“In other words, it's a huge shit sandwich, and we're all gonna have to take a bite.”
“Sir...does this mean that Ann-Margret's not coming?”
When watching Full Metal Jacket
, it’s hard not to compare and contrast it to other major Vietnam War films. Is it surreal and manic like Apocalypse Now
? Does it show a good before and after image of people who go through the war like The Deer Hunter
and Born on the Fourth of July
? Does it give it a “real” sense of how the war might have felt like Platoon
? The short answer is yes and no. The longer answer is Full Metal Jacket
isn’t a Vietnam War film or even “Stanley Kubrick does a Vietnam War film,” it’s a film about the way things are.
I’ve probably seen Full Metal Jacket
more than any other Kubrick film, not because it’s my favorite Kubrick (far from it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it), but because I serve in the Navy as a journalist and I’ve visited Da Nang, Vietnam twice. As a result, I can’t help but keep being drawn back to it and reflect on my own experiences. I saw the film a few times before joining the Navy and I even erroneously thought my boot camp would be like the Marines’ boot camp, but of course it wasn’t. However, ever since then, I always think back to my own boot camp days. The living quarters, the cadences (both metering and lyrical structure), the basic sounds of the boot camp world are all very similar. Hell, my rack mate reminded me a lot of Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence both by the way he looked and acted.
Even more so than The Shining
, Kubrick deeply focuses on duality in Full Metal Jacket
. Unlike his norm, Kubrick bluntly states this in the “Duality of Man” scene involving Joker and his peace symbol pin and “Born to Kill” helmet. But there are many more layers to it than that particular scene.
A common complaint lodged against the film is the change of pace and direction in the two parts of the film, many claiming the first part is the only good part of the film (a friend of mine stopped watching with me this time around after Gomer Pyle kills himself for precisely that reason). However, I can’t help but notice the many similarities between the two parts.
Both parts show the creation of a killer and how that affects a particular individual. In the first part, the viewer watches the rise and fall of Gomer Pyle, ending with his dead cold stare and murder-suicide. In the second part, the viewer watches Joker, who (one can only assume) more or less reverted back to his pre-Parris Island self, slowly being forced into committing cold blooded murder and gaining “The Stare.” The difference is Joker can live with himself. As he says at the end, in contrast to Pyle’s final words, “I’m in a world of shit, but I’m alive.”
While Kubrick brings greater meaning to “The Stare” in this film, I realized during my marathon that Kubrick has been using the same expression as a motif in many of his films. Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper, Dr. Dave Bowman, Alex DeLarge, and Jack Torrance all had the same expression at specific moments in their respective films. The difference in Full Metal Jacket
is that two different characters have it and the viewer sees it multiple times on Pyle’s face (the opening haircutting, job assignments, and the bathroom scenes).
One classic Kubrick motif is strangely sparse in this film unlike all of his others: music. While there are a few scenes with music, it’s not as frequent as his previous films. However, when it is present, it’s incredibly effective especially in the blanket party, mass grave, and the killing of the sniper scenes. One musical motif that had been absent from his previous two films returns: Taking a popular song and twisting it with a completely different meaning from its original intent. In this case, the soldiers sing “The Mickey Mouse Club March,” which, in itself, is an amusing callback to Gunnery Sgt. Hartman’s “What is this Mickey Mouse shit?” comment in his final scene.
Another interesting aspect of this film is control. In the first part, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman is a man of complete control. He controls each of the recruits through his brusque and ironic manner, first claiming that he’s fair and free of bigotry, but then immediately spews racial and homophobic insults. However, when he’s unable to reach Gomer Pyle, he makes Pyle Joker’s responsibility and then later the whole platoon’s. This backfires on him because the platoon’s solution is a blanket party, and while that causes Pyle to be more discipline, he loses control of his own mental state, which in turn leads to the fatal end of Hartman’s control.
Likewise, in the second part, Cowboy slowly loses control of his squadron after a sniper takes out one of his men because of decision he was forced to make under circumstances he couldn’t control in the first place. This leads to another marine’s death before Animal Mother supersedes Cowboy’s authority, which in turn leads to Cowboy’s own death. Additionally, Joker loses control of his composure when he has the sniper in his sights when his gun jams in the uncontrolled moment, yet he is able to pull the trigger on the sniper minutes later in the controlled moment when the sniper is lying helpless, begging to be killed.
Next up: Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut.