Full Metal Jacket
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Is inscrutability the thing that transforms a film from a mere movie into a bona fide work of art? Because when I watch a Full Metal Jacket I’m not quite sure what to think. Is it this amazing masterpiece working on levels that I can’t comprehend? Doing intellectual somersaults above my head in dimensions that I can’t quite see? Or is it more that what we see is what we get? That maybe not every Kubrick movie needs to be thought of as some kind of chess game between the director and the viewer? Maybe Kubrick just wanted to make a Vietnam war movie?
Of course maybe part of the problem here is that things tend to diminish a little once you’re used to them. There was a time when people were skeptical that Iron Man would work as a movie because “no one has ever heard of him.” etc. And well yeah – I think I must have first seen Full Metal Jacket all the way back when I was a teenager and it popped up on BBC2 or Channel 4 some late night Sunday so watching it now it just seems like a normal film: as average and remarkable as a cup of tea or a piece of furniture you’ve used a thousand times.
But I think it’s worth pointing out that (like most/all Kubrick movies) Full Metal Jacket is a weird strange little beast that moves unlike any other movie I can think of. Like – how many other movies are there that are so neatly divided into two parts? (The only one that springs to mind at the moment is Lost Highway – which yeah isn’t really your typical blockbuster experience to say the least). And the second half / Vietnam part doesn’t really work like a normal movie at all. It’s not really a plot – it’s more like watching a succession of bits arranged in a collage. At first it seems like it’s going to be about the sex industry (altogether now: “Sucky sucky me love you long time”). Then it’s about war journalism and how the Truth gets bent and twisted (or should I just say “fake news”?) and then it’s flips into a bit which feels like Creature Comforts with extra guns before finally climaxing with – well – the sniper sequence.
I mean you could say it’s disjointed but then again this is the same guy who made a movie that started off with a bunch of monkeys fucking about then cut to spaceships dancing to classic music did a bit of segue into the world’s most smooth-talking killer robot and then ended with a bunch of random coloured lights. So yeah – I guess Stanley isn’t really into what you might term “conventional narrative.”
Only – unlike 2001 – it’s a little bit more difficult to try and work out what the point of all this stuff is. I mean it’s interesting how the movie mostly manages to sidestep the typical “war is hell” stuff: treating it less like an unending nightmare and more like an (albeit pretty bizarre) feature of reality. There’s even that bit where Unknown Soldier Dude #24 manages to kill two people and the camera cuts to his face and it looks like he’s just kissed the prettiest girl in school. And yeah fuck that’s a thought that doesn’t come around every day – maybe taking another person’s life could actually feel… pretty great?
Of course the movie keeps you at arm’s length from the people he killed so they’re less like human beings and more like pixels on a screen but then isn’t that kind of Kubrick’s whole shtick? Dehumanising people so that they’re barely recognisable as human beings anymore – let alone characters?
Think of Dave and Frank in 2001. Jack in The Shining. Alex in A Clockwork Orange. I mean – most of the time you could just call these guys Human 1 and Human 2 and Human 3 etc. Full Metal Jacket is pretty brutal in lots of ways – but particularly in how you know almost absolutely nothing about these characters apart from the things they say. I could be wrong – but I don’t think you ever even find out Joker’s real name?
But wait – I’m getting a little confused. Because yeah the interesting thing is that not only are Kubrick characters mostly just outlines with no real biographical detail – but then his characters are mercilessly stripped away of their humanity during the course of his movies. Dave Bowman gets chronically accelerated to the point where he becomes a Star Child. Alex becomes a Clockwork Orange. Jack… turns into Johnny? And poor Leonard gets the Kubrick stare and becomes a weapon and Joker realises that the most empathic action is to kill someone. Like yes of course I realise it’s a trap to take movie titles too seriously or obviously – but I’ve thought of a Full Metal Jacket as being something like concrete shoes. You put it on and then it slowly wears you down until you’re… what? Crushed completely?
