Saturday, June 16, 2012

Full Metal Jacket Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

Full Metal Jacket is the only war movie that has ever terrified me. When I was a kid it had virtually the same effect on me as a horror movie. That makes some sense if you think about it. What isn’t scary about war? Aren’t war movies that claim to be anti-war more than a bit disingenuous? Depicting the viscera of bodies blown apart or the heart pounding excitement of bullets flying turns war into entertainment. There’s almost no way around it. Once it’s been staged and committed to film you almost can’t avoid the accusation that you’re glorifying war.


And yet somehow Stanley Kubrick managed to take the subject matter of the Vietnam War and turn it into something hellish. Watching it again now, I see that much of the film is deliberately staged like a series of nightmares. That’s the quality that stuck in my childhood memories and filled me with dread while I watched.

The film is divided, cleanly and rather jarringly, into two distinct parts. The first half is set in Marine basic training at Parris Island, SC, while the second is set in Vietnam, mostly in the battle of Hue City. Each section has its own nightmarish elements. There are three scenes that left the biggest impression on me as a child and which still strike me as psychologically terrifying. Two of them happen on Parris Island and involve Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio). Pyle is an overweight and inept loser, a guy who holds back the rest of the platoon and even induces their drill sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) to punish everyone else for his infractions. One night while he sleeps, the entire platoon silently climb down from their bunks and line up to beat Pyle mercilessly on his abdomen with soap bars wrapped in towels. The other is the scene that closes this section in which a crazed Pyle sits in the latrine with a loaded weapon. He puts a round into Hartman’s chest before turning the rifle into his own mouth splattering his brains on the white tile wall behind him.

The circumstances alone are not enough to create a sensation of fear. Kubrick bathes the scenes in an eerie blue haze. The sound effects are strangely muffled in the beating scene and echo off the harsh tiles in the murder-suicide scene. The pristine qualities of the barracks and the latrine create a dichotomy that is creepy to behold. And the musical score by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian is haunting in both scenes.

The third scene is at the end of the Vietnam section when Joker and Rafter Man find the sniper that has been tearing apart their squad from the inside of a bombed out shell of a building in Hue City. After seeing three soldiers killed by sniper fire we don’t know what to expect. It could be the devil himself for all we or they know. The inside of the building where Joker finds their tormenter is partially engulfed in flames. It is a kind of hell on earth. Again the music sets the tone, a kind of cacophony of industrial sounding discordant tones that used to make my heart race. Just before the Marines make their way in to locate the sniper we bear witness to two squad members getting picked off in agonizingly torturous slow motion. The sniper continues to put bullets in them in an attempt to draw more of the squad in to help them. None of the hits are ‘kill’ shots and so the two men scream in pain while their comrades sit back and do nothing. Kubrick chooses to shoot this from distance rather than putting his camera in for a close-up, thus doing his best to keep it from becoming entertainment.

I think a lot of critics found fault with the film’s lack of narrative structure. Not only is the film divided into two distinct sections, neither of which necessarily depends on the other’s existence, but there’s not really a story here. There’s no meaningful dialogue spoken throughout most of the Parris Island sequence. It’s not until Joker (Matthew Modine) is assigned to nurse Pyle through his training that any characters share anything resembling feelings with one another. Up to that point it’s the crazed Sgt. Hartman (himself kind of playing a sick demented role for Uncle Sam) shouting at the recruits and doing everything in his power to break their spirits and dominate them so he can rebuild them as killers. Although we get a taste of Joker’s sarcasm during basic training, it’s not until the Vietnam section that we get a real sense of his cynical personality. It’s here that the Marines, including Joker’s Parris Island ‘brother’ Cowboy (Arliss Howard) and the cold-hearted Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), can be themselves.

Kubrick wrote the screenplay along with Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford, based on Hasford’s semi-autobiographical novel The Short-Timers. My understanding is that much of the Parris Island section is similar, but the Vietnam section has been altered significantly. From what I gather, the novel is also divided into sections that are even written in distinct styles. So Kubrick may have been trying to keep to that sense of disconnect present in the original source material.

What Kubrick seems to be trying for is a continuation of themes he explored in Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. He’s combining black humor with the notion that the state uses its soldiers to conduct its wars but has little care for how they come out the other side. Sgt. Hartman’s duty is to turn young men into fighting machines that kill. He is a surrogate for the U.S. government. Private Joker trudges through Vietnam wearing a peace button and the phrase “Born to Kill” on his helmet. When questioned by a superior about this insubordination, Kubrick is none too subtle in providing Joker with a response: He’s trying to suggest something about the “duality of man.” In a way, Joker was reborn to kill after Parris Island. The peace button betokens the mercy killing of the sniper at the end.

I don’t quite know what to make of Full Metal Jacket today. In many ways I still see it with those eyes of a child from having seen it so often on cable while growing up. It’s hard to separate those feelings while watching it now. I think it’s still a remarkably effective piece of filmmaking and one of the best of the myriad Vietnam War films released up to that time. I know I used to watch Oliver Stone’s Platoon with excitement. I don’t find Kubrick’s film exciting. It’s more of a slog. You sit down to watch it knowing you’re in for an emotional pummeling. I guess that’s more appropriate for the topic.

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