Director: Stanley Kubrick (UK, USA). Year of Release: 1987
Parris Island, South Carolina. A row of young men with different haircuts are having their heads shaved to a standard #1 cut. On the radio, a Country and Western singer sings about Vietnam. Welcome to the Marine Corps, where the young men are about to be trained, shouted at, and bullied by Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Hartman’s job is to replace any individuality they might have with a sense of loyalty for the Army and the Stars and Stripes.
Hartman issues several of the recruits new names – Cowboy, Joker, Pyle. This might make you think that he is recognising that they are unique individuals, but in fact he is doing quite the reverse. Hartman is imitating God and showing that only he can decide what his men are called. He regularly subjects them to is rants which are homophobic and racist, though he claims to be an equal opportunity racist as “niggers, kikes and wops” all receive the same level of discrimination.
Hartman is brutal to all his charges, but he is particularly antagonistic to Pyle and Joker. Pyle is overweight and has difficulty completing the assault courses. When he sneaks a jam doughnut into the barracks, Hartman chooses not to punish him but to publicly humiliate him and make the rest of the platoon do extra press-ups. He thus successfully sets up a scapegoat who is attacked by all his colleagues with makeshift coshes made by wrapping bars of soap in a towel.
Joker is a different kettle of fish. He is insubordinate and quick witted. When Joker says that he does not believe in the Blessed Virgin Mary (a major demeanour for a Drill Sergeant who makes the men sing Happy Birthday to Jesus on Christmas Day), Hartman goes on the offensive. But Joker refuses to back down, saying whatever he says he’ll be punished. Presumably worrying that such defiance may be contagious, Harman promotes Joker and puts him in personal charge of Pyle.
Hartman’s strategy works because Joker’s radicalism has very clear limits – just like that of the Libertarian director Stanley Kubrick. When they are finally sent to Nam, Joker wears a peace badge on his lapel, and writes “Born to Kill” on his helmet. Of course it’s a joke – which Joker says is a sign of Jungian duality, but it also reflected in his behaviour. He is cynical about the war and shows intellectual disdain, but willingly makes Pyle a better soldier and carries a gun into battle.
Suddenly we’re in Vietnam. Joker has got himself a job on the Stars and Stripes newspaper, a propaganda rag aimed at warding off attacks by the “civilian media”. Joker’s editor explains what they’re about: “We run two basic stories here. Grunts who give half their pay to buy gooks toothbrushes and deodorants:. And combat action that results in a kill: winning the war.” On government orders, they replace phrases like “search and destroy” with “sweep and clear”.
Following the Tet offensive, Joker is assigned to Hue. He is joined by the photographer Rafterman, who is bored and dying for action. Like nearly every soldier we encounter, Rafterman believes that this is a just war. Any criticism we see is levelled not at the generals, but at the South Vietnamese for not appreciating US-style liberation. We see nothing of the by then common “fragging” attacks, where war-weary soldiers threw grenades into the tents of belligerent sergeants.
There is no doubting Full Metal Jacket’s visual and sonic excellence, and it contains some remarkable scenes, such as when Hartman tells his men that they should be proud of Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman (aka the “Texas Tower Sniper”), as both were trained by the marines and able to hit a target from a great distance. Yet it suffers from a number of drawbacks which affect most war films (and this includes films with an anti-war message).
Firstly, as the opening scenes showed so well, the preparation of troops for war means beating any individuality out of them – that is, anything that would make them interesting as a person. This means that few of the characters contain any real personality, anything that makes them particularly interesting or deserving of empathy. This means that the final scenes do not pack as great an emotional punch as you’d like, as we don’t care enough about the people affected.
Secondly, and partly as a result of the first problem, there are only so many ways in which you can show a battle without it getting a little boring and familiar. There are endless scenes of groups of men shooting at each other, followed by them waiting in a huddle for return fire. I think this is why my favourite Vietnam film is Dead Presidents, which leaves Vietnam fairly early, and moves back to the States, where the protagonists are able to develop discernible personalities of their own.
It is not surprizing, then, that Full Metal Jacket fails the Bechdel Test very easily. Only three women have speaking parts in the whole of the film – two of these are prostitutes, and none appears in the film for more than a couple of minutes. It is not that they only talk to each other about men – they appear in quite different parts of the film, so they don’t talk to each other at all. The one woman who has the semblance of agency is almost voiceless by the time we hear her.
It is not just women who are othered. Like so many US-American films about Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket is a US tragedy which barely allows Vietnamese people a walk-on part. Instead, it shows the viewpoint from faceless snipers looking at US soldiers. While I’m loathe to criticize a film for what It leaves out, we’ve had too many Vietnam films to accept the same safe and pedestrian patterns. I expected more from the director of two great anti-war films – Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove.
Full Metal Jacket is obviously the work of a major director, and keeps our attention from beginning to end. But it has a disappointing lack of originality. It’s good, sure, but it should have been a lot better than that.