Colonel: You write “Born to Kill” on your helmet and you wear a Peace Button? What’s that supposed to be? Some kind of sick joke?
Marine: No Sir!
Colonel: What is it supposed to mean?
Marine: I think I was suggesting about the duality of “Man”, Sir!
Colonel: Do what?
Marine: The duality of man. The Jungian thing Sir!
Colonel: Who’s side are you on son?
Marine: Our side, Sir!
I do love this bit. But I’m not sure that the movie ever really manages to explore it fully. There is a very cool theory that Private Pyle and Animal Mother are two sides of the coin (check out how Animal Mother speaks when we first meet him) . That Pyle killed himself in America only to be reborn in Vietnam into the stone cold killer he always hoped he would be. But watching it now it all feels a little bit too… rote? Yeah Joker pushes his moral code to the limit but then we never see the aftermath. Closing the line is obviously a momentous act – but I do wonder what would have happened if the movie had rolled on for another 10 minutes or so. Would Joker be any different? Still making John Wayne impressions? Or is this actually going to change him as a person? Like I said this movie acts like a collage and gives us so many interesting bits but taking a step back I’m not sure if it actually works as a picture?
Perhaps it is a generational issue, or perhaps it is that Full Metal Jacket and other Vietnamese War movies have done a really good job of changing the narrative, but it just does make me feel like the radical edgelord I aspire to be to say war is hell and that being in the army is a mug’s game. Of course showing the true savage and violent nature of man is a regular theme of Kubrick’s work but it’s all very well to say “we were once all primitive ape’s and even Janitor family men can be evil axe murderers” but pointing at the actual marines and saying “look at these violent killers” seems like pointing at a clown and remarking on his funny shoes.
Although of course the film doesn’t put much energy into the hellishness of war, so much as the normalisation of killing. The implication is not that self-nominated marines are the problem, but that we are ALL potential killers and on a given context would not give it a moments thought. In bootcamp you don’t see anyone wash out, not even Pyle, and everyone, even Joker, ultimately succumbs to bullying the weakest person in the group before going on the commit various atrocities overseas. So while there is definitely a portrait of how miserable life in the army is, the underlying point is that if you are an ordinary American schlub you are still only a few months training (and some malicious bullying) away from becoming a cold-blooded killer.
But it is more disturbing to think in a Foucaudian sense how close we are to Parris Island in terms of social structure. How we can laugh at it all like Joker but in the end, like him, we do what we’re told. This highlights the Catch-22 element to Pyle’s predicament: that he is trained to be less human and more of a killing machine, but at the same time not to behave like a weird inhuman killing machine. As a soldier and in many other walks of life you have to be brutal and effective and enterprising but also to do as you are told. Is this the duality of man that is name-checked later?
But while we may sympathise with Pyle and emphasise with Joker, we love Hartman. Not only is his performance mesmeric but a very clever invention as a character who can plausibly act as a sort of honest spokesman for the Empire. Hartman can say how awful war is and we know he means it. From his point of view he is doing exactly the right thing by preparing marines for a fight to the death, for pruning the weak, and for instilling the discipline which (as the film makes clear) is essential for survival. His work saved more lives than the lies of the army newspaper which had bread over-confidence and even with a note of irony, the idea that if you were not enjoying the war there was something wrong with you. We then meet several soldiers who are extremely happy to kill as many people as possible, and are proud of themselves for doing so. They are all Hartman’s sons whose virility extends directly from their ability to kill at a moments notice.
But did we need that? What if the film had just ended with Pyle dead on the toilet? Maybe a few more tracking shots and we would have been hailing it as Kubrick’s final masterpiece. Because it’s all there, the visual and thematic contrasts, the monologues, the bleak view of the human condition, and the person who can’t get along seen not has the hero but as a weak baby. Is dying on the toilet after murdering your worst enemy actually worse than trudging around Vietnam for 2 years carrying out any number of random people before getting iced by a sniper and dying over a matter of hours while screaming for help? Our hero watching his life’s blood dripping down the drain would have been as fitting and ending as the Mickey Mouse song.
