Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Full Metal Jacket—everybody’s heard of it, most people have seen it, and no one can agree on whether it’s a great film or not. Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam film is made of two distinctly separate but related halves. The first follows a group of new recruits through marine boot camp at Parris Island. It’s a non-stop showcase of some of the most rivetting dialogue ever put on film.
[full metal jacket]
The second is a series of scenes depicting a group of young men’s experiences in Vietnam.
[me so horny]
Admittedly, the first half is tighter, and some viewers may even fall out of the chopper during the second. For those who have already fallen out, may you land in deep mud and possibly survive. For those who are only at risk of falling out, let me strap you in.
The film is essentially a character study in what happens when a bunch of young men are crammed liked bullets into the odious metal magazine that was Vietnam. Those who view Kubrick’s work as cold and aloof, lacking in a certain element of humanity will see the young men in this film as entirely depraved, reflecting a deeply cynical view of mankind. To read this unipolarity into Kubrick’s work is to ignore the facts as they are on the screen. Each major character should easily evoke both negative and positive feelings. Real life former marine drill instructor Lee Ermey plays Sergeant Hartman, who treats his "pukes" sort of like Kubrick treats his actors. He represents 'The Man’ whom we are all inclined to hate. But nonetheless we understand why he must do what he does. He loves the Virgin Mary. So does the Pope. Ermey would later star in such undisputed classics as Naked Gun 33 1/3, Saving Silverman and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003.
Matthew Modine’s Joker is the character with whom we most easily identify. Cocky, funny and skeptical—yes, love that Joker. There’s really not much to dislike about him except that being skeptical isn’t necessarily a better solution. For example, his sense of humor certainly didn’t get him out of the draft, nor does it get him out of the war once he’s in it.
In fact, his cocky attitude takes him right to the front lines instead of "in the rear with the gear" where we should all want to be. When Joker is confronted with reality, he shuts up and falls in line as much as anyone else. For example, when he’s chewed out by his superior officer in the "Who’s side are you on anyway" speech.
His response is all of our response at that point, which is "Sir, yes sir." And though this is perfectly sensible behavior, it does reveal his arrogance to be nothing more than what arrogance is, just a coping mechanism of a frightened young boy. And again, in the very last scene, when confronted with the harsh reality...
Gomer Pyle is the character we fully pity, but my God why did he have to sneak that donut into his trunk? Kubrick’s trick is that by forcing us to watch him fail so many times as we go through boot camp, he almost makes us begin to lose patience with Pyle ourselves. We’re all ready to get the hell out part one and this guy just keeps screwing everything up. The punishment scene is basically where our subconscious minds were already heading, and only by offering it, does Kubrick snap us out of our Salem-esque trance. We then go back to complete pity and hatred of The Man like we’re supposed to, right? The final scene of Act One [doughboy] is obviously one of the most intense scenes in film and is the fitting climax of all of the powerful and conflicting emotions leading up to it.
Rafterman, meanwhile, is a visibly insecure, chain-smoking blonde guy who has an empty space where the personality’s supposed to be—basically your average CNN anchor. But we pity his naivety and we are hard pressed to deny him his little moment of happiness when he finally experiences the thrill of firing a bullet into another human being. Consider too the simultaneously complex and basic relationship between Animal Mother and Eightball, a relationship which permeates the film’s second act. The home-grown racist who may or may not have an even deeper sense of loyalty to his fallen comrade—cold and contrived, or just cold truth? The relationship is outlined in the following three clips.
[no boom boom with soul brother]
[fuck you cowboy]
The first establishes the relationship with some excellent use of music. In the second clip, as the men negotiate the price of a Vietnamese prostitute, we are again confronted with the same ambiguous character portrayal we’ve seen throughout the film. On the one hand, these men exhibit wanton disregard for women and flagrant racism. On the other hand, they don’t know any better, they haven’t had sex in months (you try it—I already have) and frankly, their witty remarks are still damn witty in spite of their moral depravity. The way they all say "No" in unison to the initial offering price of the hooker evokes our sympathy as we can all relate to the experience of bargaining. "You want fifty bucks for that? You gotta be kidding!" We’ve all been there. The way Cowboy mimics a Vietnamese accent in answering the motorcycle pimp is a perversion of the congenial act of going to a foreign country and trying to speak the language. Ignorant and insensitive, but somehow his enthusiasm still manages to be endearing—like certain politicians I won't mention by name. Also note how the pimp shows deference to his hooker as he faithfully translates her objection when she refuses to service a black man. "Too beaucoup. Too beaucoup." Imagine the same scene in an American movie. The hooker wouldn’t dare object, and if she did, the pimp would probably hit her right then and there. But then Bruce Willis would kill him, everything would be cool. The pimp also preserves his own dignity both by firmly negotiating his price and by looking away when Eightball pulls out his "Alabama black snake" for all to see. At the end of the scene, there is the obvious development of the relationship between Animal Mother and Eightball.
In the last clip, note the war whoop Animal Mother makes as he runs toward the building guns blazing. Does he do it purely out of a sense of moral duty, or because he’s just jacked up and wants to shoot someone? You can’t be sure, and that is how Kubrick preserves the ambiguity. Another point of the scene is to show how command and control can break down in the heat of battle. I find it a particularly good decision to have Cowboy lose control of the situation, while exhibiting absolutely no sign of weakness or incompetence whatsoever. In fact, it’s even hinted at early on when he assumes leadership of the squad. At first he seems a little frazzled and unsure of his new status. Because of this and the previously established awareness of his small physical size ("I didn’t know they stacked shit that high"), the viewer expects some hint of weakness which would allow or invite others to challenge his authority. But far from it, in the final moment, he displays none, but stands firm behind his loud voice. I believe Mr. Kubrick has done the same.