Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Dir. by Stanley Kubrick

Images: All of the Kubrick trademarks are on display here: languid tracking shots, perfectly symmetrical compositions, slow dissolves, Barry Lyndon-style zoom outs, and thematic changes of color temperature (most noticeable in both blue-tinted scenes involving Pyle). Favorite images: Joker’s “war face,” the long shot of Mr. Touchdown’s crumpling body, the interview segments, “the Jungian thing, sir,” and Pyle’s “major malfunction.”

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“Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it.”
— Michael Herr, Dispatches

Full Metal Jacket has been unfairly characterized by many as a deeply flawed narrative, a film whose brilliant first act overshadows the “in country” sequences that follow. I’ll admit to having spent some time myself in that camp. Lee Ermey’s kinetic performance as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is a sight of strange beauty; his uber-masculine, profanity-fueled taunts are terrifying both for their misogyny and for their undeniable appeal. Likewise, Vincent D’Onofrio’s turn as the pathetic Private Pyle invites us to experience Parris Island by way of a comfortable narrative convention: the bildungsroman. Though unusually impersonal and free of easy sentiment (both Kubrick trademarks), the basic training sections of FMJ essentially conform to our classic genre expectations, mapping out the well-worn path from raw recruit to U.S. Marine.

That Kubrick undercuts his coming-of-age story with Pyle’s brutal murder/suicide has led many to call Full Metal Jacket an anti-war movie, one that challenges America’s call for “a few good men” and the very processes (militaristic and sociological) that create them. While that’s certainly true—and I’ll soon return to Kubrick’s critique of masculinity—I wonder if it might be more useful to call FMJ an anti war-movie movie. For the auteur is obviously fascinated, in a deliberately self-reflexive way, with the influence of images and storytelling on the formation of what might be described as ideological mythology, that is, the conventions of belief and behavior imposed upon us through cultural narratives by various makers of meaning. Kubrick, always an intellectual filmmaker (and I would deny the negative connotations so often attached to that word), destabilizes those familiar myths, appropriately representing the Vietnam War by way of a narrative that, like the war itself, frustrates expectations and refuses progress.

Private Joker’s opening line—”Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?”—serves as a refrain throughout FMJ, making explicit the unspoken ties that bind America’s victory in WWII (and the subsequent cinematic representations of it) to the Cold War ideology that made Vietnam possible. In the film’s most self-reflexive sequence, a camera crew interviews a platoon of grunts, who affect bravado, but seem genuinely bewildered by the failure of their actual war experience to conform to their preconceived notions of “heroism,” “bravery,” and “sacrifice.” The aptly named Private Cowboy (Arliss Howard) describes the battle at Hue as the first to be like “what [he] thought a war was supposed to be. There’s the enemy. Kill him.” Another wonders why the locals are unappreciative of their efforts: “They’d rather be alive than free, I guess. Poor dumb bastards.” The stories of American masculinity and historical progress—written during WWII by their fathers, political leaders, and commanding officers—are revealed to be little more than Tall Tales.

In that sense, John Wayne, I guess, is like Pecos Bill. Despite the interesting moral ambiguity of some of his finer roles, for many critics of the Cold War he serves more often as an icon, a shorthand referent to the nostalgia and arrogance that continues to characterize so much of America’s foreign and domestic policy. In Dispatches, journalist and FMJ co-writer Michael Herr complains that neither the Duke’s brand of flag-waving patriotism nor the traditional Hollywood films in which it was trumpeted could possibly make sense of the morally ambiguous Vietnam experience. “The Green Berets doesn’t count,” Herr writes. “That wasn’t really about Vietnam, it was about Santa Monica.” Hartmann’s murder, then, is a symbolic gesture for Kubrick, a violent erasure of an anachronistic icon. Watch the scene again, and notice how closely Hartmann’s voice and swagger mimic John Wayne’s when he learns that Pyle’s rifle is loaded: “Now you listen to me, private pyle, and you listen good.”

Like Herr’s and several of the other landmark accounts of Vietnam—Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato and David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, in particular—Full Metal Jacket proposes a new narrative form, one that capitalizes on the contradictions of war instead of reducing them to an impossibly coherent heroic myth. Gone are the noble feats of bravery that would lead, inevitably, to the taking of Pork Chop Hill or to victory at Iwo Jima. Gone are the rag tag group of soldiers who share stories from “back home” and pour over letters from Mom. Instead, Kubrick splices the “in country” acts into disjointed episodes, leaving viewers, like the soldiers onscreen, wandering without direction.

Nowhere is Kubrick’s narrative strategy more obvious and effective than in the film’s closing sequence, that moment when we most desire closure. After showing Joker (Matthew Modine) fire his pistol into a dying female sniper, Kubrick cuts to a long shot of soldiers on the march from left to right across the screen, their figures silhouetted by the fires burning throughout Hue. Then, in the final cut of the film, Kubrick deliberately breaks the 180 degree rule: we now see Joker in a medium shot as he and the others march from right to left. By maintaining continuity through the soundtrack, Kubrick prevents the unusual cut from being as jarring as one might expect, but the implications are obvious: unlike traditional war films, Full Metal Jacket has refused to honor our journey by arriving at any prescribed destination. Instead, we continue to hump it back and forth, longing for the direction and ideological stability of Parris Island.

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As a side note, I felt almost compelled to write this response after watching Full Metal Jacket last night—the first time I had seen it in several years. Despite my deep affection for Kubrick, I had always felt strangely ambivalent about this film, mostly, I think, because I considered it a retread of concerns that had already been tackled in better films: the possibility of noble action in war (Paths of Glory), technological hubris (2001), Cold War ideology (Dr. Strangelove), and the dehumanizing influence of the State over the individual (A Clockwork Orange). But after spending several months knee-deep in some of the best literature to emerge from the Vietnam experience, Full Metal Jacket struck me with something of the force of revelation. This really is an impressive film. One of Kubrick’s best.

Reading suggestions:

  • David Rabe: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Streamers, and Sticks and Bones
  • Michael Herr: Dispatches
  • Gustav Hasford: The Short-Timers
  • Tim O’Brien: Going After Cacciato
  • Bobbie Ann Mason: In Country
  • Joan Didion: Democracy