At 13 features over a 50 year career, Stanley Kubrick may not have one of the lengthiest filmographies as a director, but there’s some of his films that I choose to go back to whilst others barely get a look in. Looking at a snapshot of his most memorable and highly regarded titles, I viewed A Clockwork Orange a few times after the Kubrick imposed ban was lifted following his death; Eyes Wide Shut and 2001: A Space Odyssey I’ve seen once, maybe twice each. The Shining and Full Metal Jacket however, I’ve watched numerous times. The Shining I like due to Jack Nicholson’s performance and the creative use of the confined setting, the necessary ingredient for a great horror; Full Metal Jacket I like due to its thoroughly uncompromising vision of life as a soldier in wartime. Based on Gustav Hasford’s semi-autobiographical novel The Short-Timers (a title Kubrick hated and changed as soon as a better alternative was found), the film arrived after such high profile ‘Nam films as Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and although different in content and approach, they all delivered a similar message. War is hell.
Following the journey of a batch of new recruits through their training on Parris Island and onto their service during the Tet Offensive, Full Metal Jacket was Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate film and his third to deal with the subject of war after Paths Of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. Full Metal Jacket arrived on cinema screens in 1987, seven years after Kubrick’s previous film, The Shining; the longest Kubrick had taken between projects so far and only beaten by the 12 year gap between this film and his last, Eyes Wide Shut in 1999. This could be read as Kubrick entering semi-retirement or just his methodical nature gradually taking over, the master craftsman taking time to fine tune his vision. Kubrick had been actually working on this project since 1982, with most of the pre-production time spent working on the script with Michael Herr, the co-screenwriter of Apocalypse Now. Herr’s work on Apocalypse Now is mostly notable for his work on the lead character’s narration, skills he would have to bring to this project for the film’s only consistently present character, Private Joker.
Kubrick purposely chose to make Full Metal Jacket in a loosely structured format, taking the original novel’s three act structure and dividing it into two clearly defined halves. Beginning with the ritual humiliation and de-humanising experience of the iconic barber shop sequence (with the tongue-in-cheek Goodbye My Darling, Hello Vietnam playing over the top), the first half of the film sees the new recruits being broken down by Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (in a career-making performance by former drill sergeant R. Lee Ermy), only to be “born again, hard” in preparation for their tours of duty. Hartman is vicious and often cruel to his recruits, but it is in an effort to make sure as many of them return home as possible.
One thing you may not immediately associate with a gritty and uncompromising war film like Full Metal Jacket is how amazingly quotable it is. From Kubrick’s oeuvre The Shining may have “here’s Johnny!” and Dr. Strangelove may have “you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”, but their cultural significance doesn’t compare to the combined might of “sucky, sucky”, “ me love you long time” and pretty much everything R. Lee Ermy says on Parris Island. As a viewer it’s highly entertaining to watch him deliver these well orchestrated insults with a tremendous gusto, but as a soldier who’s facing a year’s training with this man, it must be terrifying. For those who say that perhaps barring Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick never showed much of a sense of humour, they must be forgetting such eviscerating lines as “It looks to me like the best part of you ran down the crack of your momma’s ass and ended up as a brown stain on the mattress” and “I bet you’re the kind of guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not have the common courtesy to give him a reach-around”.
Of course, the private taking a lot of the brunt of this abuse is the bumbling Private Pyle, cruelly renamed by Hartman on his first day on the island to better describe his physical appearance. Although the entire story is narrated by Private Joker and largely seen through his eyes, I’d consider the first half of the film to be Private Pyle’s story. A lot of the action on the island revolves around his ineptitude, the rest of the trainees forced to suffer whilst he literally stumbles along behind them with his trousers around his ankles, sucking his thumb. One thing Full Metal Jacket shows that other Vietnam films don’t, is that the horrors of war start earlier than the battlefield. Pyle may be a poor soldier, but the late night beating he receives from his fellow recruits (known as a blanket party) is both cruel and unusual. Not only is this a turning point for Pyle’s mental well-being, it also signals Joker’s journey to becoming cold blooded and ruthless. It’s safe to say that Hartman succeeds in his job of breaking down Pyle and rebuilding him as a killer, although not perhaps the kind of killer he was hoping for.
Kubrick didn’t have too many iconographic images continuing through his work, but one that appears occasionally is what’s affectionately known as the ‘Kubrick Stare’. Recognisable from the way the characters are head down with their eyes looking so far forward they’re almost burrowing into their frontal lobes, it’s present when we’re introduced to Alex and his Droogs in the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange, when Jack loses his mind to the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining and when Private Pyle chooses to stand up against Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Driven to Section 8 madness by the effect of his training, It’s the only opportunity Private Pyle gets to exert any control over his life, even if his choice is that it will soon be over. The sequence that gives the film its name, as Private Pyle describes his rounds as he loads them into his rifle he might as well be describing himself. A Full Metal Jacket, a hard-shelled round that can kill with one shot.
