Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, & Gustav Hasford
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Full Metal Jacket was seemingly accepted at face value by critics and audiences alike, and this is one of the most baffling moments in Stanley Kubrick’s directorial career. It shouldn’t surprise us though, as A Clockwork Orange was assumed by so many to be the filmmaker’s endorsement of rape and youth violence. Never underestimate people’s ability to not want to put in the work to think about a piece of art beyond its basic presentation. I have known “Chad” types who have quoted Full Metal Jacket with glee, and I can remember the first time I saw it not understanding why they thought this was a movie glorifying the Marine mindset. In the context of Kubrick’s full body of work, this rewatch has helped clarify for me that this is not the “funny” movie those sociopaths seem to think it is.
Like almost all of Kubrick’s films, Full Metal Jacket is composed of sections with two prominent “chapters” here. Part 1 is set in the 1960s on Parris Island, where a new batch of recruits has been dumped to be trained as Marines under drill instructor Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). Private Joker (Matthew Modine) shows a spark of wilfulness, finding ways to hold true to himself while being systemically dehumanized, or so he thinks. Hartman’s primary target of rancor is Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), an obviously mentally challenged man who struggles with the training & regimentation of Marine life. Pyle is overweight, and this is a constant point of attack for the ruthless Hartman. This first part culminates in a nightmarish closing moment that resonates through the rest of the picture.
Part 2 was not received by critics who found it so disjointed compared to the first part, but I believe that this is where Kubrick really starts to say something and brings the loose ideas of Part 1 together. In this section, now Sergeant Joker works as a correspondent for the military paper Stars & Stripes. He’s stationed in Da Nang, Vietnam, and the other Marines mock him for his lack of the “thousand-yard stare,” the mark that a soldier has been deep in the middle of combat. The Tet Offensive begins, and Joker is sent to travel with a Lusthog Squad to write about them crossing through Vietnam and clearing out the embedded Viet Cong. This affords Joker the chance to be reunited with a boot camp buddy, Cowboy, as well as meet some Marines who have given in to their darker impulses, like Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin).
Kubrick had stated clearly that Full Metal Jacket is “It’s not pro-war or anti-war. It’s just the way things are.” Kubrick understands that armed conflicts between nations are one of those things that seem inevitable for humanity. The weapons, governments, and causes may change, but no matter how long time marches on societies go to war. This does not mean Kubrick supports or endorses war. On Vietnam he said it, “was such a phony war, in terms of the technocrats fine-tuning the facts like an ad agency, talking of ‘kill ratios’ and ‘hamlet pacification’ and inciting the men to falsify a ‘body count’ or at least total up the ‘blood trails’ on the assumption they’d lead to bodies somehow.”
Kubrick had tussled with making a film about the Holocaust but could never figure out how you could make an honest film about the horrific event. His wife, Christiane Kubrick, said in an interview that he could not fathom acting out & filming the atrocities you would need for the picture to give an honest portrayal. Some argue that Full Metal Jacket was an attempt to weave Holocaust elements into a film about something distantly related. The movie’s opening shot is a montage of the recruits getting their heads shaved, followed by their renaming, Hartman berating them, and assigning them nicknames. They have their physical and psychological identities erased in these moments. The Marines’ goal is to tear away the humanity of these men and make them obey whatever command is issued. I wonder if Kubrick was, in some way, drawing parallels between victims of the Holocaust and young men who are coerced by their societies into joining the military.
Pyle is shown to be skilled at ferreting away contraband, which leads to the conclusion of part one, where he’s even managed to steal a full magazine’s worth of bullets. This scene also emphasizes how both effective Hartman has been at extracting humanity but ineffective in making Pyle come to heel for the Marines. There’s a brief scene where Hartman introduces the importance of marksmanship to the recruits and cites Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman (the Texas clock tower shooter from 1966). The drill instructor even expresses disgust that the rookies didn’t immediately recognize Whitman’s name as if he’s a national hero. There are constant evocations of the Marines being God’s hand and working in tandem with the Judeo-Christian deity. If Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick’s phenomenological treatise on War, then I think he is saying that it holds a pseudo-spiritual place in culture, the only way you can get young men to go to the edge is by plying them with lies of great reward beyond this plane. So often, Islamaphobic talking heads cite “forty virgins” as if the Western world is clean of offering up promises of sex and wealth in exchange for a mortal sacrifice.
If Part 1 is the table setting in terms of theme, then Part 2 is Kubrick following things through the terminal point for Joker. The first section ends with Joker witnesses both an obscene and, based on the ideology blasted down by Hartman, a strangely holy moment. Hartman tells the recruits that to die as a Marine is the ultimate moment, and he almost grins right before Pyle blows his chest out. Joker is also witnesses a moment beyond time here, the confrontation between institutional dehumanization and the free will of man. Pyle is cognizant that “the world is shit,” which leads to only two conclusions: 1) Hartman must die & 2) Pyle, himself must die.
This sentiment of “the world is shit” comes back up in the second half when Joker comes face to face with a Viet Cong soldiers, a teenage girl, bleeding out on the ground in front of him. This is the first and only moment where we clearly see the face of an enemy combatant. During training, Joker is asked to show his “war face” by Hartman and told it is severely lacking. The Viet Cong shows her war face, and it is markedly different than Joker’s ironic detachment. She truly believes in what she is fighting for, and the Marines plan to leave her on the ground bleeding to death, praying in her native tongue, and sputtering out in English a request that one of them please shoot her. Joker is the only one who wants to put her out of her misery, and in doing so, he earns that “thousand-yard stare,” we see the humanity sap right out of (kudos to Matthew Modine on such an exemplary performance). As Modine stated in his writings at the time about the movie, “It is the moment that Joker dies and has to spend the rest of his life alive.”
Full Metal Jacket might be my favorite of Kubrick’s films because, as we’ll see when we get to Eyes Wide Shut, it was closing out of so many of the ideas he spent his whole career making movies about. Here are all of his angst & wonderings about the destructive power of institutions, the fragile destructive power of man’s free will, how violence bleeds through history to stain our present. To view Full Metal Jacket as “just another Vietnam film” amid the glut of them the late 1980s brought is a complete disservice to where the picture belongs in the continuity of a single artist’s body of work. I was most surprised that my wife, who is getting her first viewing of most of these films during my rewatch this month, said Full Metal Jacket feels like her favorite so far because of the complex themes that underpin what happens on screen. If you revisit only one of these movies this month, I highly recommend this one.