A Couple on Kubrick: Full Metal Jacket (1987) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

A Couple on Kubrick: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

I don't know anyone who really loves Full Metal Jacket.  There are a lot of reasons for this since this is the most muddled Stanley Kubrick film since Lolita.

This isn't to say that there aren't things to enjoy about the movie, especially during the first forty five minutes.  But the praise and adoration I've heard from people who rush to defend the film and incessantly quote Lee Ermey's speech always depend upon this crutch.  To be sure, it's a stellar opening, but one which relies on repetition to get through each and every one of it's clinically detached scenes.

Saying this is part of the point would be doing a disservice to the people who suffered through Vietnam in ways we couldn't have imagined.  I remember speaking to a much admired teacher of mine in the 8th grade and repeated a stupid phrase from my friend about how pointless the Vietnam War was.  He got very quiet and asked if I knew he fought in the war.  This jolly man who grew his hair out in his '60s because he never had a hippie phase was very sad because I thought his life was a cynical cycle of violence instead of a fresh horror every day.

There are no fresh horrors in Full Metal Jacket.  For those who were already indoctrinated in the thought that the United States Marine Corps are a bunch of thoughtless killers, it will serve as nothing but an empty-calorie reinforcement of simplistic ideals.  Equally simple would be those approaching a film will reverence for the Marines.  In this case we see a soldier who learns to hate the enemy who is trying to destroy his country.  In both cases it allows the viewer to completely ignore the intense racial bigotry which goes mostly unnoticed in Kubrick's films.

Yes, there were intense feelings of hatred toward the Vietnamese.  But the level of stereotyping on display, ostensibly in a country which would have supported their cause, is indicative of a casual racism Kubrick has tried to comment on but just ends up a sore thumb in his productions.  From the encounter with the black valet in The Killing, to the Indian burial ground in The Shining, and here with the big toothed displays of racism in Vietnam, Kubrick has always had a weird racist bent in his films.  There's no meaningful commentary in any of these movies beyond how he can use those racial tensions as a quick diversion or insulting background detail.

Which is why I have a huge problem with the prevailing attitude of Full Metal Jacket and it's spiritual progenitor, A Clockwork Orange.  Both feature protagonists who are obsessed with violence as a point of their identity and can't see beyond their own social backgrounds to the real pain of those around them, have a terrifyingly violent position against women, and a director who appears in support of them.  Joker's (Matthew Modine) evolution parallels Alex's in that they both learn to participate in the system to get the sort of evil thrills they enjoy.

Even with these issues, Full Metal Jacket is a film which steadfastly resists analysis.  The phalic symbolism is present and accounted for from the opening scene, and catalogues the clear transition between people who love their cocks for their orgasm capabilities, to people who love their guns for their killing capabilities.  The transfer continues smoothly into the second act when Joker finally pierces a woman onscreen and it's not with his dick, but with his pistol.  The social issues and pointlessness of Vietnam are calculated precisely into broad scenes in the second act with increasingly impotent commanding officers and repeated interviews with military personnel who cannot form an opinion outside of their broad characterization.

Look, I've tried to type intelligently and concisely about Full Metal Jacket until now, but if pressed I cannot be brought to give a good goddamn about this film.  It features repetitive visuals (no matter how gorgeous they may be), a soundtrack which actually deadens each scene by highlighting its obvious emotionally manipulative nature (a first for a Kubrick film), and an unfortunate outlook on social norms a director of Kubrick's caliber should have cleared in the late '80s.

For the record, I strongly dislike this film, especially after three viewings in my lifetime.  Frowny face.  Grimace.  Red background.


First off, love, I am so glad that we agree on the portrayal of Marines in Full Metal Jacket. It’s such a departure from Paths of Glory in its betrayal of service members that it’s almost insulting to anyone who served in the armed forces and what their experiences were. I’m not sure if Kubrick is trying to demonize the accepting nature of violence in Marines, or the institution of the military itself.

It seems confusing at times to think about what was going through Kubrick’s mind. What makes sense to me is the journey of the ever impressionable Joker, acting as an avatar for the thoughts and feelings of the young 1960s American men at every stage of a deployment (and what Joker’s position as a reporter brings to the table. More on that later).

Second off, I was not looking forward to watching this movie again because it is hard to come up with anything to say about the movie. It was released less than 4 months before I was born, and was a very influential movie to say the least (2 Live Crew, anyone?)  The first time I watched the movie, I found the first part of the movie interesting and the second half to be meandering and boring.  Because the two halves of the movie are so different, I'm going to separate the halves (boot camp and Vietnam), with boot camp being the more cohesive and memorable half. That does not surprise me because Kubrick wrote all of the boot camp scenes, whereas Kubrick was a co-writer for the scenes in Vietnam.

First is boot camp, where, while the young male had no choice in the decision to join thanks to the draft, he readily accepts the supposed inherent misogyny, religious tyranny, and mindless bloodlust that is supposed to represent the Marine Corps at the time. Yes, it is odd to witness scenes were Lee Ermey is forcing his troops to celebrate Christmas, and reprimanding anyone who does not believe in the Virgin Mother. Yet, in spite of Lee Ermey’s religious convictions, he rewards Joker’s courage to hold on to his religious convictions (Joker is on the agnostic/atheist side). It is also strange to hear Lee Ermey saying that he thinks every member of the troop is beneath him even though he uses racial slurs towards his troops (which are numerous and irksome) and misogynist slurs for many other occasions, one of the more famous being the “Eskimo Pussy” running cadence (that and all other cadences from this movie used in ROTC programs today). He is trained to not only kill, but focus on only eliminating the enemy (rather than thinking of the “enemy” as people).