The second half leaves me admiring the staging but feeling unmoved. In the 80s no one was thinking the Vietnam was a great time, so am I supposed to be surprised that young soldiers are horny idiots who love shooting guns? Am I supposed to be shocked that it’s bad to be in a warzone? The crime the movie cares about is not the slaughter in Vietnam or the killing of child soldiers. The transgression the movie elicits the most sympathy for is a weird liberal concern that we are not sufficiently nice to our brave boys in training.
Whether it’s Godfather, Taxi Driver or even Star Wars the 70s cohort of American film makers seemed very concerned about the integrity of their heroes’ souls. For them the traditional good versus evil struggle came down to a fight within an individual themselves and the question of whether true heroism was vanquishing all your enemies, the pimps, or the rebel alliance instead of staying in touch with your younger more idealistic self. Kubrick on the face of it seems to be into this and whether it is the fight for Jack’s or Alex’s better instincts or the development of the whole of humanity, all his films show the inner struggle between our violent ape selves and inner star children.
However where Kubrick deviates from Coppola or Scorsese or Lucas is that while they struggle to rationalise their heroes’ decisions as perhaps been poor choices in the face of evil (we still don’t know what those Youngling’s problem was) Kubrick does not really assign choice to his main characters and not are victims, they are just screwed. Jack was cursed perhaps even before he went to the Overlook, and he certainly is not shown deciding to be an ace wielding maniac. Alex’s reform is coerced, and Bowman doesn’t know what’s going on, whether he ascended to another plane of existence it seems more because he didn’t have anything better to do at the time.
In the first half of Full Metal Jacket it is not clear whether the recruits are conscripted and they are largely not presented with many choices, indeed you can’t even have a donut without getting told off. The recruits just sort of become killers out of the spiritual inertia that is Kubrick’s calling card. Even at the end the execution of the Vietnamese girl does not feel like a choice so much as the outcome of the previous years(?) of conditioning and it is not made clear whether Joker is a better man for giving her a quick death or a worse one for having deliberately taken a life.
The film as a whole seems to speak to the hollowing out effect that the war on Vietnam had on people, and how it degraded soldiers morality, but it feels like the only choice in the story was the decision to go to war and that is where all judgements were passed and all the individuals at that point just helpless puppets: with almost no ability to do good or not bad things at their choosing.
Nor does the film pass judgment on what it takes to be damned. Pyle is already a scorched husk on his way to hell before he kills Hartman, while Hartman is one of the most morally righteous characters in cinema with even a shred of self-doubt left. When Joker dares imply he is not religious Hartman pretends to be outraged: “You goddamn communist heathen, you had best sound off that you love the Virgin Mary, or I’m gonna stomp your guts out! Now you DO love the Virgin Mary, don’t you?” But then promotes him and praises him not for his principles, but for his exceptance of Hartman’s sadism, because Hartman has zero insecurity about that side of his nature. Is he damned for being a bully and a killer who makes other killers? Kubrick doesn’t care and that’s his message: Our morality, religion, family ties are just back story with no more tangibility or basis in reality then the ghost which haunts the Overlook Hotel.
For Coppola the final shard of Michael Corleone’s soul shatters when he has to murder his own brother. But if Kubrick made the Godfather it would have perhaps been closer to Scarface as the Godfather fully ascends to joyfull monstrousness of Hartman, Jack or Alex. For Kubrick Michael Corleone lost his soul years earlier because of decisions he had nothing to do with, and has been on a minecart to hell ever since, he just didn’t know it. However unlike the hopeless portrayal in the Godfather where Michael becomes less and less expressive as he becomes more and more of an empty zombie, for Kubrick we can see the closer the characters get to damnation the more fun they have. Hartman, Alex, Pyle, Jack even HAL all died with a gleam in their eye and a song in their heart.
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