- Movie Rating -

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

| June 26, 1987

The first thing that I must do with regards to Full Metal Jacket is to try and dissipate the common theme among my fellow critics who have charged that Stanley Kubrick’s film had the misfortune of arriving in the wake of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.  For me, this is not an issue.  Stone’s film was indeed a powerful tribute to the experiences of the soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam, but Kubrick is working on a different level.  Stone (who went to Vietnam) made a personal film while Kubrick (who did not) has made a more symbolic, intellectual and much angrier film.  That is not to say that Kubrick’s non-involvement gave him any disadvantage, but it would suggest that it alters the perspective.

Neither approach cancels the other out no matter which film came first because the approach is different.  The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, Rolling Thunder, Go Tell the Spartans, and yes even Platoon, this is a different kind of film.  Employed with the typical Kubrick coldness, the film roots out the underpinning of what turns a sensitive flesh and blood human being into a hardened killing machine and the disillusionment that such an idea breaks down when human beings are under fire.  This can and has been given a personal touch, but while the other directors are working with intimate personal portraits, Kubrick employs his usual tactic of standing back and seeing things with still coldness

Based on the works of Gustav Hasford, the story is really two stories – the first admittedly stronger than the second – as we are tossed into the middle of Basic Marine Training at Parris Island where the bulldog-faced Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – played in a ferocious Oscar-worthy performance by real-life Parris Island Drill Instructor R. Lee Ermy – sniffs out the new boots for “non-hackers unworthy to serve in my beloved corps.”  The language is what we remember, twisted and wrapped around profanity so colorful that it could inspire its own book of quotes.  Most of the dialogue is sexual, as the D.I. tears down their defenses, ripping apart their individual personalities (which helps since the movie never provides backstories), he batters their sex drives, their relationships, their individuality in an effort to reshape and remold their minds in a way that marries sexual desire with single-minded hyper-violence – even up to the point of molding the image of the rifle and the penis as performing the same function. 

In tearing down personal identity with the goal to build the men back up as weapons of war, the bulldog Sergeant wades into his flock of sheep barking and hollering, looking for any sign of weakness.  Eventually, he finds his chew toy.  It is private Leonard Lawrence, quickly marked as the company screw-up who is pudgy, dopey and initially wearing a stupid grin that the sergeant quickly removes.  Reinstructed the name “Private Pyle”, Lawrence becomes the exception to the rule.  The sergeant determines to abuse and intimidate the fear and normality out of the man and single him out with hopes of turning him into a killing machine.  But the individual mind cracks and we sense Pyle slowly going over the edge.  Played in a brilliantly focused performance by off-Broadway actor Vincent D’Onofrio, he reminds us of the downpath of Jack Torrence in The Shining or the reconditioning of Alex in A Clockwork Orange.  The pressures of time and place and purpose bend the brain in directions that are deadly in the extreme.  There’s a Frankenstein hiding in Private Pyle that eventually turns on its creator, though Kubrick’s narrative offers no afterthought nor resolution.  We just move on.

The surprise is that the burst of violence at the end of the first story does not lead to more violence but the image to a prostitute wandering into a dangerous place.  As the second story opens, Kubrick’s soundtrack invites Nancy’s Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking”, a song that is itself a commentary.

The second story is, admittedly, not as potent but it is still powerful.  We follow Sgt. J.T. Davis – reinstructed as “Joker” and played by Matthew Modine – who was in our outsider view during the slow meltdown of Private Pyle.  Joker enters the fray at the hottest zones of the Hell that is Vietnam, not quite as innocent as the boys in Platoon, in fact a little hardened himself and even discourteous to the military industrial complex.  Early in the second story he answers a high-button member of the military staff on why he would bother to wear a peace sign on a Marine uniform.

Joker is assigned to a communications unit as a reporter for “Stars and Stripes” either fudging the body count for the back page or fluffing up a puff-piece on Ann-Margaret’s visit to the troops.  Kubrick offers no glory in this film.  His commentary on the futility of the war and of the military’s flippant manner of trying to bullshit its way into making excuses to keep it going are brilliant because he’s a director who knows how to make the point without rubbing your nose in it.

Finally, Joker gets into the action, following an uber-blond photographer, Rafterman, played with gusto by Kevyn Major Howard, a fresh-faced kid with just the right mixture of cynicism and naivety to get himself a medal or a military funeral.  In an upending of the tradition of the old World War II action dramas, they follow a group of grunts into battle – into the city of Hue which was shot entirely on soundstages in England, not to the jungle but to a city gasworks that is razed to symbolic glory as the fighting gets to be too much.  The fires that burn are like Hell erupting out of the ground.

The finale is not surprising but still intense.  These soldiers find themselves pinned down by a sniper who seems to keep upping the stakes and, in our minds, we keep calling back to the Drill Instructor’s futile words about a hardened Marine as “The deadly weapon in the world.”  What does it mean to a man who is being pumped full of bullets?  There’s not training that prepares for that.

There are images in this film that I am never going to forget, individual shots that will be imprinted on my imagination and thoughts and ideas about the duality of man and war that I will be analyzing for years.  Yes, it’s been done before.  Countless war films both solemn and jingoistic seem to get pumped out of Hollywood every year but rarely one that is crafted like this, rarely one that is this harrowing in its imagery as well as its underlying message.  Despite my fellow critics’ objections, this is an extraordinary film and I’m not going to forget it.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1987) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Drama, War