The second half of the movie focuses on Vietnam, and we now see Joker as one of the trigger happy Marines (actual description from one of the Marines of the movie) sitting around and wishing for action. He does not fight, but rather write about and fabricates events surrounding battles happening in Vietnam at the time at the insistence of his commanding officer, Lt. Lockheart. The point is the win over the hearts and minds, right, Lt. Lockheart?

This section is an abrupt change in scenery, attitude, and tone because the murder of Lee Ermey’s character and the suicide of Private Gomer Pyle (a nickname), which are important events tied to important people in the first half, are never to be mentioned again. Ever. Private Gomer Pyle suffers severe psychological torment due to an authoritarian and unhelpful Lee Ermey, which results in a mental breakdown and a murder/suicide, but that is never mentioned again. That seems weird and odd to me.

Another important change in the second half is the half-hearted sarcastic attitude predominant in the second half of the movie. Joker, still using his John Wayne impression (which is so obviously symbolic of the corruption of the noble “American” that it almost hurts), not only exploits Vietnam for cheap blow jobs, but has an outsider look at Marines and battles due to his journalist status that gives him (and the audience) an ironic view of the Vietnam War during most of the second half. He interacts with the troops, who consist of men who want pictures with a dead Vietnamese man, men who refer to the Vietnamese as “gooks” without any hesitation, and Adam Baldwin playing Animal Mother, who looks like a cheap kick-off of Rambo (bullet bandoleer and everything), only really racist.

The sarcastic tone is evident during the Marines’ interviews with the press.

(Rafterman) “Better you than me.” (speaking to a mass grave of Vietnamese covered in Lyme).

(Animal Mother) “At least they died for a good cause” “…it’s a slaughter” “I did it for some poon tang”

(Eightball) (An African-American Marine) “The US gave us our freedom, gave it to the Vietnamese [sic] and they [the Vietnamese] don’t want it. They’d rather be alive than free.”

(Joker) “I wanted to be the first kid on my block with a confirmed kill.”

Men who have seen battle focus on prestige and self-interest, while completely ignoring that the Vietnamese are also human beings (something the helicopter gunner forgot while constantly screaming “Get some!” and shooting civilians).The Marines candidly marginalize the Vietnamese while boasting of their strength and likelihood of succeeding while demonizing the civilians who do not want to celebrate the foreign invaders with muscle and guns (Is anyone else having an Iraq War flashback?). Kubrick meant for these scenes to be chilling, but all I glean from these scenes are jaded individuals who glorify the “thousand-mile stare” from a former armed forces member (due to seeing “too much shit during war”).

Where the movie changes is during the Tet Offensive, shown in this movie as when Joker’s troop encounter an impossible situation where the Marines cannot see the enemy, but the Vietnamese soldiers. It is such lazy symbolism if you have a small inkling of the US occupation of Vietnam and the actions of the Viet Cong (guerrilla warfare tactics). Before, Joker would be a blunt and self-aggrandizing symbol of man’s duality during battle (Kubrick wanted to make sure you understood before he chucked it to the side). Now, Joker has to fight an enemy he cannot recognize (again, obvious on Kubrick’s part) while his friends die on the battle field with a period-relevant and sarcastic soundtrack while the Marines are in South Vietnam, one of them being a master sniper.

Joker heads into the building, where he sees the master sniper is a lethal Vietnamese teenager. Joker hilariously throws his gun to the side, before the sniper is shot by Animal Mother and the remaining troop survivors. The only person close to a sympathetic female is shot by a foreign invader (Thanks, Kubrick). Animal Mother agrees to not let her suffer only of Joker puts her out of her misery.

This sequence of scenes is a tonal shift from detached sarcasm to bleak realism. It shows the actual horrors of war. Joker actually experiences some real action and is horrified by the actions he would have to make, such as shooting a skilled teenage female sniper. He extinguishes her life and received his coveted “thousand-mile stare”.

Given this shift from detached sarcasm to bleak realism towards war, human beings, and combat, you’d think the movie would end on a similar note. Oh, how wrong you are. Kubrick ends the movie with the Marines marching alongside burning buildings during the night, while singing the Mickey Mouse march. Which, while beautifully shot (the whole movie is gorgeous in all honesty), is a return to the sarcasm and indifference of every other Marine even though we, as an audience, saw our avatar, Joker, have an irreversible emotional moment.

What a mess. It’s uneven and uninteresting (no, I don’t care about the $10 negotiating price for sex, nor of Eightball’s “Alabama Rattlesnake”[however amusing it is]) at times. The symbolism is so heavy-handed that I wonder if Kubrick just gave on humanity and decided to make every character’s intent so blatant and obvious while pretending to “give them a bone.”

Full Metal Jacket may be culturally ubiquitous now (hell, I wondered about Pyle’s major malfunction” in the movie, when I completely did not realize was a quote from this movie until now), but that does not mean the movie was good. Was it bad? I don’t think I can say it is as bad as you say it is, love, but I will agree that Full Metal Jacket is not the great film people make it out to be.

Next week: it will be literally impossible to avoid talking about penises.

Kubrick with text

Posted by Andrew

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