Directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1987
If you want to fall in love with Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket (1987) might not be the movie you want to start with.
If you want to know about the Vietnam War, this again is not the movie to start with. That said however, this movie about a war is a must watch in the times that we live in. In an era where we have little creative output and enormous criticism of the society and its paraphernalia I must say, I kind of loved this film and I will tell you why.
I don’t know why Wagner’s Valkyrie comes to my mind while I write this because of course, when it’s about Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now springs readily to the mind. If that movie is a standard 10 then, this one will score around 7.4 in my ratings. Apocalypse Now is a piece of awe-some reality that benefits from falling back on a great piece of literature; Kubrick’s Full Metal has no such claim.
The opening shots of the film struck me the hardest. The training school on Paris island where the marines are forced to submit to an excruciating routine pushing themselves to the limits of their physical stamina and its ensuing mental repercussions is the birthing place of the homogenous corps. Rarely ever are the sedentary writers, sitting behind typewriters, able to achieve such insight into the transforming psyche of military trainees (Haruki Murakami does, but that alone is insufficient for a Nobel). Lee Ermey is delightful in his role as the over-bearing, obscene sergeant Hartman who dictates every aspect of the lives of his young trainees. He picks them up and drops them at will, shuffling them around, incorporating sexual metaphors into their relationship with their guns or composing rhymes for the morning warm-up exercises that equate war with sex (or, rape): nothing parallels the creative obscenity in the way the training rhymes were made. He prepares them to be murder weapons, with the only living desire to annihilate the enemy. It is this statement that resurfaces in the film over and over again. But you would expect that from a film on war.
As you would indeed expect a reluctant soldier not entirely convinced by the rhetoric of kill or be killed. So Private Joker (Matthew Modine) scrawls ‘Born to Kill’ on his helmet and pins a peace button on his uniform lapel as he goes to investigate the war effort of the Marines. Predictably, he is catechized not just by a superior, but by a fellow Marine who refuses to admit him into the precinct of military glory without having ever been a part of actual ‘fighting’. Instead of the Vietnam War however, the film is at its brightest in the scene of confrontation between Erney and Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Leonard Lawrence and is nicknamed Gomer Pyle. Pyle’s slow mental breakdown is traced from the night when his fellow trainees beat him up (they had to submit to an extra round of punitive exercise right before bed-time because he had stolen food from the mess) to the night when he waits in the toilet with his gun. You prepare yourself for an odd but characteristic response; you prepare for a showdown. Kubrick, however, controls the scene completely; there are no excesses and there is quiet terror in Joker’s eyes as Pyle shoots Hartman and then commits suicide.
Pyle is a case 8, and as the camera stills into a close-up of his eyes glowering beneath his eyebrows, you recognise Kubrick’s signature: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest as well as The Shining, both better-made and more acclaimed films than this.
But the film drives its point home early on: the Mariners are human weapons, trained and meant to kill, living and dying in the anonymity of the Corps. This ruthless desire to destroy is what most sedentary people behind the computer often fail to understand.
It somehow seems real yet outworldly, and I can go on about this part of the movie which keeps you hooked and you don’t even realize if it’s a war film or a film about some army school. Then the shots cut to Vietnam, where the soldiers are irritated with the locals who keep on attacking them despite the fact that they were ‘[t]here to help them, right?’ The irony is immense (Mission Kashmir?) and speaks a lot about the contemporary world with its military interferences. Kubrick, a master of satire, depicts this rather beautifully.
In his Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frenkel writes that even in the bowels of the concentration camp, the saintly acted like saints and couldn’t be degraded no matter how the situation was. If we recall the ending of The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) a similar situation comes to mind- the ‘boat bomb test’ by the Joker is an acid test on human morality in a time of crisis. All of that shows how even the worst of situations swings the compass of some people’s inner angels. Considering the fact that this is a war film, Kubrick had a lot of similar ground to explore; only, he never does.
There are some intense moments of cinematography however, especially the one with the sniper, albeit a war movie cliché (personally I preferred Saving Private Ryan). The real surprise is when you look at the face of the ‘one’ who was behind the mask of the sniper. The unmasked agony on Joker’s face had greater cinematic potential but the film ends abruptly, telling a few disconnected stories with shots which don’t really add up. You have the Vietnamese prostitutes, one of whom refuses to serve an Afro-American soldier for racial prejudice, the serial masturbator marine, the helicopter marine who shoots anyone who runs, and a few others. I blame Kubrick for not telling a few more stories or engaging with his subplots — always bordering on the abstract instead — but that is perhaps his style of filmmaking too.
It is not possible to address any single character from the film for they all seemed like tools of war in this movie. Kubrick does not seem to dwell on their humanness, and yet they are humans — people with their own stories, afflictions and desires. No single character was explored much in this film. Perhaps Kubrick was subtly mocking the people, the outsiders who take the realm of war for fun.
This is a film made around thirty years ago. It isn’t even Kubrick’s finest at that. What touched me the most is Kubrick’s honest attempt to try. If you are new to Kubrick, and wish to love him, start with Dr. Strangelove (1964), or The Shining (1980), or A Clockwork Orange (1971); or start with Eyes Wide Shut if you wish to hate him. Full Metal Jacket may not elicit the full range of reaction to Kubrick, yet it is still a film worth watching, if you can let your judgements go. Admire it, if you may, for the creative brilliance that flashes in parts punctuating the truncated storyline as a whole.
– Sounak Biswas