Full Metal Jacket

Full Metal Jacket Movie Poster. Photo © Warner Brothers

Having recently communicated with a group of veterans regarding their favorite war films, a large number of the infantry soldiers I spoke with mentioned this film as being a favorite of their youth. Consequently, I decided to revisit this famous, popular, and often referenced war film.


Boot Camp and Then Vietnam

Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket starts at Paris Island where Marines intended for Vietnam have their hair shaved off as they begin Basic Training.

The next forty-five minutes is spent watching recruits move through obstacle courses, learn basic rifle marksmanship, and crawl through the mud. This is all the while being screamed at, berated, and occasionally assaulted by the wonderfully intense and creatively profane drill instructor played by R Lee Emery. The recruits are taught to sleep with, and to sing to their rifles, "This is my rifle, there are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life!" They are repeatedly told that as Marines, their job is to engage in violence. This first half of the film is infamous for driving popular culture views of Boot Camp, though these views are not entirely accurate.

What story there is for the first act involves Vincent D'Onofrio as an overweight screw-up that can't quite adapt to the rigors of Basic Training. D'Onofrio and the drill instructor have repeated conflicts, which mostly consist of the drill instructor belittling D'Onofrio in front of his fellow recruits.

Matthew Modine, known in the film only by his nickname "Joker," is tasked with mentoring D'Onofrio and helping him graduate. Unfortunately, it's a graduation that culminates in murder as the increasingly crazed D'Onofrio fires his rifle at and kills the drill instructor before taking his own life.

In Vietnam, Modine's Joker is a journalist for a military newspaper.

After experiencing an attack on their base during the Tet Offensive, the film follows Modine and a photographer (normally "in the rear with the gear") as they are sent forward to the front line, with the standing order to come back with an article that has American G.I.s killing Vietnamese. Joker and his photographer eventually find themselves attached to an infantry squad known as the "Lusthogs." Along the way they encounter an increasingly deranged group of soldiers, including one helicopter gunner who admits to shooting everyone he sees, enemy or not. An example of the film's unorthodox structure is that there is no tangible objective in the film's second half. There is simply fighting until, quite suddenly, the film has ended. Though the film does leave viewers to grapple with a moral decision made by Joker in the next to final shot.


An Insincere Vision of Vietnam


My primary criticism of the film is that, as an infantry veteran myself, the world that Kubrick has created is simply one that I don't recognize. Granted, Vietnam is an earlier era from when I served in the infantry. That said, whether it's the crazed drill instructor of the film's first act, the line-up of murderous Marines in the film's second act, or simply the sound stages dressed up to look like Vietnam with fake palm trees, the film comes across more as a fantasy imagining of the Vietnam war than an actual historical drama intended to accurately portray what the war was really like.

(Kubrick famously refused to leave the United Kingdom to shoot his film, forcing his production designers to attempt to transform the English countryside as a stand-in for Vietnam; as a production choice, it's clumsy and glaring.)

My second criticism of the film is that, as a commentary on the Vietnam conflict -- for which, it is often taken -- the film is insincere. Which is to say that Kubrick took the worst excesses of U.S. soldiers (the killing of civilians), and exaggerated the frequency of those crimes. In Full Metal Jacket, viewers could be excused for leaving the film believing that every American G.I. was either crazy or a murderer. While these crimes did occur, I'd like to believe that these acts were the exception rather than the rule. It seems an exaggeration on Kubrick's part to prove a point that no one is disputing.


Violence for Violence's Sake


Full Metal Jacket is a film that I want to like. It's gritty, dark, intense, and it is mesmerizing for long stretches. It's filled with strong performances, it's solidly directed and, outside the choice of filming in England, made with strong production values. There are also a large number of individually strong scenes. Two of my favorites are a Colonel that gets angry that Joker would wear a peace symbol next to a "Born to Kill" scrawl on his uniform ("I believe I was trying to speak about the duality of man, sir!") and a scene where the soldiers happily take a break from fighting to line up for the television cameras for a quick moment of televised fame. The pacing, narration, and even the musical score all suggest that we're supposed to be watching something profound and thought-provoking. In the film's final shot, a camera pans across a patrol of Marines singing the Mickey Mouse theme song as flames consume buildings in the background. It's a dynamic juxtaposition, but to what end? (Also, it's a movie directed, produced, and written by Stanley Kubrick, which increases the feeling that I'm supposed to be considering it some sort of cinematic masterpiece.)

What exactly is Kubrick trying to communicate to us as viewers? In the first act of the film, the recruits are dehumanized during their training, one of them turns on and kills the drill instructor. Then in the film's second half, these same recruits are in Vietnam and have turned into the very killers they were trained to become. Is Kubrick merely suggesting that man has a great capacity for evil and to engage in violence? Most viewers will not need convincing of this premises.

A more thoughtful film would have seriously dealt with issues of violence. A more thoughtful film would have discussed how evil is birthed, or discuss the possibility of redemption. In Full Metal Jacket we're only titillated with scenes of violence layered upon violence, as if that, in and of itself, is supposed to be meaningful.

Ultimately, Full Metal Jacket is an interpretation of the Vietnam war as imagined by someone (Kubrick) who never came anywhere close to a battlefield.

(Click here for the Best and Worst Vietnam war movies.)