation to military training and deployment. Kubrick is the ultimate cynic who believes that most of what humans devise or touch is destined to turn to crap. Alone among the Marines, the character Joker retains a measure of humanity but, in the end, it is his humanity that requires him to kill. His training is thus complete.
Production Values: The screenplay for Full Metal Jacket was co-written by Kubrick and novelists Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr. It was an adaptation of Hasford's novel The Short Timers. Kubrick was not himself a veteran, but he immersed himself in books and films about the era and the war to ensure verisimilitude. The script includes both strengths and weakness, including one particular strength that all too many reviewers misinterpret as a weakness! The film has two almost independent segments: boot camp at Parris Island and deployment in Vietnam. Many reviewers compliment the first half of the film but complain that the film loses its sense of direction and meaning in the second half, in Vietnam. Kubrick was a master at matching the style of his film to its message. The narrative in the second half of the film lacks clarity, urgency, and meaning precisely because the war that it depicts lacked clarity, urgency, and meaning. The squad to which Joker and Cowboy are attached encounters a sniper for no better reason than an erroneous turn. America, itself, took an erroneous turn and ended up mired in Vietnam. The "short-timers" survive or die but none of them achieve any moral epiphany. America achieved no moral epiphany or growth in political consciousness from its failed war in Vietnam. One reviewer calls the film "an assortment of various ideas that never really come together in perfect harmony." Precisely! The Vietnam War was an assortment of ideas that never really came together in harmony. The film thus properly and brilliantly reflects its message in its narrative style. Reviewers resent not finding a moral in the film, but the Vietnam War was one from which no moral could be extracted. The film's narrative collapses just as the war collapsed.
One weakness of the script is a sporadic use of voiceover narrative. It occurs only about three or four times over the course of the film and is therefore rather jolting when it does occur. A more critical weakness is that the character Joker should have been a stronger presence and someone with whom viewers could identify. If Joker were as interesting a character as Alex in A Clockwork Orange, for example, this could have been a great film.
The sets and cinematography are mostly very good, provided that one accepts the film as something of a dreamlike, partially surreal depiction of the war. It's not as convincingly realistic as Platoon, by any means. Smoldering fires in the mostly destroyed factory building almost create the aura of Hades. Kubrick's lovely tracking shots are everywhere in evidence. The film was shot entirely on stages and outdoor sets in England, so this was fully Kubrick's vision of Vietnam, more than the real thing. The Parris Island segment was filmed at England's Bassingbourn military barracks and the key scene in the Vietnam segment at an abandoned gas-works near the Thames River. There's some cool music in this film, including a couple of my old favorites: Bird is a Word and Paint It Black.
The film's top performance, in my opinion, is that of R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. It was a role that he played in real life as a Marine Corps drill instructor. He clearly knows the role inside and out. I can vouch for the authenticity of his performance based on my own experience in boot camp. Next best, in my judgment, is Adam Baldwin as the tough, out-of-control Animal Mother, who keeps firing his weapon long after the man in charge of his platoon gives the order to cease firing. Baldwin's other film appearances include My Bodyguard (1980), The Chocolate War (1988), and Cohen and Tate (1989). Vincent D'Onofrio deserves kudos for his performance as Leonard Lawrence (a.k.a., Pvt. Gomer Pyle). D'Onofrio was an off-off-Broadway actor who gained sixty pounds in order to play the part of Lawrence! I thought D'Onofrio's final scene, beginning when he stares up through his eyebrows (a shot overused by Kubrick), rather feeble (gratuitous and unbelievable), but I lay the blame for that on Kubrick, not D'Onofrio. The film's most disappointing performance is the one by Matthew Modine. His character, Pvt. Joker, was easily the film's most sympathetic one, but Modine fails to make him human enough or compelling enough to hold viewer sympathy and interest. Contrast, for example, Modine's performance with the extraordinary one by Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, where McDowell manages to hold a portion of our sympathy despite his character being a sadistic killer. I'm not personally familiar with Modine's other work, which included parts in Streamers (1983), Birdy (1984), Orphans (1987), and Married to the Mob (1988).
Bottom-Line: Full Metal Jacket is not the best film ever made about the Vietnam War. That distinction might rightly belong to Platoon (1986). I don't consider Apocalypse Now (1979) a film about the Vietnam War, but rather a fictional work with a setting related to the Vietnam War. (In fact, the Joseph Conrad novel on which that film was based was set somewhere else entirely in the Congo, if I recall.) Among all war films, I might pick The Thin Red Line (1998) as the best. Full Metal Jacket is also not as effective as the best of Kubrick's other films, but let's keep in mind that both of those comparisons are against very high standards. Full Metal Jacket, taken on its own terms, is a very good film, though not a great one. I have no qualms about rating it at four-stars. In fact, I'll shout that rating from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. And that's that!
Sir, Pvt. Metalluk reporting as ordered, Sir!