Ed. Note: This post was originally published on July 6th of last year. In honor of the passing of the iconic R. Lee Ermey - whose contribution to Kubrick's Vietnam epic cannot possibly be overstated - we're re-running it today.
“This is my rifle. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy, who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will. Before God I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.”
Francis Ford Coppola (in)famously said of Apocalypse Now: “my film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like. It was crazy...and little by little we went insane." The trials Coppola endured to get his surrealist magnum opus to screens have been well documented, yet for all the “great art requires great sacrifice” fuss kicked up over that picture’s production, it’s quite remarkable that – nearly a decade later – master auteur Stanley Kubrick crafted another masterwork that matches the oblique dread of Coppola’s mad Hellscape. Only Kubrick wouldn’t direct his own combat daydream in the jungle, instead opting for the comfy confines of London’s Pinewood Studios (while letting Cambridgeshire’s Bassingbourn Barracks stand in for Parris Island). Exercising his standard measure of meticulous control, Full Metal Jacket (’87) became an idiosyncratic counterpoint to Coppola’s psychedelic nightmare and Oliver Stone’s melodramatic memoir, Platoon (’86). Enough time had passed, and now our finest filmmakers could discuss the lingering pains of Vietnam, each applying their unique sense of filmic grammar to a rotten historical wound that was barely healed.
Johnny Wright’s “Hello Vietnam” spent twenty weeks on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart during ’65 – three of those at Number One. However, what made the song a strange success was its advocating for America’s involvement in the conflict. During the spoken word third verse, Wright even goes as far as to say:
“I hope and pray someday the world will learn, that fires we don't put out will bigger burn. We must save freedom now at any cost...or someday our own freedom will be lost.”
When Kubrick layers the jangly jingle over footage of several soldiers getting their heads shaved as prep for Marine Corps. boot camp, it’s a tongue-in-cheek jab at the mindset which saw fit to ship these boys off to fight an enemy they’d probably never heard of until their President deemed it was the United States’ responsibility to become involved in Vietnam. Between the time Kennedy was shot in ’63 and the Draft was instituted in ’69, pop singers like Wright produced naïve propaganda, which aided in instilling a collective consciousness that (along with escalating political mechanizations put into motion by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) helped contribute to nearly 1.5 million wartime casualties. As steel guitar weeps, hair is lopped off each of the boys’ heads, their indifferent, frightened, and disgusted faces staring into the mirror as a rather distinguishing piece of their personalities is discarded onto a military barber’s floor, to be swept up later like fine corpses in a white-tiled mortuary. It’s the first step taken toward ridding these young men of their own worldviews, allowing the industrial complex they’re entering to remold them in its image.
This deconstruction of ego continues as Kubrick (with the aid of first time feature editor Martin Hunter) smash cuts inside the grunts’ garrison, where Gny. Sgt. Hartman (an iconic R. Lee Ermey) introduces us to the hyper-structured existence these “maggots” currently endure. Hartman makes it clear that these men aren’t even human beings in the military’s eyes. Their race, creed, or sexual orientation don’t play any significant role in how he’s going to treat them. Sure, he’ll call them “faggots” and ask if they “suck dick”, just as quickly as he’ll warn a black recruit that he’ll probably be disappointed that watermelon and fried chicken isn’t served in the mess. But these insults are weaponized instances of mental bloodletting, as Hartman drains the recruits’ desire to identify with the elements of humanity they once possessed before putting on a uniform. They are not gay. They are not black. They are not Jewish. They are not Texan. They are now merely “killers” – instruments without feeling, barely defined beyond basic nicknames as they’re utilized by their country to eradicate a faceless enemy.
An adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s ’79 semi-autobiographical novel, The Short Timers, Kubrick and co-writer Michael Kerr keep the soldiers’ dialogue to an absolute minimum, as Pvt. “Joker” (Matthew Modine) robotically delivers bubbles of sparse narration. We’re in training with salty Platoon 3092, as they’re given new-fangled monikers, such as the Texas-born/bred “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard), and the doughy ne’er do well “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio). Kubrick’s camera symmetrically frames Hartman as he paces back and forth through the spartan spotless barracks, the lines on his crisp uniform as straight as the concrete beams that hold the ceiling up over these maggots’ heads. He rebrands the boys as his own blunt tools of carnage, proud to illustrate that both Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald were trained to kill in the Corps. It’s a brutal bit of physical acting Kubrick puts his performers through, constantly dissolving into endless early morning montages of men running through obstacle courses and firing weapons at distant targets. Before lights out, they’re made to pray with their rifles, swearing devotion to the weapons and even gifting each a girls’ name, as it's “the only pussy they’re going to get.” The sexuality of Full Metal Jacket is as peculiar as its annihilation of character – the grunts boiled down to primal states of being where their only homecoming dreams are fuck fantasies with genitalia we’re not sure they know how to operate any longer. The soldiers are now probably just as likely to shoot Mary Jane Rottencrotch upon their arrival home as they are to bend her over the hood of their high school rides, as animal instincts become interchangeable during boot camp.