Without getting too scientific, the frontal lobe is used to make the choices between doing good and bad, so it’s rather apt that it’s these characters who are the ones to deliver the Kubrick stare. Whether this shot was designed to express the character’s journey through their own disturbed psyche, I doubt it. It’s just a cool looking shot that also happens to have an alternative reading.
The second half of the film also starts with a piece of music, this time the Nancy Sinatra song These Boots Are Made For Walkin’. Joining the now promoted Sergeant Joker as he writes fluff pieces for Stars and Stripes magazine, this is a gentle introduction into the war, Joker separated from the real action and the real horror. If not for the presence of Joker and Cowboy in both halves, they could well be considered two different films with two vastly different structures. Whereas the first half moved along at a fairly regimented pace with numerous montage sequences, the second chapter in the story is a collection of seemingly disparate, loosely connected scenes before it reaches its climactic confrontation with a lone sniper. Cinematically if not also socially, Vietnam has always been portrayed as the anti-war war, so perhaps it’s apt that in the second half of the story Joker changes from being a tool of the positive propaganda machine (Stars and Stripes) to being plunged headfirst into the shit, with all the horrors and unnecessary killing that comes with it.
The depiction of war atrocities is timeless. The weapons may get more advanced but the soldiers stay the same. In one disturbingly prescient scene after Joker’s rendezvous with Cowboy and his company, one soldier suggest they should take a photo of his buddy in the deck chair next to him, in reality the corpse of one of their fallen opponents, saved as a trophy to be humiliated. Kubrick doesn’t shy away from poking at US sensitivities, showing soldiers mowing down Vietnamese children from their gunships and Gunnery Sgt. Hartman even taking pride in Lee Harvey Oswald’s training as a marine.
Perhaps the most Kubrickian aspect of the production was his decision to shoot the entire film in the East End of London rather than the production onto location. This adds creedence to Kubrick’s reputation as a megalomaniac, using the location as a relatively blank canvas, onto which he could create his own personal vision of the war. As territories go, the derelict factories in the East End don’t immediately bring Vietnam to mind, so a lot of work was needed to ensure the film looked like it was being filmed in wartime Vietnam. Palm trees were shipped over to create the look of a tropical environment, and Vietnamese shop signs were added to make the effect complete. This was a move that would be repeated for Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut, with street lamps rather than palm trees being shipped in when he chose not to shoot in New York and stay in his adopted home of England.
Full Metal Jacket also dispensed with any shred of star power (after working with Hollywood leading men Kirk Douglas, Ryan O’Neal and Jack Nicholson), instead opting to hire a bunch of new recruits, among them the fresh faced Matthew Modine, Arliss Howard and Vincent D’Onofrio; and of course, the stand-out R. Lee Ermy. So memorable and overpowering is R. Lee Ermy’s turn as Gunnery Sgt Hartman that I could talk about just him for 2000 words and feel like I’ve almost covered the whole film. Ermy had acted before, but it’s safe to say that his ensuing career is totally based on his appearance here. It’d be unfair to call him typecast, just ideal for all of the strict military types and police authoritarians he’s played since.
A film that confronts different attitudes to death in wartime, Joker’s one confirmed kill (at the end of the film) affects him deeply, the action not one he takes lightly. At the start of the film Joker states that his reason for joining the army was to become a killer, but the experience of war has changed him. Parris Island may have strived to de-humanise its men and turn them all into ruthless killing machines, but Joker was either too smart to let it happen or too stupid to not let it happen… or perhaps, just as he states when the peace button on his vest and “Born to Kill” on his helmet are noticed by a senior officer, he’s there to suggest “The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir”.
As a depiction of war, Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick at his most realistic and brutal. Paths Of Glory gave us Kirk Douglas leading his soldiers on a mission and Dr. Strangelove showed the ridiculous, bloated men in charge of the world. Full Metal Jacket shows the men at the heart of the Vietnam war; the violent, heartless grunts who don’t know what they’re fighting for except their country – not that that was ever at stake anyway. Kubrick stated that he decided on adapting Gustav Hasford’s novel as it was “neither anti-war or pro-war”, but it sure as hell shows us something that I’d never want to go through. A film that is about the journey into manhood (there’s only one crucial female role that isn’t a prostitute), at the end of the film Joker has completed his journey from fresh faced recruit to killer, all that the Marine core had ever asked of him. His last line perfectly sums up the experience he’s been through and the changed man he has now become.
Colin Oakley is the editor of Slacker Cinema.
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