Private Pyle becomes a special project for the Drill Instructor, as his maniacally high volume works to break “Leonard” (his Christian name only Joker uses during a brief mentorship) down from the “worthless lard ass piece of shit” that he is, even if it means causing the rest of the squad to suffer whenever he fucks up. Try as he may, Pyle struggles to keep pace, his psyche fracturing under the constant abuse he’s given – the apex of which is doled out via a sickening attack, as his colleagues hold him down and beat him with bars of soaps in the middle of the night. They’ve all become cogs within the Industrial War Machine, and their “punishment” aligns with their commander’s intent – to purge weakness so that Pyle may be “born again hard.” But hardness also rids Pyle of empathy, and the doughy soldier’s final suicidal actions show that he is (in typical Kubrickian ironic fashion) Hartman’s ultimate “success” – a weapon of indiscriminate pain, wielded against the savage head of this gladiator academy, and himself. Reciting the Marines’ goodnight “’prayer” to his iron and wood best gal, Pyle bids adieu to this world by accomplishing what he was trained to do – kill, without feeling or remorse. Kubrick’s often been (wrongfully) accused of owning an anti-human worldview, but the level of melancholy compassion he displays for Pyle’s tragic final moments is staggering. Rebirthed inside of a complex that operates outside of God’s reign (“he plays his games, we play ours”), Pyle’s ultimate destruction of his creator renders him his finest student.
A second sudden cut welcomes us to Vietnam, where Joker is now working as a journalist alongside his fellow soldiers. This retention of an interest from life before the Corps. disgusts Hartman, but also gives the audience a decent surrogate through whom we can experience the confusing chaos of the conflict. The common thinking regarding Kubrick’s ‘Nam diptych is that it steadily falls apart once we exit Parris Island, but the Cliffe marshes in Kent, England provide an alternate dimension take on the war that never feels like it’s trying to present an aura of realism, but rather a casual walk through a surviving vet’s half-recalled reverie of his time in country. The sun is always half mast, providing a golden hour glow that “lighting cameraman” Douglas Milsome and his director exploit to provide the constant threat of darkness, and the terrors of the enemy that come with it. Thick plumes of smoke rise around palm trees that don’t seem like they belong in this landscape, as bombed out structures loom in the distance. It’s an arm’s length approach that stands in stark contrast to Coppola’s sweaty fireworks and Stone’s awkward embracement of innocence’s demise.
Kubrick’s approach to violence in Full Metal Jacket is as disciplined as the Marines he’s documenting. Troops traipsing through a destroyed site are suddenly ducking and covering from incoming Viet Cong fire. When discussing his method for depicting the troops, Kubrick stated that he omitted heavy drug use that was often shown in other movies about ‘Nam because it “didn’t seem relevant.” Instead, the oddest moments of Joker’s time serving as a correspondent come when bullets strike the sides of concrete, causing dust to cloud the air in slow motion. A camera crew surveys a battlefield (in one of the movie’s most impressively impressionistic sequences) as we pan from right to left, the soldiers becoming stars in their own personal John Wayne film as The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” blares. We’re positioned with a gunman inside a tank turret, head ducked and ready to return bursts of ammunition at any who decide to try and rain down death on our “bros”. Kubrick’s customary detachment brings a seasick uneasiness to the back half – as we’re just as unsure why we’re seeing and engaging in these acts, pop jingles playing the dead off mortality’s stage, only knowing now that it’s better to be alive.
Kubrick’s commitment to forgoing the usual character development we experience in these types of war films acts as a double-edged sword once we’re in Vietnam. While the death surrounding these men lends itself to nightmare imagery that rivals even the meanest moments contained in the auteur’s adaptation of The Shining (’80), it’s difficult to muster up any real pathos whenever any of them are killed. But that’s also part of the “world of shit” these men must endure, marching on and singing the theme song to the “Mickey Mouse Club” while fireballs consume high rises, causing their stomps to appear in stark silhouette. Just as those who lived through ‘Nam but never served often saw these boys on their television sets and were able to quickly change the channel to family-friendly programming, we’re watching men we will never know beyond a face, a name, and what the image tells us, going about our day once the credits roll. In this way, Full Metal Jacket accurately translates the removed, senseless nature of global conflict, and the governmental machines that drive it on like a steamroller. These are merely dutiful strangers, gripping their rifles as if they’re the only friends they’ve got left, because in the end, those firearms cannot fail them.